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 • Houses of worship • Islam • Judaism • Mosque • Opinion • Sikh • United States

soundoff (2,235 Responses)
  1. goddog

    "... an invisible human longing that is common to us all, believer and unbeliever alike." BS. One thing I cannot stand more than people pretending to speak for invisible spirits is someone pretending to speak for me.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
    • David

      Amen. And it's amazing how the faith based cling to the false concept that everyone uses faith in their lives.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
  2. Samuel

    I used to be an athiest until my heart attack and near death experience- my advice to everyone is the God of the Bible is real and if you keep using science or lack of proof as an excuse, you will come face to face with demons as you die. Please open your hearts and look around you, another school shooting today-evil is real.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • David

      Yes, well, I'm glad you're not dead. I was a Christian but the more I thought about it and learned the origins of the bible, the more unconvinced I became. Yes, bad things happen in the world, but that's not evidence of a god.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • sam stone

      your warnings are laughable, samuel

      December 15, 2013 at 6:47 am |
    • No Evidence

      I use "lack of proof as an excuse" not to believe in leprechauns, why should it be any different for the mythical character you call "god"??

      January 21, 2014 at 2:26 pm |
  3. Jmac

    Excuse me ...."herders" not "hearders".....my bad.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  4. Jmac

    Two thousand years ago science did not exist to explain the natural forces that rule this planet. These goat hearders probably could not read nor write and knew nothing of the universe,let alone biology,physics, etc. Why would these ancient beliefs and myths hold any sway in the twenty first century is beyond me.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  5. Jmac

    There doesn't need to be a God to have the formation of life.The universe and stars hold all the "magic" that is needed to create life. Look at the night sky and you will see from whence we all have come from. No mystery needed.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • MattD

      If science ever creates even the simplest life form from the basic elements I might believe you. As of now there is no scientific evidence to support the creation of the universe from nothing, or the creation of life from the basic building blocks of the universe.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
      • David

        Actually, elements have been put together that formed simple amino acids. No one says anything came from nothing. There is evidence of life evolving from other forms. In any case, even if what you said it's true and evolution and all scientific principles tomorrow were found to be strong, out still would not be evidence of a god's hand in anything.

        December 13, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
        • OrygunDuck

          Amino Acids are not life.

          December 15, 2013 at 6:15 am |
        • Dandintac

          Amino acids themselves are not life, but they are the building blocks of life. And the experiments David refers to are strong indicators that life comes about through natural processes.

          Scientists have created artificial life (simple single cell organisms) in the lab already. At this time, we just don't know how it happened naturally. It's hard, because there are literally millions of different ways it could have happened. But there's a good chance that eventually we'll figure it out, and it will be tested through experimental design and confirmed by evidence.

          At one time, everything we didn't understand, from the tides to the sun, were all attributed to a god or gods. What was the sun? It must be a god. What other explanation was there? As we have learned more and more, we have learned to stop attributing everything to the intervention of a god. The beginning of life is one last holes god may be hiding in, and one of two most commonly cited by theists. When the light of science finally shines a light on abiogenesis–will your god become unemployed?

          December 15, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
      • John H.

        You should read the book "a universe from nothing" by Lawrence Krauss. In it he describes how science shows a universe from nothing is actually possible. He also has had a lot of talks that are on youtube.

        December 13, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
        • David

          OK, I'd be interested in how he defines "nothing".

          December 13, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
        • OrygunDuck

          It is pseudo-science really. Or maybe philosophical musings with an anti-religious agenda.

          December 15, 2013 at 6:18 am |
        • No Evidence

          @duck...more like anti ignorance.

          January 21, 2014 at 12:04 pm |
  6. MonkeyMessiah

    Belief Shaming never really works. I hope you guys are at least getting your rocks off by making useless insults.
    Cause they don't seem to be making a damn bit of difference.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • bambibones

      Well Put! Belief Shaming! It works in all directions, and may be the most dehumanizing force in action on our planet today.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • lol??

      Well, when you leave your corrupted flesh behind it might just sober you up.

      occurs 122 times in 111 verses in the KJV

      December 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  7. stuj

    It is strange to me how some atheists can get so fired up about religion. Why do they care what I believe in? I don't believe in a magnetic monopole but don't loose any sleep over those that do. Me claiming their ignorance or screaming that it doesn't exist will have no bearing on the ways of the universe.

