The Mystery of Atheism

Atheists, like saints, are made not born. It is not easy to become a saint. The road to the summit of moral transfiguration is steep and treacherous. Left to himself, man cannot manage the climb; his sin-weakened nature is in absolute need of divine grace. Thus, God, who is holiness Himself, alone can develop sanctity in man. But man, endowed with intelligence and freedom, must, of course, cooperate in his own sanctification. Now, the perfect human formula for sainthood is found in Mary’s response to God: “Behold, the servant of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Thy word.” Saints are, therefore, formed in the image of God’s Word, whose “food was to do the will of him who sent me.”

Paradoxically, it is not easy to be an atheist either. It is terrifying to attempt escape from the Divine Lover. The road leads down to violent serfdom. Here, however, unlike the quest for sanctity, the drive for atheism is a onesided affair, demanded by man, contested by God. No one becomes an atheist unknowingly or unwillingly. Even so-called “born atheists” indoctrinated from childhood onward in the schools of Organized Atheism eventually, as adults, must make a decision for or against God. For that matter, the same is true of Christians drilled in the fundamentals of their faith as children.

After all, how does one teach minors? According to their capacity, of course. Thus, early indoctrination in itself is a perfectly valid method for instructing minors in the faith of their fathers. The method is vitiated when employed in indoctrinating children, or adults for that matter, in known falsity or moral evil. When, however, minors become intellectual adults, indoctrination should cease. Faith bolstered by reason should be taught and practiced. The science of theology is taught to the intellectually advanced. Thus, in the adult, the responsibility for belief calls for his ratification of his childhood faith by a decision for God and His revelation. St. Peter, the apostles, and the learned Fathers and Doctors of the Church exhorted Christians of all walks of life to be always ready to present any inquirer with reasonable answers for the faith that ruled their minds and hearts.

For their part, atheists are not backward in giving reason to their unbelief. And they do so with philosophic profundity and literary virtuosity, as this study aims at demonstrating. Pascal recognized what Ronald Knox might have called “the enthusiasm,” that is, the blazing zeal in the religion of humanistic atheism. His immortal statement on the subject declares: “Atheism is an indication of spiritual vigor but only to a certain degree.” We hope to show that atheism’s vigor arises from its heroic will to create mythical gods in place of the true God. We hope to prove that its feebleness is demonstrated by its utter inability to cure the contradictory crisis it creates between man, whom it would advance in freedom, and its own New God, whom it cannot restrain from devouring mankind. Thus, this study will maintain that no atheist chooses merely to deny God. For the atheist’s spiritual posture against God is at the same time his posture in preference for some other Being above God. As he dismisses the true God, he is welcoming his New God. Why must this be so? Because every personal commitment of man presupposes, deep in the metaphysical core of his being, a hunger for being as truth and goodness. Man is intrinsically burdened with an incurable hunger for transcendence. If being abhors a vacuum, the vacuum it most violently shrinks from is the total absence of Infinite Being.

And history demonstrates that man is inconsolable without the true God. Dostoyevsky, who experienced this abhorrence in atheist Russia, has one of his characters in The Devils (or The Possessed) express it thus: “If a man were to be deprived of the infinitely great, he would refuse to go on living and die of despair. The infinite and the immeasurable is as necessary to man as the little planet which he inhabits. . . . My friends, God is necessary to me if only because he is the only being whom one can love eternally.”

We have said that it is terrifying to attempt to live without God. Kirilov, one of the many atheists in The Devils, testifies to this truth: “To realize that there is no God and not to realize at the same instant that you have become God yourself—is an absurdity, for else you would certainly kill yourself. I cannot understand how an atheist could know that there is no God and not kill himself at once!” Why then are so many atheists alive and flourishing? Because, according to Kirilov, they have accepted the role of being their own gods. “For three years I have been searching for the attribute of my divinity, and I’ve found it: the attribute of my divinity is—Self-Will! That’s all I can do to prove in the main point my defiance and my new terrible freedom. For it is very terrible. I am killing myself to show my defiance and my new terrible freedom.”

