The Unbelievers: An overview of ‘religious atheism’
In his apostolic exhortation on evangelization, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote about the centrality of dialogue with the world for evangelization. We must dialogue, he insisted, even with those who hold erroneous views, because they possess insights that are gifts for us as well. In that spirit, I review here several works of “religious atheism,” books whose unbelieving authors take religion seriously. I do so in the hope of exploring the possibilities of dialogue with a qualitatively different breed of atheist than the polemical atheists of the first decade of the century.
Religion in Question
For many years Thomas Nagel has been a leading figure in American philosophy. In his later years, he has become a gadfly to his fellow philosophers. His deconstruction of scientific materialism as the de facto metaphysic of contemporary science and Western culture (Mind and Cosmos, 2012) was a cause célèbre among American intellectuals. No less a challenge to contemporary philosophy was Nagel’s charge, in his 2005 essay entitled “Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament” and a 2007 book of the same name, that the discipline had turned its back on one of the classic tasks of philosophers—to help people make sense of their lives.
Nagel’s “religious temperament” consists in the desire to make a whole of our lives, including integrating them with the cosmos. After a review of modern philosophers, Nagel concludes that an “evolutionary Platonism” would best satisfy that need. He favors Plato for the aspirational (transcendental) element in his philosophy; and from Darwinism, the accepted scientific view of modern culture, he makes the human ascent part of the cosmic story.
Reading the tentative conclusion of his argument, I naturally thought of Teilhardian spirituality, which can surely be described as an evolutionary Platonism. But apparently Teilhard was not within Nagel’s intellectual horizon, for Nagel makes no mention of him. He makes no attempt, moreover, to explore how other religious thinkers may have developed a similar holistic system of thought. Instead, without real explanation but only a couple of conditional dismissals, he walks away from the question he has so ably explored. Given the remaining options—atheism, humanism and the absurd—Nagel cavalierly responds, “The absurd has my vote.”
But in Mind and Cosmos, Nagel took up the question of transcendence once again. He argued for the insufficiency of the Neo-Darwinian point of view and admitted “teleological elements” are necessary to understand our place in the universe. But once again he demurred, saying, “In the present intellectual climate, such a possibility is unlikely to be taken seriously.”
Nagel signaled a discontent among nonbelieving philosophers with the dry agnosticism that had become the orthodoxy of their profession. In Ronald Dworkin’s last book, Religion Without God (Harvard, 2013) the late legal and political philosopher professed a belief in “the mystery and beauty of life” not explained by scientific naturalism. Nonetheless, he held that one might accept the mystery without positing the existence of God. For Dworkin “religious atheism” is not an oxymoron. Atheists are religious when they wonder at the mystery of life and make a meaningful whole of their own lives. As with Nagel, Dworkin demonstrates no interest in what contemporary religious thinkers might have to say. There is no dialogue with theology or religious intellectuals more broadly.
Doing Without God
In addition to philosophical arguments for taking religious longings seriously, like those of Nagel and Dworkin, there have been rich studies of how philosophers and others have filled the cultural lacunae created by the loss of religious faith. One of the earliest and most influential was Alain de Botton’s popular Religion for Atheists (2012). De Botton, a practical philosopher and essayist, identified a range of enjoyments that, in their dismissal of organized religion, atheists denied themselves. They included music, including the joy of singing with others, art, architecture, community and festivity, as Charles Taylor calls it. To satisfy these needs, de Botton founded a Sunday assembly where non-believers can savor these enjoyments unburdened by any creed.
More recently, the intellectual historian Peter Watson, in The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God (Simon and Schuster, 2014), has explored how, since the 19th century, Western intellectuals of many sorts have tried to supply for the absence of faith in Western culture. The book is a veritable encyclopedia of unbelief and atheistic religion. What unites most of the authors, though not all, is the attitude that “the ‘transcendent’ impulse must be resisted.” Watson aims to show that over the last two centuries, many people have found a great many ways to live fulfilling lives without God. He favors the formula of the Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell. “Happiness,” Kingwell writes, “is about the ability to reflect on one’s life and find it worthwhile.”