    I suspect their opinion comes from a rebel stance against any type of authority, which would indicate some sort of belief.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • Wyattbw09

      I think you know the answer to this. It is because, while Atheism is not a religion is has all the trapping of a religious moment. It requires devotion to a system of belief, it has a number of purity tests to which a follower ascribe, there are numerous sects many of which are quite hostile to each other. Finally, it is very very evangelical movement, so it requires a large school of apologetics many of which, like any religion in with new converts are highly zealous and incredibly hostile towards anything outside of the boarders of their particular brand of faith.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
      • bushgirlsgonewild

        LOL, what utter nonsense. You are delusional.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
        • Wyattbw09

          Exactly the nuanced and thought out response I was expecting from an Atheist responder. Can't make a point so we will just throw out the word delusional and dismiss the whole notion without having actually say anything. Well played.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
      • bushgirlsgonewild

        You are describing religion, not a 'not religion'. So you get the response you deserve. Not collecting stamps is not a hobby. Think about it.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
        • Wyattbw09

          Except that all the the human actions which I described above to which you describe as describing religion are all also human actions that Atheists preform in their non-religion activity. If you don't believe in a God(s) then all religious activity is merely human activity to which Atheists are just as prone to preform as well. Thus Atheists have all the trappings of religion and religious activity without being religious.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
        • bushgirlsgonewild

          Wrong, atheists don't do any of those things. As I mentioned before, those are the actions of religious groups. Plus, you must be delusional.

          December 14, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
      • Jim

        a little misinformed my friend – all we say is that there is no evidence, nor even good argument for the existence of a personal god. The believe that death is somehow an illusion is central to all religions. Its merely wish thinking.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
        • Wyattbw09

          Hmm, see I would definitively call taking out signs on the sides of buses and entire billboards as evangelical. I understand the Dogma aspect of it is observable evidence for something is king however, that in no way shape or form changes that various activity that Atheists preform which which reflect the human activity that people of faith preform. People who truly want to keep it out of the public domain don't take out billboards to push their system.

          December 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
        • No Evidence

          Wyat, atheism only refers to not beliving in god, nothing else. I have belief that my car will start in the morning, but that has nothing to do with a lack of belief in god, get it?

          January 21, 2014 at 2:31 pm |
      • Earthling

        It doesn't really require a "system" of belief. Just a simple belief that there are or probably are no gods. Its really that simple.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
      • bambibones

        Seriously, do you even KNOW any atheists? I'm not one, but I'm close enough to understand that for most people who do not have a belief in God, it was a personal and private discovery, and not something for bashing other people.

        You have paid attention to too many trolls – and trolls know no ideological foundation. There are trolls for every ideological persuasion, and they are easy targets – straw men, really, for people who disagree with the viewpoint a troll supposedly represents.

        The only consistent motivation for trolls is to hurt people, and the ideology they use is whatever is at hand.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
      • MattD

        Fantastic, my friend! You are so correct!

        December 13, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
        • David

          Lol. Please tell me when I took the "purity test" to become a rational person.

          December 13, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • bushgirlsgonewild

      Nahhh, it's because we are first and foremost, skeptics. We don't believe in fantastic claims without supporting evidence. If I get an email from a Nigerian prince who tells me I can receive $1M if I send him $10K, and there's no evidence to support this claim, I'm going to move the email to the 'trash bin'. As an atheist, I am open minded but so far the claims offered by religious apologetics is the equivalent of SPAM.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • tcs

      We generally get fired up about religion because Evangelicals tend to use their dogma as a basis for ruling society. If Christians who control the public eye would quit trying to force people into following their definition of morality then we would gladly be quiet and let you believe whatever you want.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • Jim

      we don't care what you think. Just keep it out of our public venues and stop indoctrinating children into delusional wish thinking. And that doesn't seem to be happening now does it?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
      • David

        I was going to ask you to do the same, but then you did make a good point: it's a "public" forum. And I'm not brainwashing children or abusing them physically like religious folks seem to be fond of doing. I want children and even people like you to think more and day dream less, and not carry on conversions with your imaginary invisible friend, especially while driving.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
        • bambibones

          Interesting. You assumed you were responding to a Christian. In fact, you were responding to another atheist.

          It really says something that when you take out the word "Christian" or "atheist," the people on such forums tend to sound alike.

          It is a rare poster who can actually reach other people with the humility and empathy of their posts.

          Remember the old saying "you haven't converted a man because you have silenced him?" This forum doesn't even silence people. How do you expect you can change peoples' minds by mocking them?

          December 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
        • No Evidence

          Those that insist mythology is reality deserve to be mocked.

          January 21, 2014 at 12:08 pm |
    • Shelby

      We care only when the religious try to impact our lives with unreasonable rules based in their religions. Also, many of the religious in this country (USA) seem bent on changing our democracy into a theocracy, which is downright terrifying.I don't care what you believe, just don't try to force it down my throat.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
      • Wyattbw09

        Could you give an example of a unreasonable rule that was crammed or was attempted to be crammed down your throat?

        December 13, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
        • bambibones

          Laws based on religious beliefs have had a long history in the United States: segregation, anti-abortionism, not giving women the vote, Sunday laws (look them up) and other blue laws. It's a very, very long list.

