Empathizing with Atheists
The need for a new kind of pluralism.


One implication of this finding, interestingly enough, is that there are many who call themselves believers, whose actions show that their heart is committed elsewhere. Their deeds are out of line with their words. Similarly, there seem to be persons calling themselves atheists whose actions seem more in line with Jewish and Christian (and natural law) norms than their words do. For such reasons, wisdom seems to suggest that final judgment on any one of us is beyond our poor capacities. It is best left to an undeceivable Judge, to Whom our hearts and consciences and intentions are transparent.

Thus, what some atheists present as “fact” is actually a “belief,” a commitment to a certain way of viewing the world. Sometimes (not always) that way is a simple-minded materialism. They will accept as evidence only material things, as detected through the five senses. For them, beyond material things nothing else is real. However, this affirmation of theirs is not a statement subject to empirical test. It is a choice of one procedural rule rather than others.

Thus, some atheists seem to be evading the complexities behind their own narrow beliefs — and don’t want to think about them. They are more comfortable in a world of touch, sight, hearing, taste, scent. To stay solely in that world may be to understand themselves much too narrowly.

To many of us, for instance, it seems that acts of insight and judgment are far more vivid, valuable, and even pleasurable — we are exhilarated by the eros of inquiry — than are acts of our senses, delightful as these sometimes are. Do we not often arise from hours of reading, thinking, or writing, having been intensely captivated by insights and judgments, to find that our bodies are stiff and sore, perhaps too cold or too hot, hungry, thirsty? For many, insight, judging, and loving are penetrating human experiences more precious than the activities of the senses. Because of their preferability, the range of their activities, and their sublimity, these activities have often been thought of as a human being’s “spirited” acts, the acts of the human spirit.

Human beings seem to be best understood as either inspirited bodies or embodied spirits — a unity at the core of our being. Without the distinctive refinements of human brain cells and neurons, we lose our capacities for insight, judgment, love. But without exercising our capacities for insight, judgment, and love, our bodies fall far short of our human potential, often in a way so unworthy of ourselves that to others, we become objects of scorn: “You pig!”

That is why to make a mistake in understanding oneself is almost certain to lead to mistakes in coming to an understanding of God. A materialist will be looking where no evidence of God can possibly be found. His choice of method predetermines his failure.

Just as it helps believers to understand that atheists can be irritated by condescension from believers, it may help atheists to see that insisting that their own convictions are unquestionable “facts,” while those of others may be airily dismissed, undermines their claim to being fair-minded. If we are to have a dialogue based on mutual respect, we will all have to change our ways.

Meanwhile, the threat to our lives and liberties posed by a worldwide pseudo-religious totalitarian movement demands that all those who love liberty stop being divided against ourselves. True enough, we each have reasons for our own convictions, but we do well to respect the convictions of all others willing to fight alongside us against the common threat. In this great work, we will have to learn a new skill in civil conversation concerning matters of fundamental differences in philosophy and religion. These differences can no longer be ignored as if they did not exist, and were not of any serious importance. Manifestly, they are.

In previous generations, Americans have tacitly agreed that pluralism is best protected by remaining silent about profound differences in conviction. Today, pluralism needs a new set of protections: civil, reasoned conversation about much that divides us, so that fears of one another might be diminished, and enduring respect for one another come to flower.

Michael Novak’s latest book is No One Sees God. His website is


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review