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.

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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.

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J Cosgrove
3 years 2 months ago
I have been conversing with and watching conversations of others with atheists for over 15 years. The behavioral aspects of atheists are the most interesting thing about these conversations, not the actual content. Atheist pride themselves on being rational yet atheism is a completely irrational position. Everything argues against it and yet when one presents the rationale against it, the atheist resorts to irrational arguments and faith based statements for their beliefs. Exactly what they accuse religious adherents of doing. My assessment is that atheists are violently opposed to religion because of the dogmatic nature of religion that prescribes certain kinds of behavior and proscribes many other types of behavior that they approve of. They will readily point out the low level of education and understanding that most adherents of religion have. They do not want to be associated with this large mass of ill educated people who they claim superstitiously maintain their religious beliefs. The irony is that atheist while often very well educated maintain an even larger set of superstitious beliefs. They are often ideologically committed to a modern day form of Rousseau's view of the world which leads them to left wing politics though I can point to many libertarians who are atheists. Libertarians while abhorring what they see as flawed thinking by religious people nevertheless have an ideology of freedom which must accept the existence of religious believers. Not so the atheistic left which constantly puts one impediment after the other in front of religion.
Christian Thomas
3 years 2 months ago
Cosgrove, I'm not sure that after 15 years as you stated that you actually understand atheistic arguments. It's not a patent simple disbelief in god; it's the lack of evidence from the assertions of pretty much all relgious assertions about who/what god is. You say "the atheist resorts to irrational arguments and faith based statements for their beliefs" yet, from my perspective as an agnostic, theists have a complexity problem to address when it comes to a conscious creator. Here's a perfect example: An atheism meme that is regularly touted by online theists: "Atheism: the belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits which then turned to dinosaurs. Makes perfect sense." My response: "Theism: the belief that a singular, complex, conscious, ever-present, all powerful, invisible, purported male deity wished itself into complexity, consciousness and sentience out of nothing, ie., from nothing, without any prior evolution or family ancestry coming into its own existence—And then made the universe. Poof! Magic! Do you see the problem? It's a matter of logical positions. Your faith rests on the hypothesis that there is a god as claimed by religion. While we can logically argue for and against the various potential for a causal being, all the other claims made by religion about god's healing, miracles, etc, are non-existent in the modern era. Also, as you assert "that atheists are committed to Rousseau's view which leads them to left wing politics though I can point to many libertarians who are atheist," again i find this highly speculative and lacking that you truly have an understanding of what atheists assert as i've seen enough claiming to be republican/convservative atheists that it's worth mentioning. Regards
J Cosgrove
3 years 2 months ago
Cosgrove, I'm not sure that after 15 years as you stated that you actually understand atheistic arguments.
The reason I do not understand their arguments, is that they have none that make sense. I have never seen any coherent set presented. There is mainly an anti argument against things they do not like. Atheism is a fashion just as rooting for the Boston Red Sox or preferring the opera over pop music is fashion. It is popular to declare oneself an atheist today but as I said I have never found one with a coherent belief system.
My response: "Theism: the belief that a singular, complex, conscious, ever-present, all powerful, invisible, purported male deity wished itself into complexity, consciousness and sentience out of nothing, ie., from nothing, without any prior evolution or family ancestry coming into its own existence—And then made the universe. Poof! Magic!
This is a rather silly statement. None of it is part of a serious theistic belief. A couple of the adjectives may apply to a deity but the set presented is a parody of nonsense. Sounds like it is from a Monty Python skit.
Do you see the problem? It's a matter of logical positions
No, I don't. There are several problems with the atheistic belief, mostly having to do with origins. Atheists have no explanations, except that certain things just poofed into existence magically against all odds. The theist has no concrete explanation either except that there are certain forensic pieces of evidence that have to be explained. The best explanation is the existence of a massive intelligence somewhere.
I find this highly speculative and lackin that you truly have an understanding of what atheists assert as i've seen enough claiming to be republican/convservative atheists that it's worth mentioning.
I believe I said the same thing about the presence of atheists in conservative especially libertarian politics. However, if you want to compare religious beliefs systems between different political belief systems, I will wager that a much higher percentage of atheists are involved in/support left wing politics.
