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The Problem of Atheism
by augusto del noce
mcgill–queen's university, 528 pages, $39.95

Augusto Del Noce (1910–89) is one of those rare thinkers whose thought becomes truer as time passes. His penetrating account of a totalitarianism of permanent revolution, driven by scientism and eroticism, abetted unwittingly by the “dialoguing” and “listening” Church, depicts our age more perfectly than his own, making him as much a prophet as a philosopher. Virtually unknown in the United States during his lifetime, Del Noce has become something of a phenomenon among American intellectuals thanks to the vindication of his thought by recent history—and thanks to Carlo ­Lancellotti’s superb translations of two essay and lecture collections, The Crisis of Modernity (2015) and The Age of Secularization (2017). To these can now be added Lancellotti’s translation of Del Noce’s first and seminal book, The Problem of Atheism (2022).

First published in 1964, prior to the composition of most of the essays in the collected volumes, The Problem of Atheism is a difficult book. It is fitting that Lancellotti reached it last, and readers new to Del Noce—or those seeking to understand his mature views on matters such as the sexual revolution—are advised to begin with the essay collections. Its dense prose and labyrinthine structure, dictated by an ­intellectual trajectory that began at the ethical-­political level and concluded in questions of fundamental philosophy, makes Lancellotti’s introductory essay an indispensable guide. Nevertheless, The Problem of Atheism is also a very important book, elaborating the historical development and philosophical substructure of the thesis that gives unity and coherence to Del Noce’s life’s work.

For Del Noce, twentieth-­century history is the incarnation of philosophical history, the tradition of ­rationalism that culminates in ­Hegel and terminates in Marx, in whom “philosophy becomes world.” In other words, the history of the ­twentieth century is the history of the outworking of Marxism, whose “suicidal” triumph—its ­simultaneous victory as an ideology of progressive transformation and defeat with the realization of this ideology in the bourgeois society of well-­being—is more fully developed in Del Noce’s later works. But since the essence of Marx’s philosophy is atheism, the history of the ­twentieth century is the unfolding of the problem of a particularly Marxist form of atheism, which rests in the conviction that reality—indeed, truth—is made, not given. This kind of atheism is quite different from the apologetic (or “­scientistic”) atheism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: It is irreligious rather than dogmatic, leading to what Popes John Paul II and ­Benedict XVI would call the “eclipse of the sense of God and man.”

For Del Noce, Marx’s ­atheism was crucially misunderstood by Jacques Maritain and the progressive Catholicism that emerged in the long shadow of ­Maritain’s thought. Given the role of Marxism in twentieth-century history, this misreading marks a massive failure to interpret “the signs of the times.” Maritain’s encounter with fascism had produced in him a conversion of sorts: In the works leading up to The Primacy of the Spiritual (1927), he had adopted a stance that Del Noce calls “­anti-modern extremism.” During this period many traditional Catholics had hoped that fascism might prove to be a stepping stone to the restoration of a Catholic confessional state—a hope bolstered, Lancellotti points out, by the Lateran Treaties of 1929. But as the evils of fascism became more apparent, Maritain rethought his priorities, and came to believe that the battle between fascism and democracy was the defining struggle of the age. His project now was less a Catholic critique of modernity than an attempt to reconcile Catholic theology with modern humanism in a non-reactionary Thomism compatible with liberal democracy.

Del Noce did not consider Maritain a “modernist”; he remained too much of a Thomist for that. But he argues that Maritain exhibits “a line of lesser resistance with respect to the resurgence of modernism.” ­Maritain’s change of heart, then, “marks the moment when neo-Thomism, on whose foundation the resistance to the first modernism had been organized, seems in danger of capitulating to the second.”

This statement illuminates an otherwise enigmatic claim from Del Noce’s The Age of Secularization: that progressive Catholicism is a kind of “neo-modernism.” Del Noce differentiates neo-modernism from the old modernism by virtue of its political origin. The “new modernism” is an essentially political phenomenon, constituted in its nature and origin by its opposition to fascism.

