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. Larry Mandrell

    "You cannot come to me unless My Father calls you",

    I don't want to upset unbelievers but maybe there is a reason.

    December 8, 2013 at 12:40 am |
    • Greg

      God was created by men to enslave other men and to make money.

      December 8, 2013 at 12:52 am |
    • Reality # 2

      Hmmm, let us see what some of the experts (NT, historical Jesus scholars) have to say about the "Son of God/the Father references in the NT:

      Matt 7:21
      “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."

      Not said by the historical Jesus, but more embellishment my Matthew. http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb111.html

      Matt 9:6 Passage notes "Son of Man" not Son of God.

      Matt 10:32-33, ""Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; /33/ but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven"

      "Ludemann [Jesus, 344] states " this is a prophetic admonition from the post-Easter community. For it, Jesus and the Son of man were 'identical in the future: Jesus will return in the near future as the Son of man with the clouds of heaven. In his earthly life he was not yet the Son of man, since he will come to judgment only with the clouds of heaven (Dan. 7.13f) at the end of days' (Haenchen)."

      Matt 11:27 "All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.


      "Lüdemann [Jesus, 330f] invokes the classic description from K. Hase of this passage as a "thunderbolt from the Johannine heavens." He notes the typically Johannine reference to mutual knowledge between Father and Son, and the absolute use of "Son" as a designation for Jesus. In dismissing the saying's authenticity, Luedemann also notes the similarity to ideas in the post-Easter commissioning scene at Matt 28:18, "All authority has been given to me ..."

      Matt 1:20- 225 (another "pretty, wingie thingie requirement)

      20/ But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. /21/ She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." /22/ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: /23/ "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." /24/ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, /25/ but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus."

      "Bruce Chilton

      In Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000), Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth circ-umstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for the natural paternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus' life, Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus' self-identi-ty, his concept of God and his spiritual quest. "

      Mark 1: 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

      "Gerd Lüdemann

      Lüdemann [Jesus, 9] affirms the historicity of Jesus being baptized by John, but does not trace the theological interpretations back beyond the post-Easter community:

      ... Jesus did not regard his baptism as appointment to be the son of God. The underlying concept derives from the community, which believed in Jesus as the son of God (cf. Gal. 2.16; 4.4) and located his appointment within his lifetime. In the earliest period, for example, the appointment of Jesus as son of God came only after his resurrection from the dead (cf. Rom. 1.4).

      "John P. Meier

      The second volume of A Marginal Jew devotes considerable space to a study of John as "mentor" to Jesus. The historicity of the baptism is addressed on pages 100-105, before considering the meaning of Jesus' baptism on pages 106-116. On the basis of the criterion of embarrassment, supported by a limited proposal for multiple attestation (relying on possible echoes of a Q version in John's Gospel and in 1 John 5:6), Meier concludes:

      We may thus take the baptism of Jesus by John as the firm historical starting point for any treatment of Jesus' public ministry. (II,105)
      Having established the historicity of the baptism event, Meier is adamant that the narrative must be seen as a Christian midrash, drawing on various OT themes to assert the primacy of Jesus over John. In particular, Meier insists that the theophany must be excluded from all attempts to understand the event, since it is a later Christian invention rather than a surviving memory of some actual spiritual experience of Jesus.

      Meier's discussion of the meaning of the baptism puts great weight on the fact that accepting baptism implied Jesus' agreement with John's apocalyptic message, and also engages at length with the question of Jesus' sinlessness."

      December 8, 2013 at 12:54 am |
      • oo oo

        I no much more than u do. Want me to prove it? Let's debate.

        December 8, 2013 at 7:32 am |
  2. siggis94

    You always wonder why atheists are so rude and intolerant sometimes. Heres a reason…which sounds harsher: "You are going to burn in hell, but you can be saved if you repent" or "You bigots are worshipping an invisible sky-daddy, you dumb ****s". (These comments were taken from a youtube video centered around religion). Big difference right? See how much harsher the second comment is? Intolerance will lead the world to its own demise. The true way to prevent this is unity, peace, and coexistence.

    December 8, 2013 at 12:39 am |
    • Noel

      Actually, no. The first was MUCH harsher! Are you joking???? Yeah, the language was worse on the second, but honestly, that's almost a 50/50 split between sides and who's talking to who. The difference is atheists don't want to hear it that according to you, we're going to scream and suffer and burn and be tormented and die a million different agonizing ways over and over for all of eternity.

