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Atheist photographer shoots houses of worship
December 7th, 2013
09:16 AM ET

An atheist photographer focuses on faith

Opinion by Mark Schacter, special to CNN

(CNN) – I don’t believe in a divine presence, nor do I subscribe to any organized religion.

And that, perhaps oddly, is why I am drawn to the mystery of faith.

With the wonderment of an outsider, I try to understand the seemingly incomprehensible (to me, at least) pull that faith exerts over so many people's lives.

As a photographer approaching this mystery, I am confronted by what might seem like a contradiction: Photographs capture what can be seen, and yet faith is often invisible.

But even if personal faith can't be seen directly, there are some tangible traces of its existence, and that's where I point my camera.

In particular, I photograph houses of worship, whose bricks and clapboard, stained glass and steel are often the largest and most visible manifestations of religious faith.

I've photographed Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Baha'i sanctuaries in the United States and Canada.

I've also interviewed Christian ministers, a rabbi, a imam and a Buddhist scholar about the significance of their spiritual homes, pressing them to explain how they reconcile their sometimes opulent houses of worship with the fact that religion is ultimately about transcending worldly things.

Often, they answered that the magnificent building is of little consequence. It serves a valuable purpose only if, through its grandeur, it transports worshipers to a spiritual state of mind.

“The point of the building is to leave people feeling awestruck,” said the Rev. Michael Busch, rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto.

But is it the building itself that gives the space a sacred quality, or is holiness derived from the devotions of worshipers, present and past, who have occupied the space?

I don't pretend to know the answer to that question. But I do know this: Even an ardent atheist can look at a house of worship and see the signs of an invisible human longing that is common to us all, believer and unbeliever alike.

Mark Schacter is a photographer based in Ottawa, Canada. Mark's newest book of photography, Houses of Worship, has just been published. It's available now in Canada and will be released internationally soon. His website is www.luxetveritas.net.

The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to Mark Schacter.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Buddhism • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church • Faith Now • Houses of worship • Islam • Judaism • Mosque • Opinion • Sikh • United States

soundoff (2,228 Responses)
  1. IGWT

    You all worry too much!

    January 28, 2014 at 10:03 am |
  2. Seth

    In my experience, atheists seem to have a greater habit than most of flaming their beliefs publicly, often to even greater and more hostile extent than most fundamentalist Christians I've encountered. As a former agnostic and current panentheist, I can understand the skepticism many atheists harbor toward religion and the existence of a higher power. The primary logical inconstancy that always bothers me however, is the assumption that without a higher power, meaning can somehow applied to the universe through the individual despite the fact that, according to the materialist atheist worldview, in several billion years humanity will be gone, the universe will have expanded into a cold and lifeless husk, and nothing any human being ever did, learned, discovered, or achieved will have mattered at all, so why care? Every atheist I've met insists on a logical distinction that separates atheism from nihilism, but no one has been able to effectively describe what this may be. Perhaps most religions may have it wrong, but if atheism wins out, why does it even matter? Can't we all just live and let live instead of breeding the pretentious intolerance advocated by Hitchens and Dawkins or the fundamentalist dogma of uncompromising religious sects?

    January 18, 2014 at 1:03 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Seth, do you ever plan and execute parties....like birthday parties or anniversary parties? Do you ever go to movies or plays or sporting events? Why? If they're all going to end and all those people will eventually die and all those movies and sports teams will eventually be forgotten? You're not a hypocrite, are you?

      January 20, 2014 at 4:14 pm |
    • The Reason

      Your experience sounds a little skewed if you ask me.

      What you assume that there has to be a meaning to the universe?

      January 21, 2014 at 12:33 pm |
      • The Reason

        *Why do you assume that there has to be a meaning to the universe?

        January 21, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
    • igaftr

      Seth
      One more time...
      Atheism... NOT belief in deities (note it does not address any belief, only NOT belief)

      Nihilism...is a belief

      see the distinction?

      When someone says they are an atheist, it does not address what they DO believe, just what they do not...and only one thing they do not believe.

      If you want to compare beliefs against what AN atheist believes, you will have to ask that atheist what they believe...since being an atheist does not address the individuals belief.