This distinction explains the perennial delusion of the Catholic Left. More a political than a theological phenomenon, the Catholic Left imagines itself the world’s guardian against fascism, even as its sociologism and pastoralism subordinate theology to history and replace the categories of “true and false” with those of “friend and ­enemy,” ­thereby furthering the most ­absolute form of totalitarianism imaginable. Del Noce’s powerful critique of Catholic progressivism in his later works looks as if it had been written for the Church of the ­twenty-­first century.

Maritain’s critique of Marxism is essentially a critique of Hegel, a fact that causes him and those ­influenced by him to miss the decisive element in Marx’s thought. Marx’s ­atheism appears in the Maritainian understanding as a moral protest against the hypocrisy of bourgeois ­Christianity, a protest that attests to the enduring presence in Marx’s thought of residually Christian ideas—moral order, a directional history, an “eschatological” consummation—contradicted by his thoroughgoing materialism. This contradiction necessitated the task, eventually taken up by other thinkers, of appropriating for Christian thought the “positive” and “moral” elements of Marxism, as Aquinas had done with ­Aristotle.

According to Del Noce, Maritain and his successors failed to apprehend Marx’s positive relationship to Hegel, and as a result underestimated Marx’s philosophical importance, misunderstood the crucial difference between Marx’s atheism and that of predecessors such as ­Feuerbach, and unwittingly adopted an essentially Marxist interpretation of philosophical history, with its presupposition of historical inevitability. All of this would blind later generations of Catholic thinkers to the metaphysical dangers lurking in a dalliance with Marxist thought.

What Maritain and the later neo-modernists failed to see is that the singular character of Marx’s atheism followed from his concession that Hegel’s speculative idealism had completed the philosophical tradition begun with Plato. Marx’s dictum “philosophy becomes world” is premised upon his acceptance of the world’s having “become philosophy” in Hegel. To invert Hegel is to say that philosophy resolves itself not in understanding, but in action—in praxis. But in this case, God, being, nature, truth—all forms of transcendence—simply cease to matter. It is not that their non-existence has been demonstrated by argument; indeed, atheism rests on a negative act of faith, which Del Noce will later exploit for his alternative philosophical history. It is that reason itself has been so transformed by the conflation of thought and praxis that transcendence has become, strictly speaking, unthinkable. God is not a question that can be posed seriously from within this conception of “reason.” What matters now is history: the past historical and material conditions that make all truth claims into an expression of ideology, and the future historical conditions that will be changed by human praxis, that is, by science and political action, whose “truth” is verified by its effectiveness.

The decisive element of Marx’s atheism is inseparable, in other words, from his rejection of the “philosophy of comprehension.” And Marxist atheism surpasses all previous forms because it passes into irreligion, which defeats religion not by argument but simply by erasing God and the religious dimension from thought and life. This is the decisive reason that man after Marx is destined to become fully bourgeois—in Del Noce’s later formulation, “a man whose life is completely determined by the category of usefulness, so that he desecrates everything he thinks about.” The defining mark of irreligion is “sociologism,” which reduces all pretense of metaphysical truth to historical conditions and social or psychological functions within the immanent field of power relations that define modern politics, carrying a world of metaphysical assumptions in train. Sociologism makes anonymous atheists of us all, and one can measure the scope of its triumph within Christianity itself by the extent to which the social sciences have replaced metaphysics in the Church’s manner of thinking.

Del Noce’s writings have much to teach us about the meaning of our historical moment. I have found my own work confirmed and enriched by them. Nevertheless, my own judgment is that, though Del Noce penetrates the essence of our crisis, his account of its causes is incomplete. This is due to a shortcoming typical of European intellectuals of his generation, one for which he can hardly be faulted: the failure to appreciate the meaning of America not simply as a derivation of Europe, but as a philosophical problem unto itself—perhaps the problem that we must now confront. One might propose this failure as another reason why Del Noce has found such a welcome reception among conservative American intellectuals, long accustomed to blaming our present crisis on Marxism and other foreign contaminants of America’s founding principles. Confirmation of that familiar line of argument would further absolve us of a serious philosophical examination of those principles, a result Del Noce himself would surely lament.

