Atheistic faith?

Denise Lardner Carmody, "Atheistic faith?" ch. 2
in What are they saying about non-Christian faith?
(Paulist: NY 1982)

Since the eighteenth century Enlightenment, of course, Christians have had to contend with an articulate opposition to their faith. Recently, however, theologians seem to have gained greater clarity about the phenomenon of atheism than previously had been the case. Making more careful analyses, and not denying the sincerity of spiritual sensitivity of many apparent unbelievers, these theologians have opened the way to a consensus that many persons who reject organized religion may be exercising a significant faith.

So too in the case even of infra-Christian agnosticism or atheism, the case of the person brought up to belief but unable, temporarily or permanently, to assent to the traditional doctrines or pictures of God. Mary Gordon's young heroine, Felicitas Taylor, describes her own spiritual condition in such terms, showing how it has evolved from the traditional faith of Cyprian, her mother's confessor:

"And I cannot talk about God. Of all of them [Cyprian's disciples], I alone have no spiritual life. It is Cyprian's fault; he trained me too well, trained me against the sentimental, the susceptibility of the heart. So I will not accept the blandishments of the religious life; I will not look to God for comfort, or for succor, or for sweetness. God will have to meet me on the high ground of reason, and there He's a poor contender."

A prime question in the analysis of atheism, as Vatican II's document Gaudium et Spes (no. 19) implied, is whether the supposed atheist is closed to the real God. Often it is the evil in the world, or the investing of human entities with an absolute character, that prompts the "atheist's" revolt. In such cases, no real God may come into question. And what is the "real" God? Karl Rahner has centered a prolific theological career on the insight that the real God is the sovereign creative mystery present in every judgment and free act as the horizon of human consciousness. 10

Nonetheless, we can deny this primal reality. Beyond the verbal denials that the imperfect expression of the God-humanity relation in limited human terms makes almost inevitable, Rahner sees the possibility of existential, profound rejections of God. ...
So, the "atheism" to take most seriously is this core "no" to God, of which all human beings are capable. Less serious, but still potent, is the doctrinal atheism that denies conceptually the constitution of humanity by an orientation to divine mystery. Least serious, though still troublesome (because it usually confuses more than it clarifies), is the atheism that rejects the bad theology and religion that treat God as a this-worldly being.

Theodor Adorno, a founder of the "Frankfurt School" who descends from these atheistic giants [Marx, Feuerbach, and Freud], receives [Hans] Küng's limited approval, because of the truth in his charge that Christians "have not made credible the assumption of an all-bountiful God, nor have they acted in the spirit of a divine Creator and Founder, but frequently perpetrated cruelties and abominations which placed religion at the disposal of evil human instincts." (pp. 324-5)... Küng therefore implies that insofar as an atheism expresses authentic humanity by rejecting false claims, cruelties, and abominations, we can only praise it.
He also reminds us that contemporary criticism of religion (which often considers itself "atheistic") usually distinguishes Jesus from the Church: "There is one striking feature of contemporary criticism of religion. No matter how much the Church and Christendom are criticized, the person of Jesus Christ always remains beyond criticism and is even invoked as an authority against the former." (p. 325)
Finally, Küng is sensitive to the faith in the atheistic position: "Atheism, too, lives by an undemonstrable faith: whether it is faith in human nature (Feuerbach) or faith in the future socialist society (Marx) or faith in rational science (Freud)." (p 329) These atheisms are stances in reality that go beyond any warrants one can muster from empirical facts and rigorous argument.

Thus far, we have reported the tendency of recent analysts to consider "atheism" a possible extension of a praiseworthy orientation in reality ("faith"), insofar as it may express the rejection of false depictions of God or false religion. ...
Michael Buckley has reflected on the joint emergence of current atheism and a new interest in contemplation, suggesting that both the "projection" atheists and the classical contemplatives saw a need for overcoming underdeveloped, immature versions of faith. The "projection" atheists are primarily Feuerbach, Freud, and their followers who have seen religion as a false extrapolation from human needs. In their view, much religion sacrifices human development and human responsibility for the supposed enrichment of God ... (p. 685)

... More or less sophisticatedly, much current atheism continues this line of attack, analyzing religion as psychologically immature and destructive. ...
Buckley implies, therefore, that honest persons will take seriously the critiques of religious immaturity that modern atheism includes. In concert with the classical Christian contemplatives, such honest persons will try to appreciate the via negativa, the rejection of the false concepts of God and false psychic satisfactions that improperly dogmatic or emotional religion can foster.
However, atheists have their own problems, not the least of which is the pathology that a core denial of divine mystery spawns.

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