Atheism in contemporary Theology

Ignace Lepp, Atheism in our time (Macmillan: NY 1963) translated by Bernard Murchland, C.S.C.

"When my sixteen year old son told me he was an atheist
I let him have it smack in the face."

- a father, in Luijpen and Koren, Religion and atheism (1971) p 11

Nor is the believer in any better position to understand the unbelief of atheists. Since the evident atheism of people he knows troubles him, he often has recourse to so-called "psychological" explanations. "If so-and-so," he tells himself, "does not believe in the dogmas of our faith, it is probably because the moral demands of religion are too difficult for him. It is because he wants to avoid such demands that he tells himself that he does not believe and little by little succeeds in convincing himself of his unbelief." Or, again, he supposes that the atheist only knows a false form of religion. For the believer, to believe seems so normal that he unquestioningly accepts the adage: "All souls are naturally Christian." And when he meets unbelievers whose moral integrity and religious knowledge cannot be contested, he speaks of "Christians who don't realize it."

We should not be surprised that this kind of pseudo reasoning irritates the unbeliever. He is convinced that his unbelief is as authentic as the belief of others; he is far from flattered when he is referred to as "a Christian who doesn't realize it." He believes himself to be and wants to be "naturally atheistic." The contemporary German writer Gerard Szczesny writes in his remarkable book The future of unbelief :

"We must overcome the ancient prejudice that man 'without God' is only a second-class citizen, able only to lead a nihilistic life that is destructive of all human order; is, in brief, a kind of diabolic apparition who betrays truth, humanity, and Christianity." And he adds with good reason: "Since the grace of God plays the dominant role in religious faith, all Christians should stop considering the absence of faith in others as a result of their bad will."

The same protest was voiced some years ago by the writer Roger Vaillant:
... For a Catholic nothing worthwhile can be foreign to God. If an honorable man is an atheist, it is because he seeks God and to seek God is already to have found Him. If he protests that he does not seek God, then that is because he seeks Him without knowing it: Providence has hidden ways. The violence of his protest is itself proof of the intensity of his secret need, for why would he be so violent if he did not feel the goad of the divine shepherd? ...

God is a vicious circle from which we cannot escape. ...
The truth is, it is impossible to argue with a Catholic.

... Similarly, only the atheist can say what atheism is. If I venture here to undertake a psychological study of atheism, although a believer, it is because at one time I, too, was an atheist, an atheist who in no way sought God until I was twenty-seven years old. All of my friends were atheists as well. 4-5

Atheism, by definition, would be the negation or the refusal of such beliefs; the "perfect" atheist would be one who believes in no being or force that transcends the empirical order.
We might ask ourselves if such an absolute atheism exists. In underdeveloped human societies, convictions and beliefs are more collective than individual and are adhered to uncritically; to reject them would be to incur social ostracism. Yet it seems that there have always been "atheists" or those individuals who pit themselves against the beliefs and the customs of the social group to which they belong. But, in the past, atheism appeared in all cases as a strictly individual phenomenon; in the majority of cases it was probably more a question of a sociological insurrection than a properly religious one. Because of the intimate relationship between society and religion, atheism almost always appeared as the denial or rejection of a well defined religion, generally the religion of the social group to which one belonged. This clarifies the apparent paradox that some of the greatest religious geniuses of mankind were accused of atheism by their compatriots and contemporaries and were condemned because of it. We need only think of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, "the drunken king of God," of Socrates, of Mohammed, of Mahatma Gandhi. Jesus of Nazareth Himself was no exception. Of most of these men it cannot even be said that they rejected the religion of their ancestors. It was rather their efforts to bring about a greater purity and authenticity of their own religious tradition that exposed them to the charge of atheism on the part of those who had defiled and corrupted it.
Contemporary atheism, at least in the developed countries of Christian civilization, is distinguished from the atheism of other times and other civilizations above all by its extension. ... The intellectuals were the first to break with traditional faith; the bourgeois followed them; then came the masses, and, finally, the peasants.
Another characteristic trait of modern atheism is that the majority of its adherents claim to be atheists, not only in respect to the beliefs of a given religion, that of the milieu to which they belong, but in an absolute manner. They renounce all gods, proclaim the absolute autonomy of man and the universe, and consider all faith the enemy of reason-which they recognize as the only criterion of truth. ...
Although intending to be absolute, modern atheism is, nevertheless, first of all an anti-Christian attitude, and in this it bears a certain similarity to other forms of atheism. It is, in fact, the Christian religion which almost all atheists see as the obstacle to their idea of man and his happiness. Even Marx and Freud, although of Jewish extraction, focus the brunt of their critiques of the sociological or psychological function of religion, not principally on Judaism but on Christianity. This is because they, too, lived in the midst of a world that pretended to be Christian, which seemed to them to have been fashioned by Christianity. ...
Even among modern atheists there are those who, in the manner of an Akhenaten and a Socrates, had as their first goal the battle against corrupt forms of Christianity; their sole desire was to restore it to its evangelical purity. But little by little, and almost imperceptibly, they came to renounce and oppose Christianity itself and, finally, religion as such. This is because the majority of them remain convinced that Christianity is the most perfect of the religions; consequently, having broken with it, there can be no question of their adhering to another religion; the only alternative open to them is total unbelief.

Certain educated atheists want to be absolute atheists. They have nothing but scorn for such ersatz mystiques as communism, nazism, fascism and others that take on a religious dimension for many people. To seek the meaning of life in a fight for a better social order is in their eyes nothing but a displacement of the ancient dream of an impossible kingdom of God, of a paradise beyond this life. They endeavor to find reasons for life and hope within the very framework of unbelief. Atheism cannot be content with being the simple negation of religious dogmas; it must elaborate its own conception of human life and become a positive reality. However, I have yet seen anything that could qualify as a positive and constructive atheism, the enemy of all religion and, if possible, still more of all ersatz religions.

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created 1jun1996, revised 20mar98     |     comments on this site? tpkunesh@atheisms.info