The question is asked whether atheists can be good citizens. I do not want to keep you in suspense. I would very much like to answer the question in the affirmative. It seems the decent and tolerant thing to do. But before we can answer the question posed, we should first determine what is meant by atheism. And, second, we must inquire more closely into what is required of a good citizen.
Consider our late friend Sidney Hook. Can anyone deny that he was a very good citizen indeed? During the long contest with totalitarianism he was a much better citizen than many believers, including numerous church leaders, who urged that the moral imperative was to split the difference between the evil empire and human fitness for freedom.
On the other hand, Sidney Hook was not really an atheist. He is more accurately described as a philosophical agnostic, one who says that the evidence is not sufficient to compel us either to deny or affirm the reality of God. Sidney was often asked what he would say when he died and God asked him why he did not believe. His standard answer was that he would say, “Lord, you didn’t supply enough evidence.” Some of us are rather confident that Sidney now has all the evidence that he wanted, and we dare to hope that the learning experience is not too painful for him. Unlike many atheists of our time, Sidney Hook believed in reason and evidence that yield what he did not hesitate to call truth. They may have been false gods, but he was not without his gods.
There is atheism and then there is atheism. The Greek a-theos meant one who is “without God.” It had less to do with whether one believed in God than with whether one believed in the gods of the city or the empire. For his perceived disbelief in the gods, Socrates was charged with atheism. The early Christians were charged with atheism for their insistence that there is no god other than the God whom Jesus called Father. In the eyes of the ancients, to be a-theos was to be outside the civilizational circle of the civitas. To be an atheist was to be subversive. The atheist was a security risk, if not a traitor. Christians were thought to be atheists precisely because they professed the God who judges and debunks the false gods of the community. In the classical world, then, the answer to our question was decisively in the negative: No, an atheist could not be a good citizen. But those whom they called atheists then we do not call atheists today.
Those whom we call atheists in the modern period believe that they are denying what earlier “atheists,” such as the Christians, affirmed. That is to say, they deny the reality of what they understand believing Jews and Christians to mean by God. This form of atheism is a post-Enlightenment and largely nineteenth-century phenomenon. It developed a vocabulary—first of course among intellectuals but then becoming culturally pervasive—that was strongly prejudiced against believers. Note the very use of the term “believer” to describe a person who is persuaded of the reality of God. The alternative to being a believer, of course, is to be a knower. Similarly, a curious usage developed with respect to the categories of faith and reason, the subjective and the objective, and, in the realm of morals, a sharp distinction between fact and value. Belief, faith, subjectivity, values—these were the soft and dubious words relevant to affirming God. Knowledge, reason, objectivity, fact—these were the hard and certain words relevant to denying God. This tendentious vocabulary of modern unbelief is still very much with us today.
Necessarily following from such distortive distinctions are common assumptions about the public and the private. One recalls A. N. Whitehead’s axiom that religion is what a man does with his solitude. Even one so religiously musical as William James could write, “Religion . . . shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude.” (The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 2) In this construal of matters, we witness a radical departure from the public nature of religion, whether that religion has to do with the ancient gods of the city or with the biblical Lord who rules over the nations. The gods of the city and the God of the Bible are emphatically public. The confinement of the question of God or the gods to the private sphere constitutes what might be described as political atheism. Many today who are believers in private have been persuaded, or intimidated, into accepting political atheism.
Political atheism is a subspecies of practical or methodological atheism. Practical or methodological atheism is, quite simply, the assumption that we can get along with the business at hand without addressing the question of God one way or another. Here the classic anecdote is the response of the Marquis de Laplace to Napoleon Bonaparte. You will recall that when Napoleon observed that Laplace had written a huge book on the system of the universe without mentioning the Author of the universe, Laplace replied, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.” When God has become a hypothesis we have traveled a very long way from both the gods of the ancient city and the God of the Bible. Yet that distance was necessary to the emergence of what the modern world has called atheism.
In his remarkable work, At the Origins of Modern Atheism, Michael Buckley persuasively argues that the god denied by many moderns is a strange god created by the attempts of misguided religionists to demonstrate that god could be proven or known on philosophical grounds alone.
