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On "Believing" Atheists | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 13, 2010 | Ignatius Insight

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"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 21, 2009.

"Life is a jest, and all things know it, / I thought so once, but now I know it." -- Gay's Epitaph in Westminster Abbey. [1]


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 their days.

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...." [2]

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 it.


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 been dealing.

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.

Johnson concludes:"These 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 with us.

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.


[1] Samuel Johnson,"On Gay's Epitaph" (1738), Samuel Johnson: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 200), 51-53.

[2] 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
A Short Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
C.S. Lewis’s 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 Dubay, S.M.
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

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

Visit 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!


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