Over the last two weeks, leading American atheists have registered complaints about all the attention given to Christmas in the United States. These atheists have issued three challenges. First, they insist that being atheist does not mean being immoral. Second, they want other people to see that atheists are law-abiding, compassionate, and generous to others—that one does not have to be Christian or to feel “the Christmas spirit” to care for the poor and the needy. Third, they insist that monotheists have a harder time being tolerant of others than atheists do. Atheists, they think, are more humble, tolerant, and sweet-tempered; since monotheists think that they “have” the truth, and know God’s will, they are more stiff-minded.
In my own experience, though, many different belief systems are found among people who call themselves atheists. Here is just a small collection:
One. Those rationalists who believe in science, rationality, and truth, and who abhor relativism and nihilism, and who have very firm moral principles grounded in reason itself — but who see no evidence for the existence of God, neither for the theism of the ancient Greeks and Romans nor the personal God of Judaism and Christianity. They might wish that they could believe in God, but their intellectual conscience will not allow them to.
Two. Those relativists and nihilists who do believe, as Nietzsche warned, that the “death of God” has also meant the death of trust in reason and science and objective rules of morality. Such atheists, therefore, may for arbitrary reasons choose to live for their own pleasure, or for the joy of exercising brute power and will. This is the kind of moral nihilism that communist and fascist regimes depended upon, to justify the brutal use of power. It appears, also, to be the kind of atheism that Ayn Rand commended.
Three. Those who do not believe in the personal God who heeds prayers, and is concerned about the moral lives of individual human beings — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. Instead, some who call themselves atheists actually do recognize a principle of intelligent order and even awe-inspiring beauty in the natural world. They also believe in a kind of primordial energy or dynamic power, which pushes along, for example, evolution and the potentiality of human progress. They are at about the same stage in thinking about morality and metaphysics as the ancient Greeks.
Four. The “Methodist atheists” — those who maintain all the qualities of niceness and good moral habits and gentle feelings associated with the followers of Wesley down the generations, but do so without believing in God. In other words, they remain indebted to inherited Christian moral sentiments, even while they seldom or never darken church doors. They have come to think that believing in God is a little like believing in Santa Claus. They have outgrown the metaphysics, but not the ethics.
Five. The merely practical atheists — that is, those who by habit remain members of a religious faith, and who share a certain pietas regarding their family gods, and continue going to church according to the old routines, but whose daily behavior and speech show that they actually live as if God does not exist. Their religiousness is formal, routine, empty — or very nearly so. Indignantly, they may insist that they are not atheists, a term they probably associate with #2 above.
Six. Those like Friedrich von Hayek, who wished he could be religious but confessed that he seemed to have no “ear” for it, just as some people have no ear for music. He felt he was an atheist by defect.
Some years ago I read a book on atheism, by a devout atheist (if that is the right word), who had found to his surprise that a large majority of those Americans who call themselves atheists actually believe in some more-than-human power, force, intelligence in all things. This is a position not altogether unlike the ancients (and the moderns) described in #3 above. The ancients did not call such persons atheists, but held them to be theists, albeit under a vague and unclear sort of deity, but intelligent and powerful and drawing all things toward the good.
Richard Rorty, acclaimed at his recent death as America’s most famous public philosopher, sometimes called himself “a nihilist with a smile.” That is, he had rejected classical rationalism, such as that described in #1 above. He recognized that our minds do aspire to rationality. Yet we find that the world of our experience, when looked at “all the way down,” is undeniably chaotic, sometimes cruel, and most of all meaningless. The world has no rational foundations. It just is. A bit of a “tale told by an idiot.”
On the other hand, in his ethical commitments Rorty never could shake the Christian dreams of his forebears. Not so long before his death he spoke of his hazy vision of the future and his sense of the holy. “My sense of the holy is bound up with the hope that someday my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law.” Thus, Rorty is a prime example of #4 above; except that his utopia is a bit rosier than the evidence for Original Sin will allow most Christians to indulge in.