Why Teach Atheism at a Catholic University?

This past fall I taught my course on atheism for a second time. It was well received last spring, the first time a course on atheism had been offered at Georgetown University. So, I decided to teach it again. Why offer a course on atheism at a Catholic institution? Many who take the course identify as atheist, but some are Christians who want to know more, while others are struggling with their beliefs. The course, it turns out, is a series of surprises for all.

The first surprise is that atheism has never simply been atheism. That is, it has never been simply a denial of the existence of God in one’s mind. Those who rejected the gods, from ancient to modern times, did so because those in power made it seem that the gods were on their side. Atheism as the rejection of the state’s gods features in the case of Socrates as it does in the case of Enlightenment thinkers who rejected God because God seemed to support tyranny in eighteenth-century Europe when people were aspiring to republican forms of rule.

Another surprise comes when we turn to Black Atheism. The students initially assume that atheism translates into progressive values, but, they learn, that is not unambiguously the case. Today’s “mainstream” atheism privileges the concerns of white males over other groups. Doing away with God does not necessarily do away with racist and sexist attitudes.

The students are most startled when we turn to the religion-like aspects of atheism. They initially assume that atheism equates with science, but it is no longer the case, if it ever was, that atheists live wholly by the tenets of scientific materialism, the idea that existence is entirely material and that science is therefore all that is needed to explain it. As it turns out, a significant percentage of atheists, the data shows, believe in supernatural realities, such as ghosts and the spirits of deceased loved ones. Some look to astrology and other non-empirical means to access the secrets of life. Many atheists experience nature as having non-material dimensions that lie beyond scientific analysis.

What students find most challenging, among atheism’s religion-like aspects, is the fact that atheists turn to myth for meaning, notably the myth of moral progress. A myth is a narrative that makes sense of our actions and devotions. Why put others first, devote ourselves to a cause, or care for our students if we cannot see a meaning in doing so? We all want to be emotionally reassured that what we do has meaning.

Atheists often find such reassurance in the idea of moral progress, much as theists do in divine providence, but the former is no more evidence-based than the latter. The spate of genocides over the twentieth century makes it difficult to conclude that our age is morally superior to that of the Crusades, for example. Scientific and technological progress is one thing, moral progress another. Atheists, like Christians, live by truths that are ethically inspiring even if not provable in a laboratory.

Atheists also seek out moral community as a place to engage others about questions of the good and participate in transcendence-nurturing ritual. Burning Man in Black Rock Desert is only the most dramatic example of atheist-friendly, transcendence-nurturing ritual. Atheists, it seems, have rejected religion only to recreate it everywhere. Do we need to rethink atheism? In the last two decades, all kinds of books have appeared that speak of the needs of atheists beyond science—books on atheist spirituality and even on religion for atheists.

Spirituality for the Godless by Michael McGhee calls for godless prayer as a way for the non-religious, atheists included, to cultivate virtues such as loving compassion, virtues that recall what are known in Christianity as the theological virtues. If the lives of atheists have religion-like aspects, how are Christians to view them? Herein lies the biggest shock for my students. They initially assume that the Church defines atheists as beyond the religious pale. To be sure, some Christians believe atheists have no value in the eyes of heaven, but that view is actually inconsistent with the overall tradition.

We begin with a statement of Pope Francis in his 2013 letter to Eugenio Scalfari, atheist founder of La Repubblica. Nothing lies outside the scope of God’s care—that’s the fundamental thing, the pope says. Still, my students wonder, how do atheists receive God’s mercy if they do not believe in God? Faith, the pope’s statement implies, shows in what one does as much as in what one says one believes.

In his 2013 letter, he places emphasis on the conscience; all people have one, but, I tell my students, we have to be precise in what we mean by the term. Church teaching does not see conscience as a mode of self-expression, as many do today, but as a law that God has planted in the depths of the soul and that orients all of us to objective moral truths. The idea has a biblical basis in the second chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

By this view, atheists, when they sincerely hearken to the voice of their conscience, are responding to the divine will. As such, they are oriented to the Kingdom of God in some measure. Important differences notwithstanding, they cannot be labelled as strangers to the Church. But several students invariably push back at this point. What is the point of religion if your own nature can orient you to the Kingdom of God?

Here is the crux of the matter: it is difficult for all my students to see that religion is not “a thing” that exists between the four walls of a church. To be sure, Christians see grace, orienting to the Spirit of Christ as the lord of one’s life, as unique, but as scholars such as Nancy T. Ammerman at Boston University argue, religion is better seen as a narrative that gives meaning to one’s life in society beyond “officially religious bounds.”

In this sense, we all have religion. Workout regimes, such as SoulCycle and CrossFit, which hold out bodily perfection as life-fulfilling, function as a religious narrative. So, too, does our nation, which equates freedom with divine favor, that is, as the very end and purpose of life. Atheists and Christians can therefore do theology together. The place to begin, I tell my students, is with the narratives that give meaning to people’s lives. Atheists and Christians might find they agree that it is “theologically” unsound to see bodily perfection as life-fulling or that what justifies us is not our freedom but, rather, what we do with it.

