In any case, there seems to be a high proportion of atheists today whose lives are as nice and moral as Hallmark greeting cards. Some of them may dislike Christianity intensely. As the world goes, however, the ethical practices of a certain number of them — all the way up the scale from mere sentiments, to effective personal help to the poor, and to heroic self-sacrifice — are more in tune with Jewish/Christian ethics than with any other on this planet.
Thus, in answering the challenges put to Jews and Christians by atheists this season, we may concede that nonbelievers may well find in the law “written in their hearts” and recognizable by reason alone a quite decent moral code, and in ancient and modern moralists among pagans some good guidance for living rather good moral lives. Not, for the most part, saints, just good people; though among them, for sure, are some “secular saints,” of the kind observed by Albert Camus in his novel The Plague.
We may concede, even, that some atheists live better moral lives than some of those who attend Christian churches. Some of the latter may live “as if there is no God” to a greater degree than some atheists.
The only kind of atheist whose morals all of us have a right to suspect are those in #2 above: the nihilists. These are people who, as Samuel Adams wryly noted, have no first principles to prevent them from betraying their spouse — or their country. Whatever they need to do is their first principle. These are the ones of whom Dostoevsky wrote: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” G. K. Chesterton is often quoted as saying of such persons: “Those who say they do not believe in God do not believe in nothing. They believe anything.” They seem especially prone to the latest cultural hoaxes, such as imminent global freezing (“nuclear winter”) or imminent global warming.
As for the charge that those who believe in one God, the Creator who fashioned the laws of nature (“the laws of nature and nature’s God”), find it more difficult than the atheist to be tolerant, three replies are available. The first is this: Have you ever measured on the Hatred Scale the way in which atheists speak disdainfully of “deluded” Christians and Jews? Tolerance? Many do not grant even the basic respect due all intelligent and responsible human individuals — the respect of dealing with an intellectual equal.
Second, the two regimes in our time that tried totally to control thought and conscience, and were the most intolerant in history, called themselves — and were — atheist regimes.
Third, those humans who can see that some things belong to Caesar, and some to God, have an iron-sided reason to resist the tyranny of the State, on one hand, and to resist the overweening ambitions of any priestly caste, on the other. Also, seeing clearly the infinity of God’s wisdom and the puniness of their own, Jews and Christians have every reason to be humble of mind, and respectful of the truth in the mind of others, since all humans are made in the image of God, each a partial refraction of his infinite wisdom. As Reinhold Niebuhr counseled Christians: Recall that in your own truth there is always some error, and in the errors of your current opponents, some truth. Each believing Jew and Christian has solid religious grounds for being respectful of the truths uttered by others, and humble about the degree of knowledge each of them has so far attained. No one of us “has” the truth. All of us, with very limited minds indeed, are held accountable under its infinite light.
The Christmas season is a good time, then, for atheists and believers alike to meditate upon their own limitations, and to listen more respectfully to one another; each has something to learn from the other. It is a suitable time for this, because the greeting of Christmas peace was intended for all who faithfully seek the good, as best their conscience shows it to them.
Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis: Peace on earth to all humans of good will!
— Michael Novak’s new book, tentatively entitled No One Sees God, will be published by Doubleday in 2008.