Which Atheism Do You Not Believe In?

By Carl E. Olson
Ignatius Insight

The modern atheist is, Archbishop Fulton Sheen observed in Peace of Soul, "always angered when he hears anything said about God and religion--he would be incapable of such a resentment if God were only a myth." The great Sheen likely borrowed this point from G.K. Chesterton, himself a former agnostic of sorts, who wrote, in Where All Road Lead:

“Atheism is the supreme example of a simple faith. 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.”

There has been much talk, including on this blog, about recent books by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, whose disdain for Christianity specifically and religion in general would be hard to overstate (although, it should be noted, Harris has a certain soft spot for Buddhism). Now Christopher Hitchens has entered the ring with a new book titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which is selling briskly at amazon.com (#4 as of this writing). Evangelical historian Preston Jones reviews the book for Christianity Today and points out that Hitchens using a broad and convenient brush when it comes to the subject at hand:

But then, what does Hitchens mean by religion? Under the same umbrella he groups Mother Teresa, voodoo, the pope, "fear-ridden peasants of antiquity," Muslim suicide bombers, animists, "arid monotheism," the archbishop of Canterbury, séances, Thomas Aquinas, an evangelical huckster "dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit," Muhammad, the "tawdry myths of Bethlehem," the "vapid and annoying holiday known as 'Hanukah,'" Mormons, "hysterical Jewish congregations," the "sordid" theology of Pascal, Martin Luther King, rednecks, "cobbled-together ancient Jewish books" (i.e., the Bible), WWII-era Japanese emperor worship, and male circumcision (which Hitchens describes as "mutilation of a powerless infant with the aim of ruining its future sex life").

It's true that readers would expect a review of a book titled God Is Not Great, published in a place like this, to be unfriendly. But if Hitchens had anything new and persuasive to tell us, I would say so. Alas, as the preceding paragraph suggests, we are dealing with a very intelligent and well-read author who, when it comes to "religion," is simply incapable of reason. Hitchens admires Socrates' claim to be certain only of his own ignorance. The reader wishes that Hitchens would exchange admiration for emulation. The effect of his not doing so is the feeling that one is rather in the presence of an exceedingly angry sophist, and that is sad. But it also sometimes evokes a brief giggle, as when Hitchens writes that "many religions force themselves to think of the birth canal as a one-way street, and even the Koran treats the Virgin Mary with reverence." (It must have seemed funny at the time.)

Hitchens wants to make us laugh; everyone acknowledges his skill at delivering zingers. And given his fluency and astonishing cerebral quickness, he makes for a formidable conversationalist and debater. The problem often comes when one actually pays attention to what he says. Hitchens notices that human beings have a need to worship, but he denies that anything is to be worshipped. He criticizes the Bible for not standing up to the rigors of contemporary forensics, but he knows that ancient literature is fundamentally different from government reports. (It really is absurd to critique Genesis for not mentioning plesiosaurs and pterodactyls.) Hitchens hymns the praises of the knowledge gained from the Human Genome Project, but he doesn't mention what he surely knows—that the project's leader, Francis Collins, has made his Christian commitment quite public. Indeed, Hitchens does not recognize or allude to other highly respected scientists who, like Collins, have written on the compatibility of Christian faith and scientific discovery.

Meanwhile, this recent piece from the Associated Press points out that Hichens, Harris, and Co. are being criticized "for being too militant, for not just disbelieving in religious faith but for trying to eradicate it. And who’s leveling these accusations? Other atheists, it turns out." Jay Lindsay continues:

Among the millions of Americans who don’t believe God exists, there’s a split between people such as Greg Epstein, who holds the partially endowed post of humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and so-called “New Atheists.”

Epstein and other humanists feel their movement is on verge of explosive growth, but are concerned it will be dragged down by what they see as the militancy of New Atheism.

The most pre-eminent New Atheists include best-selling authors Richard Dawkins, who has called the God of the Old Testament “a psychotic delinquent,” and Sam Harris, who foresees global catastrophe unless faith is renounced. They say religious belief is so harmful it must be defeated and replaced by science and reason.

Epstein calls them “atheist fundamentalists.” He sees them as rigid in their dogma, and as intolerant as some of the faith leaders with whom atheists share the most obvious differences.

Next month, as Harvard celebrates the 30th anniversary of its humanist chaplaincy, Epstein will use the occasion to provide a counterpoint to the New Atheists.

“Humanism is not about erasing religion,” he said. “It’s an embracing philosophy.” ....

A 2006 Baylor University survey estimates about 15 million atheists in the United States.

Not all nonbelievers identify as humanists or atheists, with some calling themselves agnostics, freethinkers or skeptics. But humanists see the potential for unifying the groups under their banner, creating a large, powerful minority that can’t be ignored or disdained by mainstream political and social thinkers.

This point about different types of atheism is an important one, but is often missed or ignored, including by many Christians. Although I don't claim to be an expert on atheism, I've rashly written some pieces about it, and this very point was one of the most important things that I learned in the process. In a 2005 piece about atheism writen for Our Sunday Visitor (based, in part, on an older article for Envoy magazine; read the entire piece here), I wrote:

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).

As Mark Brumley has hinted at and as more and more apologetically-minded folks are recognizing, Catholics and other Christians need to take seriously the philosophical and even polemical arguments made by atheists, not to so much to put more strident atheists in their place, but to show, in a variety of ways, that Christianity is not only not contrary to reason, goodness, and order, but is an essential reason why they still exist today in the face of irrationality, evil, and chaos. This means, among others things, a decent understanding of Church history and a basic grounding in philosophy, both of which can be obtained, to a large degree, through reading books and articles by authors such as Chesterton, Sheen, C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, James V. Schall, S.J., Frank Sheed, Thomas Howard, Josef Pieper, Thomas Dubay, S.M., and others.