Christian Thomas
3 years 2 months ago
"There are several problems with the atheistic belief, mostly having to do with origins." Exactly. Origins. That's the exact charge to the theist from the atheist regarding any complex conscious being that exists in or outside of the universe. It's the foundation of the Kalam Cosmological argument from the theist camp. But, the terminal point in the Kalam position is locked in addressing the problem of infinite regress. ie., What created the creator? What created the creator of that creator, and so on, and so forth ad infinitum. As far as the parody aspect, these are all characteristics that are asserted by 90% of monotheists. It could be a parody if we're speaking of a deistic causal agent, but the spectrum of monotheists fall in line with the adjectives i've used. Aside from Lawrence Krauss's book, "A Universe From Nothing", i've not seen many assert that the universe popped out of nothingness. It's more an agnosticism thing and an appeal to an absence of knowledge. But, our definition in cosmology about what nothingness is in the vaccuum of space is being re-defined based on the Higgs Boson and the existence of newly discovered sub atomic particles. It's simply a position of we don't have testable knowledge YET. That's key. If consciousness exists outside the universe, the theist still has to address how that purportedly supernatural being came into complexity firstly and consciousness secondly. BUT, to say that " best explanation is the existence of a massive intelligence somewhere" is speculative at best, lacks any testable factors, and equates to simply being a hypothesis that's made on whims based in ancient tradition and human yearnings for why/meaning of life. Big bang cosmology is our current model, but we don't know what banged, how it banged or what preceded it. To assert that "God did it" in the abscence of actual testable knowledge is nothing more than the classic "god of the gaps" argument in which god, in the traditional sense, has been a receding pocket of knowledge. The statement that "atheists have no explanations" is not entirely true. The debates William Lane Craig (WLC) has participated in between Christopher Hitchens, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, and the latest debate between WLC and Sean Carroll are wonderful illustrations of how there are highly cogent and scientifically backed arguments against the theist position. The forensic evidence you speak of has yet to be truly be explained by theists that is not based in an appeal to emotions and special pleading. Appeals to emotion/special pleading are, i feel, theists and WLC's failures in arguments. WLC asserts "there must be a transcendent cause if the universe came into existence," yet generally fails to close the loop in that appeal. Of note: the only reason i lean on WLC as the center in this discussion is he is the most prominent in the field. WLC's latest debate against Sean Carroll, Carroll did what i feel is a razor sharp job in countering many of WLC's long held positions that many previous atheist debaters failed in closing the arguement on. I highly suggest taking the time to review that debate. As to the religious spectrum of left vs right, yeah, you're right on the %'s. Regardless, I find it to be a dangerous combination when religiosity and nationalism are mixed, and this is a mainstay of the Republican party. Notably, I don't see why any secular person would vote for the right. The right proffers this divisive ideology that if you're not Christian, you're somehow un-American. The basis of that kind of ilk is a big piece of the reasons youngsters are walking away from religion and that now 1 in 5 americans identifies as non-religious, none, or other. Right/left wing politics are a mess. That we can probably agree on. Look, I come from Baptist and Catholic upbringings with a Baptist minister on one side of my family. Trust me, i get it. But, when it comes to the deeper questions, religion and religious thought have failed at providing me a foundation to acheive deeper answers honestly. Those who would assert that life is meaningless without belief, faith, god, etc, I feel truly don't value life enough.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 2 months ago
"Those who would assert that life is meaningless without belief, faith, god, etc, I feel truly don't value life enough." Amen.
