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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Sunday, October 24, 2004

On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism

A distinction between the diverse sorts of atheism can be made from two different points of view: from the point of view of the attitude of the human subject who professes himself to be an atheist; and from the point of view of the logical content of various atheistic philosophies.

From the point of view of the human subject who professes himself to be an atheist, I would say that there are practical atheists, who believe that they believe in God but who in reality deny His existence by each one of their deeds -- they worship the world, and power, and money. Then there are pseudo-atheists, who believe that they do not believe in God but who in reality unconsciously believe in Him, because the god whose existence they deny is not God but something else. Finally, there are absolute atheists, who actually deny the existence of the very God in whom the believers believe -- God the Creator, Savior and Father, whose name is infinitely over and above any name we can utter. Those absolute atheists stand committed to change their entire system of values and to destroy in themselves everything that suggests God's name; they have chosen to stake their all against divine Transcendence and any vestige of Transcendence.

From the second point of view, from the point of view of the logical content of the various atheistic philosophies, I would divide atheism into negative and positive atheism.

By negative atheism I mean a merely negative or destructive process of casting aside the idea of God, which is replaced only by a void. Such a negative atheism can be only shallow and empirical, like the atheism of the libertins of the seventeenth century: it hollows out a vacuum at the center of the universe of thought which has taken shape for centuries around the idea of God, but it does not bother about altering that universe; it is concerned merely with making us live comfortably in the empirical freedom of doing whatever we want. On the other hand, negative atheism can be deeply and metaphysically lived: in which case the void it creates at the center of things extends to and lays waste our whole universe of thought; the freedom it claims for the human ego is absolute independence, a kind of divine independence that this ego, like Dostoievski's Kirilov, has no better way of affirming than by suicide and self-destruction.

By positive atheism I mean an active struggle against everything that reminds us of God -- that is to say, anti-theism rather than atheism -- and at the same time a desperate, I would say heroic, effort to recast and reconstruct the whole human universe of thought and the whole human scale of values according to that state of war against God. Such positive atheism was the tragic, solitary atheism of Nietzsche; such is today the academic, fashionable atheism of existentialism; such is the revolutionary atheism of dialectical materialism. The latter is of special interest to us, because it has succeeded in getting a considerable number of men to accept wholeheartedly this new kind of faith, and to give themselves sincerely and unquestionably to it.

Now when I speak of contemporary atheism, I speak of that form of contemporary atheism which is most significant, which spells a new and unheard of historic event, because it is absolute atheism and positive atheism considered especially in the last aspect I have just mentioned. Human history has been confronted, for almost a century, with the thunderous bursting forth of an atheism which is both absolute (making man actually deny God himself) and positive (anti-theism, demanding to be thoroughly lived by man and to change the face of the earth). Such a bursting forth was the conclusion of a three-century-old progressive degradation of the idea of God, for which bourgeois rationalism was especially responsible; it means "the beginning of a new age in which the process of death and the process of resurrection will develop together, confronting each other and struggling with each other."
Jacques Maritain
The Review of Politics, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 267-280, July, 1949

8:57:00 pm