      January 21, 2014 at 12:48 pm |
    • alwaysamuzed

      You are certainly making some rather HUGE and completely unfounded presumptions about what a person who DOES NOT believe in a deity thinks and feels!
      You CANNOT simply cram each and every atheist into a single little pigeon hole of YOUR OWN creation because each and every atheist is DIFFERENT!
      The ONE and ONLY thing that is "common" between ALL atheists is the simple fact that they DO NOT believe in a deity! There is nothing else that is "common" between them as they are all individuals with vastly different points of view!
      DUH!

      April 7, 2014 at 6:07 pm |
  3. Mike

    I can respect an honest agnostic, but atheism is nonsensical. If there is no higher force, and the universe itself is not a conscious, higher force, then the universe is by definition "senseless". Yet atheists are pretentious enough to somehow believe that their brains, which are a result of billions of years of random events in a senseless universe, are capable of transcending the universe, looking down upon it, and calling it "senseless".

    If your thoughts are the result of a senseless universe, then you cannot trust your own thoughts. Atheism is a house of cards.

    And we all know that 99.9% of atheists become that way just to irritate Christians, specifically, more often than not, their parents.

    January 8, 2014 at 4:33 pm |
    • bushgirlsgonewild

      Flawed logic, but what can you expect from someone who is an adult (presumably) and still has an invisible, imaginary best friend.

      1. You state: If there is no higher force, and the universe itself is not a conscious, higher force, then the universe is by definition "senseless". OK, assuming you are defining senseless as 'not possessing a conscious', why should it? Does you think atoms, rocks, mountains, planets, and solar systems have sense or consciousness? If yes, prove it.

      2.: Yet atheists are pretentious enough to somehow believe that their brains, which are a result of billions of years of random events in a senseless universe, are capable of transcending the universe, looking down upon it, and calling it "senseless".

      Who said brains are the result of RANDOM events? How are brains capable of "transcending the universe" and "looking down at it"? I'm an Atheist and my brain has never transcended by body, much less the universe. If something transcends
      the universe, where does it go? What place do you call that? Can I get cheap tickets to it? What's the weather like?

      It must be located above the universe, if you can look down at the universe.

      Actually, Atheists don't claim anything about the universe or our brains or anything else except: We don't believe there are gods. This is based on the lack of evidence. Why don't you believe in Big Foot?

      January 8, 2014 at 5:33 pm |
    • CHOIR LOFT

      To deny God is to assume godlike intellectual powers, in and of itself the ultimate act of conceit. To state that there is no God one must have the ability to see into every corner of the universe at every second it existed. No man has this ability, yet the atheist claims he does. He is either the greatest liar ever known or insane. And such men accuse the rest of the world of insanity? This is a joke, right? The real joke is the atheist himself for he doesn't even realize the foolishness that comes out of his own mouth.
      and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft.....

      January 10, 2014 at 11:25 am |
      • Lou

        No one is deny any god anything. If one of them want some attention and obedience they should make themselves be known instead of using over edited goat herder scribbles.

        January 13, 2014 at 8:59 am |
      • No Evidence

        To state "there is no god" is simply based on no evidence for god, that the crap that you spewed.

        January 21, 2014 at 11:46 am |
        • No Evidence

          ......Not the crap.

          January 21, 2014 at 11:46 am |
      • The Reason

        To believe in god is to assume godlike intellectual powers, in and of itself the ultimate act of conceit. To state that your god is the right god, one must have the ability to see into every corner of the universe at every second it existed. No man has this ability, yet the christian claims he does. He is either the greatest liar ever known or insane. And such men accuse the rest of the world of insanity? This is a joke, right? The real joke is the christian himself for he doesn't even realize the foolishness that comes out of his own mouth.
        and that's just me, hollering from the loft of reason.....

        January 21, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
      • stephennowlin

        Dear Choir Loft - welcome fellow atheist! I'm not being facetious, really - I presume you do not belief in the gods Zeus, Helios, Odin, or Thor, and that we agree in our non-belief in virtually all of history's gods except for one. Along with me, you do not believe in the Hindu godesses Durga or Kali and their many divine equals, in spite of their sincere worship by nearly 1 billiion followers today who would disagree with us. So I must imagine that your critique of atheism above applies as equally to your own many non-beliefs as it does to the single one over which you and I happen to disagree.

