In Praise of Noble Atheism

When kneejerk anger so often replaces real debate, openness to reason comes as a real breath of fresh air.

 Sébastien Norblin, “St. Paul in Athens,” 1844
Sébastien Norblin, “St. Paul in Athens,” 1844 (photo: Public Domain)

Three unsolicited e-mails, received in the past day, have all prompted or provoked me into contemplation on the human person’s quest for goodness and truth. The first was what can best be described as hate mail. I will let it speak for itself: “I have never known such a mentally deranged person as you, Joseph Pearce. I feel very sorry for you and will pray to God that he will close his door for you when you leave this life behind you (soon, I hope).” Enough said; indeed, there’s not really anything that can be said, except that which should be said in prayer for such a tortured soul.

The next was from an angry self-styled “Traditionalist” who excoriated me for my lack of militancy and my refusal to see things his way, questioning my manhood and my “duplicitous” allegiance to the godhead. Although he touted his “orthodoxy,” his quasi-Catholic puritanism marked him as a follower of the tradition of Jansenism, rather than that of true traditional orthodoxy. Once again, there seems nothing to say in the face of such anger. The response should be silence and prayer.  

The third was from representatives from an atheist “philosophy of religion” podcast, responding to an essay of mine in the Imaginative Conservative entitled “Debunking the Two Types of Atheism.” “We generally agree with some of the distinctions you have outlined,” these atheists began, adding that “we also agree with a lot of the critiques of the ‘New Atheism’ that you have offered.” They continue: “From our experience, many of the ‘New Atheists’ simply engage in empty rhetoric that is easily defeated by sophisticated Christian philosophy. We (and many other philosophical Atheists) believe that theism is an intellectually respectable and rational position to hold, and that religious believers can indeed be rational and reasonable in their belief in God.”

After the kneejerk anger of the personal attacks, this openness to reason came as a real breath of fresh air. I consider these atheists my friends, even though I don’t know them, because any honest soul in genuine pursuit of the truth is a friend of mine. They agreed that the New Atheism “has been sufficiently debunked and refuted” but argued that there was a deeper atheism which has not been debunked. My atheist friends claimed to have read the works of Peter Kreeft, Richard Purtill, Edward Feser, Robert Koons, Alexander Pruss and Thomas Joseph White, adding that they had also “made an effort to study the scholastics and past Christian intellectual giants such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Jacques Maritain and G.K. Chesterton, etc. “While we greatly respect the work of the aforementioned authors (and believe that sincere Atheists who want to be intellectually honest should engage with their work as well) we still believe that the case for ‘Noble’ Atheism, as represented by contemporary analytic atheist philosophy is still stronger.”

My atheist friends then asked me for my thoughts on “some of the best defenses of Atheism as seen from a philosophical perspective,” referring particularly to Miracle of Theism by J. L. Mackie, Logic and Theism by J. H. Sobel and Arguing About Gods by Graham Oppy. “We would be very interested in your thoughts regarding these works,” my friends concluded, “because there is usually very little engagement with them in popular apologetics.”

I replied that it was rare in our rabidly relativistic days (daze?) to receive a calm, considered and rational response to any position from those who don't hold it. “Your apparent advocacy of genuine objectivity as the basis for understanding the underlying truth and truths of the cosmos is necessary for any genuine intellectual engagement. I salute you!” 

I then confessed that I had not read the works of philosophical atheism that they recommended, agreeing that it would be beneficial were I to engage with the arguments of the noble atheists who are genuinely seeking the truth and who are using rational objectivity to do so. “They would be worthy of my time,” I wrote. “I have no doubt.” I then gave my reasons for not having read them and my excuses for not planning to read them in the future:

I have long since reached the conclusion that, when I die, there will be many more books that I should have read than those that I have actually read. As I get older, I am more centered on admiring the beauty of reality than on the rational arguments for what reality is and isn't. My approach follows the reasoning in the Summa Theologica that perception is predicated upon virtue, specifically the virtue of humility. According to Aquinas, humility leads to gratitude, which opens the eyes in wonder, prompting the contemplation that leads to the dilation of the mind (dilatatio) into the fullness of reality (which is both physical and metaphysical). Humility-gratitude-wonder-contemplation-dilation. I appreciate that you may not agree that this is the path of realistic perception but it is really the only path which interests me at this stage of my journey. At my age, I am keeping my eye on the finishing line!

I concluded by signing off “in admiration of your honesty and integrity.” I feel towards these noble atheists what Chesterton felt towards George Bernard Shaw, who followed Nietzsche in philosophy, Marx in politics, and puritanical priggishness in personal ethics, all of which were anathema to GKC. Chesterton wrote a whole book on Shaw, debunking Shaw’s position. Yet he did so with a charity that matched his clarity. The two men were friends and remained so in spite of their manifold and multifarious differences. Chesterton shows us how to love our enemy, as does Shaw. Even though it is not easy to make our enemies our friends, and often impossible, it is nonetheless true that there is no other way of making our enemies our friends except by loving them. We don’t and can’t convert our enemies, or indeed anyone else, by personally attacking them. Hatred only breeds more hatred, and hatred is inimical not merely to goodness (love) but also to truth.

I will end by suggesting to my atheist friends that goodness, truth and beauty are One because love is itself the beauty of truth. Let the conversation continue.