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. Realist


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

    ... and thank goodness because he ...

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

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


    December 8, 2013 at 1:59 am |
    • Reasoned

      Thanks for the links. It’s nice to have a websites that doesn’t bog you down with reliable sources. Next time my teachers fail me (in sociology, theology and history) – I can direct them to “GodIsImaginary” and “EvilBible” to show them just how stupid they are. If anybody disagrees, they should read the God Delusion by biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s because of Dawkins that I now take biology classes so that I can be an historian, theologian and sociologist just like him. Thanks again, them .edu websites and people who call themselves “scientist” (just because they went to school to study these things) are so bias. If Stalin and Mao were alive today, they would annihilation all idiots who didn’t think us freethinkers.

      December 8, 2013 at 2:33 am |
  2. David

    It's a nice way to sell photographs! Marketing yourself as an atheist who feels the divine and respects faith. Hope they swallow it.

    December 8, 2013 at 1:58 am |
    • mutanttruth

      "an atheist who feels the divine"

      He said no such thing. Figures you'd hear that (since perhaps it's what you wanted to hear), but what he said was he detected "signs of an invisible human longing."

      December 8, 2013 at 2:30 am |
      • David

        An invisible human longing...what a crack of Shiite.

        December 8, 2013 at 2:45 am |
  3. An atheist photographer focuses on faith

    A believing average joe totally demolishes the silly things atheists make up.

    " I wrote about what Jesus began to do and teach."

    December 8, 2013 at 1:57 am |
    • David

      Really? The average Joe doesn't even know what the bible says and how immoral it is. They pick and choose the parts that make them feel comfortable, assuming they ever read the whole book – which 90% of Christians never do.

      December 8, 2013 at 2:02 am |
      • lol??

        The socies say Muslims just wanna be like Joe Six-Pack.

        December 8, 2013 at 2:09 am |
      • Laurence Charles Ringo

        "...than open your mouth and remove all doubt..." Wow,David.Your ignorance of Biblical issues is so sad and pathetic it beggars the imagination.How do YOU know what percentage of Christians hsve read the Bible cover-to-cover? As someone who has done so many times over during my almost 40 years as a Christians,I can assure you it's NOT a comfortable Book;only someone who HASN'T read it would come away with that conclusion!! After all,who could be comfortable with all that"immorality",right?

        December 8, 2013 at 2:36 am |
        • Wonderer

          "who could be comfortable with all that"immorality",right?"

          Chiefly one who can rationalize and weasel that ancient ethnocentric Israeli fantasy deity out of its monstrousness. I don't know which is worse – one who takes that route or the ones with TEGO (their eyes glaze over) when they come to the sticky – sicky parts.

          December 8, 2013 at 2:58 am |
      • Trevor

        Wow, so the world's most read book isn't even read at all.... Considering that all these horrific things in the bible occur in close to 4000 years ago in a time and world culture you obviously can't be that familiar with makes you the perfect judge on how evil the bible is. I'm sorry you bought in to that kind of dogmatic and repressive thinking. I don't know what kind of hurt you had in your past that makes an "enlightened" thinker like yourself feel the need to deride other people choice of faith...But I do know that your intolerant, impulsive statements are exactly the same kind of thing you probably don't like other people doing to you. 90% of blogs left on CNN about religion are from atheist deriding Christianity. Is that really what the hallmark of atheism should be. That's your legacy legacy? scorn and intolerance?

        December 8, 2013 at 3:01 am |
  4. Realist


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

    ... and thank goodness because he ...

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

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


    December 8, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  5. Valerie Ploch

    This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Why even bother building a church…what are they going to do…not pray, not sing and praise God…preach or hear no sermon….so why waste money and build a church….they can just stay home on Sunday morning!

    December 8, 2013 at 1:48 am |
  6. Tyler

    your statements are simple and beautifully so. they reflect that atheism is not incompatible with spiritualism, an undeniable yet indescribable aspect of human reality. so many short and yet so precise statements, i wonder what you would say with slightly less exclusive and slightly more precise statements pf faith and

    December 8, 2013 at 1:47 am |
    • David

      Sorry, but why does his beautiful statements have to involve "spiritualism", a word that hints at the divine and unexplainable supernatural? Why can't his statement s simply reflect the beauty of what it means to be a human firmly planted in reality? As an atheist, I confess I like Christmas carols, but there's nothing spiritual about them as far as I'm concerned – I hear people singing and making a beautiful sound.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:54 am |
      • Fan2C

        "I like Christmas carols, but there's nothing spiritual about them as far as I'm concerned – I hear people singing and making a beautiful sound."

        Yes, David, I think I know what you mean. Sometimes we temporarily suspend disbelief in order to feel certain deep and pleasant things. The "Ave Maria", for example is lovely and the "Hallelujah Chorus" is thrilling if you briefly indulge in the fantasy behind it.