        March 12, 2014 at 6:00 pm |
    • Religion is NOT healthy for children and other living things

      It appears to be YOU who is "pretentious" about your so-called "faith" and NOT the "atheists" !!
      Atheists are not "pretentious" about anything since that is the very mindset that atheists reject !
      Poorly educated believers such as yourself seem inexplicably frightened of atheists and other intellectuals who are not afraid to think for themselves! You must live in constant FEAR that someday you will discover the atheists had it right all along and that all of your consternation over faith is just a sad, pointless waste of time.

      January 15, 2014 at 12:06 pm |
      • Dan

        What if it is real? The truth is that no one really knows because no one (other than Jesus, for the believers) has been back to tell about it.

        Science is wonderful for helping us explain all kinds of things. However, science can't tell you how to live. Science can't curb unacceptable behavior. Maybe you can argue that laws can. I think that all reasonable people can relate to "carrots" and "sticks". Laws are sticks, while faith provides a carrot. For many, it's a way to be reflective and pursue a path of virtue and self mastery.

        Hey, maybe you are already there on your own without the benefit of faith. Great! I am truly happy for you. For many of us regular folks, faith gives us the opportunity to be recognize our natural gifts and employ them for the good of as many as possible not just ourselves. At the same time, it helps us to be humble, recognize our faults and strive to do better. Why begrudge this?

        January 15, 2014 at 1:10 pm |
        • David

          Don't need faith to be humble, or understand yourself, or to do better. Faith is only one thing: belief without good reason. Faith doesn't provide insight, enlightenment , or anything positive.

          January 21, 2014 at 12:38 am |
      • IGWT

        Do you really BELIEVE what you are saying? At least you believe in something even if it is a complete and utter lie! No one fears an atheist!! No one!

        January 28, 2014 at 8:52 am |
      • mmonica1207

        II know that this post is quite old but I couldn't help but to respond to your statement. I am a Christian and therefore I believe in God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. If there is no God, how are we able to do what we are doing and able to feel what we feel so strongly? Are you saying since there isn't any definite proof God is real he doesn't exist? So the Bible is just a bunch of mumbo jumbo? I'm curious as to why you believe life doesn't have any meaning. I mean so why live? Why like what you like and love whom you love if you believe they don't have a purpose. You say to believe in God is a waste of time and that atheist have it right, so tell me why are you so busy reading this blog? If you don't believe in it or particularly care for the thought, then why are you so bothered by the fact that someone else does? People who don't care about a certain subject, usually don't indulge in it. I honestly don't believe people can believe in nothing. I find it to be lazy and irresponsible. But why should you believe in time if there is no God. There is no constant FEAR of you being right. That's absurd. Any person who believes has only one fear,and that's of God. God gave of us free will so therefore we too are not afraid to think. I believe and I'm speaking only for myself that God is real and that atheist like yourself refuse to believe because you are afraid to.

        February 26, 2014 at 9:35 am |
        • alwaysamuzed

          WHY do YOU presume that your imaginary "god" is the one and only "POSSIBLE" justification for any and all meaning for one's life? That might make sense to YOU, but that has no validity nor reasoning for those of us with our own intellect!
          YOUR presumptions have no purpose nor any meaning for me nor any other person who can think for themselves!
          I am so sorry that you have such a tiny little mind that you cannot comprehend any reality beyond your ancient mythology...

          April 7, 2014 at 6:20 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      It's a shame that you're such an idiot, Mike.

      January 20, 2014 at 4:11 pm |
    • stephennowlin

      " . . . If there is no higher force, and the universe itself is not a conscious, higher force, then the universe is by definition "senseless"."

      This is a straw-man argument - atheism does not render the universe senseless, that is an entirely subjective conclusion on your part. In the greatest works of art and literature (or the universe), meaning is not found in the atomic structure of their materials, it is in the ideas they forge in collaboration with the human mind. The exploration and savoring of meaning in our lives is irrelevant to the existence of a so-called higher power.

      March 12, 2014 at 5:02 pm |
    • alwaysamuzed

      I'm afraid your meaningless circular logic has no place nor purpose in a world of facts and reality!
      You are free to "believe" whatever illogiocal nonsense you desire, but please refrain from imposing your ignorance on others...

