Atheism's Lessons for Theists

We think we know what atheism means. An atheist holds this proposition: God does not exist. The definition is clear and the group it designates is obvious. Such propositional atheism is the dominant way we think of atheists. But theists should reconsider the term in order to understand it, and ourselves, better. We understand by means of contrasts. How we understand our “other” has implications for how we understand ourselves. If we misconstrue our other, we will misjudge ourselves. We need, then, to complicate our understanding of atheism and see it in various historical formulations. These formulations challenge us to reconsider the propositional focus of our idea of atheism and so to call into question our own theism by shifting our understanding of it and by showing the porosity of the borders between theists and atheists.

What is required is a map of some of the ways that atheism appears and what it discloses about theism. This will not be a comprehensive genealogy of atheism but a view of certain historical manifestations of atheism, especially in Plato, Augustine, and Nietzsche. These figures show us that atheism is not primarily propositional but positional. As such, they reveal that atheism is a kind of internal threat to theists who, either in taking up the wrong position to God, or putting God in the wrong position, can find themselves in the position of the atheist. Prior to any proposition, atheism is marked by the dual denial of God’s transcendence height, and immanent centrality.

Consequentially, prior to any proposition, Christians must ask themselves in what position do they place God. Atheism is thus the besetting sin of all humans in seeking to make the human the highest and most central. As such, it is also the central crisis of modernity and one which calls into question the theism of theists. But we find our hope in it, because this sin requires that God make straight our hearts, which he does by passing through atheism on the Cross in order to form the theocentric community of the Church. This community is the place that we must turn to in order to be theists in this atheistic world.

Plato’s Three Atheisms

The term “atheism” shifted its meaning in ancient Greece with the rise of the Sophists and the natural philosophers. It was in this context that the religious reformer and philosopher, Plato, sought to clarify what it meant to be an atheist. Plato did so regarding the new thinking of the Sophists and natural scientists, but also regarding the traditional religion of the Greeks. Plato writes in The Laws that there are three ways to be godless. They are that: “the gods do not exist, or that they exist but take no thought for the human race, or that they are influenced by sacrifice and supplications and can easily be won over.”[1] For Plato, propositional atheism is lumped together with two other forms of impiety. They are presented as being of a kind together, because each acts as a denial of the gods. These three forms of atheism were a grave threat to a flourishing human life. For “the most important [thing] of all . . . is to get the right ideas about the gods, and so live a good life—otherwise you’ll live a bad one.”[2] These three modes of atheism threatened the prospects of living a good life because the human person requires a measure for determining and pursuing the Good. For Plato—in contrast to Protagoras—“it is God who is preeminently the ‘measure of all things,’ much more so than any ‘man.’”[3] With Plato, we see the origins of a struggle between an anthropocentric vision (man is the measure) and a theocentric vision (God is the measure).

The ways of turning against the transcendent which Plato critiques all make man the measure for each marks the person with an “extreme love of himself.”[4] On the other hand, to be virtuous requires that the person “be loyal to his superior instead.”[5] Loyalty means following, for to follow the gods is to follow the wise. Each atheism entails extreme love that makes the self the measure of the good. By denying what is higher, they make the human the highest being. This is clear with the first atheist, the one who claims that the gods do not exist. Having denied God, they make themselves the highest by default. In contrast, the one who denies that the gods take concern for us is an atheist because they make the gods irrelevant to us because we are irrelevant to them. Having exalted God so far away they make it impossible for the gods to be the kind of superiors we could follow.

These two forms of godlessness were relatively new in Plato’s time. Plato wrote to resist these trends, but he also wrote to reform traditional religion. The last form of atheism was that of the older form of Greek religion. It was based in a system of sacrifice that was meant to win the gods over. For Plato, the hoi sophoi were the unusual atheists, whereas the civil religion of Athens, that governed the life of the hoi poloi, formed the mass of atheists. This form of atheism was convinced that it was, in truth, theistic. Plato saw this as its great danger and the cause of its moral hypocrisy. It was thus the seedbed of the two newer forms of atheism.

Why can we understand these religious practitioners as atheists? They did not follow the gods but sought to compel the gods to follow them. In their behavior, they set their own measure of the good and then bribed the gods to correspond with it. Man was not only the measure of all things; man was the measure of the gods who must act according to our desires as conveyed by our sacrifices and supplications. It was for this reason that Plato saw the last atheism as “the worst and most impious of the impious.”[6] It did not deny the gods, it subordinated them to us. For Plato, this was blasphemous and made following the gods impossible. It was particularly pernicious because one thought one was following the gods as one bribed them. The worst kind of atheism for Plato was an atheism that did not know it was atheism.

