On "Believing" Atheists | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 13, 2010 | Ignatius Insight
On "Believing" Atheists | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 13, 2010 | Ignatius Insight
"Finally, I would like once
again to express my joy and gratitude for my visit to the Czech Republic. Prior
to this journey I had always been told that it was a country with a majority of
agnostics and atheists, in which Christians are now only a minority. All the
more joyful was my surprise at seeing myself surrounded everywhere by great
cordiality and friendliness, that the important liturgies were celebrated in a joyful
atmosphere of faith, that in the setting of the University and the world of
culture my words were attentively listened to, and that the state authorities
treated me with great courtesy and did their utmost to contribute to the
success of the visit." -- Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia, December
"Life is a jest, and all
things know it, / I thought so once, but now I know it." -- Gay's Epitaph in
Westminster Abbey. 
In a favorite passage, one
of C. S. Lewis' young devils is told by a wiser mentor that a"young atheist
cannot be too careful about what he reads." That is to say, many traps are our
there for the atheist who thinks his system can cover everything. One has to
work hard at being an atheist. He has to be prudent. He has to be on his guard.
Even more than the believer, he cannot allow himself to doubt. In a way, he is
the only"true believer." Even his own reason is worrisome to him, for why,
after all, is reason reasonable? His view is by no means protected on the reason
flank, nor is the agnostic flank, when spelled out, coherent. Just not to know
one way or another still leaves the agnostic with the question of how he should
live. He relies on his reason to tell him.
The young atheist never
knows when he will run into an act of goodness that makes no sense in his
philosophical world. Nor is he immune from the horror that comes to him on
beholding a really heinous act deliberately carried out by some politician or
philosopher. His atheism may force him to be indifferent either to good or
evil, to be not surprised at either. And yet, if he asks himself which model of
life is"better," he can hardly choose the latter, the more savage one.
Atheists often claim, somewhat illogically, to live"better" lives than believers.
Seldom do they claim to live worse ones. Christians know and acknowledge that
they are sinners. The"sins" of the atheist are less straight-forward. Against
whom or what can he sin? Against himself? Against the world? Surely not God. Are
there"good" and"bad" atheists? How so?
Benedict XVI gives a
considerable amount of attention to atheists and agnostics. The relation
between modern German philosophy and modern atheism is not, after all, an
unheard of connection. In fact, philosophical atheists are much easier to deal
with intellectually than, say, Muslims or Buddhists who have fewer groundings
in reason. The pope knows the philosophical origins of modern atheism as well
as any living atheist. Actually, I think he frightens them. It must seem eerie
to have a man on the throne of Peter who thoroughly knows the atheist mind. It
takes the fun out.
And if the atheist does not
know or acknowledge this fact, it is only because, as the young devil said, he
has been very careful about what he reads. That is relatively easy to do,
namely to ignore the depths of the Christian philosophical understanding of
atheism. This is especially true in universities where certain topics are
excluded from consideration. Among these is this very issue about the coherence
of the relativist, agnostic, or atheist views.
Scholars speak of two kinds
of atheism, an ancient one and a modern one. Classical atheism was from writers
and poets like Epicurus and Lucretius. These men were not"apostolic" sorts of
atheists. Generally, they did not go out to convert anyone. Rather, they
belonged to the post-Aristotelian philosophies of withdrawal. The political and
empire world frightened them with its strangeness, loneliness, and wickedness.
They withdrew into a garden to exclude the chaotic world as best they could.
None of it made sense. Atheism was a resignation. It sought a way to survive in
quiet. A certain charm and poignancy surrounded the classical atheists. They
are well worth reading, even today.
What concerned the classical
atheists most was religion—somebody else's religion—and its claim
on their souls. The gods, with their talk of rewards and punishment, frightened
them. They preferred nothing to the fear of the gods. They were moderate and
self-controlled. They knew that excess and corruption only made what little
time on earth seem prolonged and nasty. They were cautious about love
especially as it implied commitment, unsettlement. Their goal in life was to be
unmoved, undisturbed by passing things. Nothing was to bother them. No one
could do anything about most of it anyhow. They could withdraw and live out
Modern atheism, curiously,
is much more aggressive. Like Islam, I suspect it has "Christian" origins in
this sense. The modern atheist can be an apostle. He wants to be on television
explaining the big picture to the masses, how there is no need of the
"hypothesis" of God. He evidently considers himself to have an airtight"proof"
for his position, which, to be sure, he doesn't. Many a "scientific" atheist is
a sloppy philosopher.