      April 7, 2014 at 6:11 pm |
  4. CHOIR LOFT

    "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." – Hebrews 11:1

    It is not religion that sustains us. It is God. Religion is only the groups expression of faith. Our faith is an expression of hope in God.

    Judge not that ye be not judged all ye scoffers and bigots.

    There are here in these posts many who either in ignorance or abject hatred of all that is good express lies and indecent remarks to oppose the pilgrimage of faith. These are the children of satan – those who oppose all that is decent and good and kind in this sad world. These are the true hypocrites who assume they are so pure in themselves that they can heap accusations and guilt upon everyone who seeks hope in God. These are they who judge the faithful to be liars yet promote their own agenda of lies and murder. These are the true criminals who assume they can blame others yet remain aloof from guilt themselves. These are the greatest fools in the history of mankind for they deny the God who humbled Himself to save them from their self-imposed blindness.

    In accusing the faithful of guilt, the atheist allows himself to be judged also. In this the atheist finds no solace, for the godless have no one to forgive them. He who damns God condemns himself for his judgement is upon his own head.

    Faith saves. Bigorty damns.

    and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    January 8, 2014 at 11:15 am |
    • No Evidence

      Faith does absolutely nothing except make you feel good about your delusion of an imaginary god.

      January 20, 2014 at 4:05 pm |
      • IGWT

        Ha, that's rich...a non-believing, faithless person trying to tell someone about faith. Good on ya, mate!

        January 28, 2014 at 9:25 am |
        • igaftr

          What is even more rich is thinking that leaving a message in reply to someone from over a week ago, has a point.

          January 28, 2014 at 9:30 am |
    • The Reason

      ” These are the children of satan” – lie
      ”These are the true hypocrites” – kind of like you
      ” they can heap accusations and guilt upon everyone” – kind of like you
      ” These are they who judge” – kind of like you
      ” These are the true criminals who assume they can blame others yet remain aloof from guilt themselves” – kind of like you
      ” These are the greatest fools in the history of mankind” definitely like you

      January 21, 2014 at 12:19 pm |
  5. maggie

    it's just architecture

    January 7, 2014 at 2:51 am |
    • bushgirlsgonewild

      Yes! and often dreary at that.

      January 8, 2014 at 5:16 pm |
  6. Allen Stone of Montgomery Works Inc.

    Harold Camping was a good God and Prophet and now He is in heaven which is good news. Now, Obama is our God and Prophet for the world and He has a new heaven at the Whitehouse for the christians. We need to read the good gospels of Camping and Obama so we will get right. For details, call us at 240–344-1323 or 240–567-1409 to speak to Kimberly Brown.

    December 27, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • No Evidence

      Camping was an old fool who wasted his time attempting to force fit a book of mythology into reality. ....and taking money from the deluded.

      January 21, 2014 at 11:50 am |
  7. Dandintac

    You know–think of the vast resources throughout history that have been channeled into religion. The vast infrastructure of priests, rabbis, mullahs and Imams and preachers. The huge churches–the Vatican, all the massive gothic cathedrals. Vast resources diverted to religion. Tons and tons of wealth over the centuries.

    I love the architecture–but just imagine if instead, this wealth had been channeled into education and research, and the teaching and inculcation of supersti tion had gone unfunded instead. Where would we be now?

    Probably on our way to the stars. The first colonists to Alpha Centauri, Barnard's Star, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani would probably be on their way right now.

    December 25, 2013 at 12:04 am |
  8. TYRANNASAUR

    The point of the building is to leave people feeling awestruck,” said the Rev. Michael Busch, rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto......

    People look at this from the stand point of NOW.....the early religious building were built to overwhelm and scare people so as to control them...early religious structure were not for the people to ENTER......they were places where the priest visited to SERVE THE GODS THAT LIVE OR VISITED THERE....AND GET MESSAGES FROM THE SECRET UNSEEN GODS to convey to the people.....this goes back even before the great Egyptian temples and gods....way way back into prehistory.

    December 24, 2013 at 10:44 am |
    • David

      "...and see the signs of an invisible human longing that is common to us all, believer and unbeliever alike.". Is he talking about feeling horney?

      December 24, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.