      I mean, what kind of person says that to another person, who doesn't even consider their viewpoint possible? How would you like it if I said your mother was going to get taped tomorrow by 5 dudes and left for dead unless you spin around 10,000 times, run head first into a brick wall at full speed and then rob a bank. I believe I'm going to go to hell for eternity about as much as you believe what I said is going to happen to your mom will unless you do the things I believe you need to do to avoid it.......but, if I were to say that about her to your face? How would that make you feel?

      It is EXACTLY the same thing. Now, from a new perspective, which one is harsher?????

      December 8, 2013 at 12:58 am |
    • Jay Wilson

      Siggis94: Nice try. I get an atheist newsletter every month from the Freedom From Religion Foundation where they print letters from Christians that are the most vile and hate filled garbage (written in very poor English I might add) you could ever imagine. What is it about you supposedly tolerant "God" fearing people when it comes to those of us who just don't buy the dogma? Religious chauvinism ("my religion is right, and everyone else's is wrong") is a blight on mankind that more people have died from than any other cause in the history of our species. No wonder some non-believers take umbrage with holier-than-thou among us. There have been many "gods" throughout history and all of them have been proven to be mere fiction. Until the current deity of choice (The God of Abraham) actually shows himself, I for one will not accept the talking snakes, virgin births, and condemnation of personal freedoms that surround the belief in him – like stoning someone for working on the sabbath, or killing children who curse their parents, or the rules of owning slaves, all concepts clearly stated in the Old Testament.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:12 am |
    • Ikuko

      "Heres a reason…which sounds harsher: "You are going to burn in hell, but you can be saved if you repent" or "You bigots are worshipping an invisible sky-daddy, you dumb ****s". "

      Of course the first one is harsher. Even by law: the second one is simply rude language (which you deliberately selected, to contrast with equally biased selection of carefully polite phrase for your side – as if we never hear a rude word from you guys); while the first one is actually a blackmail, despite the said politeness of the form.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:23 am |
    • Realist


      ... http://www.GodIsImaginary.com...

      ... and thank goodness because he ...

      ............. emanates from the .............

      ... http://www.EvilBible.com


      December 8, 2013 at 4:43 am |
  3. lol??

    Now the experts are claimin' there's no alpha male wolf.

    ".....................And while it's true that only one animal leads the pack when they hunt, that animal is not the pack leader: it's the prey. .........................."

    Be wary Christians!! 'Specially when you pray.

    December 8, 2013 at 12:38 am |
    • Larry Mandrell

      Please do not worry, we will not hurt you.

      December 8, 2013 at 12:42 am |
  4. siggis94


    December 8, 2013 at 12:30 am |
  5. Robert

    The reason that it's hard to convince some people that there is an almighty is because we religious people have created the almighty in our own image – in images of forms that we can see, feel, taste, touch, imagine etc. and using properties of time, matter or space that do not actually exist! The almighty is what it is! Why not just love whatever you believe in (nothing or something) and love others as thy self and move on – the universe will take care of its self like it has always done! In conclusion there is probably no difference between nothing and something because all we currently know is that something came from nothing!

    December 8, 2013 at 12:25 am |
    • joe

      all we currently know is that something came from nothing!
      Not true. It is very possible that the universe has always existed. Kind of like how you claim your make pretend God has always existed.

      December 8, 2013 at 12:30 am |
      • Justice

        Joe, how do we know that you're not make believe? Think about it.

        December 8, 2013 at 12:38 am |
        • freddy

          we no u r an idiot

          December 8, 2013 at 3:45 am |
      • oo oo

        Dearest idiot. Ask mommy to look up the word, "god" in a good dictionary, not a wiki atheist altered piece of garbage, and ask her to read the definition. This could be the beginning of a new and wonderful life

        December 8, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Justice

      Robert, I agree.

      December 8, 2013 at 12:34 am |

      everything material had a beginning. no exceptions. we know that everything comes from or is formed from something. molecules, atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, strings?

      December 8, 2013 at 3:40 am |
      • IDK


        And the ONLY way that lightning happens is if an angry god throws it down from the clouds, right?

        We don't know what we don't know yet.

        December 8, 2013 at 3:46 am |
        • oo oo

          Golly. Perfect analogy. We know that there was a beginning. By definition god didn't begin. Bother others with your stupidity. U r free to believe whatever u desire.

          As athies resort to bluster and utter nonsense, logic dictates what the bible confirms and the testimony of hundreds of millions throughout the ages.

          December 8, 2013 at 7:26 am |
    • oo oo

      Speak for yourself

      December 8, 2013 at 7:30 am |
  6. Apple Bush

    There was nothing before you were born. You were given a strange thing, life. Enjoy and die back to nothing.

