Courteous but Cowardly: Today’s Tolerant Atheism

For many college students today, to say that man is made for the knowledge (and perhaps even love) of God suggests that those who do not acknowledge God are somehow inadequate, incompetent, or ignorant. For them, such a claim amounts to condescension. This generation distances itself both from the vitriol and virulence of “the new atheists” and the naivete and fundamentalism of religionists in the pursuit of otherwise serene and humane existence.

Last spring, I taught a course at a local Catholic college. The school’s required curriculum includes a series of interdisciplinary courses on Catholic Social Teaching, which are meant to help students formulate a synthetic vision of reality in light of the Church’s understanding of civic and social engagement. The premise of my class was fairly straightforward: Catholic Social Teaching is the fruit of an argument (embodied in the tradition of Christian life, culture, and theology) that addresses realities (God, creation, the moral life, Christ, salvation, and the last things) that are necessary and urgent for all men.

In a spirit of conservative sobriety, I argued that tradition represents a kind of incarnate rationality. Against the revolutionary spirit, I echoed Chesterton: when you come to a fence in a deserted place, it is best to inquire what it’s keeping in or what it’s keeping out before tearing it down. And, as Chesterton argued further, Christianity merits this kind of scrutiny, for it has not been tried and found wanting so much as it has been found difficult and left untried. So, over the course of a semester, we conducted a whirlwind tour of Catholic history, culture, and theology, delving into the arguments of Catholic Social Teaching. The class—which contained young men and women from a variety of religious traditions on a spectrum from close adherence to no adherence—found (what they thought to be) outmoded and obscurantist teachings to be better founded than they had previously imagined.

Along the way, I expected to encounter vehement opposition, but there was very little. When there was opposition, it came at a juncture I had not expected.

Natural Law vs. Courteous Skepticism

During both the philosophical and theological sections of the course, we touched on the theme of the natural law. On the terms of the tradition in which I operate, the natural law issues from certain metaphysical facts. Basically, the human person is an embodied soul who acts in and through various faculties, and those faculties that are highest are most decisive for flourishing. In other words, the way we are made indicates the terms of our perfection. So, by virtue of our substantiality, we are inclined to the preservation of our bodily existence. By virtue of our animality, we are inclined to the procreation and education of children. And, finally, by virtue of our rationality, we are inclined to know the truth about God and to live in society.

Here, I encountered opposition. The proposal that human nature was somehow ordered or inclined to knowledge of God strained credulity. As I listened to my students, I gradually began to understand why. To say that man is made for the knowledge (and—perhaps even—love) of God suggests that those who do not acknowledge God are somehow inadequate, incompetent, or ignorant. And, for my students, such a claim amounted to condescension.

What fascinated me was that my students did not want a principled atheism so much as they wanted to carve out a space for legitimate expression of atheism as encountered among their contemporaries. Their leaning was not so much toward classical atheism as toward a kind of liberal modesty (even courtesy)—one that translated to a practical skepticism or relativism.

This sentiment is a far cry from the prominent atheism of yesteryear. Formerly, the superior atheist took it upon himself to correct the credulous religious bumpkin in a tone alternately doctrinaire and derisive. With a seductive and thrilling style, these authors captivated a faithful readership dazzled by provocative rhetoric and scientistic demagoguery.

In recent years, as my students made evident to me, the landscape has shifted. As church-going and church-knowing Westerners dwindle, the more vehement and dogmatic atheism appears not so much to have triumphed as to have overplayed its hand. Their angry protestations seem unduly earnest and even a bit fanatical to an audience that cares little for atheism as a faith claim. And so, in a strange turn of events, a new generation distances itself both from the vitriol and virulence of atheists and the naïveté and fundamentalism of religionists in the pursuit of an otherwise serene and humane existence.

Peaceful Atheism for a Tolerant Generation

John Gray’s recent work—Seven Types of Atheism—is pitched perfectly for this tolerant generation. His is a humble atheism that purports to navigate between the Scylla of atheistic furor and the Charybdis of religious folly, pointing the ship instead toward something life-affirming and actionable.

Gray assembles a pastiche of past thinkers loosely grouped into philosophical kinds and arranged genealogically alongside their conceptual kin. Paradoxically, he proceeds by diagnosing the errors and excesses of a variety of modern and contemporary atheisms. In so doing, he hopes to direct his reader’s attention to older and better forms of atheism as still valid ways of living.

In an appeal to the liberal consensus, Gray opens the discussion by consciously distancing himself from the New Atheists. They err, he asserts, by conceiving of religion as a system of beliefs and contending with it as such. Religion, he says, is not propositional or theoretical; to think so is an intellectual curiosity arising within monotheism itself. Thus, by arguing as they do, the New Atheists end up as religionists of a sort. This observation he applies more broadly. Atheism, he holds, has been too much indebted to religion, which he defines as just the corporate attempt to make sense of life. It follows that atheism fails insofar as it presumes that life is intelligible and approaches it accordingly. This notion, he argues, has to be cast off.

