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True Humanism

As Many Atheisms As Atheists

By Carl E. Olson
It is imperative for Christians to realize that all atheists don't believe the same thing.

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Just as there are many different traditions of the Christian faith—including Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian—there is a plethora of beliefs among Atheists. By grouping them into one, we often isolate and offend them. It is wise to keep the words of Michael Martin, a noted atheist apologist, in mind. The word atheist comes from a—meaning without—and theos—meaning God. This broad definition is the best one to keep in mind when speaking to the atheists in our lives.

“An Atheist loves himself and his fellow man instead of god. An Atheist knows that heaven is something for which we should work now—here on earth” (Madalyn Murray O’Hair, infamous and missing atheist).

In his landmark work, The Gods of Atheism, Fr. Vincent P. Miceli wrote that atheism is “perhaps the most serious spiritual affliction of modern man” (p. 9). The Second Vatican Council recognized the severity of this affliction. In Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (GS), the Council Fathers stated that “atheism must be accounted among the most serious problems of this age, and is deserving of closer examination” (GS, n. 19).

In three compact, but rich, paragraphs (GS, nn. 19-21), the Council made a number of observations about atheism that are helpful for all Catholics, including those active in apologetics and evangelization. The Fathers recognized that atheism is complex and multifaceted, embracing numerous perspectives loosely bound around a core disbelief or denial of God.

To unthinkingly stereotype atheists as simply immoral unbelievers guarantees frustration and failure in dealing with them. Gaudium et Spes describes some of the varieties of unbelievers, including those who deny God outright, ambivalent agnostics, wary skeptics, calculating rationalists, doubtful philosophers, sensual materialists, and virulent anti-Christians. And then there are those who “never get to the point of raising questions about God, since they seem to experience no religious stirrings, nor do they see why they should trouble themselves about religion” (GS, n. 19). No doubt this describes many of our neighbors, co-workers, and even family members.

At the heart of atheism is an unbalanced desire for human independence that excludes the reality of God. Man becomes the end of all things, and the “sole artisan and creator of his own history” (GS, n. 20). John Paul II recently made remarks in a similar vein, saying that “Being an atheist...means not knowing the true nature of created reality, but absolutizing it, and therefore ‘idolizing’ it, instead of considering it a mark of the Creator and the path that leads to him” (John Paul II, “Christian Response to Atheism,” April 14, 1999 at the General Audience).

Along with this exclusive focus on humanity, modern atheism strongly emphasizes technology, science, and certain political philosophies. These are held up as evidence of man’s autonomy and his ability to achieve an earthly utopia. Fr. Miceli writes that the atheistic mentality and attitude

involves a flight from the invisible toward the visible, from the transcendent towards the immanent, from the spiritual toward the material in such a way that not only are the invisible, transcendent and spiritual rejected as dimensions of reality, but they are denied existence itself. ... For atheism receives its true, full meaning from the reality it rejects—God. It represents a choice the creature makes of himself and his universe in preference to his Creator (p. 2).

Atheists disagree widely among themselves about what it means to be an atheist. Ignace Lepp, a convert to Catholicism from Marxism, observed, “It would not be at all false to say that there are as many atheisms as atheists” (Atheism In Our Time, p. 12). This presents a formidable challenge to the Catholic apologist. It means being aware of how diverse are the viewpoints within the world of atheism. In a way, it is similar to hearing someone say they are “Christian.” That person could be Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Baptist, or a member of several thousand different denominations or sects (such as Mormons), each with different beliefs.

Similarly, there are many different types of atheism, including weak atheism (lacking a belief in a God), strong atheism (believing God cannot exist), disproof atheism (believing most evidence points to God’s nonexistence), methodological atheism (claiming theists fail to give sufficient proof for God’s existence), mystical atheism (based on a private, subjective experience), and faith atheism (believing in nonexistence of God based on “faith”). Forms of atheisms range from political ideologies (Marxism) to scientific perspectives (Darwinian evolution) to existential viewpoints (nihilism).

Michael Martin, a noted atheist apologist, gives a helpful definition from the atheist perspective: “If you look up ‘atheism’ in the dictionary, you will probably find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly, many people understand atheism in this way. Yet many atheists do not, and this is not what the term means if one considers it from the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek ‘a’ means ‘without’ or ‘not’ and ‘theos’ means ‘god’. From this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God” (Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, p. 463).

Some atheists prefer to be called freethinkers, rationalists, humanists, or agnostics.  Often the differences appear to be little more than semantics. But agnostics, who traditionally are ambivalent about man’s ability to know whether God exists or not, are often scorned by staunch atheists, such as the infamous Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who once sneered that “the agnostic is gutless and prefers to keep one safe foot in the god camp” (Madalyn Murray O’Hair, from With allies like that, one might be tempted to start searching for God again!

Carl E. Olson was raised in a Fundamentalist Protestant home, attended an Evangelical Bible college, and along with his wife Heather entered the Catholic Church in 1997. He has a Master of Theological Studies from the University of Dallas and is planning to pursue a degree in philosophy. A resident of Eugene, Oregon, Carl writes for a variety of Catholic publications and is currently working on two book projects.

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