        We suspend disbelief for enjoyment when we watch cartoon characters talk & romp on screen, but we don't expect the next mouse or duck or rabbit that we see to start speaking and joking with us!

        December 8, 2013 at 2:06 am |
    • Wonderer

      "spiritualism, an undeniable yet indescribable aspect of human reality."

      I wonder what you mean by "spiritualism"? Communing with spirits - invisible beings?... Or very deep human emotions of wonder, awe and appreciation - no disembodied beings necessary?

      December 8, 2013 at 1:56 am |
      • David


        December 8, 2013 at 2:04 am |
  7. Clint

    Created by the mind of humans.
    Has books written about him.
    Has millions of believers/followers.
    Has his own theme parks.
    Sells millions worth of products every year.
    Has TV shows and movies about him or featuring him in some way.
    Isn't actually real.

    Am I talking about "Mickey Mouse" or "God"?

    Answer: BOTH!

    December 8, 2013 at 1:36 am |
    • Eastwood

      Disney gives you more for your money than religion does.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:46 am |
    • Don

      Your opinion does not make it so. God is very real for millions of believers. Does their opinion make it so? Of course not. Whether God exists or not is independent of the opinions of anyone and everyone.

      December 8, 2013 at 2:02 am |
    • Salero21

      Well your inability to discern one from the other is one more piece of Evidence of what I've been saying all along. That atheism is Total stupidity all over, here, there, anywhere, everywhere, anytime, all the time, every single time and forevermore.

      December 8, 2013 at 2:03 am |
      • lol??

        Science calls the life part, evolution, though more and more they apply it to everything, too.

        December 8, 2013 at 2:06 am |
        • Really now

          I am deeply impressed at how you consistenty pack so much stupid into so few words.

          December 8, 2013 at 2:11 am |
        • lol??

          Flattery will getcha to Nowheresville.

          December 8, 2013 at 2:18 am |
      • Noel

        Nope, no evidence. Just one mans words.....but, I don't blame you for trying: "Oh, oh! This guy said something I disagree with! Here's my chance to say that the fact he doesn't agree with me is evidence in itself. YES! FINALLY, some real, undeniable, concrete proof of gods existence and religions relevancy! Swoooooon........"

        But seriously. Typical theist. He doesn't agree with me, so he's wrong, I'll call him names, I'll act all high and mighty, and maybe tomorrow I'll start acting like a "Christian"". Classy man. Classy.

        December 8, 2013 at 2:14 am |
  8. Mopery

    It doesn't take much to understand conformity(faith), especially when it's backed by irrational thought and violence. I'm sure that many of these "moral" believers who claim to derive their "morality" from bronze-age texts truly desire a return to the "good old days", when Atheists were burned at the stake for blasphemy. Even today, in many bass ackwards muslim countries, you can still lose your head for being an Atheist.

    December 8, 2013 at 1:34 am |
    • postedbygeorge

      Religion in the US is basicallly derived from middlle-eeastern drivel. Miiss pelling on porpoise.

      December 8, 2013 at 2:07 am |
  9. Pigs can fly

    The 'pope' of the atheists is Richard Dawkins...
    He is their leader and Darwin is their saint, 'Origin of species' is their bible
    Atheists believe in myths, they believe that a frog can turn into a prince and pigs can fly...

    December 8, 2013 at 1:23 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Is it hard for you to imagine life without gods, saints, popes, the Bible and all the rest of whatever it is you believe in, Pig?

      December 8, 2013 at 1:30 am |
    • Oh dear

      Never read or seen anything by him.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:30 am |
    • Clint

      and you believe your own drivel.....fortunately the sane among us do not.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:31 am |
    • lolCAT2000

      Yep Dawkins is definitely somewhat of a "head ideologist" – he could actually turn into somewhat of a cult leader if he wanted to. He already has his "Richard Dawkins foundation for reason and science" together.
      It's a little like Werner Erhard's "The World Hunger Project" – on the surface it seems about science and reason, but really it's about the spreading of atheism and anti-religionism from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist.

      I meet Dawkinsians online all the time – and almost robotically they repeat the precise same line of reasoning again and again.