Against the background of this truth, how can we explain the rapid advance of open and camouflaged atheism in our times? How can we evaluate Nicholas Hartmann’s call for a “postulatory atheism” that teaches that God not only does not exist but also that He ought not to exist? In studying some of the great intellectual atheists of our times, we will try to show that such atheists continued to exist and work laboriously, even though they deliberately denied the existence of God, because they had created for themselves a new, attractive god of their own. And they had dedicated themselves and their work to this new Transcendent Being. Far from despairing over the loss of the rejected God, these learned giants, with high hubris, threw themselves into the thrilling eschatological divertissement of planning and directing the temporal destiny of man in the service of their New God. Eric Voegelin carefully concluded, after studying profoundly the new Gnostic gods espoused by our modern atheists, as follows:

The death of the spirit is the price of progress. Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and that He had been murdered. This Gnostic murder is constantly committed by men who sacrifice God to civilization. The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline. Humanistic atheism in the modern form of the idolatrous adoration of the new Gnostic gods is destroying the society of man. The aim of this work is to indicate that the great sin of contemporary atheism is that it consists, through a sustained act of Supreme Self-Will, in a total preoccupation with the human. This atheism induces man to fall down before himself in narcissistic adoration and love. In one form or another, the systems of thought expounded in this work call man to a religious allegiance solely to Man-God. They reject the one true God and the God-Man whom He sent to divinize man in a valid way.

“Not Thy Will but My or Our Human Will be done,” is their sole creed, dedication, and enterprise. Pascal, recording the unutterable religious experience he had in an encounter with the true God on the night of November 23, 1654, indicates the only sure road back from the dreadful social ditch into which advancing atheism has tripped man. He wrote: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ. My God and Your God. . . . He alone can be found by the ways taught in the Gospels. . . . He alone can be kept by the ways taught in the Gospels. Sweet and total submission to Jesus Christ.”

In this work, we are not inspired with a spirit of animus. We are inspired with the spirit of Christian criticism of these atheistic philosophies that have brought and are still inflicting on man great tragedy. It must be remembered throughout this study that the scholars treated, almost to a man, were originally Christians who knew the ways and the message of the Gospels well. Early in their lives, they knew Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Moreover, they even loved and lived the ways and message of the Gospels for some part of their lives. Why they went away from God and broke with Christ as His Divine Son they have recorded in many of their works with the hope of persuading others to follow their paths. From the testimony of their lives as atheists, from history’s witness of the evil effects of their systems of thought, and from long, reflective research, we have come to the conclusion that theirs are dangerously misleading and even at times degrading views that sap the spiritual substance of man. That is why we have undertaken to identify, analyze, and evaluate their religious philosophies of life. It is hoped that this study may lead readers to reject the paths that run to the temples of the strange Gnostic gods of humanistic atheism. For in these temples, the masses are trapped in the millennium of temporality. On the positive side, it is hoped that those groping for the true God may be helped to find Him and hold Him where He can only be found and held—in Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life, in the sweet and total submission to the God-Man.

Editor’s note: The above excerpt was taken from The Gods of Atheism, available now from Sophia Institute Press.


The late Rev. Vincent P. Miceli, S. J. earned his doctoral degree in contemporary philosophy from Fordham University while studying under Dietrich von Hildebrand. He taught at Spring Hill College, Loyola University in New Orleans, the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas, both in Rome, and at St. John’s University in New York City. He is the author of Ascent to Being, a study of the philosophy of communion in the writings of Gabriel Marcel, the noted French philosopher, dramatist, and essayist. He is also the author of The Gods of Atheism, a study of modern atheism as it developed among philosophers and some theologians from the eighteenth century to present times. Dedicated to Pope Paul VI with his approval and enhanced with a laudatory preface by John Cardinal Wright, this work had great success. He published many articles in journals and magazines— L’Osservatore Romano, Thought, The New Scholasticism, National Review, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, the New York Times, Triumph, Human Events, Christian Order, Social Digest, National Catholic Register, Men of the South, et al. He died in 1991.

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