Jack Rakosky
3 years 2 months ago
FOUR CULTURES OF THE WEST by John W. O’Malley, S.J. is one of my favorite books. He relates the four cultures to the four medieval transcendentals: Prophetic (One), the Academia and the Professions (the True), Poetry, Rhetoric and the Common Good (the Good), and Art and Performance (the Beautiful). O’Malley defines these four “cultures” (his quotes) as “four large, self-validating configurations of symbols, values, temperaments, patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving and patterns of discourse. I.. mean expressions of style in the profoundest sense of the word. Le style, c'est l`homme meme.” As a social psychologist (retired from applied research in the public mental health system) whose retirement interest is spirituality and voluntarism, I would re-label his four cultures as four major varieties of spirituality. Certainly there are many corporate and business subcultures that are not very transcendental. Landscapes, sunsets, and music are often mentioned when people are asked about spiritual experiences. Some research suggests the spiritual but not religious find their spiritual experiences in “family, friends and Fido!” In AMERICAN GRACE, Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that the very strong benefits of regular church attendance (health, happiness, giving time, talent and money) were associated only with those who had religious networks of family, friends and small groups. Sitting in the pew alone had little effect. However these religious networks had much stronger effects than ordinary social networks, e.g. bowling leagues. The authors wondered if other social networks around intense interests could have benefits similar to religious networks. Perhaps these transcendental life styles are good candidates. People who pay little attention to organized religion but have strong personal and social commitments to transcendental life styles may be far closer to the Kingdom of God than regular church goers whose commitments are to pride, social status and money. In my two decades in the public mental health system my experience of spiritual community in the sense of O’Malley’s cultures was far stronger than most but not all my parish experiences.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 2 months ago
Dan Maguire, professor of ethics at Marquette University (a Jesuit institution), a former priest and self-proclaimed "Christian atheist", has an interesting counter to David Brooks' (NY Times columnist) recent rant on the emptiness of secularism ... http://religiondispatches.org/david-brooks-rant-on-emptiness-of-secularism-is-poppycock/ Dan claims that as long as there is fear, we are not ready for atheism. I know Dan as a personal friend and he is one of the very few people I call "holy". He's also pretty funny. Here is another link to an interview with Dan about his latest book: "Christianity Without God; Moving beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative". .... http://religiondispatches.org/as-long-as-theres-fear-we-arent-ready-for-atheism-a-conversation-with-theologian-and-ex-priest-daniel-maguire/ When he first presented this book as a project the editor at SUNY Press said: “a lot of religion scholars come right to the brink of saying this and then withdraw. You are simply saying it.”
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 2 months ago
One more ... The Catholic atheism of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh http://theweek.com/articles/537638/catholic-atheism-eugene-oneills-theiceman-cometh Showing now at Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater
Bruce Snowden
3 years 2 months ago
Hi Mr. Thomas and Mr. Cosgrove, - I found the conversation of Beth Cioffoletti, Jack Rakosky, J. Cosgrove and yourself on Jesuit Drew Christiansen’s essay, “The Unbelievers” very stimulating and now like a little sparrow nesting as it were among giant eagles, I ask you to listen to some personal comment . When it comes to “needing proof” to overcome unbelief, as far as I’m concerned it’s the best place to start and by the way, you are well-named “Christian Thomas” in that the first Christian, Thomas, I know about was one of the twelve men Jesus chose as personal confidants, who “refused to believe” until he could see and touch what others were saying was a fact, a come-to-life dead man. Once the Apostle Thomas saw the evidence as mind-boggling as it must have been, he accepted what he could no longer honestly doubt or deny. Respectfully you must do the same when it comes to convincing evidence for the existence of God. Look for it until you find it. When found accept it, I am a convinced believer in God, an enfleshed God able to eat, sleep, bleed and sweat, feel pain, drink wine at a wedding, get angry, laugh, function in all ways human, except sinfully. Firm belief does not eradicate doubt however, no more than doubt is an insurmountable barrier to belief. Much like the a man’s Gospel admission, “Lord I do believe, help my unbelief” honest acknowledgments inflate the lungs of the soul with enlivening oxygen so to speak, whereas dishonesty chokes the soul. Speaking of the Soul, decades ago in one of his talks Fulton J, Sheen jokingly offered the prayer of the agnostic. The holy Bishop prayed, “O my God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!” That’s delicious! I choose to live by Faith which I believe enlightens reason, or to live by reason explaining Faith. It satisfies not only my mind but also my heart the two principle components of the human conglomerate, or persona. I need mind and heart to make sense of this world in which I live and for belief in a God who loves, makes this possible. This conversation has already become more wordy than planned, so allow me to conclude as follows. If materiality is nothing more than a “poof” everything naturally explainable, then it seems to me that materiality could also be the work of an almighty, omnipotent, beneficent God by nature willing to share. Explaining my position in a single line let me say, I believe, whatever is possible naturally, is also possible supernaturally.” I don’t see how it cannot at least be possibly so. My God is a God of "Agencies" persons, places, things. There are multiple natural examples, evolution the principal one through and from which I believe all things naturally eminate.. Supernaturally, the agent instinct of the Unknown, Invisible One is example replete in Revelation. You and J. Cosgrove lit up the sky! Beth Cioffoletti and Jack Rakosky captivatingly assisted. Thanks for allowing this little sparrow to flutter!
J Cosgrove
3 years 2 months ago
This was supposed to appear as a reply to a comment below but somehow it ended up as a new comment.
