Sunday, January 27, 2008

The problem of the good atheist

Fr. Neuhaus again, this time on atheism. Atheists have a hard time explaining why we should care about "humanity" or doing good things since life is ultimately meaningless. Enter the existentialists.

"Existentialism" gets a lot of press because it's so, well, comfortable. A basic thought-pattern of existentialism is that truth is one thing, but meaning is another. So, in atheistic terms: the truth is that human life is uncreated and finite; but we can give meaning to life by creating meaning. If I say life has meaning, then by golly, it does! Enter Father Neuhaus, commenting on popular atheist writer, Comte-Sponville:

"If we follow Comte-Sponville and reject the theological rationale for the unity of the universal and personal, can both survive? “All truth is universal,” he writes. Fair enough. But then the question follows immediately: “How can a truth belong to me personally?” His answer: “Things do not matter in and of themselves but only through the attention we bring to them and the love we bear them.” It’s a familiar and modern existentialist solution: Truth is truth, but then there is meaning, which is quite another matter. We serve truth but we make meaning. “We do not love an object because it is valuable; rather, our love confers value upon what we love.”

Perhaps Comte-Sponville will succeed in convincing his fellow atheists that humanity is to be loved even though our lives have no value. But one may be forgiven for entertaining doubts. The heyday of the modern existentialist approach was the 1930s, the decade before millions were killed in death camps, gulags, carpet bombing, and other horrors continuing into our time. It is not only in the horrors of history, however, but in the dark knowledge of our own hearts and in the irrepressible demands of reason that thoughtful people will find it implausible that the humanity we are to venerate is worthy of being venerated only because of our veneration. Andre Comte-Sponville’s “atheist spirituality” betrays a very large measure of the wishful thinking that he attributes to Christian faith.

"Comte-Sponville reminds us, however, that there is atheism and then there is atheism. This is a truth underscored by Father Ranier Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, in a recent essay:

“The world of today knows a new category of people: the atheists in good faith, those who live painfully the situation of the silence of God, who do not believe in God but do not boast about it; rather they experience the existential anguish and the lack of meaning of everything: They too, in their own way, live in the dark night of the spirit. Albert Camus called them “the saints without God.” The mystics exist above all for them; they are their travel and table companions. Like Jesus, they “sat down at the table of sinners and ate with them” (see Luke 15:2). This explains the passion with which certain atheists, once converted, pore over the writings of the mystics: Claudel, Bernanos, the two Maritains, L. Bloy, the writer J.K. Huysmans and so many others over the writings of Angela of Foligno; T.S. Eliot over those of Julian of Norwich. There they find again the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun. . . . The word “atheist” can have an active and a passive meaning. It can indicate someone who rejects God, but also one who—at least so it seems to him—is rejected by God. In the first case, it is a blameworthy atheism (when it is not in good faith), in the second an atheism of sorrow or of expiation.”

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