I was particularly impressed by Watson’s wide-ranging treatment of poetry: Mallarmé and Valéry, Herder and Rilke, Yeats and Heaney, Owen and Auden, Neruda, Stevens and Milosz. For its devotees, poetry has become a surrogate for religion. For Stefan Georg, the powerful heart of poetry was praise, the pinnacle of worship. “The purpose of poetry,” wrote Wallace Stevens, “is to make life complete in itself.” And again, “it is the role of the poet to supply the satisfactions of belief.”
Watson gets some things wrong and misses others. He repeatedly treats Søren Kierkegaard, a critic of bourgeois religion, as if he were a nonbeliever rather than a radical Christian. His treatment of Whitehead omits the philosopher’s Religion in the Making and his masterful chapter “Peace,” the crowning—religious—emotion of civilization, in Adventures of Ideas; and he leaves the misimpression that Michael Polanyi played at religion rather than making a significant contribution to the reconciliation of science and religion. He also underplays the full power of “presence” in George Steiner’s art criticism. Steiner is not one of those who resist the impulse to transcendence. His writing shows he fully appreciates its lure but holds back from surrender.
But Watson does not hide the recurring dissatisfaction of seculars with the incompleteness of their solutions. More than a few of his secular figures are “melancholy atheists, unbelievers with guilty consciences,” as a biographer of Rilke described the poet. “[E]ven atheists,” Watson concedes, quoting Dworkin on religious atheism, “can feel ‘a sense of fundamentality.’” He cites Jürgen Habermas’s defense of religion as “the outcome of a history of reason” along with science. Religions articulate, Habermas wrote, “an awareness of what is lacking or absent” in our lives. In the end Watson leaves unbelievers only slight consolation. “In modern society,” he concludes, “it is easier—less of a burden—to be secular than to be religious.”
Seculars as Exemplary Believers
Simon Critchley falls into a category all by himself. There is no one quite like him on the American philosophical scene. A political philosopher, he believes political change requires faith; but, ironically, unbelievers who have undergone a paradoxical inner transformation, not religious believers attached to creeds and churches, are the ones who possess genuine faith.
Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless is a demanding set of essays combining an eclectic set of philosophical sources with mystical and Pauline texts. The philosophers include: Rousseau, Badiou, John Gray, Heidegger and Benjamin; the religious figures: Marguerite Porete, Paul and Kierkegaard. The overture to the book is an account of the Christianity of Oscar Wilde, who, Critchley relates, underwent a transformation in prison, so that in sin and repentant suffering he experienced “an infinite ethical demand.” That demand was the focus of a previous Critchley book, Infinitely Demanding (2007).
As a political philosopher, Critchley holds that only self-denying love can provide the glue that will hold a just society together. But what interests him most in this book is not the political question but the spiritual transformation of the human subject, as reflected in the purgative moments in mystical ascent and the paradoxical moves of philosophical religion.
Critchley concludes with a reading of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. What matters is “the rigor” of one’s love. Has one “hacked away” at the self, or, rather, is one constantly hacking away, so as to make room for the “other”? One must be “striving” continuously—“at every moment”—in “a process of decreation and impoverishment” to empty oneself to love’s invasion.
It is unbelievers, not those of any denominational faith, Critichley contends, who are better able to live this rigorist faith with the constant “urgency of active engagement.” For “without security guarantees or rewards,” the “faithless” are able to give themselves in an unmediated way to Kierkegaardian inwardness, where they “abide with the infinite demand of love.”
Critchley’s claim that unbelievers in his sense, “the faithless,” are exemplary believers is at once the most daring and dubious assertion he makes. For the band of seculars willing to give themselves over to self-abandonment on the model of Porete or to unrelenting acts of faith following Kierkegaard would be very few indeed. There is no space for intersubjectivity, no mention of friendship or communion. Even the other in Kierkegaard’s triad of the self-God-and-other vanishes, and in the end God is swallowed up, as by a black hole, by the endlessly self-emptying self.