Augustine and the Crookedness of Hearts

This tradition of thinking about different forms of atheism carried over into early Christianity. Augustine again lumps atheism within three false positions towards God which he describes as “grave impieties.”[7] These were the “denial of God’s existence, or charging him with injustice, or doubting his governance of the world.”[8] Here again denial of God’s existence is clustered with two other rejections of God. All three rejections of God—as non-existent, unjust, or absent from governance—lead to the false liberty of being able to act immorally.

While Augustine follows Plato to a certain extent, the differences are important. Augustine is less concerned with bribing the gods but with our denial of divine justice. If God is unjust, then I do not need to be just. The human person needs exemplars and an unjust God will make for unjust people. This can be taken in different ways. Augustine looks to the Latin playwright, Terence for one. Terence writes of “a disgraceful young man” observing Jupiter’s adultery with Danae. Augustine writes that “he finds, in so great an authority, a patron for his own wickedness.”[9] Unjust portrayals of the gods act as bad exemplars and we cannot be just without good exemplars.

Augustine is also concerned with the way we try to offload our responsibility by positing our own personal purity detached from any exterior contamination. If God is unjust then there is a source of injustice and so I am not responsible for my injustice. This is part of his critique of the Manicheans. In positing a divine source of evil, they liberate us from actual responsibility. Human persons are not the source of unjust deeds, God is. This allows me to do what contemporary banks do when under financial duress. They form “bad banks” in which they offload their bad investments and so offload their responsibility for them. What is left is their supposed purity. Similarly, the sinner—believing in an unjust God—offloads their irresponsibility onto God directly. No longer being responsible, they are not responsible for conforming their will to God.

In the third impiety, the denial of God’s governance, we see a more communal maleficence. To deny God’s governance is to deny the eternal standards that guide us to love rightly. These standards are ones we participate in, and so to deny them is to privatize justice and so to deny our place in God’s City. We love ourselves to the extent of despising God.[10] Such a mode of thinking allows us to dwell in a city of our own construction in which we make the laws unconcerned with a higher law. Having placed God outside our city—neither higher nor central but irrelevant—we are able to be autonomous. The atheist is thus the one who lives in the city without God. They found a city bound by the earthly logic of the libido dominandi in which the self dominates by denying the law of the Other.

For Augustine, people hold such views because “they are crooked of heart.”[11] As crooked, they do not want to be made straight. To deny that there is divine rectitude is to deny any rectitude not of our own making. If God does not exist, there is no need to make straight our hearts; if God is unjust then we can be unjust without being responsible for it; if God does not govern then we can govern ourselves according to our own crookedness. Importantly, Augustine emphasizes that these atheisms lie in our heart for each denies the centrality of God. More than Plato, Augustine is concerned not only with God as the higher, whom we must follow, but also as the center of our hearts.

These three atheisms recognize that if “God is straight and true” then a “crooked heart is not at peace with him.”[12] God’s reality, as the Good and so the just measure of our lives, takes away our false tranquility. We find ourselves like “a warped beam on a hard, level surface” we “do not fit or square up properly or lie flat.”[13] If we can eliminate the true surface, then we can be at rest with our crookedness. But God ceaselessly bothers us with his rectitude. These atheisms are ultimately the hatred of the truth, for truth is being in accord with Divine Rectitude. God’s summons to rectitude means that we “will always shake and wobble, not because the surface where it was placed is uneven, but because the beam itself is lopsided. As long as a heart remains crooked, it cannot be aligned with the rectitude of God.”[14] As carpenters will say, this requires “truing the board” for the twisted board cannot straighten itself.

The atheist refuses this straightening. In contrast, the theist is receptive to being made straight. Augustine sees atheism as a crookedness that can only be made straight by a God intimately in contact with us. The Carpenter must place his hands on the bent beam, apply the lathe, and humble the proud. For Augustine, the Platonists pointed to the Measure but could not provide the Lathe that would straighten us. Our prideful crookedness wants to pretend to be straight, but the presence of God as the True Measure constantly unsettles us until we allow the Carpenter to humble the proud.

Nietzsche and Atheism as Apathy

To leap forward to one last example of a mode of atheism, we should turn to Nietzsche. We misunderstand Nietzsche if we take him to mean that an actual God died, or even that he thought there was no God. Nietzsche has little interest in propositional atheism, because he saw that a theism that was merely propositional was itself an atheism.

The line that “God is dead” occurs in a curious parable that Nietzsche tells. In the story, a madman runs into a town square shouting “I seek God! I seek God.”[15] The townspeople, whom we should take as Christians, laugh at him. The idea that someone would eagerly search for God is amusing to them. What Nietzsche sees in this passage is that the death of God is the death of the centrality of God in our lives. Unlike Augustine’s crooked hearts, we are no longer unsettled by God because God does not matter to us. God no longer forms the central demand on our lives and no longer guides our thinking on communal existence. The ultimate question no longer affects us.