    December 8, 2013 at 12:23 am |
    • freddy

      prove it punk

      December 8, 2013 at 3:44 am |
    • oo oo

      Since this cowardly donkey puncher can say whatever she wants, utter garbage like her post will remain on this dump for eternity. She has no idea what she's saying. No evidence.

      December 8, 2013 at 7:28 am |
  7. Travis

    Great article!

    December 8, 2013 at 12:22 am |
  8. lol??

    Are N Korean campuses divisive?? What IS the A&A pledge, sorta like the Obama pledge??

    December 8, 2013 at 12:21 am |
  9. joe barnsthan

    Talmud says "one who has not seen king herods temple has not seen beauty in this world" may our synagogues continue to be the most beautiful buildings in the world

    December 8, 2013 at 12:10 am |
  10. lol??

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    Some people are still clingin' to Freud and his complexes.
    At this point in time of Mob Power rules, Christians need to go underground and model the early churches so they aren't such easy targets for the zombies.

    December 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    I see the "christian persecution complex" is still alive and well.

    December 8, 2013 at 12:00 am |
  11. oo oo

    As bright as they claim they r, not one of them could answer a simple question. The fact that none of our Christian impersonators attempted an answer proves they r just that.

    what else does the word for "earth" mean in the flood story?

    December 7, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
    • Russ

      @ oo oo: land.

      here's an example of one such argument for a localized flood.

      December 8, 2013 at 12:09 am |
  12. RossOKC

    I was once like him. Lost my faith, and considered those who believed in God foolish.
    It was like enjoying a piece of art, from an artist that didn't exist.
    Like enjoying a building with no architect.
    Like enjoying and living in a universe with no creator.
    I do not say any religion knows it all, to God we are like an amoeba trying to figure out what a human wants.
    I do believe in God, and I can feel His love, and appreciate His gift of life.
    Just my thoughts.

    December 7, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I hope you have some better thoughts than that!

      December 7, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • ???

      All one needs is eyes and a functioning brain to appreciate beauty.
      One needs not know the architect to think a building is beautiful. Or need to know the artist to appreciate a painting.
      You've heard the term "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"?
      Kinda the same concept.

      If you need God to figure out what is beautiful, well, all right.
      Many people don't.

      December 7, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
      • k-dog

        A snowball hits the planet and chills it to a livable atmosphere of steam and water. Amazing, yes. Divine? Unlikely. Cause for wonderment? Yes. Will it happen again? No one knows but we're looking! Live in the moment and enjoy it for it/we are finite. We are all going to wither and pass on like weeds in a field. Some of our seeds will germinate and many will not.

        December 8, 2013 at 12:05 am |
        • ???

          Can you tell me where I implied anything divine in my post?

          December 8, 2013 at 12:11 am |
      • oo oo

        u have repeated that o so profound idea hundreds of times even though u r the only person who thinks that's what was being implied. we understand ur need to use that as a defense of ur faith, but it is stupid

        December 8, 2013 at 12:07 am |
        • ???

          I have eyes. I see beauty. Sorry you don't.

          December 8, 2013 at 12:10 am |
  13. Apple Bush

    It’s about the numbers man; it’s the math man the math, that’s the universe man you understand? Music man, vibrations musical notes mathematical variations that is what will allow it all to happen man. Do you get what I am saying man?

    December 7, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
    • Brian

      Not really, maybe you need another White Russian?

      December 7, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        Dude I don't drink man.

        December 8, 2013 at 12:00 am |
  14. McBob79

    The thing I find interesting about Atheists is that they seem to be obsessed with people of faith. Why can't they just leave people alone? It really doesn't seem like anyone is bother them.

    December 7, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • ooo


      Let's see, in the U.S. we have:

      Sybaris wrote this earlier. It kind of points out a different view....

      Bibles in every motel room
      God on our money
      Prayer before public events
      Christian cable networks 24/7
      Discounts on insurance for being christian
      Churches every 6 blocks in every city over 100,000
      Laws that prevent non-christians from holding public office
      Christian bookstores in every town over 12,000
      God in the Pledge of Allegiance
      Televangelists 24/7
      Christian billboards along the highway advertising Vacation Bible School and “Repent or go to He.ll”
      Federally recognized christian holiday
      Radioevangelists 24/7
      Religious organizations are tax free
      75% of the population claims to be christian
      National day of prayer
      God in the National Anthem
      Weekday christian education for elementary students.
      Christian clergy led prayer at Presidential inaugurations

      Who is shoving what down whose throat?

      Please take the persecuted christian whine line somewhere else.

      December 7, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
      • Oh Brother ^

        Your copy and paste is boring. All of what you speak of above and STILL no one is forcing you to believe or persecuting you either.

