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


After all the activity on NRO’s “The Corner” following my September 17 conversation with Heather Mac Donald about atheism and theism, a raft of e-mails came my way, about one-third of them from self-described atheists.

These sturdy atheists taught me some things of which I had been insufficiently aware. One said he hated being told by Christians, sometimes standing uninvited at his own door, that his atheism was inadequate, even inferior. Another found the smugness and condescension of believers “insufferable,” and told me I should not have used that word of atheists until I had experienced the “insufferable” Christian version myself.

As it happens, just this morning two kind-looking ladies came to my door, and after wishing me a beautiful day, asked to leave with me a copy of The Watchtower (accepting which would probably place me on a “revisit” list). Several times in the past our home has had similar visits, not always as pleasant as today’s. I tried to be as polite and firm as I could, and give the ladies a smiling “God bless you” as I sent them away.

I can see how this would be annoying to an atheist. It sometimes bothers me. On the other hand, these were two nice women earnestly doing something difficult, in order to show their own inner fire to obey the imperative: “Go and teach all nations.”

These recent e-mails further made me think how difficult it must be to live in a country which is over 80-percent Christian in population, and annoyingly Christian in public life, with a faith sometimes unavoidable even inside one’s own front door.

All of us have met Christians who are in fact smug, condescending, insufferably certain that their own brand of the faith is superior to ours. Not a few tell Catholics that our faith is a corruption that will doom us to hell. We Catholics have also met some of our own faith so narrow-minded that they view us with barely controlled contempt. Some are narrow-minded in a traditionalist way, others in a “progressive” way. Point is, there are internal divisions, too.

But few of us belong to a minority as small as the small sect of atheists.

My informants also try to show me how “insufferable” are references to atheists as a small “sect.” They do not feel theirs is a sect. They think theirs is the “reality-based community.” Several take pains to insist that atheism is not an “opinion,” but a fact. They do not “question” it, they say, because it is just a solid fact. Not a fantasy, like Christian faith or Bugs Bunny.

It appears that they get their idea of what a “fact” is from the following sequence: They observe data discernible to the five senses, and then formulate an insight that unifies these observations in an intelligible way, and then, third, verify the insight against further evidence from the senses. They come to “facts” — real, solid, existential things, not fantasies — through this “verification principle.”

But philosophers have shown that this “verification principle” is not itself empirically verifiable. It needs to be argued for, not merely asserted. Each operation in the process — observe, gain insight, verify — is subject to many meanings, and understood in different ways by different philosophies. My atheist correspondents too easily pass over the epistemological and metaphysical difficulties in their choice of method (or at least in their descriptions of that method).

For instance, proving a negative has long been thought to be, if not impossible, at least unreliable. Necessarily, then, atheism is a belief, not a fact. It may be a belief with (as atheists think) a very high degree of probability, even though we theists judge it to have a low degree of probability. By contrast, agnosticism seems to be a more tenable commitment than atheism. Problem is, in action one must act as if God does not exist (etsi deus non daretur), or as if He does. In action one must make a commitment that one cannot quite make on purely intellectual grounds. It is by our deeds that we show what we most deeply believe.