Growing up, the only atheist I remember knowing was “Junior,” the resident bully who lived five or six houses down our street. He was older than the group I ran with, and he towered over us with his crew cut red hair and his menace. 

When I got a little older, I realized Junior probably said outrageous things just to get a rise out of the adults, and to further intimidate the more timid block residents who would always walk a little faster or pedal harder when passing by his house.

For the greater part of my life, atheism was relegated to a cultural ghetto, something not discussed in polite company unless a Junior the bully-type wanted to make his fellow adults uncomfortable.  

But today, atheism is out and proud. According to the most recent polling data, approximately 4% of the American populace identifies as atheist, not to mention the more substantial percentage who claim agnostic status. Meanwhile, research shows the number of “nones” — those who reject any formal religious association but hold on to some form of spirituality — is growing rapidly. 

According to Pew Research, Europe, the continent where the Church once flourished and from where our country inherited so much rich spiritual sustenance, is even further along the road to disbelief. Nearly one-quarter of the population of France, once called the “Daughter of the Church,” identifies as atheist. Things are not much better for Spain, responsible for bringing Christianity to California, Mexico, and so much of the Southern Hemisphere, which has a nonbelieving population double that of the United States.

You would be right to qualify these statistics as a crisis, but the upheaval may be less about the rise of atheism than it is the shrinking of Christianity/Catholicism. 

The situation here in our own backyard is all the more urgent when considering the majority of American journalists are self-identifying as irreligious and a poll of American academics revealed 9.8% of college professors are avowed atheists. 

Spend some time Googling famous people who are atheists, and you’ll find a virtual who’s who of powerfully influential people who likewise deny the existence of God: A-list movie stars, social media moguls, and cultural influencers with seven-digit followings. 

The bad news is the data shows our popular culture is over-represented by those who have excised God from their moral compasses. This could explain the confusion over things like gender and the value of human life at any stage of beginning or end. But these unhappy facts also reveal a great opportunity to engage in spiritual warfare. Not talking about battalions, weapons of mass destruction or any other kind, but rather the radical example of holiness the Church has been calling on us to embrace for so long.

It sounds like a fool’s errand, but it actually works miracles. Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a brilliant Christian/Catholic writer and thinker. He did not start out that way. For a good portion of his long life, he was a devout atheist and apologist for Joseph Stalin. But when he discovered a frail old nun working in the slums of Calcutta, his life was transformed. He entered the Church at 79 years of age.

Dorothy Day may, much to her eternal chagrin, be on her way to official sainthood. She did not begin that way. Nominally spiritual, her early life was basically atheist-adjacent with a bohemian lifestyle, atheist husband, and spiritual emptiness. The miracle of her child’s birth led her into the Church in 1927, but there is no question that her interactions a few years later with Peter Maurin, a French Catholic theologian, solidified the faith she held closely for the next several decades of her life.

The biggest hurdle to overcome the “problem” of atheism is not the atheist, but us. It is not heaven, but hell that resides behind fortified gates, and it was Jesus’ promise to Peter and the Church that it is hell which will yield to the force of sanctity. 

With so many hardened hearts ensconced behind spiritual gates it may seem like an insurmountable task, but what is a call to holiness but a big ask? Since God never asks the impossible from us, we know that each and every one of us has the ability to let him change us and in the process, maybe let God change someone else, too.