The madman sees this apathy towards God as the murder of God. For Nietzsche, this is the most momentous event in history. It alters everything to live in the wake of the death of God. “What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move?”[16] Our very existence is altered by the murder of God and so he asks “How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of murderers? . . . Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us?”[17] The response of the townspeople is a blank stare. God dies in this blank stare. God is dead because when we receive news of his death, we respond as though hearing of the death of someone we care not a whit about.

Consequently, the murder of God by the townspeople “is as yet further from them than the furthest star—and yet they have done it!”[18] God is dead because we have made existence revolve around our banality and so collapsed the theocentric into the anthropocentric. For Nietzsche, this should move us to self-exaltation: “Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods?”[19] There is no longer a central or a highest, there is just us—so now we make ourselves gods. We are not conformed to God in Christian divinization, nor do we join the company of gods by following them as they follow the Good; rather, we make ourselves gods by making the standards for life.

Nietzsche actually here proposes a new form of theocentrism. The ubermensch takes the place of the gods. Nietzsche was no humanist; the values of the humanists were too petty for him. It could not be that mere humanity could be the measure; rather, he wanted to make men gods. If the humanists thought man was the measure, Nietzsche thought the overman would forge a new measure. By transvaluing values, they make a new measure according to their exalted selves. We might call this uber-anthropocentrism. However, the madman sees that both theocentrism and Nietzschean uber-anthropocentrism is impossible for the small-minded inhabitants of the liberal order. They do not care about God and do not care that they do not care. God is dead to them because something is dead in them. In the spiritually vacant West, we now live under this atheism which is an amalgamation of these atheisms. There may be few propositional atheists, but we now live within the societal position of atheism.

Positioning God; Positioning Ourselves

What is the status of the believer under the sign of atheism? Each form of atheism, though understood differently, is primarily a matter of position. The questions they ask are “Where is God?” rather than “Is God?’ The atheist is primarily the one who denies that God is the highest and the central. If the divine is then it must be both central and highest. This is the importance of Anselm’s dual claim that God is that-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought and that we find God in our intellect. Whenever, we place something above God, we are atheists—not because we deny God’s existence (which is impossible for Anselm)—but because we move God out of God’s place. But God is not only above for Anselm but within. The great insight of Anselm is not that God exists in phenomenal reality, but that God exists in our intellect. The atheist is the fool who says in their heart there is no God.

This does not require a proposition but a shift in position. It is this that Anselm (building on Augustine) knew when he argued that God must be the greatest that can be conceived (so great is he that he must be conceived as being beyond conception) and that God lies at the center of our soul. This is why most of the Proslogion is not about God’s existence but about the Goodness of God as expressed in both mercy and justice and thus the requirement that we conform to God’s Goodness through mercy and justice. Atheism is thus disclosed primarily as the denial of theocentrism in our practice of living. When we act as though God is not the heights and the center, we fall into atheism and this is what we see in our secular age.

For Plato, Augustine, and Nietzsche, theists can be and often are atheists. For Plato, they refuse to see the higher and follow it to the Good. For Augustine, the crooked-hearted do not want to see themselves as crooked and so seek to ignore God or even to bend God according to their own crookedness. For Nietzsche, the theistic atheist may subscribe to the proposition of God but in so doing negates God as actually central to being and to their way of life.

These modes of atheism disclose that for the believer that, properly speaking, atheism is not primarily a false position that others take but a false way of existing that believers themselves fall into. We are atheists when we see to make ourselves the measure, when we seek to bend God to our earthly injustice or our party politics, when we, in our banality, ignore the majesty of God. Such forms of atheism cannot long last before they become propositional atheism, which is revealed as primarily a consequence of positional atheism. In fact, propositional atheism is merely a mode of positional atheism.

The Saving Atheism

To be a theist then is to always place God as the highest and the most central. It is, in each moment, to place God as the measure of our acts and so the intended goal of each act. If God is the height and the center, then theocentrism cannot be occasional. We live this centrality in measuring all our mundane acts against the measure of Divine Rectitude. Any act which is not ordered towards God is an act that displaces God. Atheism is thus the persistent moral threat. It is the reason why all sins are sins against God. In each sin, we lower and decenter God and so deny God. We say in our hearts, “There is no God.” To make of atheism a mere proposition is too easy on the Christian. It displaces the threat of atheism onto a group of others, rather than seeing atheism as a matter that requires an examination of my own atheisms. This is the challenge of Nietzsche who reveals to us how empty our faith often is. We fail even to notice that we have displaced God. This is the scandal of atheistic theism. We propositionally proclaim what we positionally deny. As Christ teaches, it cries “Lord, Lord” but does not do “the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). It is this scandal that is rife in a Christianity that beats the drums for war, that colonizes nations, that drives away the refugee, and oppresses the poor. This is the atheism described in the judgment of the sheep and the goats in which theists are disclosed as atheists for denying the poor and so denying God. For the theist to truly speak of atheism requires that we repent of our atheism.