Paradoxically, the modern
atheist lives in a time when Big Bang theories, the anthropic principle, and
general suspicions of design in the cosmos seem to cast doubt on his world
view. This doubt comes not from the side of religion but from the side of
science, on which his whole argument rests. He can, however, as he thinks,
"demonstrate" that God does not exist. He can prove a negative. He wants to
inform the world that it has no origin or destiny, certainly none that involves
man with his special creation and destiny. He is not happy, as was Epicurus, to
withdraw and live out his life in a garden. He wants to shout it from the
rooftops. He has tenure.
Benedict, as we know, has
set a large agenda for himself. He intends to leave no one alone, including the
contemporary atheist, who sometimes seems by-passed by the ecumenical movement.
Since he claims to be a"reasonable" being, however, the atheist is no longer
free to follow the example of the ancient atheists and disappear so that he can
live his life out in such peace as he can find. He knows, as he thinks, that
there is nothing. But he wants to be sure everyone knows that he knows.
The pope told the Curia:"I
could now be tempted to say something about the beauty of the country and the
magnificent testimonies of Christian culture (in the Czech Republic) which only
make this beauty perfect. But I consider most important the fact that we, as
believers, must have at heart even those people who consider themselves
agnostics and atheists." The pope does not intend to let the agnostic and the
atheist life, in his own incoherent world, go unnoticed and un-responded to.
The pope is not concerned,
of course, with"imposing" anything on anybody except the truth, and that of
its own brightness. The pope's own knowledge of the history and attraction of
atheism comes in here. Atheists, of course,"do not want to see themselves as
an object of mission." They want to keep their"freedom of thought and will."
The atheist is never asked to give up his freedom of thought or free will.
Christianity is insistent that knowledge and will as such are good things for
everyone, including atheists. These powers need to be rightly understood and
used, but the last thing Christianity asks of anyone is to"give up" his powers
of mind and will.
"Today, in addition to
interreligious dialogue," the pope adds,"there should be a dialogue with those
to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who
nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to
him, albeit as the Unknown."
Benedict next recalls that
while he was in Paris, he spoke of the relation between Europe and monasticism.
"The quest for God (is) the fundamental reason why Western monasticism and with
it, Western culture, came into being." Atheism itself, in its own way,
participates in this heritage. The culture itself bears this mark. What
follows?"We must seek to keep this quest alive; we must be concerned that
human beings do not set aside the question of God, but rather see it as an
essential question for their lives. We must make sure that they are open to
this question and to the yearning concealed within it." This is but a Christian
version of Socrates'"examined life." Not even atheism is"worth living" if it
is not examined, however profoundly.
People, of course, can
refuse to know or want to know what they are and what really drives their
souls. They can implicitly reject anything that would seem to undermine any
confidence in that to which they have committed themselves. I suspect atheism
becomes militant and politically closed the moment it suspects the integrity of
its own roots. In his response to Jűrgen Habermas, Benedict wrote directly
to the concern of many atheists:"There are also pathologies of reason; although mankind in general is not as conscious of
this fact today. There is a hubris of reason that is no less dangerous (than
that of religion). Indeed, bearing in mind its potential effects, it poses an
even greater threat...." 
Essentially, atheism is a
"pathology of reason." Its cure is, in some sense, prayer and fasting, as the
pope suggests. But it is also in reason itself. The Church does not give up on
the integrity and consistency of reason simply because some atheists maintain
their position is the only"reasonable" one. In principle, the only cure for a
disorder of reason is ordered reason. But it may require virtue to see it and follow
In his essay on John Gay's
Epitaph, Johnson observes, in a remarkable passage:"Little follies and petty
weaknesses, of no moment in common life, may, when they enter into the
characters of men of high station, obstruct the happiness of a great part of
mankind." For Johnson, this result has happened to Gay's principle:"Life is a
jest, and all things show it; / I thought so once, but now I know it." Johnson
tells us that he is"offended" by such a passage, in such a high place. To give
it its due, Johnson thought it might be a"drunken sally," applauded after
midnight as an epigram, but the proper place for it is not Westminster Abbey
but"the window of a brothel."