There are two basic issues here and they are completely separate questions. Why does a theist believe what he does and why does an atheist believe what he does. They are separate questions. You can not attack one as support for the other argument. You cannot point to some of the silly arguments made by believers in a god or gods and say that proves atheism. The atheist has to defend why he believes certain things not undermine the theists. So mocking what you call a theist argument is no support for the atheist. Also, your description was absurd when it comes to Christianity. I recognize very little of it. But back to the issue of the atheist. I have never seen an atheist actually defend his or her position coherently and that includes the people you mentioned above especially Sean M. Carroll who is a bully and a hypocrite as well as intellectually bankrupt. I am well aware of who he is and have courses from the Teaching Company where he is the lecturer. None of his arguments can explain key origins. He essentially says that science will eventually get around to proving naturalistic origins. But he has no proofs. These critical origins are: First, why does anything exist? This is most basic question of all. Existence is something we will probably never understand. The infinite regress argument is meaningless here because it suppose a time dimension and we are not sure that an unchanging being is subject to time. This being could be outside of time. However, the atheist has no explanation of why anything exists at all other than it just exists. Certainly not scientific, logical or rationale. They can not explain it. Strike 1. Why is the universe so fine tuned. This was discussed recently here and if you want to read those arguments see http://americamagazine.org/content/ignatian-educator/should-believers-use-science-make-case-god. In it I pointed to the fine tuning discussion at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpIiIaC4kRA I have never seen an atheist deal with the fine tuning issue. This is Strike 2.. Then if for some chance they can explain the fine tuning phenomena then they have to deal with the next origin which is the origin of life. No one is even close to solving this issue which involves the origin of the information to control complex interactions in cellular processes. Some of the cellular processes are so complex that no modern day machine compares to its complexity yet this complex interactive process somehow just poofed into existence with no credible predecessors. Strike 3 for the atheist. Then once life appeared there is no known process that can produce complicated life forms with all their interacting elements. The basic machinery which is part of cell duplication can explain minor changes to life forms but it cannot begin to explain the origin of complex protein parts that work with amazing precisions in multi-cellular organisms. Essentially we are talking about the origin of extremely complex proteins that can work with other proteins. Strike 4 These two processes are essentially mathematically impossible as a result of any random processes. The mathematics against two new novel proteins fitting together are staggering. The origin of consciousness or the ability to think. This is something that no one understands at the moment let alone how such a capability could arise. It is thought to be the result of extremely complex control mechanisms existing epigenetically in the cell but that only really explains protein expression rather than actual consciousness. Strike 5 Then there is the curious existence of Earth. Everyone assumed there would be large number of earth like planets in the universe but now it is unlikely that there is even one other. The odds of just one Earth existing is incredibly small let alone several. For a discussion of this see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClarWNaCEVM But this is even out of date as the factors necessary for life have increased since this video was made. Read Eric Metaxas's book, Miracles which covers this in more detail.in Chapter 4. A planet such as Earth is a marvel. This is Strike 6 for the atheist. The theist does not have to explain any of this but just marvel at how intelligent the designer of the universe, life and Earth must be. Of course this does not lead one to the Judeo Christian God but only to an immensely intelligent entity. Until the atheist has any semblance of a coherent explanation for any one of these origins let alone all 6, then I will have to say they are intellectually bankrupt to hold their position. This is not to say they cannot be good people in any sense of the way we use the term but they have no justification to hold their positions especially if others think their position is rational and they do not tell others that they can not defend what they believe. An atheist is under obligation to tell others that he cannot justify what he believes. When you find such an individual let me know, I have never seen one let alone met one.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 2 months ago
More commentary today about unbelievers from NY Times readers: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/05/opinion/secularists-were-fine-without-god-thanks.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=1 Best comment: "Our advice: Eliminate the middleman, and love the good stuff that we know is real."
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 2 months ago
Merton's 1966 essay, "Is the World a Problem?" is relevant to this discussion. It can be read here: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/world-problem?utm_content=buffera153f&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer "One of the essential tasks of aggiornamento is that of renewing the whole perspective of theology in such a way that our ideas of God, man and the world are no longer dominated by the Carolingian-medieval imagery of the sacred and hierarchical cosmos, in which everything is decided beforehand and in which the only choice is to accept gladly what is imposed as part of an immobile and established social structure. ... The Church has finally realized officially that the classic worldview, which began to develop serious flaws five hundred years ago is no longer viable at all. There is something of a stampede for security in a new worldview." - Merton

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