          There is also a fairly significant cadre of politicians who insist that the United States is a Christian nation. There are parochial schools with "special" textbooks that describe the history of this country as purely Christian and deny the plurality of our founders.

          December 13, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
        • Shelby

          Birth control, abortion, no Gay marriage are just some of the ones from our times.

          December 13, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
        • No Evidence

          opposition to stem cell research.

          January 21, 2014 at 12:09 pm |
      • Dan

        "unreasonable rules"

        Like what?

        December 14, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
  8. ScottP

    I am also an Atheist photographer, but none of my work has any religious symbols or propaganda in it. If I shoot a landscape scene and there is a church in the photo, it gets deleted. I refuse to include the worst thing man ever invented into my work.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • You're Almost There

      You are obviously not a very good photographer if you miss things like that in your landscapes.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
      • ScottP

        Occasionally I slip up!

        December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Mike A

      Every human being has faith. You either have faith that there is a God, or you have faith that there is no god. For those of us who know we have been in the presence of God and have seen his handiwork, it is not difficult for us to believe and have faith in God Almighty. We pray for others who are still searching.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
      • Scott

        No sorry, that is not how it works. Scientific people believe in observable facts. You cannot have faith that something does not exist, it is simply illogical.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
        • Jon

          Takes a lot of faith to believe all this just happened from crystals.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
      • bushgirlsgonewild

        No, I don't have faith. Faith is believing in something contrary to the evidence. I don't believe a god or gods exist because there is no evidence to support such a claim. That is the opposite of faith.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
      • Earthling

        This is patently untrue. There are many people without faith in either proposition. These people usually call themselves agnostics.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
        • Desert_Rose

          Interesting that a lot of atheists are actually agnostics. Not all...God knows there are militant, total atheists out there. 🙂

          I was talking to this one guy who claimed he was an atheist, but, on further examination, he did believe that their is a higher power or god of sorts, but, none of the religions humans follow have actually gotten what that power or god is right so far. Now, I'm a Christian, but, I thought his assessment was very fair non the less. And I've ran into similar situations with others as well. To read these forums, you'd think every other person you meet is probably an atheist, but, in "real life", the amount I've met that fit the true definition is extremely small.

          December 13, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
      • Tammy C.

        Where you see God's handiwork, I see nature. Where you look at a sunrise and believe that some higher power created it and made it rise, I see the universe – planets, stars and solar systems beyond our own. When I feel moved by the creations around me, I am astounded at natures ability to exist – simply, with clear explanation, symmetry and logic – on it's own without interference by a higher hand. In my eyes, you are free to believe whatever makes you fulfill your purpose in life – before death. As I do, with the freedom to be inspired and touched without the need to believe in a God. We will both be put in the ground someday – and that will be it.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
      • bambibones

        I beg to differ. Some of us have no faith whatsoever. I don't have faith in a Divine being or creator; I tried, but was simply unable to force myself to believe.

        And even though I am a scientist, I also do not believe that observable reality is something in which I should place something called "faith." What we can observe has historically been proven to be exceedingly inadequate; what we can observe today will be displaced by what we learn about reality in the future.. Reality is doubtless beyond our comprehension and probably always will be. Furthermore, what we can observe does not answer fundamental questions about human meaning.

        So, for those of you anxious to draw up battle lines – a great many of us aren't playing.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
      • Joe

        You either have faith that there is a God, or you have faith that there is no god. –
        So what you have is only faith that there are no pink unicorns/tooth fairies/gremlins/Zeus....etc or do you, kind of know, since you've not seen any proof for it? Please be truthful to yourself while answering this..
        Like bill Maher said- " you don't get to put your unreasoning up on the same shelf as my reason. Your stuff has to go on the shelf that contains the talking snake, fables, unicorns etc.."

        December 18, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  9. sly

    Barry Bonds is God, and ain't no one on here bloggin' that can prove me wrong.

    That's the beauty of personal opinions, and the beauty of religion: We can all choose to worship whichever god we want!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  10. Steph

    Anyone who denies the existence of God is just afraid of dealing with their own sin.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:02 am |
    • David

      Huh? But will Santa Claus bring me a present if I'm good?

      December 13, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • DAVE

      One small problem with your statement. God doesn't exist!

      December 13, 2013 at 11:47 am |
      • Jean Carlos

        How can you disprove or approve something that cannot be measured. Even Michio kaku have accepted that there is a force that "not known yet" that makes things to work in the universe (read his later findings)

        My point is that we need to wait to find out if god is real or not....

        December 13, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
        • bushgirlsgonewild

          so you are defining 'god' as a force?

          December 13, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
        • sqeptiq

          So, you believe in a force that is not known yet and call it god and pray to it?

          December 13, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
    • Scott

      And which of the 1000s of gods throughout human history would that be?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
      • bushgirlsgonewild

        Thor! or maybe Zeus...yes, Zeus! Wait, I just heard about this guy named 'Jesus'. I'll get back to you...

        December 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • tcs

      Or is dealing with our own sin the definition of courage? How can you claim we are afrai,d when your version of 'dealing with sin' is telling a stranger what you did and having him 'forgive' you. Perhaps Christians would be stronger, better, people if they would confess to those that they wronged directly, instead of sweeping it under the rug they call confession.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • bambibones

      That might possibly be the singly most arrogant statement I have ever read on a forum, anywhere.

      It is a very small planet indeed if it all fits into your personal definition of God and sin. Your statement actually excludes many people who DO believe in God and sin; they simply don't agree with your definitions.

      Seeing the realm of belief in black and white – as defined by you – is a way to someday find yourself very lonely. Even if you manage to surround yourself with people with whom you share the same specific dogmatism, you will have cut yourself off from deeply meaningful relationships with people who disagree with you even a little.

      Even Jesus didn't do that.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  11. sam stone

    I love me!

    December 12, 2013 at 8:19 am |
    • lol??

      Ya like point and shoot devices??

      December 12, 2013 at 8:27 am |
      • Maddy

        That's not sam stone and you know it. Why do you act so disingenuously?

        December 12, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  12. Ted


    December 11, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  13. Mark

    This is an ironically beautiful piece. It is about mystery. The mystery to those who believe there is a God and the mystery to those who do not. As in all walks of life and activities, we often hear the loudest voices from the extreme ends of the bell shaped curve and think there is great difference between us while most of us seek to resolve that mystery that burns deep within us. This is a beautiful piece because it ties us together whether we believe there is a God or not because we are both on that journey in seeking the answers to our very personal answers to that mystery that wells up within us. I can learn a lot from someone who does not believe in God and I can learn a lot from those who do and, honestly...life is made more joyous and meaningful when both explore together and prod each other to think, rethink and grow throughout life in spirit and knowledge and grace. This is a very inspirational story because this is a person who has not closed doors but, instead,has opened the windows.

    December 11, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • Ed

      Mark, I think that you are claiming mystery where one no longer exists. Your words are pleasant on first read, but they are pretty much willful ignorance if you still really believe in the Christian god in the face of so much evidence that the Christian tales are simply not coincident with reality. The two sides in this debate do not have equal arguments, and Christianity is going down fast.

      December 12, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
      • David

        Amen. Not believing in Santa Clause, Bigfoot. or gods doesn't invoke mystery.

        December 12, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
        • *

          * Claus, not Clause (dang that movie, anyway!)

          December 12, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
        • David


          December 12, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
      • bambibones

        Nobody actually knows, as a fact, the underpinnings of the universe. Beware of anyone who claims they do, for if you follow them, you will cut yourself off from all other avenues of knowledge.

        Yes, there is mystery. None of us knows, with solid empirical evidence, how matter, and time, numbers – and the universe itself – came into existence. Bravo to the person of any orientation who admits to this ignorance, for they will be open to learning and experiencing what might be missed by the blinders of dogmatism.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  14. Watcher On The Wall

    From what I can see there are a majority of Atheist focusing on faith. Yay!!!

    December 11, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • bushgirlsgonewild

      Yes, because we don't want people to be gullible. Our work continues on !

      December 11, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
      • Mark

        We are all the gullible. It just so happens some think THEY have found or know the answers to all the questions and so they stop questioning. These people can be found in those who believe there is a God and those who do not. There is no escape from them because they have little faith and fear they many find what is contrary to what they believe if they search long and hard enough. It takes a brave person and a person of faith to allow others to understand the world differently than they may.

        December 11, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
        • bushgirlsgonewild

          I don't agree. "People of faith" are extremely gullible – they have stopped thinking and accept belief in things that are not supported with evidence. I might be gullible on occasion, but not regarding important, life directing concepts.

          December 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
        • Ken Margo

          @bush...............I don't want to stereotype all religious people as being extremely gullible. Some simply pray and go about their business. The extemists on the other hand (those that think the world will end on a specific day for example) Should be locked up for their own protection.

          December 11, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
        • lol??

          You won't even lock up the nutzo mass murderers, kendy. Who ya kidding??

          December 11, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
        • Ed

          Mark, false equivalency. Check it.

          December 12, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
        • bambibones

          Bushgirlsgonewild: I am a person of faith, and I am neither Christian (or any sort of Deist) nor determine that God does not exist.

          I have faith in the human ability to grasp meaning out of chaos, to forge determination in the way of nihilism, to love, to hope, and to give a damn about the feelings of others.

          Unitarians are people of faith – and they have no creed.

          December 13, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.