An atheist is a man who lives without God. If he persists in this state, atheism truly becomes a way of life. It is not possible to formulate a single, comprehensive definition of atheism that will cover all cases equally and adequately. The very term is analogical and the notion is realized in actual historical instances only with important variations. After presenting an historical survey, this article discusses three principal types of atheism, and various theological responses to atheism in the distinctively modern situation.
Historical Survey. Statements of an atheistic character are traceable as far back as the pre–Socratic philosophers, while there are indications of at least a practical atheism in primitive tribes discovered by European explorers in Brazil in the 16th century. It was not until the 18th century, however, that explicit and energetic formulations of atheistic doctrine were attempted, as part of a general attack on Christianity and the sociocultural order with which it had become identified.
Greco-Roman antiquity. If there were expressions of atheism in Greco-Roman antiquity, these were for the most part directed against the prevailing civic religions or the popular polytheistic superstitions of the masses. The earliest philosophers did not clearly distinguish matter and spirit, so that it is somewhat inappropriate to accuse them of a MATERIALISM that would be incompatible with belief in divinity, in unequivocal terms. After Socrates it was not uncommon for philosophers, and especially poets, to be suspected of atheism and impiety, but this generally meant a skeptical or critical attitude toward the debased religious practices and fantastic myths on which the populace thrived. Alongside a proliferation of magical and superstitious creeds and rites, there actually developed among the Stoics a purer and more refined notion of a supreme Deity. Pantheism was prominent well into the imperial era of Rome, but there were some signs of a personal approach to a God who was regarded as benign and providential.
It seems clear that ancient proponents of atheism were more concerned with overthrowing moral principles and conventional ideas of right and wrong based on a belief in the gods than with denying absolutely the reality of the divine. The Epicureans in particular, who are most commonly regarded as atheists, did not reject the gods as nonexistent, but taught that men should not fear them and that moral standards must be derived from considerations of man's welfare and happiness and not from the alleged decrees of divine beings. Lucretius' De rerum natura may be atheistic in tone and inspiration, but it was intended to be primarily a treatise of a new, radically immanentist humanism. The note struck at this early date, many centuries later signaled the arrival of an unabashed atheism, the sweeping away of every vestige of belief in an order not imposed or controlled by and for mankind itself.
Sources of Modern Atheism. The traces of atheism in the Middle Ages are too faint and uncertain to merit consideration. It may be noted that as early as the 13th century forces of irreligion were in evidence in the intellectualPage 823 | Top of Article as well as in the political and social orders. When atheism made its unequivocal appearance, it had behind it several centuries of a falling away from the Christian faith and the gradual construction of a way of life from which religion was increasingly excluded. The 16th century witnessed for the first time in the history of Christendom men who openly professed contempt for the faith of Jesus Christ and still maintained positions of public respect and trust, at least in some parts of Europe. Contemporary documents, including citizens' petitions and reports of official commissions, indicate that the 17th century saw the diffusion of anti-Christian ideas and irreligious movements and societies in England, France, the territories of Spain, and Italy. It was not until the 19th century that atheism managed to capture the allegiance of leaders in public life as well as in the arts and sciences. For this full-blown atheism the way was cleared in three stages: (1) libertinism or freethinking, in the 17th century; (2) deistic and anti–Christian naturalism, in the 18th century; and (3) materialistic scientism, after 1750 and well into the 19th century.
The self-styled FREETHINKERS or libertins appeared first in France, hard upon a period of ideological strife and chaos that covered the closing decades of the 16th century with a pall of SKEPTICISM. There was a concrete effort to "liberate" reason from faith and morals from the influence of religion. In England the freethinkers were even more outspoken and published numerous works calculated to undermine Christian belief and to substitute for it a cult of humanity and a thoroughly laicized social order. Throughout the 18th century, atheism attracted adherents and fervent supporters among the philosophes and advocates of revolutionary upheaval, as well as the champions of a materialistic view of man and of the universe. The French ENCYCLOPEDISTS counted several atheists in their number; but in some instances it is not easy to distinguish outright atheism from other positions, ranging from virulent rejection of the supernatural to pantheism, deism, and agnosticism. The 18th century closed with Kant's attack on metaphysics and the power of natural reason to attain an objective and certain knowledge of God. Concomitant with this, there developed a heightened sensitivity to the misery and suffering of mankind and a corresponding desire for man to find, by his own efforts and here in this life, satisfaction of all his needs and an existence free of all pain and want.