No Substitute for the Real Thing
In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Belknap/Harvard, 2014) Martha Nussbaum, one of the pre-eminent moral and political philosophers working in the United States today, examines the way civil religion has been utilized to evoke positive political virtues, like loyalty, patriotism, compassion and, remarkably, love. The historical foundations of her argument lie in the efforts of 19th- and 20th-century intellectuals, like Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill, to develop civil religions to provide the social cohesion religion had previously given. But she concedes that civil religion can supplement religion but not supplant the real thing. “[B]y now,” she writes, “we have reason to think that under conditions of freedom there will remain a plurality of religions and secular doctrines of life, many of which will continue to attract allegiance.”
What we need in real life for spiritual uplift, Nussbaum believes, is a vividness of experience not found in academic philosophy, a richness that religion provides. Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, philosopher and educational theorist, is the author from whom Nussbaum draws the greatest inspiration. To her eyes, Tagore’s “religion of man” has the advantage of sensitivity to culture and individual expression, gifts earlier philosophical civil religions neglected.
Nussbaum also notes that Roman Catholicism, unlike the philosophies of Comte or Mill, has “very shrewdly” respected and incorporated elements of traditional cultures into the practice of its own faith. Likewise, the church’s acceptance of artists like “a J. S. Bach, an El Greco, a Gerard Manley Hopkins” reveals an openness to “the exercise of imagination with personal integrity,” which philosophical civil religions suppress in the interest of uniformity of expression. Unlike Nagel and Dworkin but like de Botton, Nussbaum esteems the aesthetic enjoyments religion provides as well as the more specifically religious benefits, like the broadening of sympathy, shared devotion, models of life (saints) and especially the cultivation of prized affections and virtues.
What is lacking in religion and constructed civil religion alike, though Mill and Tagore wrestled with it, she observes, is the fostering of personal freedom in the context of community and a shared worldview. In the end, her plea is that a human politics requires emotional engagement of a public with fellow citizens. It may be done perhaps in some constructed religions, like Tagore’s, or in traditional religions within a liberal state; and it can also be promoted with a pedagogy of emotions Nussbaum attempts to provide in the rest of her book.
Five Lessons for Dialogue
The new openness to religion among both professional philosophers and those we might call philosophers of life is good news for Christians concerned about dialogue with the secular world. The hostile polemics of the New Atheists are behind us. Times are ripe for better informed, serious dialogue between believers and religiously sensitive intellectuals. Here are five lessons I take away from these books for dialogue with unbelieving artists and intellectuals.
1) The arts as a commonwealth. The fact that many secular thinkers—like de Botton, the philosophers of religion and Nussbaum—see the arts inspired by faith and lived in liturgical celebrations as goods they are missing out on and need to provide for themselves in community suggests that the arts provide a field in which Christians and nonbelievers have gifts to share with one another that may provide for fruitful encounters.
In past centuries apologists spoke of employing pagan learning as a propaedeutic to understanding the faith as “the spoliation of the Egyptians.” In these more ecumenical times, we speak of gifts we share. What is missing in many cases is not just true appreciation for the gifts of unbelievers but basic knowledge of the culture of the other party. For that reason, there is a genuine need of a sharing of gifts of one another’s spiritual cultures. Catholics, for example, need to acquaint themselves with the poetry, music and art of Nussbaum’s liberal symbolic universe. In that sense, the arts, Christian and secular, may prove a commonwealth we can share together. Christians have as much to learn from it as to impart to it.