His reasons for rejecting religion are empirical. First, he argues, it is historically untenable. Second and more importantly, religion and its heirs, with their enthusiasm for the so-called truth, are an engine of violence. Thus, to the extent that atheism is indebted to religion, it perpetrates the same terror. And so, in the pages that follow, Gray devotes himself to discovering a more pacific manner of proceeding, which, he thinks, necessarily entails God-denial. And after surveying a broad sampling of historical atheisms, he ends up with a positive appraisal of “atheopraxis” over and against “atheodoxy.”

Seeking Right Living, Not “Truth”

Gray has an obvious admiration for George Santayana: a man who, he contends, enjoyed life and passed through it honestly, utterly unplagued by Christian specters. More important than Santayana’s thought is the equanimity of spirit he displayed before the irreducibility and plurality of human existence, never theorizing beyond his ken.

Gray also makes known his esteem for Joseph Conrad. The novelist remained largely skeptical of the value of knowledge, seeing tragedy as just the price of consciousness. Ultimately, what mattered for Conrad was nobility of character, a nobility one must conjure before the inscrutable.

In a final flourish, Gray gestures toward the prospect of what he calls the atheism of silence—one entirely innocent of overly facile God–world distinctions. And, though the contours of such a vision are ambiguously defined, Gray seems to anticipate a mystical unknowing beyond both God and no-god to which one gains access by a kind of apophatic negation.

With this eschatological hope, Gray beckons to the heir of liberal modernity with a potent appeal. In the end, he advances no substantive metaphysical claim; there are only vague Stoical or Epicurean virtues before the ill-defined transcendent. But, the casual reader is led to ask, on what basis? How can we hope for orthopraxis when it is animated only by vague circumlocutions of a murky ever-after?

An Inconsistent Prophet of No-God

Herein lies the tension inherent within all attempts at anti-foundationalism. On the one hand, there is the repudiation of all fundamental commitments. On the other hand, there is the need to discover some still point in a turning world. It is clear that Gray’s skepticism is not of the monistic, reality-denying sort. He is content to claim competence on a variety of fronts. He knows the minds of the men he treats, and the implications of their thought (at times better than they do). He claims access to the bewildering variety of irreducible human experience. He perceives the manifest sense of history and apparent tendency of nature. But how?

Throughout the book, Gray deploys a punchy and aphoristic style patterned after the likes of Nietzsche and Santayana. Here, I think, we get intimations of an answer. His strident confidence is not merely self-assured. It is oracular. His pronouncements are those of a prophet. His knowledge is revealed, whether by God or Nature. He has seen the face of no-god, and he has lived.

And so, in the end, Gray tacks perilously close to inconsistency. Though it be apophatic, he still retains grounds for certainty. But without scaffolding, edifice, or even ledge, he has nowhere from which to leap into the inky blackness of negation. Detachment, equanimity, and life-affirmation, it seems, can only be purchased at the price of revelation. It is the incapacity to acknowledge this tension that hamstrings atheisms of this sort.

Despite its dialectical inconsistencies, practical anti-foundationalism remains attractive because it serves as a theoretical proxy. If there is no metaphysical foundation, I can countenance nearly everyone’s belief in nearly anything without manifest contradiction. The only real discomfort comes with the suggestion that there is a reality beyond my mental states and that it is best for man to call each thing by its right name.

Now, if practical anti-foundationalism could operate within its own modest bounds, that would be one thing. But, almost inevitably, fundamental commitments creep in. In the absence of a stated metaphysics, each discipline—whether particle physics, evolutionary biology, or cultural anthropology—imports its own first philosophy, and often it is the more intransigent for being unacknowledged. As Gray’s work shows, all certainties must be purchased at a price, and the only way of perfect escape entails the denial of life. The destination is distant, and when the train pulls into the station, you must either board it or jump before it. To leave the station is only to defer the choice.

And so, the options remain open: admit the possibility of solid ground and vie with it honestly, or welter in the captivity of an occult preconception. To try the tradition is perilous indeed, but there are few things so perilous as orthodoxy. When I discover something meaningful, a fire may be kindled in my bones; conviction may issue in devotion, anger, violence, or zealotry. But the possibility of abuse should not preclude the exercise of freedom.

Yes, truth claims are a judgment. But what if our minds were made for precisely that? What if there were a truth out there that could dwell in my mind, or, even better, what if I could dwell in it? At the end of our semester, my students may not have been willing to concede the proposal, but they at least saw the peril of denying it.

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