There are a few atheist personalities I admire with splagchnizomai, and because of their love for truth. Doctrinally, we know atheists can have truth because God is good and without God exists nothing and nobody, and this parallels the notion introduced to me by annotations in The Divine Comedy that every vice is a twisted virtue. Lewis confirms this, most notably in Out of the Silent Planet, where “evil” has no closer analogue in the Martian language than “bent.”
I repeat myself: it is a plain fact that there is truth everywhere. Indeed, it is so plain that we need not resort to religious reasoning to make heads or tails of it, though I did take that liberty. Starting from the premise that no man is wholly without virtue or truth, here are at least a few admirable trends in what so many atheists call simply, “the movement.”
- Fidelity to truth. Rejection of Christianity may often be the first religious experience an atheist has, if from a place of reverence for truth. If from a place of mockery and iconoclasm for the sake of iconoclasm, however, it is a hollow movement.
- Believing firmly that belief matters. Fr. Robert Barron pointed out the now-obvious observation that atheists care about religion as much as the deeply devout.
- They are very vocal. In an age when the Gospel is stifled by pseudo-evangelical compromises and platitudes and doing your own thing, atheism rings like a clear bell in a foggy swamp, to borrow a phrase.
If I went on I’d continue to repeat myself. I find no clarity of distinction between these qualities the more I think about them, and what is admirable about them comes from a common substance. There is a kind of authenticity and conviction in atheism that previous generations found in punk music. Where atheism is admirable, it is devoid of posturing, manipulation, one-off dismissals and overt acts of hatred. This is just as good as saying as that where atheism is admirable it is from fidelity to love, respect and conviction to protect and defend the truth. I have no doubt: Where atheism is admirable, it is with God.
Where atheists are admirable, it is when they do not merely play at being nice for an afternoon. It is when they engage the real arguments of Christianity. It is when they denounce all suppression of freedom of speech. It is good that Hemant Mehta denounces the effective forced removal of billboards. It would be better if he denounced all such forced removal. It is good that atheists denounces abusive priests. It is bad when they use this stick to beat all Christianity, as if ad hominem were not a fallacy, as if Christianity approves of such behavior. Even more absurdly, this is used as evidence that Christianity should be suppressed publicly. Here, I think, is a nugget of what atheist behavior which is very frustrating: Though you are very public about what you believe, you denounce public expressions of what someone else believes. You associate having politicians with religious grounding as being the first step to a theocracy. You believe that any government action which even indirectly encourages a religious charity is itself establishment of a religion.
Nobody wants a theocracy. Just as dangerous is the ideological state which excludes faith from the public square. Even if atheism is not a faith, an aggressively atheist state at least amounts to the same kind of totalitarianism as a theocracy. What everyone wants is the freedom to say freely what he believes without fear of being stifled by the government. If you hate Michelle Bachmann for her posturing, if you despise her for her policies, if you think her religion is absurd, at least admire the idea of a Christian who believes with backbone. Argue whether she is genuine all you want, but do not in any case denounce that ideal of conscientious backbone you already praise when it happens among Christians.
If you denounce believers for using the controls of government to oppress atheists because the controls of government are not for oppressing citizens, then you cannot tolerate any such grappling for the controls of government. If you insist on conscience protections against a religious state, where are the conscience protections for religious individuals from a secular state? Why do you not denounce conscience protections for an utter lack of substance when they are utterly insubstantial?
If you argue that you are a man of principle, all I ask is that you stick to those principles. If what you want is instead to in one breath celebrate the shuttering of a religious presence by the force of the state and in the next denounce the shuttering of an atheist voice by the force of the state, then you are not a man of principle. You are a man of prejudice. You are more tribal than Christendom ever was.
Let there be no schizoid men who say one thing publicly and live one thing privately; for if you believe something privately, you do not believe it at all. As Chesterton wrote, “A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.” If there was anything Kennedy was admirable for, it is not for that speech in Houston. All that is admirable, all that is that integrity and honesty, about the best atheists is against such schizoid men, as surely as truth is against liars.