Our prayer, attention, and work then should be to restore the theocentric position in our hearts and communities. The prayer of the atheistic theist is: “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) We atheistic theists should see in this prayer that we are not far from our fellow atheists. For Augustine, it may be that the atheist will ultimately be the theist and vice versa:

You do not know what that person is in God’s sight . . . It is our neighbors who lie hidden in these people who are not yet in the Church. Come to think of it, there are others hiding in the Church who are far away from us. We do not know what someone who just now was nothing may turn out to be.[20]

Our own atheism should remind us of the possible theism in all non-believers. Our prayer is echoed in the atheist, who when acting according to God’s standards, silently prays, “Lord I don’t believe, help though my unbelief.” The modern theist, dwelling under the sign of atheism, must offer their vocal prayer along with these silent prayers.

A model of theocentric life is found in St. Dominic’s desire to “speak only of God and with God.” In everything, God should be central; everything should be done for and with God. For fallen persons, this moral standard is a recipe for despair. Not only do we all sin; we constantly act without considering God. Our default mode is not theocentric; because, we cannot maintain our attention on God. Default atheism is ultimately the nature of Original Sin, which is exacerbated within an imminent frame marked by the Nietzschean death of God. The original sin was, in a sense, the original atheism. Adam and Eve displaced God as the height and center of their lives. They denied that God mattered, that God governed, that God was the true measure. They did not care about God and therefore they were the first atheists. Atheism is our inheritance from them. Modernity suffers under the double sign of atheism because we so chronically displace God. Yet, if atheism is our default mode, the question is: “who in the world can be saved?” (Matt 19:25).

To answer this, we must turn to the strangest atheism of all, found in Christ on the Cross. Jesus cries out in his death throes: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Christ experiences himself as a-theos, as without God. G.K. Chesterton writes that we will “let the atheists choose their god, they will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”[21] On the cross, Jesus passed through the trial of atheism. This is salvific because he did this out of his total theocentrism. Following the Good by being the Good he poured himself out for us. The Theocentric God is kenotic because, to save us from our anthropocentrism, he centered himself on the man Jesus. Jesus, pure of heart, suffered for our crookedness and so justified us according to his perfect rectitude. Dying, he destroyed atheism. At the heart of Christianity is this saving moment of atheism. The true Theist passed through atheism, so we erratic theists may pass through into his theocentrism.

In our atheistic time, we must still pass through Christ’s Cross. This is the only theism available to us. We receive our theism vicariously through Christ’s total theocentrism. Through the outpouring of the Spirit, God repositions God at the center of the human heart thereby founding the community that has God as its highest position. The Church is the theocentric community because God promises to always be at the center of this community of atheistic-theists. This means that the theism of the Christian is not primarily propositional but positional. To be a Christian is to stand within the community whose theocentrism is not guaranteed by us but by God. Yes we should affirm God’s existence, but to be a theist is to be a follower of the Good; to participate in the community that offers true sacrifice and right supplication; to live under the governance of God by conforming to his rectitude; to do his will by loving the unloved. We can pass through atheism, even that of Nietzsche, if we pass through it from within the Body of Christ. The final atheism, that of Christ, is the atheism that reforms our crooked hearts and fills them with God. From the position of the Body of Christ, our creedal claim—I believe in God—becomes more than a proposition, it becomes our salvific position.

[1] Plato, The Laws, trans. Trevor J. Saunders, in Plato: Complete Works. ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), X 885b

[2] Ibid., X 888b.

[3] Ibid., IV 716c.

[4] Ibid., V 732b.

[5] Ibid., V 732b.

[6] Ibid., X 907b.

[7] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms 1-32 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), Exp 2 Ps. 31, 25.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Augustine, City of God against the Pagans (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), II:7.

[10] Augustine, Civ. Dei, II:7.

[11] Augustine, Exp. Ps. 2,31, 25.

[12] Augustine, Exp. Ps. 2,31, 25.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science with a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix (Cambridge: CUP, 2001), 120.

[16] Ibid., 120.

[17] Ibid, 120.

[18] Ibid, 120.

[19] Ibid, 120.

[20]Ex. Ps. 2,25,2.

[21] GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 145.

Featured Image: Sergei Gribkov, Blessing of the Wedding, 1886; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Terence Sweeney

Terence Sweeney is Assistant Teaching Professor in the Honors Program and Humanities Department at Villanova University. His work centers on Augustine but extends to medieval thought, philosophical theology, and political theory.

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