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. Alien Orifice

    God created the universe. Many billions of years ago, a life form evolved on a planet not so far distant and their scientists deduced the building blocks for life existed in the universe and from it, new life forms could be created. These ancient ones populated Mars with life and eventually, due to asteroid events over millions of years, life arrived here on Earth.
    We are a product of that primeval turbulence. Therefore, we must worship the Aliens, not God. The Aliens have to worship God. This is all true because I have faith that it happened just this way.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • tony


      December 7, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  2. Where is your God now?

    Colleen Stan is a woman who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by Cameron Hooker in Red Bluff, California in 1977. On May 19, 1977 Hooker kidnapped Colleen Stan a.k.a. “Carol Smith.” Cameron’s wife, Janice Hooker, assisted in the kidnapping. Stan was held in captivity for the next seven years. During her imprisonment, Colleen was tortured, sexually assaulted, and led to believe that she was being watched by a large organization called “The Company”. Hooker had her sign a “slavery contract” supposedly from “The Company”. He assigned her a new slave name, “K”, causing comparisons to the Story of O. She was also led to believe that members of her family would be harmed if she attempted to escape. She may have experienced Stockholm syndrome. Hooker kept Stan locked in wooden boxes that he had made. One of the boxes was located under the bed that he shared with his wife

    December 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • Cole Sear

      Yes. Thank you for reporting decades-old news.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
      • Where is your God now?

        Jamelsek is an American serial rapist-kidnapper who, from 1988 to his apprehension in 2003, kidnapped a series of women and held them captive in a concrete bunker beneath the yard of his home in DeWitt, a suburb of Syracuse, New York. His story was the basis of the character Jamie Gumm in Silence of the Lambs. Jamelsek raped each of his victims and inflicted cigarette burns on them. After the discovery of the dungeon, police also found several video recorded entries with at least one woman on the tape. In the tapes, the viewer can see Jamelske dancing, singing, and also exercising with the woman. He prefaced each rape with a Bible study, in which after a review of a certain passage and discussion he would then begin to rape the victim.

        December 7, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
        • Cole Sear

          Yes. Crime exists. Boy, aren't you the smart one.

          December 7, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
        • Jan

          Is it your theory that the Bible made him rape?
          My theory is that the man was straight up cray cray.
          Grow up, Apple.

          December 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
        • Where is your God now?

          Sabrina Smith and Brian Amis were arrested after the three-year-old girl was found covered in scars, scabs and bruises only weighing 19 pounds. Child Protective Services received eight different reports on this family.

          December 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
        • Apple Bush


          No Jan. I am pointing out that their are no gods looking in on our well-being.

          December 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • Landon Alexander

      My God, and the only God is with you, and he's with me. Just because bad things happen, does not mean he doesn't exist, or isn't listening. He lets things happen for reasons we cannot comprehend, and even though the pain is great, the triumph will be greater when we see our savior's face.

      December 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        Proof please Landon?

        December 7, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
      • AE

        Amen. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,..."

        December 7, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  3. tony

    The Grand Canyon would make an awesome church, but it's all physics and geology. Like some of the "Awesome" backgrounds in the pictures.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • ME II

      Well said

      December 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  4. Where is your God now?

    Genie was a girl born in California in 1957 who spent nearly all of the first 13 years of her life locked in her room. Born to mentally unstable parents, at a very young age Genie was diagnosed as developmentally delayed and her father took that diagnosis and decided on his own treatment for Genie. Genie spent the next 12 years of her life locked in her bedroom. During the day, she was tied to a child’s potty chair in diapers; at night, she was bound in a sleeping bag and placed in an enclosed crib with a cover made of metal screening. Her father beat her every time she vocalized, and he barked and growled at her like a dog in order to keep her quiet. He also rarely allowed his wife and son to leave the house or even to speak, and he expressly forbade them to speak to Genie. By the age of 13, Genie was almost entirely mute, commanding a vocabulary of about 20 words and a few short phrases (nearly all negative), such as “stop it” and “no more”. Genie was discovered at the age of 13, when her mother ran away from her husband and took her daughter with her.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • scars