Modern Atheists. At the head of the 19th century stands the figure of G. W. F. HEGEL. To his intellectual posterity Hegel bequeathed a vision of human history caught in the snares of an impersonal ABSOLUTE that would subsequently be misapprehended as the Living God of Christianity. The vision was intolerable, and, to some, atheism seemed the only viable alternative. They were trapped in this impasse by their rejection of Christian faith. Henceforth atheism was embraced as the only way to preserve men's rights and liberties: enlightenment had to be godless, in opposition to the forces of reaction and ignorance in league with the old religion (see HEGELIANISM AND NEO–HEGELIANISM).
In the mid-19th century Karl MARX declared religion to be the "opium of the people" and proposed atheism as the cornerstone of a brave new edifice of humanity transformed by total revolution. His was a war cry, in the name of the downtrodden proletariat, against belief in a God who provides for His creatures and in behalf of a new order in which individuals would provide for themselves (see MATERIALISM, DIALECTICAL AND HISTORICAL).
Marx's atheism was scientistic, at least in part, and materialistic; Nietzsche's was lyrical and romantic, a paean of praise of the superman of the future. F. W. NIETZSCHE lashed out against the "slave morality" of Christianity and exhorted whoever could to go beyond the distinction between good and evil and to decide his own future for himself in complete autonomy. Nietzsche left to the 20th century the twofold boast that God is dead and that hereafter man is completely free; for him, the possibilities for human achievement were unlimited.
Both scientistic and romantic atheism continued in the 20th century, but a new and profoundly disturbing voice was heard as well. J. P. Sartre was representative of a new brand of atheism that was deeply skeptical and pessimistic and at times collapsed into sheer NIHILISM. Existentialist atheism agreed that God is dead, but doubted seriously that this liberates man in any sense other than that of leaving him alone and overwhelmed in an absurd universe filled with peril and dread (see EXISTENTIALISM).
Vatican II and Atheism. The problem of atheism was faced several times by the popes of the 20th century, especially by Pius XI (Divini Redemptoris), Pius XII (Ad Apostolorum Principis), John XXIII (Mater et magistra) and Paul VI (Ecclesiam suam). Quite naturally the problem of atheism was also brought to the attention of the Fathers of Vatican II, who dedicated an important section of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World to the study of the different types of atheism, to their causes, and to the answers the Church should give to them (Gaudium et spes 19–21). The Council does not provide a systematic division of the different species of atheism. It speaks of two forms of atheism which take "a systematic expression": the humanistic atheism of the Western world, grounded on the assumption of the incompatibility of man's freedom and dignity with religious belief; and the materialistic atheism associated withPage 824 | Top of Article communism, grounded on economic and social criteria (ibid. 20). But it is clear that not all the forms of systematic or theoretical atheism can be reduced to these two. As a matter of fact there are many more; and almost all the species of atheism mentioned by the Council (skeptical, agnostic, scientific, positivistic etc., ibid. 19) belong to the systematic or theoretical type.
Vatican II identified several causes of modern atheism. (1) The mystery of God: this leads some people "to believe that man can assert absolutely nothing about him." (2) Fallacious methodologies: "Others use such a method so to scrutinize the question of God as to make it seem devoid of meaning. Many, unduly transgressing the limits of the positive sciences, contend that everything can be explained by this kind of scientific reasoning alone." (3) False humanism: "Some laud man so extravagantly that their faith in God lapses into a kind of anemia, though they seem more inclined to affirm man than to deny God…. They claim that this [human] freedom cannot be reconciled with the affirmation of a Lord who is author and purpose of all things." (4) Religious deviations: "Some form for themselves such a fallacious idea of God that when they repudiate this figment they are by no means rejecting the God of the Gospel." (5) The problem of evil: "Atheism results not rarely from a violent protest against the evil of this world." (6) Hedonism and materialism: "Modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God … because it is excessively engrossed in earthly affairs." (7) The scandals of the believers: "To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrines, 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" (ibid.).
Types of Atheism. The man for whom atheism is a way of life may be found to (1) deny in fact, by the way he lives, the God in whom he professes to believe, or (2) believe, in spite of himself, in the God in whom he thinks he does not believe, or (3) deny, knowingly and in reality, the true God. These three types may, in J. Maritain's terminology, be designated respectively as (1) the practical atheist, (2) the pseudo–atheist, and (3) the absolute atheist.
Practical Atheism. The practical atheist is perhaps the most common and certainly the most curious, because he is not only unaware of his atheism but would almost infallibly deny it if it were called to his attention. For this type of atheism is grounded in lifestyle: it is as significant of character and personality as any other single physical or mental trait. What is true of every atheist as such—that he lives without God—is verified in a striking manner in the practical atheist. Practical atheism evidently entails a set of moral standards, a code of ethics that flatly ignores the force of the precepts of the divine and natural moral law. A completely naturalistic moral code guides the practical atheist in his actions only to the extent that he finds in the code a ready justification. Every sinner may be acutely and even painfully aware of his terrible isolation. The practical atheist is neither conscious of, nor disturbed by, the absence of God from his life.
Pseudo-Atheism. The pseudo-atheist is willing to be called an atheist because he denies and repudiates the gods he knows other men worship. He knows of no other god, none he finds understandable or is willing to love and serve. Yet in his heart he yearns for the presence of the God of life; he may even search for years, drawing ever closer to the Unknown God, while continuing to proclaim his unbelief in the ghosts and shadows other men take for God. Life must be lived without God, because God is nowhere to be found. At least He is unrecognizable in these absurd substitutes and surrogates that men falsely endow with His sacred name. The pseudo-atheist has never sufficiently known the true God, whereas the practical atheist has chosen to ignore God and to eject Him effectively from his thoughts and his way of life. In his contacts with the practical atheist, the pseudo-atheist may be chagrined and scandalized by the contradiction between lip service to divinity and the flouting of standards of human decency.
Absolute Atheism. Radical and absolute atheism, that of a life from which God has been consciously and consistently excluded, is not only possible, it is actual. For the absolute atheist the denial of God is the natural and indispensable corollary of the positive affirmation of himself, of humanity focused and concentrated in his own person as his solitary concern and ultimate end. The absolute atheist has much in common with the practical atheist, but the two types should not be confused. The practical atheist almost never thinks of God, and when he does, his thoughts are characteristically fleeting and vague, without personal impact. The absolute atheist, however, may think of God often, but only the more firmly and resolutely to shut Him out of his life and to deepen his attachment to the values that have usurped the place of God.
Christian Response. Atheism has been recognized as a phenomenon that requires a response from all believers. The Church's pastoral concern for the growing phenomenon of world atheism prompted Paul VI to establish the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Believers in 1965. John Paul II in 1993 joined this official body with the Pontifical Council for Culture. The council, composed of bishops and experts in various fields, is charged with establishing dialogue with those who do not believe inPage 825 | Top of Article God, provided that they are sincerely open to cooperation. For the problem of the evangelization of the atheists, the main positions taken by Christian philosophers and theologians can be reduced to four.
Adaptation. According to a small group of authors who received great publicity immediately after Vatican II, under the name of theologians of "the death of God" (see DEATH OF GOD THEOLOGY), atheism is to be taken very seriously, since in modern culture there is no longer any rational motivation for believing in God. Modern man is honestly an atheist. Therefore, according to these theologians, the best strategy in the present situation is to adapt the Gospel to his atheistic understanding of reality, by eliminating from the Christian message and from Christian life in general, the whole religious, supernatural, and divine aspect, and by stressing on the contrary its content on a humanist level, showing, at this level, how Christianity is superior to any other interpretation of reality. As St. Paul became a Jew with the Jews and a Greek with the Greeks, so the preachers of the 20th century must become atheists with atheists, abandoning "the religious hypothesis." Even when this hypothesis is dropped, Jesus has sufficient prerogatives (his love for others, his complete dedication to his neighbor, his perfect freedom etc.) to win man's confidence, obedience, faith, and complete surrender. He has still sufficient claims to be considered the savior of mankind. This strategy of an "atheistic" (nonreligious) proclamation of the Gospel to an atheistic and secularized world was initially proposed by the Lutheran theologian and martyr of Nazi persecution, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was then followed and promoted by such"death of God" theologians as Altizer, van Buren, and Robinson. After a short, passing success it was recognized that the strategy of "historical compromise" between Christianity and atheism is a failure and extremely self-defeating. In the concern (certainly a legitimate one) to make the Gospel intelligible to modern man, this compromise mutilates it in its most essential element—precisely in the religious, ultra-mundane, transcendent, sacred, divine element. The originality of Christ and the quality that rendered him capable of being the savior of mankind is not just that of being a supremely free man, or a man completely dedicated to others (man-for-others), but his identity of being the Son of God.
Confrontation. According to some authors the only valid strategy of the Church in the face of atheism is frontal counterposition. Atheism is seen as the extreme expression of man's pride, the most detestable aberration of reason and heart, since only a madman or a fool can proclaim that God does not exist or that"God is dead." Therefore for a believer it is impossible to come to an agreement with atheism; it is impossible even to start a dialogue for the atheist's motivations cannot be justified nor his perspectives and language accepted. Atheism is the number-one enemy of mankind. The first condition for mankind to be able to receive the message of salvation is to abandon atheism and the human idolatry which is masked under the attractive mantle of secular humanism. Salvation is possible for the atheist only on the condition that he is converted and professes the most complete and unconditional submission to God. Among the most authoritative assertors of this strategy were Barth and Brunner, two of the major exponents of 20th-century Protestant theology, and such Catholic thinkers as Maritain, Molnar, and Del Noce.
This strategy seems too drastic to many people. It forgets that every error contains at least a kernel of truth that must be patiently picked out and carefully preserved. In the second place, while admitting that to embrace the Gospel a deep conversion is always necessary, it must be clarified that this conversion does not entail sacrifice of everything human, as Barth claims. Humanity is living today under the sign of the Cross and many human achievements are in conformity with God's plan. Finally, it is necessary to distinguish between atheists and atheism. While atheism must be criticized and rejected with firm resolution, it is necessary to show the greatest understanding for atheists.
Integration. According to other theologians the most effective and appropriate strategy is that which does not eliminate either the originality of the Gospel or the reality of atheism, but tries on the contrary to preserve them both by integrating atheism into Christianity. The attempt to reach this goal consists in reducing the significance of atheism: by showing the atheist that his own view of the world, of history, of society, of man, of science, of politics etc., if developed consistently, does not exclude God at all, but, on the contrary, logically, leads to Him, to His plan of salvation, to the liberation, the love, the divinization that Jesus Christ alone makes possible. There are three main versions of this strategy of integration: the scientific one of TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, the political one of the theologians of Latin America (Gutierrez, Assmann, Boff, etc.), and the metaphysical one of Tillich and Rahner. The first version tries to integrate into the Gospel the scientific doctrine of evolution (generally professed by scientific atheism). The second adopts the political doctrines of Marxism. The third tries to make the Gospel emerge from the idealistic metaphysics of man, conceived as an infinite capacity for self-transcendence.
The positive aspects of this strategy are obvious. It is capable of entering into dialogue with scientists, philosophers, artists, politicians who do not share a religious belief; it manages to appreciate their ways of understandingPage 826 | Top of Article and explaining things, their social, economic, and political initiatives, their dynamism, their determination to improve our society, to change the world. But the strategy also raises serious reservations: it seems too optimistic, since it establishes a natural bridge between metaphysics, science, and politics on the one hand, and the Gospel on the other hand, ignoring the absolute qualitative difference that distinguishes God from man. In the second place, by establishing a natural, logical connection between science, politics, metaphysics, and the Gospel, it eliminates the perfectly gratuitous, absolutely new and unforeseeable character of God's plans and His intervention for the salvation of mankind by grace.
Double Conversion. According to some authors atheism implies a double distortion, namely, of the natural order and of the supernatural order. Consequently, of an atheist they require a double CONVERSION: (1) on the natural level, a conversion of mentality, which will cause him to embrace a more open view of things, so as to make room for a transcendent reality; (2) on the supernatural level, a conversion to the work of salvation that God accomplishes in Jesus Christ. A first conversion at a natural level is required because the Gospel is the proclamation of the Good News that God has saved mankind in Jesus Christ. Now, this proclamation will continue to seem absurd, aberrant, and stupid as long as the convert remains completely shut up in himself and does not recognize any other reality except the "this-wordly" one or any other action except one that man himself carries out in history. So, a conversion of viewpoint, a change of mentality is required in the first place, to lead man to confess his own finiteness and, at the same time, to recognize his capacity for overcoming it not only horizontally but also vertically. Then he will be ready to enter into dialogue not only with his fellowmen but also with other beings superior to him, should he perceive their existence.
At this point, with the help of God's grace, the phase of the second conversion will begin: the phase in which the Gospel will no longer be considered as a fairy tale, an absurd story or mere myth, but as the truth that brings freedom and the restoration of interior health, and fills his heart with joy, since "only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light" (Gaudium et spes 22). Among the most brilliant supporters are J. Miguez Bonino, H. urs von BALTHASAR, Richard NIEBUHR, and Henri de LUBAC.
This theory is apt to safeguard both the originality of the Gospel and the necessity of a rational basis for Christian faith. It is also fully consistent with the teachings of Gaudium et spes, which does not simply invite the atheist "to examine the Gospel of Christ with an open mind" and to gladly accept it (second conversion) but also requires from him to reject all those prejudices and fallacious methodologies that prevent him from seeing that the recognition of the reality of God does not cause any damage to the nobility and greatness of man (first conversion).
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