2) Essential Starting Points. Finding comprehensive meaning for our lives (Nagel) and encountering the mystery in which we live (Dworkin) are serious religious questions. Engagement with such questions opens ground for common pursuit of the most basic questions in philosophical and fundamental theology. They are questions that theologians have also examined. There is progress to be made in pursuing them in common. Some clearing of the ground will be necessary to overcome simplistic anthropomorphic notions of God, a fault not just of the New Atheists but of more sophisticated unbelieving thinkers as well. Nonetheless, dialogue on such questions offers an opportunity to share religious experience and explore the profound yearnings that run through it.
Clarifying how and why the experience of mystery and transcendence leads Christian thinkers to believe in God but does not inspire secular thinkers to do the same is in order. I am not naïve enough to believe that such conversations will lead nonbelievers to see the light. Where secular thinkers are sensitive to faith, there is every reason to clear away as much misunderstanding as possible and for Christian thinkers to share with them their explorations of the same phenomena, even as they hear unbelievers unravel their doubts.
3) Philosophy and Religion as Ways of Life. Thinkers like Comte, Tagore and de Botton demonstrate that philosophy can be more than an ivory-tower intellectual exercise. It can also serve, as the late Pierre Hadot reminded us, as “a way of life” concerned with living and dying well (Philosophy as a Way of Life, 1981/95 What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 1995/2002). One form of existing interfaith dialogue is intermonastic dialogue, where monks and nuns of the world’s great religions come together to share their styles of prayer and ways of life with one another. Ecumenical monasteries like Taizé and Bossey, moreover, where Christians of different denominations and searchers with none at all share a common life together, have met with interest and approval from both the Holy See and people who are religiously unaffiliated. With its charism of unity, Focolare opens its communities to Muslims and atheists as well as to non-Catholic Christians, where the guests, in their own ways, share the life of the Focolarini.
These mixed communities are facts of our “secular age,” as Charles Taylor describes it, where religious boundaries are more porous and fluid than in the past. Is it inconceivable, then, that well-formed Christian believers and “religiously musical” philosophers might come together to explore philosophy and religion as ways of life rather than as competing systems of ideas? Exploring ways of life together might open up alternative ways of knowing, prompt both sides to express their deepest convictions, and so press Christians to express their faith in more articulate, understandable ways.
4) A More Perfect Religious Freedom. The hardest challenge that religiously attuned philosophers present to Christian believers, and particularly to Catholics, has to do with religious freedom. It is not just a problem for Christians, either. As Nussbaum explains, the philosophers of civil religion and other liberals like Mozart also wrestled with the problem and found only partial answers. After the Second Vatican Council, John Courtney Murray, S.J., argued that just as the council had articulated the case for religious freedom from state coercion, the time had come to formulate the case for freedom within the institutional church.
A Catholic theology of freedom will not ape the individualism of secular liberal culture. Catholicism is a personalist, communitarian and creedal tradition, so any theology of ecclesial freedom will be colored by those dimensions of the faith. Nevertheless, the liberal tradition and secular philosophy more broadly do challenge us to develop, in theory and practice, a more adequate and ample conception of the freedom of persons and groups than we presently have.
We must acknowledge that a deficit of freedom in Catholic culture is an obstacle to modern men and women hearing the Gospel. Likewise, for many contemporary Catholics the same deficit in freedom is an impediment to whole-hearted discipleship, resulting in avoidance, resentment and cognitive dissonance within individuals and harmful divisions within the one body of Christ. Our capacities to live the Gospel fully and proclaim it boldly are stunted by insufficient respect for mature religious freedom within the church.
5) Faith, Truth and Mysticism. The most remarkable development for me among the religious atheists is Critichley’s appropriation of “faith” for unbelievers. Dialogue with nonbelievers on the modes of religious knowing might help clarify what Christians mean by faith. Furthermore, including mysticism, as Critichley does, may help further illuminate faith as “personal knowledge” of God, a theme that Pope Francis (building on the work of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) explored in the encyclical “The Light of Faith.”
The religious question has come to maturity among some secular thinkers at least. It is time for Christians to engage them, trusting, as Pope Francis has said, that the Spirit works in the world as well as in the church and that there are gifts for both in mutual engagement.