The extraordinary note about this emergence of the denial of the Christian god which Nietzsche celebrated is that Christianity as such, more specifically the person and teaching of Jesus or the experience and history of the Christian Church, did not enter the discussion. The absence of any consideration of Christology is so pervasive throughout serious discussion that it becomes taken for granted, yet it is so stunningly curious that it raises a fundamental issue of the modes of thought: How did the issue of Christianity vs. atheism become purely philosophical? To paraphrase Tertullian: How was it that the only arms to defend the temple were to be found in the Stoa?
As Nietzsche’s god had nothing to do with Christology, so, needless to say, the god that he declared dead had nothing to do with Sinai, election, covenant, or messianic promise.
In his notebook, after his death, was found Pascal’s famous assertion of trust in “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.” Modern atheism is the product not so much of anti-religion as of religion’s replacement of the God of Abraham with the god of the philosophers, and of the philosophers’ consequent rejection of that ersatz god. Descartes determined that he would accept as true nothing that could be reasonably doubted, and Christians set about to prove that the existence of God could not be reasonably doubted. Thus did the defenders of religion set faith against the doubt that is integral to the life of faith.
The very phrase, “the existence of God,” gave away the game, as though God were one existent among other existents, one entity among other entities, one actor among other actors, whose actions must conform to standards that we have determined in advance are appropriate to being God. The transcendent, the ineffable, the totally other, the God who acts in history was tamed and domesticated in order to meet the philosophers’ job description for the post of God. Not surprisingly, the philosophers determined that the candidates recommended by the friends of religion did not qualify for the post.
The American part of this story is well told by historian James Turner (Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America). “The natural parents of modern unbelief,” Turner writes, “turn out to have been the guardians of belief.” Many thinking people came at last “to realize that it was religion, not science or social change, that gave birth to unbelief. Having made God more and more like man—intellectually, morally, emotionally—the shapers of religion made it feasible to abandon God, to believe simply in man.” Turner’s judgment is relentless: “In trying to adapt their religious beliefs to socioeconomic change, to new moral challenges, to novel problems of knowledge, to the tightening standards of science, the defenders of God slowly strangled Him. If anyone is to be arraigned for deicide, it is not Charles Darwin but his adversary Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, not the godless Robert Ingersoll but the godly Beecher family.”
H. L. Mencken observed that the great achievement of liberal Protestantism was to make God boring. That is unfair, of course, as Mencken was almost always unfair, but it is not untouched by truth. The god that was trimmed, accommodated, and retooled in order to be deemed respectable by the “modern mind” was increasingly uninteresting, because unnecessary. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described that god as a “god of the gaps,” invoked to fill in those pieces of reality that human knowledge and control had not yet mastered. H. Richard Niebuhr’s well known and withering depiction of the gospel of liberal Christianity is very much to the point: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Absent our sin and divine wrath, judgment, and redemption, it is not surprising that people came to dismiss the idea of God not because it is implausible but because it is superfluous, and, yes, boring.
It would no doubt be satisfying for Christian believers—and for Jews who identify themselves not by the accidents of Jewishness but by the truth of Judaism—to conclude that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus has not been touched by the critiques of atheism. However, while it is true that the god denied by many atheists is not the God of the Bible affirmed by Christians and Jews, there are forms of atheism that do intend to preclude such affirmation, and certainly to preclude such affirmation in public. There is, for example, the more determined materialist who asserts that there simply is nothing and can be nothing outside a closed system of matter. This was the position of the late and unlamented “dialectical materialism” of Communism. It is the position of some scientists today, especially those in the biological sciences who are wedded to evolution as a belief system. (Physicists, as it turns out, are increasingly open to the metaphysical.)