        December 7, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
        • ooo

          Are you f..ing kidding!!! Try to run for any office in this country as a proclaimed athiest. Talk to me when you get elected....

          December 7, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
        • lolCAT2000

          I understand why he copied it – it's actually a realy good list of all the public real-estate religion occupies.
          I find especially some of the broadasts mind-boggling as well – especially in rural areas.

          I just really think that the simplistic counter-reaction is not enough – much of what I read about atheism and its adherents these days comes down to a pretty simple and straightforward ideology.

          December 8, 2013 at 12:05 am |
      • Someone Else

        The Star Spangled Banner mentions God? Must be in one of the verses that nobody ever sings...

        December 8, 2013 at 12:03 am |
        • Googler

          Yea – 4th verse:

          O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand,
          Between their lov'd homes and the war's desolation;
          Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
          Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!
          Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
          And this be our motto: "In God is our trust"
          And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
          O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

          December 8, 2013 at 12:07 am |
    • Justice

      I think they think they're odd balls. It makes them feel better to talk about it. And talk they do... on and on and on.

      December 7, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
    • TJ

      Man if anything Christians and Catholics are the ones who are obsessed with others' faith. Atheists will tell their opinion, but if anyone is being ostracized, it's non Catholics and non Christians.

      December 7, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
      • b

        uhhh Catholics are Christians......

        December 8, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • Gene

      I think it's because they claim that "religion" (which is a pretty broad brush stroke) controls them through politics and established laws when, actually, religion is one of the few things these days that has any influences on any religion. They have much, much more to worry about what actual politics is going to have over them soon, the way conditions are turning relative to human control.

      December 8, 2013 at 12:03 am |
      • ???

        Religion is one of the few things that have any influence on any religions? Huh?

        December 8, 2013 at 12:19 am |
  15. Apple Bush

    Whatever is behind the curtain of reality that eludes us all, it is a hell of a lot different than anything we can imagine. Only science can help us achieve truth.

    December 7, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
  16. Dan J

    Respectful intrigue from an atheist. I like this guy. He isn't militant, and he has had meaningful, respectful debates and discussions about religion. He isn't a militant atheist, or a religion basher.

    December 7, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
    • Please!

      Is this a closited bash against athiests who've had to put up with a lifetime of religion forced on them and who finally are here to speak their minds? We wont be silenced now!

      December 7, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
      • Kenman

        What a poor, bitter, put upon person, troubled so deeply by the existence of faith in something bigger than ourselves!

        December 7, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
        • k-dog

          ."....existence of faith in something bigger than ourselves". A tad oxymoronic? Only if you give everything over to divinity. Seen images of space lately? We are special, an accident of nature. A snowball hits the planet and chills it to a livable atmosphere of steam and water. Amazing, yes. Divine? Unlikely. Cause for wonderment? Yes. Will it happen again? No one knows but we're looking!

          December 8, 2013 at 12:01 am |
      • Gene

        Sounds like you allow things to control your life when it doesn't necessarily have to be that way.... or..perhaps you really need that control after all.

        December 8, 2013 at 12:05 am |
  17. gary


    December 7, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
  18. k-dog

    By the way, churches photograph beautifully. Sont Chappelle in Paris is gorgeous as is Notre Dame Paris. It's a shame they weren't built for the shear pleasure of architecture.

    December 7, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • ooo

      I don't know about that. One friend traveling with me through Europe used to call them the "town penis" each time we passed one. Maybe it was for pleasure !

      December 7, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
      • k-dog

        The little towns were much easier to find and pillage with the big phallus to guide the raiders there.

        December 7, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
        • lol??

          The washingtonians better wake up while playin' with georgie's monument and the little attraction game they're doin' with lady liberty. Not a safe wurld.

          December 8, 2013 at 1:16 am |
  19. gary

    For better photography.... see

    December 7, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
  20. Apple Bush

    I believe in nothing. There was nothing before I was born, and when I die there will be nothing. Therefore my belief in nothing is well-founded. There is no box my belief system or lack thereof, will fit in.

    I will still be part of universe when I die and that is something so perhaps I shouldn’t say I believe in nothing.

    But when this universe dies my particles will become the nothing and that leads me back to believing in nothing.

    December 7, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • Gary Duits

      How can you be so lucky as to believe in nothing,Thanks for your wisdom.It's what this world needs,poeple who believe in nothing!

      December 8, 2013 at 12:05 am |
      • Apple Bush

        Nihilism is easy and is seems the most plausible belief system based on the evidence.

        December 8, 2013 at 12:13 am |
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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.