What would a response to Del Noce along the lines I have suggested look like? It would require showing that irreligion belongs to the essence of the American experiment, even achieves its perfected form here, and that many of the defining features of the new totalitarianism developed indigenously on American soil prior to, and independent of, Marx’s influence. One would have to demonstrate how irreligion can coexist with—and find expression in—American religiosity. This would require more than a critique of “liberalism” as one of the eternal genera of political order. It would require a history of Del Nocean scope—at once historical, philosophical, and theological—of the unique confluence of Enlightenment natural and political philosophy, Protestant Christianity, and the unprecedented “calling” to pacify and bind the North American continent.

Finally, it would require an interpretation of pragmatism, the great American contribution to the history of philosophy, not simply as one of the “philosophies of praxis” that emerged after Marx, but in the terms in which William James and John Dewey understood it: as the national spirit come to conscious philosophical expression, the latent metaphysics of the American experiment come out into the open. For here we have an “indigenous” conflation of thought and practice, truth and utility, which claims to reduce metaphysics to nonsense and traces its patrimony not to Marx but to the older, Baconian vision at the foundation of the American experiment. That is obviously a topic for another essay, but it raises the pertinent question of how Del Noce’s thesis might have to be modified to accommodate such an analysis.

An adequate account of pragmatism would suggest that Marx is not quite the prime number Del Noce takes him to be, but was an acute manifestation of a deeper metaphysical revolution that was already underway. That revolution could be called secularization—not in the standard meaning of the word (the slow, supposedly inevitable desacralization of thought and life), but rather in the terms as used by John Milbank and Andrew Willard Jones, for whom “the secular” is a heretical transformation within the Christian tradition, dependent upon a wholesale reimagination of God, being, nature, truth, and Christianity itself.

Del Noce’s understanding of secularization exemplifies the strengths and limitations of his thought. He opposed the “inevitable secularization” thesis as applied to the history of modern philosophy, and he was critical of “catastrophic” reactionary neo-scholasticism, in part because he thought it unwittingly conceded the Marxist conception of history. Once that conception was accepted, the only alternative was “to declare that the catastrophic character of modernity is irreparable and cannot be overcome practically.” The result, he thought, would be an “absolute passivity, which can only translate, in practice, into saying yes to anything and anybody; which is linked either with an aspiration for a ‘God to come’ that, however, remains absolutely formless and is thus nothingness, or with nostalgia for a ‘past God’ that cannot be restored.”

As an alternative to such fatalism, Del Noce proposed that an answer to Marxism awaited development in the tradition of “Ontologism” that emerges from an alternative philosophical history, beginning with Descartes and passing through Pascal and Vico to Rosmini. This revisionist history, often alluded to in the later essays, assumes central importance in The Problem of ­Atheism. By “Ontologism,” Del Noce did not mean the unity of divine and human reason condemned by ­Vatican I, but “a religious school that ­derives from St. Augustine . . . [that] insists on the soul’s ­immediate and lived contact with God, a direct ­experience against whose background the proofs of God take on meaning and value.”

In his later years, Lancellotti notes, Del Noce would use the term very rarely, preferring instead to invoke Rosmini or the “existential Thomism” of Gilson to refer to the needed reconciliation of Thomism and Augustinianism, understood “as a philosophy of the presence of God.” Otherwise, Del Noce’s thoughts here are rather enigmatic; so far as I know he never got around to working out a theory of Ontologism for himself. But he was surely correct that, if a metaphysics of participation is true, then it must be reflected in the order of cognition without annulling the difference between creature and Creator or bypassing the role the senses play in our coming to know. The reality of an order of truth that is not reducible to social, political, or mechanical functions finally hinges on this.

Something is missing from Del Noce’s response to catastrophism: a properly philosophical account of whether catastrophism might actually be true. He offers a historical and political argument—perhaps an indication that he never fully succeeded in passing beyond the political origins of his own thought. I have reservations also about Del Noce’s revisionist history. A more ­Milbankian understanding of “secularization” would likely take a more critical stance toward Cartesian theology. (After all, Descartes helped to launch the mechanistic ontology that is foundational to modern irreligion.)

None of that, however, alters the essence of our modern crisis, Marxism’s pivotal role in it, or the nature of the solution required if we are to surpass it. Nor does it alter the status of The Problem of Atheism as a profound and indispensable guide to a more adequate reading of the “signs of the times.”

Michael Hanby is associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.