      Where He has always been. God does not control every aspect of our lives. We were given free will because God wanted us to be free to love Him - not commanded to do so. He sent us Jesus to teach us how we should be living but he does not compel us to live that way. You cannot have freedom if you do not have the option of choosing to do what God does not want you to do. And you can't be good if you don't have the freedom to choose evil. I know some Christians believe that everything is pre-ordained and also believe in Divine Intervention. Not all Christians believe that. We are given this life and teachings on how to be a good human being. What we do with that is our choice to make. At the end of our lives, we stand in judgement for those choices. That is what I and many other Christians believe. I don't blame anyone for not believing because I know I struggle with my own faith. There is no proof of God. That is precisely why it is called Faith. But, assuming that there is no God, there is also no need for morality. In the animal kingdom - and we are very much animals, albeit with a greater intelligence - it is survival of the fittest. If there really is no purpose to this life other than what brief time we have here, there is no reason to hold to society's laws or social conventions. There is absolutely no reason why I should not rob you and take everything you own. If it is in my benefit to do so, I should do it. Seize the moment, after all, because this is all we get and then we die.

      December 8, 2013 at 12:51 am |
      • Irwin Graulich

        That was a very wise response and comment.

        December 8, 2013 at 12:59 am |
  5. Tau'ri

    To quote St. Augustine, "If there was no God, Man would invent one." 'nuff said.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  6. Where is your God now?

    David Pelzer is the author and subject of the gut-wrenching true story “A Child Called It.” He spent his childhood enduring unimaginable abuse at the hands of his mother, while his father and siblings simply watched. David’s mother was apparently relatively loving and caring to his siblings, but had a deep, unfathomable hatred for David that lead her to put him through increasingly creative and shocking punishments. He was eventually rescued by concerned school officials.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • GAW

      And why didn't you step in to help? If you didn't then I don't believe in you.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  7. Some Guy

    Hey let's all litigate the merits of religion on a CNN comment thread. I'm sure we'll come to a consensus.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • tony

      That's because religion is a con-and sense-less

      December 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
  8. Quote from Penn Jillette

    If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • Guest1

      Awesome quote and very true.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  9. bostontola

    Why is it so easy for people to regard thousands of other Gods as fictional man made things (like Odin, Zeus, Horace...), but not even accept the possibility that theirs is also?

    Most people alive today regard your God as man made, the vast majority are not atheists.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • Horace

      You mean Horus. Horace is a Latin poet.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
      • bostontola

        Really, so Egyptians wrote in English? Either way, it doesn't change the point at all. If you'd like to comment on the actual point, I'd be interested.

        December 7, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  10. Where is your God now?

    Elizabeth Fritzel’s father Joseph kept her locked in a secret basement compound in Austria for 24 years with three of the seven children he fathered with her. Fritzel and his wife, Rosemarie, raised the other three living children Joseph Fritzel fathered with his eldest daughter. Upon finding out what was going on in the cellar, the Fritzel family as well as their community were apparently shocked by the news, completely unaware of Joseph Fritzel’s evil tendencies. Regarding the three children who lived their lives entirely in the cellar, Kerstin Fritzel, 19, and her brothers Stefan, 18, and Felix, five, have been alone in the cellar for so long that they developed their own type of communication via growls, grunts and animal like sounds. Elizabeth Fritzel had tried to teach them and let them have a normal life in the cellar.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  11. Poolah

    The Universe is too vast and too incredible for this theory of one little Human-centered god to be real. What a waste of time, all the Humans that dwell on it and of living "again"...seems almost feeble 🙁

    December 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  12. JDH

    I often wonder how people can cling to their atheism when faced with the improbability of all the "random" beauty

    December 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      It is not too hard actually. We use education, critical thinking and facts.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
      • lol??

        Your comment is awaiting moderation.
        Your comment is awaiting moderation.
        Yer just ticked that granny smith apples don't receive a mass socie mob invite to the red apple gubmint red mass that the Public Servants receive from the original gubmint Church..

        December 7, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Street Epistemologist In Training

      Because the improbability of the scientific explanation for the universe is multiple orders of magnitude less than the improbability of some god being responsible.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • tony

      Cloud formations are due to weather pattrns. But I ain't seen an "ugly" sunset yet. 😉

      December 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • nullhogarth

      I often wonder how people cling to their feeble religion as an explanation for the wonder and majesty of the universe. Our forefathers imaginations struggled to arrive at an explanation, and invented religion. But reality is greater than anything we can make up, and it is greater than any religion.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  13. Where is your God now?

    You are at a German “sparkle party”. You are wearing your party pants. You are ready to dancy dance. It is a hard-core German sparkle party and you are wearing your rubber boots. The music is pulsating and it feels good to dance. You notice a familiar face standing at the bar. You dance over to her as fancy as you please in your polished rubber boots. You bend low to smell her perfume and say hello. It is your father.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  14. Grindz

    God smod, fictional, just like Winnie the Pooh or Superman 🙂

    December 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  15. Where is your God now?

    You wake up feeling amazing with Marie next to you. She finally spent the night. You can make out the curve of her buttocks beneath the thin sheet. Your groin reacts and you press against her, fitting neatly in the begging crevice. She smells like flowers and honey. You throb with anticipation and she moans in anticipation. You reach for a condom, but realize to your dismay that your dog is busy chewing and has something stuck in his teeth…

    December 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • tony

      Darn. You just won't be in the expected position of being able to stop god's incredible "miracle of life" wiith just a man-made thin film of latex rubber

      December 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  16. Topher

    I do not believe in theories of deities.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Street Epistemologist In Training

      What do you believe in and why?

      December 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • Street Epistemologist In Training

      Hello Topher. Perhaps you missed the question above?

      December 9, 2013 at 6:27 am |
  17. Where is your God now?

    Masha was living in a Russian orphanage when an American man was allowed to adopt her. He was divorced and no background check was done on him; also no follow-up visits were ever conducted by the New Jersey based adoption agency. He began sexually abusing her almost immediately, and shortly thereafter, using her in internet child pornography.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  18. Justice

    Thanks, lolCAT2000!

    There's plenty of proof of the power of prayer, in my experience, anyway.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Name even ONE example of proof. You can't.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
      • lol??

        Your comment is awaiting moderation.
        Your comment is awaiting moderation.
        Yer just ticked that granny smith apples don't receive a mass socie mob invite to the red apple gubmint red mass that the Public Servants receive from the original gubmint Church...

        December 7, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • tony

      List please, with a control situation for each that wasn't affected.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • bostontola

      Prayer has power because they work through humans, and humans have power. There is no objective evidence that prayer works through any supernatural being.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  19. tony

    If Atheists had the same immense PR machinery and Pubicity and Tax exemption as churches, there would be a similar number of "awesome" buildings on a similar number of streets with billboards outside that had sayings like "think for yourself" on them.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  20. bostontola


    Fighting cancer is making great headway. Are these advancements due to God and prayer, or due to scientists applying reason and determination?

    Some religious people may be tempted to rationalize that both are at play, that God inspired these scientists or gave them the faculties to achieve this. That seems like a twisted explanation. If scientists cure cancer, then why kill so many in the mean time? Why use cancer as a test for a while, then let humans cure it?

    No, the only reasonable answer is, humans are finding these solutions to natural challenges with natural approaches.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      A sensible post exercising common sense.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • GAW

      I'm sure that if I accidentally cut off my finger I can find a natural approach to fix it.

      December 7, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
      • bostontola

        Yes, natural in the sense of not supernatural. Humans reattach parts successfully at a good rate. Zero parts have been re grown by prayer though.

        December 7, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
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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.