Christmas Atheists

Over the last two weeks, leading American atheists have registered complaints about all the attention given to Christmas in the United States. These atheists have issued three challenges. First, they insist that being atheist does not mean being immoral. Second, they want other people to see that atheists are law-abiding, compassionate, and generous to others—that one does not have to be Christian or to feel “the Christmas spirit” to care for the poor and the needy. Third, they insist that monotheists have a harder time being tolerant of others than atheists do. Atheists, they think, are more humble, tolerant, and sweet-tempered; since monotheists think that they “have” the truth, and know God’s will, they are more stiff-minded. In my own experience, though, many different belief systems are found among people who call themselves atheists. Here is just a small collection:

One. Those rationalists who believe in science, rationality, and truth, and who abhor relativism and nihilism, and who have very firm moral principles grounded in reason itself — but who see no evidence for the existence of God, neither for the theism of the ancient Greeks and Romans nor the personal God of Judaism and Christianity. They might wish that they could believe in God, but their intellectual conscience will not allow them to.

Two. Those relativists and nihilists who do believe, as Nietzsche warned, that the “death of God” has also meant the death of trust in reason and science and objective rules of morality. Such atheists, therefore, may for arbitrary reasons choose to live for their own pleasure, or for the joy of exercising brute power and will. This is the kind of moral nihilism that communist and fascist regimes depended upon, to justify the brutal use of power. It appears, also, to be the kind of atheism that Ayn Rand commended.

Three. Those who do not believe in the personal God who heeds prayers, and is concerned about the moral lives of individual human beings — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. Instead, some who call themselves atheists actually do recognize a principle of intelligent order and even awe-inspiring beauty in the natural world. They also believe in a kind of primordial energy or dynamic power, which pushes along, for example, evolution and the potentiality of human progress. They are at about the same stage in thinking about morality and metaphysics as the ancient Greeks.

Four. The “Methodist atheists” — those who maintain all the qualities of niceness and good moral habits and gentle feelings associated with the followers of Wesley down the generations, but do so without believing in God. In other words, they remain indebted to inherited Christian moral sentiments, even while they seldom or never darken church doors. They have come to think that believing in God is a little like believing in Santa Claus. They have outgrown the metaphysics, but not the ethics.

Five. The merely practical atheists — that is, those who by habit remain members of a religious faith, and who share a certain pietas regarding their family gods, and continue going to church according to the old routines, but whose daily behavior and speech show that they actually live as if God does not exist. Their religiousness is formal, routine, empty — or very nearly so. Indignantly, they may insist that they are not atheists, a term they probably associate with #2 above.

Six. Those like Friedrich von Hayek, who wished he could be religious but confessed that he seemed to have no “ear” for it, just as some people have no ear for music. He felt he was an atheist by defect.

Some years ago I read a book on atheism, by a devout atheist (if that is the right word), who had found to his surprise that a large majority of those Americans who call themselves atheists actually believe in some more-than-human power, force, intelligence in all things. This is a position not altogether unlike the ancients (and the moderns) described in #3 above. The ancients did not call such persons atheists, but held them to be theists, albeit under a vague and unclear sort of deity, but intelligent and powerful and drawing all things toward the good.

Richard Rorty, acclaimed at his recent death as America’s most famous public philosopher, sometimes called himself “a nihilist with a smile.” That is, he had rejected classical rationalism, such as that described in #1 above. He recognized that our minds do aspire to rationality. Yet we find that the world of our experience, when looked at “all the way down,” is undeniably chaotic, sometimes cruel, and most of all meaningless. The world has no rational foundations. It just is. A bit of a “tale told by an idiot.”

On the other hand, in his ethical commitments Rorty never could shake the Christian dreams of his forebears. Not so long before his death he spoke of his hazy vision of the future and his sense of the holy. “My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that someday my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law.” Thus, Rorty is a prime example of #4 above; except that his utopia is a bit rosier than the evidence for Original Sin will allow most Christians to indulge in.

In any case, there seems to be a high proportion of atheists today whose lives are as nice and moral as Hallmark greeting cards. Some of them may dislike Christianity intensely. As the world goes, however, the ethical practices of a certain number of them — all the way up the scale from mere sentiments, to effective personal help to the poor, and to heroic self-sacrifice — are more in tune with Jewish/Christian ethics than with any other on this planet.

Thus, in answering the challenges put to Jews and Christians by atheists this season, we may concede that nonbelievers may well find in the law “written in their hearts” and recognizable by reason alone a quite decent moral code, and in ancient and modern moralists among pagans some good guidance for living rather good moral lives. Not, for the most part, saints, just good people; though among them, for sure, are some “secular saints,” of the kind observed by Albert Camus in his novel The Plague.

We may concede, even, that some atheists live better moral lives than some of those who attend Christian churches. Some of the latter may live “as if there is no God” to a greater degree than some atheists.

The only kind of atheist whose morals all of us have a right to suspect are those in #2 above: the nihilists. These are people who, as Samuel Adams wryly noted, have no first principles to prevent them from betraying their spouse — or their country. Whatever they need to do is their first principle. These are the ones of whom Dostoevsky wrote: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” G. K. Chesterton is often quoted as saying of such persons: “Those who say they do not believe in God do not believe in nothing. They believe anything.” They seem especially prone to the latest cultural hoaxes, such as imminent global freezing (“nuclear winter”) or imminent global warming.

As for the charge that those who believe in one God, the Creator who fashioned the laws of nature (“the laws of nature and nature’s God”), find it more difficult than the atheist to be tolerant, three replies are available. The first is this: Have you ever measured on the Hatred Scale the way in which atheists speak disdainfully of “deluded” Christians and Jews? Tolerance? Many do not grant even the basic respect due all intelligent and responsible human individuals — the respect of dealing with an intellectual equal.

Second, the two regimes in our time that tried totally to control thought and conscience, and were the most intolerant in history, called themselves — and were — atheist regimes.

Third, those humans who can see that some things belong to Caesar, and some to God, have an iron-sided reason to resist the tyranny of the State, on one hand, and to resist the overweening ambitions of any priestly caste, on the other. Also, seeing clearly the infinity of God’s wisdom and the puniness of their own, Jews and Christians have every reason to be humble of mind, and respectful of the truth in the mind of others, since all humans are made in the image of God, each a partial refraction of his infinite wisdom. As Reinhold Niebuhr counseled Christians: Recall that in your own truth there is always some error, and in the errors of your current opponents, some truth. Each believing Jew and Christian has solid religious grounds for being respectful of the truths uttered by others, and humble about the degree of knowledge each of them has so far attained. No one of us “has” the truth. All of us, with very limited minds indeed, are held accountable under its infinite light.

The Christmas season is a good time, then, for atheists and believers alike to meditate upon their own limitations, and to listen more respectfully to one another; each has something to learn from the other. It is a suitable time for this, because the greeting of Christmas peace was intended for all who faithfully seek the good, as best their conscience shows it to them.

Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis: Peace on earth to all humans of good will!

Published in National Review Online January 4, 2009