Perhaps more commonly, one encounters varieties of logical positivism that hold that since assertions about God are not empirically verifiable—or, for that matter, falsifiable—they are simply meaningless. In a similar vein, analytical philosophers would instruct us that “God talk” is, quite precisely, non-sense. This is not atheism in the sense to which we have become accustomed, since it claims that denying God is as much nonsense as affirming God. It is atheism, however, in the original sense of a-theos, of being without God. Then there is the much more radical position that denies not only the possibility of truth claims about God but the possibility of claims to truth at all—at least as “truth” has usually been understood in our history. Perhaps today’s most prominent proponent of this argument in America is Richard Rorty. This is not the atheism that pits reason against our knowledge of God; this is the atheism of unreason.
Rorty is sometimes portrayed, and portrays himself, as something of an eccentric gadfly. In fact, along with Derrida, Foucault, and other Heideggerian epigones of Nietzsche, Rorty is the guru of an academic establishment of increasing influence in our intellectual culture. Here we encounter the apostles of a relativism that denies it is relativism because it denies that there is any alternative to relativism, and therefore the term relativism is “meaningless.” They are radically anti-foundationalist. That is to say, they contend that there are no conclusive arguments underlying our assertions, except the conclusive argument that there are no conclusive arguments. They reject any “correspondence theory” of truth. There is no coherent connection between what we think and say and the reality “out there.” Truth is what the relevant community of discourse agrees to say is true.
The goal, in this way of thinking, is self-actualization, indeed self-creation. The successful life is the life lived as a novum, an autobiography that has escaped the “used vocabularies” of the past. This argument has its academic strongholds in literary criticism and sectors of philosophy, but it undergirds assumptions that are increasingly widespread in our intellectual culture. If personal and group self-actualization is the end, arguments claiming to deal with truth are but disguised stratagems for the exercise of will and the quest for power. Whether the issue is gender, sexual orientation, or race, we are told that the purpose is to change the ideational “power structure” presently controlled by oppressors who disingenuously try to protect the status quo by appeals to objective truth and intersubjective reason.
The only truth that matters is the truth that is instrumental to self-actualization. Thus truth is in service to “identity.” If, for instance, one has the temerity to object that there is no evidence that Africans discovered the Americas before Columbus, he is promptly informed that he is the tool of hegemonic Eurocentrism. In such a view, the “social construction of reality” (to use the language of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann) takes on ominous new dimensions as it is asserted that all of reality, without remainder, is constructed to serve the will to power and self-actualization. Brevity requires that I describe this approach with broad strokes, but, alas, the description is no caricature.
But are people who embrace this view atheists? They brush aside the question as “not serious,” for the theism upon which atheism depends is, in this view, not serious. As with relativism and irrationality, so also with atheism—the words only make sense in relation to the opposites from which they are derived. Of course privately, or for purposes of a particular community, any words might be deemed useful in creating the self. One might even find it meaningful to speak about “Nature and Nature’s God.” People can be permitted to talk that way, so long as they understand that such talk has no public purchase. Rorty’s “liberal ironist” can employ any vocabulary, no matter how fantastical, so long as he does not insist that it is true in a way that makes a claim upon others, and so long as he does not act on that vocabulary in a manner that limits the freedom of others to construct their own realities.
There is indeed irony in the fact that some who think of themselves as theists eagerly embrace deconstructionism’s operative atheism. Today’s cultural scene is awash in what are called “new spiritualities.” A recent anthology of “America’s new spiritual voices” includes contributions promoting witchcraft, ecological mysticism, devotion to sundry gods and goddesses, and something that presents itself as Zen physio-psychoanalysis. All are deemed to be usable vocabularies for the creation of the self. The book is recommended by a Roman Catholic theologian who writes that it “turns us away from the ‘truths’ outside ourselves that lead to debate and division, and turns us toward the Inner Truth that is beyond debate.” But theism—whether in relation to the gods of the civitas theism—whether in relation to the gods of the civitas or the God of Abraham—is devotion to that which is external to ourselves. In that light, it is evident that many of the burgeoning “spiritualities” in contemporary culture are richly religionized forms of atheism.
