All modern roads lead to atheism…

All modern roads lead to atheism… September 13, 2011

On extremes of either side of the great modern ideological divide we find atheists: on the Right live the anarcho-capitalists and Randians, libertarians who worship freedom as an end in itself; on the Left we find the smug science of the New Atheists and the vitriol of Marxists. Both sides are unapologetic secularists, it’s their religion.

This fact should show, in a preliminary way, why the Church cannot be reconciled with either modern iteration. Right or Left. The Church stands on its own foundation, a foundation built before (and likely to last long after) modernity. This does not mean that Catholics can afford to sit one the sidelines during the political debates of the day.

We surely cannot become apathetic or disinterested.

But we must recognize that the quarters drawn are virtually identical to each other. We cannot forget this: all modern ideologies lead to the same, Godless conclusions. It is not so much that they go in different directions, it is that they are on the same, modern road.

In many real ways, we are on that road too. We’re in this together. There is no going back to some romantic paradise that never was. We are not quite as different as we would like to be from our atheist sisters and brothers. We are broken too. The question is, where do we turn to in our brokenness?

To whom shall we go? (Jn 6:68)

Walking down the road of very late modernity we must turn, revolve, experience the revolution of conversion (μετάνοια), again and again, for the very first and very last time. Where do do we turn to?—Towards the possibility that there is more than atheism somewhere along the way. Towards the possibility of finding God within the lasting, mysterious sign of love.

All modern roads lead to atheism, yet even that path can bring us back to Christ, through love.

Behold I make all things new. (Rev. 21:5)

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  • Virgil Evans

    Thanks Sam. That was well stated and a helpful piece.

  • brettsalkeld

    The only theism that works in modernity is the one the New Atheists rightly mock. God is one more thing among things. One more link in a chain. One more object of rational investigation.

    If only they knew what Christianity means by the term “God.” Or, better, if only they knew that they didn’t know what Christianity means by the term “God.”

    • Dan

      I don’t think Atheists have a problem with God. I think they have a problem with the belief set constructed around the idea of God.

      • It seems there’s a way to test you assertion. Let them come up with a better ‘belief set constructed around the idea of God’ and live it faithfully. The only requisite would be that the new ‘belief set’ somehow include ‘the idea of God.’

      • Dan

        You’re missing the heart of my post. The thing most atheists find unreasonable is that you assert the existence of some unknowable entity, and then construct your belief systems around some assertions by this unknowable entity (which you simply asserted exists). It’s not the existence of this unknowable entity that’s the problem, it’s the irrelevance of it.

      • Unknowable? We do have the testimony of a significant portion of the human family (past and present) that does make some claim to faith in God. Beyond that even the material world (often referred to as part of Creation) speaks wonderously to many of transcendance and beauty. Is it irrational that someone born blind could wonder at color? Now really, how can God or any person, construct, idea or even whim, be irrelevant when it occupies the thought of so much of humankind?

      • Dan

        That’s a perfectly valid argument, but the atheists don’t buy it. Ultimately, we don’t know the origins of our perceptions of beauty. It is better to admire the mystery than to try and invent an arbitrary explanation for it. To the atheist, whether God exists or not shouldn’t have any bearing on how we explain, or even participate in, the world around us. It is irrelevant. This is precisely what atheists find indefensible – that theists organize their lives and beliefs on what appears to be irrational, unsubstantiated conjecture.

      • Dan, I thought you were speaking hypothetically for an atheist position rather than giving your own perspective, I would have responded differently in my initial response.

        From the perspective of a believer one cannot personally ignore or set aside the implications of the existance of God. Everyone who values integrity must organize their life on some principle or foundation. Not surprisingly theists and atheists can share many values and goals. One of which is mutual respect.

        From my point of view I’m glad that you engage Catholics here and lay out your thoughts and concerns. I don’t know whether you’re pursuing faith or objecting to it. Either way, come and mix it up. Peace and all good.

      • Dan

        Actually, you had it closer the first time. I am a Catholic, but I’ve had enough dialog with atheists that I feel like I have a relatively good grasp on their position. Many of them assert they don’t believe in God, but when pressed on the matter, seem to be a hybrid of atheist and agnostic – they can actually accept the concept of God, but they have a major issue with the framework of theism. Ultimately, it’s a quasi-nihilistic viewpoint that God, if he exists, is completely irrelevant to our lives, and that we’re better off assuming he doesn’t exist.

        This actually is a better representation of Richard Dawkins viewpoint than what most people assume. Remember that campaign “God probably doesn’t exist, so relax and live your lives” that hit the UK earlier this year? It is very telling that even the New Atheists included the word “probably” in their campaign.

        I believe very few atheists consider it an incontrovertible truth that God doesn’t exist. They simply assume that position as it is the most accurate representation of what they stand against.

    • On the other hand, Brett, it would be great if Christians knew what they meant by the word “God.” To many have what Newman called notional knowledge–they can use the language but have not experienced God and don’t really live as though he matters that much. The great invitation is for “real” (Newman again) knowledge– an actual encounter from which one emerges with an absolute passion for practicing hard, raw, love. We think God is a proposition; God thinks God is a passionate lover.

      • brettsalkeld

        Indeed. Or again, it would be great if Christians knew what we don’t mean by the word God.

  • phosphorious

    “This fact should show, in a preliminary way, why the Church cannot be reconciled with either modern iteration.”

    I disagree: the church must reconcile itself with science. Creationism is a more pernicious enemy than an honest rationalism. The New Atheists, for all their smugness, are champions of human reason, and so less removed from the church than many on the right.

    • brettsalkeld

      Creationism is the direct result of Christians trying to reconcile the idea of God with modernity. Pre-modern Christianity would have had no struggle at all with evolution. It is only when God becomes one more thing like other things that God comes into competition with natural processes. Thomas called it primary and secondary causality. To the modern mind there is no such distinction.

      But yes, creationism is a great threat. At least the New Atheists are honest modernists. Creationists are dishonest and modernists.

      • Thanks, Brett. You answered that better than I could have.

        Sam

      • “Thomas called it primary and secondary causality. To the modern mind there is no such distinction.

        Brett, I’m not a creationist. But I am curious as to why you would conclude:

        “But yes, creationism is a great threat. At least the New Atheists are honest modernists. Creationists are dishonest and modernists.”

        I tend to see a some form of equivalence here. The Creationist accepts the primary cause (God) but rejects the secondary cause, specifically regarding evolution, mostly because in their minds it appears to negate the primary cause. (Granted its faulty reasoning, but in some primal sense they’re right). Whereas the New Atheist rejects the primary cause (God) outright, because as you’ve said, God ‘becomes one more thing like other things’.

        Please understand, I’m not trying to be antagonistic, again I’m simply curious why we hold one group in contempt and see the other sympathetically?

      • brettsalkeld

        Well, I hold certain aspects of either group in contempt. 😉

        On the other hand, most members of both groups are doing what they think is right.

        The asymmetry, it seems to me, is that the New Atheists know they are moderns and act like it. Creationists don’t seem to realize that they’re fighting the enemy with his own weapons.

        Perhaps pity is better than contempt for such as these, though pity can be hard to muster when folks get so het up.

      • phosphorious

        There is an important asymmetry here: Creationists reject human reason. The New Atheists rely solely on human reason. But these are not merely flip sides of the same coin. The atheists reject revelation. . . but of course a reasonable person, not given the gift of faith should. One can’t argue oneself into a belief in God, he must reveal himself to you. Whereas creationists reject reason. Once you do that, anything can happen.

        Bad belief is worse than honest disbelief.

      • “Creationists reject human reason.”
        Perhaps their reasoning is faulty, or they are obstinate in this particular matter. But that hardly implies they reject human reason in the main.

        “Atheists rely solely on human reason.”
        Sir, I don’t know anyone who relies solely on human reason (especially me). In fact if you examing carefully you will discover myriad ways in which atheists are unreasonable, illogical and incoherent.

        My point is why should we idealize the atheist and and demonize the creationist. It’s true that supernatural faith is a gift, but reason is a gift also. Our creationist friends may need wisdom, knowledge and understanding in superabundance; and we should pray for them. Just as we pray for the gifts of fear of the Lord, and piety to rest upon our atheist brothers and sisters. And all of us need the gift of councel and fortitude.

      • P.S. When I say the creationist needs ‘reason’ as a gift, I’m not implying that they need rational power or agility. What I’m saying is that they need the grace to adjust their spiritual paradigm of the Genesis account of creation. This is exactly what the Holy Spirit provides when we receive the gifts of wisdom, knowledge and understanding. If we see our creationist friends in this light we’ll be more apt to be tolerant and pray for them. In short we’ll see them more clearly as akin to the atheist whom we better understand.

    • Anyway “science” is not absolute: read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. “Science” is flawed knowledge, but we use that word in the way that premoderns used the term “dogma.” Every way that human beings know things is partial. One one level, phosphorious, you’re right: the Church needs to participate in scientific discourse. (This of course has been happening since the sixteenth century with figures like Athanasius Kircher and other Jesuit scientists, like those at the Vatican observatory.) But in another sense, I think, more must be said. It’s not the case that the Church has to come around and assent to all the truth claims proposed by scientists, as though every time they speak they are correct. There is development in scientific thinking as much as there is development in religious thinking; both are enhanced when they don’t close themselves off to each other.

      Example: neuroscience and spirituality.

  • Great post, Sam – it clarifies some things for me.

  • Sam:

    I like this post very much, but I don’t agree that “all modern ideologies lead to the same, Godless conclusions.” And you say almost as much in your last paragraph, suggesting that atheism isn’t the end, but rather someplace in the middle of the journey. I’ve long thought that atheists and mystics are pretty much the same people, only they express their perception differently: The atheist, seeing there is no path to God, concludes “There is no God.” The mystic, seeing there is no path to God, concludes “There is only God.”

  • Ronald King

    Sam, I think you found the answer in the last two sentences. Where there is love there is God. Or, for the atheist, where there is love there is love. That is where we all unite in peace. Where we create friction and unite in conflict is the result of wanting others to believe what we believe about the source of that love.

  • Dionysi

    At the root is s distorted sense of what it means to be a “person”. In terms of Capitalism it presents with a rabid individualism one which is destructive of the goals and aspirations of the common good. In terms of socialism the rabid individualism is replaced by a malignant collectivism in which the person is seen only in the sense of the collective and the collective operates to the cost of the common good. The idea of persons becomes even more corrupted in the definitions of juridic persons found both in American corporatate law and in the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church. In order to love, one must be a person and one must love persons, legalistic abstractions are neither lovable nor believable. Metanoia must be a true turning of the mind, not a juridic idea of paying debt or satisfaction, metanoia has at its foundation the forgiveness one of the other and the mutual absolution of debt between the person and the Divine Father (Otche Nash). How can political and theological abstractions repent? How can a juridic person forgive? Without personhood, true and meaningful, the idea of God is another intellectual exercise and since unprovable through empiric science, easily rejected off hand by those whose personhood is informed by neuroscience and evolutionary biology, Randian or Marxian politic.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    I have to ask, almost rhetorically, how you account for the waves of religiosity that regularly grip all parts of the world, including our own. It seems that would be a prima facie evidence that you have assessed modernity in a skewed fashion. Yet you are articulating a feeling many people have, and it s worth trying to account for it. The great freedoms we enjoy, essentially because of Enlightenment critiques and assertions, are by any measure closely related to the many down-sides of the Enlightenment as well. Whether you construe these downsides as leftists do a la Horkheimer-Adorno, or as rightists do a la Leo Strauss, one thing is for sure. The Enlightenment was a mixed blessing. But, so is everything else in life, so there is no surprise in that. If you demote religion from the position of sole arbiter, as the 18th Century did, then atheism is one possibility. But it is worth noting quite specifically, that Charles Taylor says in The Secular Age that the there probably were few real atheists in the 18th Century. It is, of course, much easier to hold truly atheistic views today. As an aside, Catholics (right wing ones) often seem to like the company of atheists more than the company of other Catholics, whom they invariably construe as too “cafeteria” for their particular desiderata.

    Since your article here specifically eschews a nostalgic return to anything , one can only assume that you are interested in a more realistic resolution to the matter. What could that possibly mean but a certain acceptance of the possibility of atheism as only potentially bothersome, if fanatical. Fanatical atheism, as Burkean types have been pointing out for what seems like forever, does take on a vibe similar to fanatical religion. As a believer myself, I don’t see atheism in any way as intrinsically a threat to my religious intuitions. If it were made into an aggressive political platform, then I would. but then I could say the same about various religion. Personally, I buy a view put forth by many on right and left, that the real danger of modernity is the technicalization of life, or the efficiency-making of it, that was clearly a dark possibility of modernity’s tropes. The Catholic angle on all this is that one of the good things about modern Catholicism has been the continued emphasis on philosophy, when that same efficiency of the Enlightenment, made the philosophical search-for-meaning seem superfluous. Thus, we have come full circle, and I would like to posit that the real way to make your insight work is to say this. “All modern roads lead to not taking philosophy seriously.” And a significant corollary of that is that, whatever one thinks of atheism per se, one thing is for sure. Most utterly atheistic philosophies have been very poor indeed qua philosophy. That may not say something necessarily intrinsic about atheism, but it does say something very, very important about the human imagination and religious desire. Well, thank you very much. I am really touched by it. If this were a realm of any kind of serious deliberation here, I would feel the need to apologize to you at this point. But I have come to real conclusion that this review section of this bookseller is a vast cultural free-for-all, and further that it is worth using it to make some admittedly polemical points. I well understand the PR concerns of authors, but I doubt that the very style of my writing here will encourage anyone to take them as oracular. That is, unless the polemics hit the bulls-eye and actually hint therefore at something more serious. Given your kind words here, I am inclined to think not. But the inclusion of Wendell Berry, as I said, gives real pause. As to Christian Smith, he seems to have zero personal sense of perspective, which is terrifically ironic for someone who spends his time trying to gauge the complexities of other people’s lives. His bizarre comments to me only confirmed that impression. He has reacted to my self-evidently silly reviews in an almost Pavlovian manner. This to me only told me that I was really on to something. Namely that we are dealing here with a either unwitting, or sub rosa religious agenda or real rigidity or, as I said, real paranoia. And certainly to have written a book, as he did, arguing that the “decline of religion” is attributable to some conspiracy of some elite group, is an indication of profound confusion about the nature of historical accuracy. And, yes, as a gay man, when I put this together with the horrible campaigns of the Catholic Church and some evangelicals and Christian Smith’s seeming work as undergirder for their viewpoints, I smell a rat.

    At any rate, even from my bad and flippant review, it must be apparent that I acknowledge there is a lot of “relevant” material in the book. And I meant it. The book seems to raise a lot of interesting questions about young people. So let me confirm Christian Smith’s conspiratorial side and give the book a “secret” five stars. Just between you and me. Thanks again.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    I have to ask, almost rhetorically, how you account for the waves of religiosity that regularly grip all parts of the world, including our own. It seems that would be a prima facie evidence that you have assessed modernity in a skewed fashion. Yet you are articulating a feeling many people have, and it s worth trying to account for it. The great freedoms we enjoy, essentially because of Enlightenment critiques and assertions, are by any measure closely related to the many down-sides of the Enlightenment as well. Whether you construe these downsides as leftists do a la Horkheimer-Adorno, or as rightists do a la Leo Strauss, one thing is for sure. The Enlightenment was a mixed blessing. But, so is everything else in life, so there is no surprise in that. If you demote religion from the position of sole arbiter, as the 18th Century did, then atheism is one possibility. But it is worth noting quite specifically, that Charles Taylor says in The Secular Age that the there probably were few real atheists in the 18th Century. It is, of course, much easier to hold truly atheistic views today. As an aside, Catholics (right wing ones) often seem to like the company of atheists more than the company of other Catholics, whom they invariably construe as too “cafeteria” for their particular desiderata.
    Since your article here specifically eschews a nostalgic return to anything , one can only assume that you are interested in a more realistic resolution to the matter. What could that possibly mean but a certain acceptance of the possibility of atheism as only potentially bothersome, if fanatical. Fanatical atheism, as Burkean types have been pointing out for what seems like forever, does take on a vibe similar to fanatical religion. As a believer myself, I don’t see atheism in any way as intrinsically a threat to my religious intuitions. If it were made into an aggressive political platform, then I would. but then I could say the same about various religion. Personally, I buy a view put forth by many on right and left, that the real danger of modernity is the technicalization of life, or the efficiency-making of it, that was clearly a dark possibility of modernity’s tropes. The Catholic angle on all this is that one of the good things about modern Catholicism has been the continued emphasis on philosophy, when that same efficiency of the Enlightenment, made the philosophical search-for-meaning seem superfluous. Thus, we have come full circle, and I would like to posit that the real way to make your insight work is to say this. “All modern roads lead to not taking philosophy seriously.” And a significant corollary of that is that, whatever one thinks of atheism per se, one thing is for sure. Most utterly atheistic philosophies have been very poor indeed qua philosophy. That may not say something necessarily intrinsic about atheism, but it does say something very, very important about the human imagination and religious desire.

  • Ronald King

    It really hit me at this moment, people are suffering and dying while I sit here in my cozy chair and take an interest in philosophical constructs which do nothing more than entertain me. My life has been selfishly lived while thinking that I have done something good because God has put me into a position where some good work has been accomplished. I am an atheist as long as I do not give up my life to follow Him. I am an atheist as long as I remain within the limits of what feels comfortable and sane, as long as I put my family, my friends, my job, my security, my home, my church, my beliefs ahead of Him. I am fragmented, the world is fragmented. I create limits where I go and what I do and rationalize that I am doing God’s work. I must let go of my desire to read these blogs anymore. There is no action in reading and no action in writing. I am sick to the depth of my soul at this realization.

    • brettsalkeld

      Aww, Ronald. And I was just planning a post on how writing is good for the soul.

      Not that you don’t have a point. It can be just intellectual masturbation – self-directed and community destroying – rather than lovemaking.

    • Mark Gordon

      Ronald, I’ve wrestled with this. I think a lot of people who indulge in the kind of intellectual parlor games one encounters in the blogosphere find a sort of practical atheism creeping into their lives. God becomes more and more of an abstraction, your prayer life withers, and everything seems to be up for grabs. I brought this problem to my spiritual director once, and he strongly recommended … actually, he ordered me to spend an hour in direct service to others for every hour I spend reading or writing, and to put my prayer commitment before everything else. It was really helpful advice that opened up whole new dimensions of faith and devotion that I never really understood tucked away in my own “cozy chair.”

  • Rodak

    Ronald King poses the crucial question: Is it really possible to lead a conventional, bourgeois life and also call oneself a disciple of Christ? I have no doubt at all that one can do so and call oneself a Catholic, a Lutheran, or a Methodist. But a disciple? To me, that is not a given.