Of course, religion is now a partisan affair. Being Republican means you are Christian, being Democrat that you can’t be Christian, right? Atheists and Christians, our culture makes it seem, exist in separate camps, a perpetual state of existential hostility, but truth be told, the atheism-religion binary has begun to unravel, and my students get it.

For example, the idea that the Church does not condemn atheists is initially a real blow to the categories that constitute the mindset of my students, but once they get over the shock, they see the possibilities. For example, my students, while they reject the concept of human nature, since, as they see it, it justifies the idea of fixed roles in society (women in the kitchen, men in power), they like the idea of conscience as something all have and that calls us all to cultivate bonds of charity with others and to want the good for them as we want it for ourselves.

The term the Church has long used for this idea, I tell them, is benevolentia. One student gets the point: there’s a dialogue to be had. Atheists and Christians can come together to discuss what’s meant by our nature, if it’s not about fixed roles, and do so beyond today’s identity politics that make it seem we have nothing morally in common.

Do atheists want what the Church has long taught? Is this a secularist appropriation of religion? We are at a transitional moment as a nation. The Cold War, which had harnessed the Judeo-Christian heritage to our national identity and mission, ended a few decades ago. Flag and Bible no longer automatically go together. Many do not see their citizenship in religious terms but do see themselves as spiritual and moral creatures. This de-secularization of religion, that is, the decoupling of religion from state purposes with the ending of the Cold War, is a good thing for Christians, but ours is a divisive moment, and it is useful for the media—and for politicians—to make it seem the nation is divided by religion.

To be sure, some Christians are happy to think that atheists are immoral, and some atheists are happy to think that Christians are irrational. A greater challenge is religious indifference, which is not the same thing as atheism. Atheists are self-conscious in their religious views, theologically aware, and morally attuned. In contrast, religious indifference is a byproduct of a modernizing worldview that says that the state will save us. It will take care of us, making science-based decisions to regulate the markets and ensure the prosperity of all.

While this messianic view of the state is obsolete, it has had the effect of eroding people’s sense of their own ethical agency. Some scholars now speak of biopolitics: the readiness of citizens to be considered as mere bodies to be managed by the state. Be that as it may, religious indifference is better seen not as atheism but as part of a broader ethical indifference, birthed, ironically, by modernist sentiment, with the potential to do long-term damage to the nation’s moral coherency.

The point I wish to underscore is that the atheism-religion binary no longer holds. Atheism, it was thought, is science-like. We now see that it is religion-like. In other words, the modern atheism of the West is the anomaly in the overall history of atheism. Atheism in ancient times did not equate with scientific materialism. It was a call for another way of understanding the spiritual realities of existence, even, arguably, a call for a realer sense of divinity than the one that backed the status quo.

Is atheism coming full circle today? That is, is it better to see atheism not so much as a denial of the existence of a spiritually and even divinely informed life but more so as a challenge to bad religion that has the upper hand in the nation’s imaginary? Christian Smith calls it “moralistic therapeutic deism”—the idea of God as a discrete entity who wants us to be good but who exists apart from our lives yet who can be invoked when we’re in crisis. God is made to look like a big sugar daddy.

Perhaps religious folk who see God in this sense are the real atheists, believing not in God but in what is not God at least according to what the Christian tradition has long taught. In this sense, the atheist has a role to play in helping religious folk purify what they actually believe. Atheists do not have new knowledge of God to offer, but atheism, history shows, never exists apart from religion but has, rather, always been part of the process by which religion works itself out. To be sure, some atheists will insist that atheism is the enemy of religion. End of story.

However, there is a truer story to be told, and it unfolds in my class. My students warm to the idea of common ground. They have a desire to live beyond the false enmities of identity politics, but they do not know where to look for paradigms to envision a pluralistic society as morally purposeful as a whole. In the language of the Church, they want to understand more precisely how God is orienting all peoples to the Kingdom of God, even those who do not—and may never—recognize it.

Pope Benedict XVI created a space for dialogue with non-believers. He called it the “Courtyard of the Gentiles.” The Church, here, is not overlooking the urgency of announcing the Gospel but is offering a model for Christians to meet atheists in a common recognition of our human nature and the moral purposefulness that comes with it. Benedict XVI’s initiative has tremendous value as a model to show that assumptions of existential division in the nation are actually illusions.

I see my course in this sense—as a place of reconciliation. We are not just studying atheism as a phenomenon in the world. At a Catholic institution, we are thinking about it in view of a moral purposefulness the Church shares. The study of atheism has a vital place at a Catholic institution, helping to bring into sharper focus the deep desire that all humans share for what the Church knows to be the Kingdom of God.

Featured Image: Van Loo, Portrait of Diderot, 1767; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Paul Heck

Paul Heck is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, specializing in Islamic Studies and the history of religious thought at Georgetown University. 

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