There is additional irony. Beyond pop-spiritualities and Rortian nihilism, a serious argument is being made today against a version of rationality upon which Enlightenment atheism was premised. Here one thinks preeminently of Alasdair MacIntyre, and especially of his most recent work, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. MacIntyre effectively polemicizes against a construal of rationality that understands itself to be universal, disinterested, autonomous, and transcending tradition. Our situation, he contends, is one of traditions of rationality in conflict. MacIntyre’s favored tradition is Thomism’s synthesis of Aristotle and Augustine. If I read him correctly, MacIntyre is prepared to join forces with the Rortians in debunking the hegemonic pretensions of the autonomous and foundational reason that has so long dominated our elite intellectual culture. After the great debunking, all the cognitive cards will have to be put on the table and we can then have at it. Presumably, the tradition that can provide the best account of reality will win out.
If that is MacIntyre’s proposal, it strikes me as a very dangerous game. True, in exposing the fallacious value-neutrality of autonomous and traditionless reason, the academy is opened to the arguments of eminently reasonable theism. But, in the resulting free-for-all, it is opened to much else as well. It is made vulnerable to the Nietzschean will to power that sets the rules, and those rules are designed to preclude the return of the gods or God in a manner that claims public allegiance. For one tradition of reason (e.g., Thomism) to form a coalition, even a temporary coalition, with unreason in order to undo another tradition of reason (e.g., the autonomous “way of the mind”) is a perilous tactic.
And yet something like this may be the future of our intellectual culture. In our universities, Christians, Jews, and, increasingly, Muslims will be free to contend for their truths. Just as lesbians, Marxists, Nietzscheans, and devotees of The Great Earth Goddess are free to contend for theirs. It is a matter of equal opportunity propaganda. But—and again there is delicious irony—the old methodological atheism and value-neutrality, against which the revolution was launched, may nonetheless prevail.
In other words, every party will be permitted to contend for their truths so long as they acknowledge that they are their truths, and not the truth. Each will be permitted to propagandize, each will have to propagandize if it is to hold its own, because it is acknowledged that there is no common ground for the alternative to propaganda, which is reasonable persuasion. Of course history, including the history of ideas, is full of surprises. But there is, I believe. reason to fear that theism, when it plays by the rules of the atheism of unreason, will be corrupted and eviscerated. The method becomes the message. Contemporary Christian theology already provides all too many instances of the peddling of truths that are in service to truths other than the truth of God.
We have touched briefly, then, on the many faces of atheism—of living and thinking a-theos, without God or the gods. There is the atheism of the early Christians, who posited God against the gods. There is the atheism of Enlightenment rationalists who, committed to undoubtable certainty, rejected the god whom religionists designed to fit that criterion. There is the practical atheism of Laplace, who had no need of “that hypothesis” in order to get on with what he had to do. There is the weary atheism of those who grew bored with liberalism’s god created in the image and likeness of good liberals. There is the more thorough atheism of Nietzschean relativism that dare not speak its name, that cannot speak its name, lest in doing so it implicitly acknowledge that there is an alternative to relativism. And, finally, there is the atheism of putative theists who peddle religious truths that are true for you, if you find it useful to believe them true.
Can these atheists be good citizens? It depends, I suppose, on what is meant by good citizenship. We may safely assume that the great majority of these people abide by the laws, pay their taxes, and may even be congenial and helpful neighbors. But can a person who does not acknowledge that he is accountable to a truth higher than the self, external to the self, really be trusted? Locke and Rousseau, among many other worthies, thought not. However confused their theology, they were sure that the social contract was based upon nature, upon the way the world really is. Rousseau’s “civil religion” was apparently itself a social construct, but Locke was convinced that the fear of a higher judgment, even an eternal judgment, was essential to citizenship.
It follows that an atheist could not be trusted to be a good citizen, and therefore could not be a citizen at all. Locke is rightly celebrated as a champion of religious toleration, but not of irreligion. “Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God,” he writes in A Letter Concerning Toleration. “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.” The taking away of God dissolves all. Every text becomes pretext, every interpretation misinterpretation, and every oath a deceit.