      This branch of atheism is definitely not that special in the end – it works like many other ideologies before it.
      Hardly a way to save mankind.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:55 am |
      • Noel

        "Hardly a way to save mankind". Oh, you mean like religion does? Oh, wait, religion is now believed to be the single biggest cause of death and destruction known to mankind. An estimated 6,000,000 alone in the name of Christianity (or it's previous incarnations) since around 1,500bc. Yup, keep up the good work, really saving mankind those theists are.........but, I guess if you like to swap it around in your head to hear "saving mankind" rather than "killing mankind", then I guess I see your point. But other than intentional self delusion or intentional brain washing to hear things the way you want to, not sure how you can point the finger at atheists for "hardly saving humanity" when Christianities tagline could very easily (and maybe should) be: "Christianity; Hating, Persecuting, Injuring and Killing More People Than Anything Else Since 1,500bc"

        December 8, 2013 at 2:28 am |
        • Steve

          You must live in fantasyland. The biggest murderers have been ATHEISTS!
          Attila the Hun, hitler, Mao, Stalin...

          December 8, 2013 at 5:41 am |
        • lolCAT2000

          religion kills -> atheist dogma

          December 8, 2013 at 10:31 am |
  10. Pigs can fly

    Atheist have stronger faith than the religious. They believe that mutations and natural selection create new species, despite no lab evidence to prove otherwise.
    Well, maybe a frog can turn into a prince...

    December 8, 2013 at 1:18 am |
    • Oh dear

      Fallacy of equivocation.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:22 am |
      • lol??

        The mark of the Beast resides where the psychopathy pwoblem is, if you know what the definition of is, is.

        December 8, 2013 at 1:29 am |
        • Spackler-spotting 101

          When you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consiousness. So you got that goin' for you, which is nice

          December 8, 2013 at 1:47 am |
  11. Tom

    This atheist shoots EMPTY places of worship. No doubt to somehow make him feel like religious people don't exist. To make people of faith appear to be dying out. The cruelty of an Atheist to take away from the suffering the last vestiges of hope is truly the character of an atheist. To find suffering and add to it.

    December 8, 2013 at 1:13 am |
    • Jerry

      Some religious people are so blinded by their bigotry that they look at respectful and beautiful pictures and imagine they are somehow cruel.

      That's a violation of the Ninth Commandment and a heck of a lot that Jesus instructed, hypocrite.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:17 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      You are in Imagination Land. Ask Mr. Trolley to bring you back.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:19 am |
  12. 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!

    December 8, 2013 at 1:12 am |
  13. allen

    if there is a god...I will kill him. I have pondered the plights of humanity and of all suffering,"god" plays the major role.Allow me the strengh to tear down and destroy any mention of any god...as they,collectively,are the devil. Any religious honcho allowing pain and suffering must go.I ask only that I de the deliverance:)

    December 8, 2013 at 1:08 am |
  14. postedbygeorge

    True faith has no religion.

    December 8, 2013 at 1:07 am |
    • Oh dear

      Please get a dictionary and use it. Religion is "the service or worship of a god or the supernatural." Your statement is gibberish.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:14 am |
      • postedbygeorge

        You explained my post.

        December 8, 2013 at 1:17 am |
        • Oh dear

          Then use the dictionary to look up what the theological definition of "faith" is, and you will see that it inherently is the service or worship of God or the supernatural.

          Seriously, your point is self-negating and absurd.

          December 8, 2013 at 1:22 am |
        • postedbygeorge

          Oh dear, you made my point again.

          December 8, 2013 at 2:00 am |
        • Oh dear

          You are just too stupid for words.

          December 8, 2013 at 2:04 am |
        • postedbygeorge

          basic explanation for M>E religion, thanks.

          December 8, 2013 at 2:32 am |
      • lol??

        Religion is Sarah "helping" God with Hagar. Faith is believing what God says.

        December 8, 2013 at 1:35 am |
        • Spackler-spotting 101

          Hypocrisy is spending hour after hour here doing exactly what Jesus told you not to do.

          December 8, 2013 at 1:48 am |
      • lol??

        Paul explained what reasonable service is, besides being reasonable.

        December 8, 2013 at 1:41 am |
        • Ringo

          Paul was just okay, but John and George were much better song writers.

          December 8, 2013 at 1:50 am |
        • lol??

          You have to love Truth before you get into silly love songs.

          December 8, 2013 at 1:56 am |
  15. NorthVanCan

    I'm tired of mocking the religious (at least for now) I'm gona start looking for a new hobby . Something with bigger returns .
    You see, the religious are like giant bags of hot air. You can't bring them down unless you pop their bubble ,
    Who truly wants to rain on the little ones parade ?.
    Even if they are the majority and out of their friggen minds .

    December 8, 2013 at 1:04 am |
  16. 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?

    "In my former book, Theophilus,"
    stop me when u c embellishment or a lie or plagiarism from buddha or Confucius, etc.

    this little game will soon be deleted or dodo will run away

    December 8, 2013 at 12:57 am |
    • You are a loo ooser

      Do tell us, what did the Sumerians mean by that when they came up with the story long before it was plagiarized by the Hebrews?

      We already know you are attempting to pimp the flimsy "local flood" apologetics thing, but that isn't the only completely unbelievable thing in that myth. Catch a clue: it was a story stolen from other pre-existing religions, and even if you small the legend down, it's still upside down bullshit on toast.

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

        u have one chance. quote your plagiarized text otherwise, once again, u lose.

        December 8, 2013 at 1:50 am |
        • You are REALLY a loo ooser

          Eridu Genesis

          Epic of Gilgamesh

          December 8, 2013 at 1:54 am |
        • oo oo

          Eridu Genesis
          Epic of Gilgamesh

          no quoted text.
          that answers that

          December 8, 2013 at 2:00 am |
        • oo oo

          DM Murdock is a birdbrain who believes everything our morons repeat on this dump. Every bit of junk explaining away god posted here is the same stupid stuff she says and is severely criticized for all over the religious discussions on the net. She believes Jesus' handlers took ideas from Horus and Zeus and Buddha to create the Christ dude to influence politics in 400 hundred years. Seriously. She is whacked out. She believes the flood story was taken from other cultures as well. She insults others as athies insult reborners.

          December 8, 2013 at 6:32 am |
  17. Irwin Graulich

    First of all, you should learn how to spell "religion." Secondly, your definition of religion has absolutely nothing to do with Judaism. Good luck in your search.

    December 8, 2013 at 12:55 am |
  18. Noel

    I just posted part of this as a reply to an atheist using quotes and facts from various scientists, citing his sources. But, it's too good not to share as it's own post. This was an email I received about 40 minutes ago from a theist who shall remain nameless for now, in response to a few comments I had left about evolution and just certain facts about science in general. Below has been copied and pasted from my email, the only changes I made were putting spaces in the web address in case it would have got flagged on here. Draw your own conclusions, but as for me, that email did me in, and I'm calling it a night. Lol, and I quote:

    "Hey Noel. You seem intelligent enough. I think you'd really benefit from visiting http://www .religionfa cts.com/christian ity/index.htm. It has REAL answers for believers and non believers alike, unlike the lies that a majority of these so called scientists have been spreading for almost a hundred years. I feel based on a few of your posts and citing them as your source that you've fallen victim to their propaganda. There's even a few articles on that".

    Here's where I got stupid, but out of sheer morbid curiosity, I replied back: "Ok, I'll bite, on what?"

    "On atheists being afraid of the power of the church, so a hundred years ago or so, they started calling themselves scientists, and spreading around lies they claimed as facts, backed up with statistics to complicated for the average man to verify for himself. It's still happening today, scientists still only exist because they're mostly privately funded by atheists to continue to feed the anti Christian propaganda machine. All the facts are over at that website. After reading the truth for yourself, you have my email, and I'd be happy to answer any questions you have. Be Blessed"

    Yeah.......Do what you will with THAT! As for me.........Night!

    December 8, 2013 at 12:51 am |
    • Reality # 2

      No scientists were used in the preparation of the following update:

      The Apostles' Creed 2013 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
      ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      (References used are available upon request.)

      December 8, 2013 at 12:58 am |
      • Randoms

        Well written. I'm not here to try to tell others, religion is flawed in hypocrisy, but if it works for the believer, fill yer boots.

        December 8, 2013 at 1:11 am |
  19. lolCAT2000

    There are also some amazing starbucks and subway's franchises for sure.
    Maybe a non-coffee drinker and someone who doesn't like sandwiches should take a look at them and tell us what he/she thinks.

    December 8, 2013 at 12:48 am |
  20. Rod C. Venger

    If someone want to photograph, "Faith", they'd do well to stay away from man built structures. Looking for evidence of God? Photograph a hummingbird, or a cat snuggling with her kittens. Photograph a crystal in it's native matrix, or time-lapse a mushroom appearing out of the mulch and growing to it's full glory in the space of an hour or two. Gaze up into the night sky and try to get your head around the vastness of the Universe.

    December 8, 2013 at 12:44 am |
    • Jay Wilson

      Weak argument Mr. Venger. Very weak. Maybe you ascribe the existence of hummingbirds to your unseen deity, but I most certainly do not. No, I cannot tell you where the hummingbird came from, but neither can you. So why does not being able to answer that question default to the God of Abraham as the answer? That my friend is called "The God of the Gaps." Perhaps given the billions upon billions of planets in our galaxy that could support life as we know it (and many more with life possibly based on another element besides carbon), we shouldn't discount possibilities like a more intelligent life form than ours having actually seeded the Earth with plant and animal life. That theory is no more preposterous than a bearded old man in the sky who hears the thoughts and prayers of every living being in the universe. But this loving, benevolent deity won't hesitate to sentence you to an eternity of suffering by fire if you don't accept the dogma. Sorry. That's just too absurd a concept for me to accept.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:22 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.