A Short Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson | July 27, 2005
In Dominum et Vivificantem, his encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Pope John Paul II stated that atheism "is the striking phenomenon of our time" (par 56). He then points readers to Gaudium et Spes, Vatican IIs Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which observes that "atheism must be accounted among the most serious problems of this age, and is deserving of closer examination" (GS 19).
In fact, in three compact but rich paragraphs (GS 19-21), Gaudium et Spes made a number of observations about atheism which are helpful for all Catholics. The Council Fathers recognized that atheism is complex and multifaceted, embracing numerous perspectives loosely bound around a core disbelief or denial of God.
To stereotype atheists simply as immoral unbelievers guarantees frustration and failure in dealing with them. Gaudium et Spes describes some of the varieties of unbelievers, including those who deny God outright, ambivalent agnostics, wary skeptics, calculating rationalists, doubtful philosophers, sensual materialists and virulent anti-Christians. And then there are those who "never get to the point of raising questions about God, since they seem to experience no religious stirrings nor do they see why they should trouble themselves about religion" (GS 19). No doubt this describes some of our neighbors, co-workers and even family members.
At the heart of atheism is an unbalanced desire for human independence that excludes the reality of God. Man becomes the end of all things and the "sole artisan and creator of his own history" (GS 20). John Paul II made remarks in a similar vein, saying, "Being an atheist . . . means not knowing the true nature of created reality but absolutizing it, and therefore idolizing it, instead of considering it a mark of the Creator and the path that leads to him." ("Christian Response to Atheism," April 14, 1999 at the General Audience). Along with this exclusive focus on humanity, modern atheism strongly emphasizes technology, science, and certain political philosophies. These are held up as evidence of mans autonomy and his ability to achieve earthly utopia.
As Many Atheisms as Atheists
Atheists often disagree among themselves about what it means to be an atheist. Ignace Lepp, a convert to Catholicism from Marxism and atheism, observed, "It would not be at all false to say that there are as many atheisms as atheists." (Atheism In Our Time [New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1963] 12). This presents a formidable challenge to the Catholic who encounters atheism and attempts to address it.
Among the many different types of atheism are weak atheism (lacking a belief in a God), strong atheism (believing God cannot exist), disproof atheism (believing most evidence points to Gods nonexistence), methodological atheism (claiming theists fail to give sufficient proof for Gods existence), mystical atheism (based on a private, subjective experience), and faith atheism (believing in nonexistence of God based on "faith"). Forms of atheisms range from political ideologies (Marxism) to scientific perspectives (Darwinian evolution) to existential viewpoints (nihilism).
Michael Martin, an atheist author and apologist, notes that atheism is not necessarily the rejection of Gods existence, but rejection of faith in God: "In Greek a means without or not and theos means god. From this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God." (Atheism: A Philosophical Justification [Temple University Press, 1990) 463).
For this reason some atheists prefer to be called freethinkers, rationalists, humanists, or agnostics. Often the differences appear to be little more than semantics. But agnostics, who traditionally are ambivalent about mans ability to know whether God exists or not, are often scorned by staunch atheists, such as the infamous Madalyn Murray OHair, who once sneered that "the agnostic is gutless and prefers to keep one safe foot in the god camp." (from www.infidels.org).
Rejection of God, Worship of Man
Regardless of the varieties of atheism, most atheists do share a rejection (either of existence of or faith in) of a god or gods but almost always the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. While atheists sometimes say that they give equal time to all gods (and goddesses), in reality this usually isnt so. Most atheists are anti-Christian and mostly focus on the God of Jews and Christians.
This focus emphasizes the fact that atheism, at the core, is a negative that relies upon the positive it rejects. "Atheism is the supreme example of a simple faith," wrote G.K. Chesterton, "The truth is that the atmosphere of excitement by which the atheist lives, is an atmosphere of thrilled and shuttering theism, and not of atheism at all; it is an atmosphere of defiance and not of denial. . . . If there were not God, there would be no atheists." ("Where All Roads Lead," Collected Works, vol. 3 [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990] 37-38). This sort of rebellious spirit was summed up by Margaret Sanger, the American freethinker who pioneered "birth control rights" whose motto was "No gods, no masters."
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com .
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