James Madison in his famed Memorial and Remonstrance of 1785 wrote to similar effect. It is always being forgotten that for Madison and the other founders religious freedom is an unalienable right that is premised upon unalienable duty. “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” Then follows a passage that could hardly be more pertinent to the question that prompts our present reflection: “Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.”
State constitutions could and did exclude atheists from public office. The federal Constitution, in Article VI, would simply impose no religious test. In reaction to the extreme secularist bias of much historical scholarship, some writers in recent years have attempted to portray the founders as Bible-believing, orthodox, even born-again evangelical Christians. That is much too much. It is well worth recalling, however, how much they had in common with respect to religious and philosophical beliefs. While a few were sympathetic to milder versions of Deism and some were rigorous Calvinists in the Puritan tradition, almost all assumed a clearly Christian, and clearly Protestant, construal of reality. In the language of contemporary discourse, the founders were “moral realists.” This is amply demonstrated from many sources, not least the Declaration and the Constitution, and especially the preamble of the latter. The “good” was for the founders a reality not of their own fabrication, nor was it merely the “conventionalism” of received moral tradition.
The founders’ notion of the social contract was not a truncated and mechanistic contrivance of calculated self-interest. Their understanding was more in the nature of a compact, premised upon a sense of covenantal purpose guiding this novus ordo seclorum. That understanding of a covenant encompassing the contract was, in a time of supreme testing, brought to full and magisterial articulation by Abraham Lincoln. The Constitution represented not a deal struck but a nation “so conceived and so dedicated.”
In such a nation, an atheist can be a citizen, but he cannot be a good citizen. A good citizen does more than abide by the laws. A good citizen is able to give an account, a morally compelling account, of the regime of which he is part. He is able to justify its defense against its enemies, and to convincingly recommend its virtues to citizens of the next generation so that they, in turn, can transmit the regime to citizens yet unborn. This regime of liberal democracy, of republican self-governance, is not self-evidently good and just. An account must be given. Reasons must be given. They must be reasons that draw authority from that which is higher than the self, from that which is external to the self, from that to which the self is ultimately obliged.
An older form of atheism pitted reason against the knowledge of God. The newer atheism is the atheism of unreason. It is much the more dangerous because the more insidious. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of Americans—and, I believe, the majority of our intellectual elites, if put to the test—are not atheists of any of the varieties we have discussed. They believe that there are good reasons for this ordering of the civitas, reasons that have public purchase, reasons that go beyond contingent convenience, reasons that entail what is just, the laws of nature, and maybe even the will of God.
The final irony, of course, is that those who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus turn out to be the best citizens. Those who were once called atheists are now the most reliable defenders not of the gods but of the good reasons for this regime of ordered liberty. Such people are the best citizens not despite but because their loyalty to the civitas is qualified by a higher loyalty. Among the best of the good reasons they give in justifying this regime is that it is a regime that makes a sharply limited claim upon the loyalty of its citizens. The ultimate allegiance of the faithful is not to the regime or to its constituting texts, but to the City of God and the sacred texts that guide our path toward that end for which we were created. They are dual citizens, so to speak, in a regime that, as Madison and others well understood, was designed for such duality. When the regime forgets itself and reestablishes the gods of the civitas, even if it be in the name of liberal democracy, the followers of the God of Abraham have no choice but to invite the opprobrium of once again being “atheists.”
I am well aware that there are those who will agree with the gravamen of this argument but for quite different reasons. They do not themselves believe, but they recognize the importance of religion as a “useful lie” essential to securing this kind of public order. It is true, and it is sad. It is sad because they do not believe, and it is sadder because they are prepared to use, and thereby abuse, the name of the God whom they do not honor.
But of course they are right about religion and this public order. It is an order that was not conceived and dedicated by atheists, and cannot today be conceived and dedicated anew by atheists. In times of testing—and every time is a time of testing for this American experiment in ordered liberty—a morally convincing account must be given. You may well ask. Convincing to whom? One obvious answer in a democracy, although not the only answer, is this: convincing to a majority of their fellow citizens. Giving such an account is required of good citizens. And that is why, I reluctantly conclude, atheists cannot be good citizens.
Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things. This essay originated as a Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute.