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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
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
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
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."
Just as there are many forms of atheism, there are numerous reasons given
for being an atheist. Not surprisingly, many atheists claim that logic
and clear thinking have led them to their disbelief in God. But Lepp,
an atheist for most of his young adult years and also a psychotherapist,
doesnt agree: "As a matter of fact, most atheists pretend to
be rationalists," he observes, "They criticize religion from
the point of view of history or of the natural sciences. . . But in fact
there are few atheists, especially among educated men, who are so for
rigorously rational motives." (Lepp, 14).
Vatican II stated that people become atheists due to a "variety of
causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in
some places against the Christian religion in particular" (GS 19).
That seems obvious, but the next sentence is crucial: "Hence believers
can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent
that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous
doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they
must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and
religion" (GS 19).
Perhaps the most prevalent form of atheism is also the most subtle: practical
atheism. What is it? In the essay "What Does Vatican II Teach
About Atheism," the theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., explained that
"a man, even a Christian, can accept God objectively
in his understanding and his freedom, declare that he is a theist
and think that he observes the moral norms of God, and yet deny God in
his heart either morally or as a believer." Put another way, a practical
atheist may say he believes in God and may even Mass but
he acts and thinks as though God does not exist.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that what sometimes
called agnosticism the belief that we cannot know anything about
God or if He exists " is all too often equivalent to practical
atheism" (CCC 2128). This marks a refusal to ask the ultimate questions
about existence and reality.
Practical atheism has often been equated with religious indifference by
Pope John Paul II and others. The late Holy Father wrote, in his "Christian
Response to Modern Atheism," that "the contemporary era has
known particularly devastating forms of theoretical and practical
atheism (cf. Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, nn. 46-47). Secularism
proves particularly ruinous with its indifference to ultimate questions
and to faith: it in fact expresses a model of man lacking all reference
to the transcendent. Practical atheism is thus a bitter and
The Challenge of Disbelief
Atheist literature, websites and arguments reflect this fact loudly and
clearly. Atheists take special issue with Catholicism because they see
it as detached, ultra-authoritarian and out of touch with the modern world.
Not surprisingly, most atheists demonstrate a faulty understanding of
most Church teaching and a sharp cynicism about the perceived hypocrisy
of most (if not all) Catholics.
While some of these perceptions are rooted in unfair bias and dislike,
the failure of Catholics to adequately explain and live the Faith is also
to blame. Each Christian also has an obligation to address atheism as
best they can, especially in how they present the Faith in words and deeds.
The Council Fathers explained, "The remedy which must be applied
to atheism, however, is to be sought in a proper presentation of the Church's
teaching as well as in the integral life of the Church and her members"
(GS 21). In this way Catholics can be in accord, through patience and
prayer, with the heart and mind of the Church, who "courteously invites
atheists to examine the Gospel of Christ with an open mind." (GS
(A slightly different version of this article appeared in the July
17, 2005 issue of Our
Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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
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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