A Short Introduction to Atheism

By Carl E. Olson
Ignatius Insight

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 II’s 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 19).

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 members.

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 man’s autonomy and his ability to achieve earthly utopia.

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 God’s nonexistence), methodological atheism (claiming theists fail to give sufficient proof for God’s 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 God’s 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 man’s ability to know whether God exists or not, are often scorned by staunch atheists, such as the infamous Madalyn Murray O’Hair, 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 isn’t 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, doesn’t 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).

Practically Atheist

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 concrete reality."

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 21).