Sepulchral epitaphs are
designed to edify, not confuse. Johnson cites the epitaph of Sesostris, which
reads:"Let every man who looks upon me learn to be pious." That should be the
proper effect in recalling the names of the dead. In his epitaph, Gay pictures
himself as returning from the dead to tell mankind that its life"is a jest."
This presumed insignificance
of human life brings us back to the atheist issue."Mankind, with regards to
their notions of futurity, are divided into two parties, a very small one that
believes or pretends to believe, that the present is the only state of
existence; and another, which acknowledges that, in some life come, men will
reach rewards and punishments according to their behavior in this world." This
division of mankind obviously refers to the atheist position with which we have
The epitaph tells us that
the man of whom it is written has"certainly" returned to inform us mortals
that life is but a jest. One of the classes of mankind might think this was
true and so live accordingly."But I must leave it to acuter reasoners how he
(Gay) could in that case know it
after death, being for my part inclined that knowledge ceases with existence."
If this reappearance be true, we cannot know it. But if, on the other hand, the
man thought that there were rewards and punishments, as Plato also held, then
he would think that life is more than a jest,"unless he thought eternity is a
jest." But by now, the dead man will know for sure one way or another. He most
certainly will be"undeceived" over the issue.
lines (of Gay), therefore, are impious in the mouth of a Christian and nonsense
in that of an atheist." They ought not to be in Westminster. There,"buffoonery
appears with a very ill grace, and impiety with much worse, in temples and on
tombs." Johnson explains:"A childish levity has of late infected our
conversation, but let it not make its way into our churches." There is a desire
to be hoped for, even today!
We should be careful what we
reveal of our souls."Let us have some regard to our reputation amongst
foreigners, who do not hold either fools or atheists in high reputation."
Johnson hopes that his generation can erase such epitaphs so that future
generations will not have to do so. No one wants to be thought to be either a
fool or an atheist by foreigners, who themselves, to be sure, may be either, as
the pope hints.
John Gay died in 1732. His
funeral was said to be a noble affair. He wrote the famous"Beggar's Opera,"
the remote origins of"Mack the Knife," of Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin
fame. We cannot but wonder at Gay's added lines on his own epitaph, which was
composed by Alexander Pope himself. Gay indeed thought that life was a jest,
but he does not know it. The very
fact that he still teaches his atheism in Westminster is a sign of his desire
for fame beyond his death. The countries of"atheism and agnosticism" are still
Johnson's division of
mankind remains evident: Either this life is the only state of existence or, in
some"futurity," there will be a judgment of rewards and punishments. Benedict,
following the Creed, teaches us that this latter is true, that the world is not
complete until it is judged in justice. The young atheist cannot be too careful
about what he reads."Believing" atheists are those who think their position
rests on what they call"reason." But their"reason" is not grounded until they
tell us why anything should be"reasonable" in the first place. We Christians
think, ultimately, it is because the world is created in Logos. Ultimately if he pushes his reason far enough,
consistently enough, this is what he too will find at the heart of things.
 Samuel Johnson,"On Gay's Epitaph" (1738), Samuel Johnson: The
Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 200), 51-53.
 Jűrgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, Dialectics of
Secularization: Reason and Religion (San
Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 77-78.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:
The Better We Reason, the Nearer We Come to Truth | The Introduction to
Reason to Believe: Why Faith Makes Sense | Richard Purtill
Dawkins' Delusions | An interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P. | Carl E. Olson
Professor Dawkins and the Origins of Religion | Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P. |
From God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Ratzinger
Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson
Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview
with Dr. Benjamin Wiker
The Mythological Conflict
Between Christianity and Science | An interview with Dr. Stephen Barr
The Source of Certitude | Fr. Thomas
Deadly Architects | An Interview with
Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker
The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!