Sunday, January 6, 2008


Just as Christians can be categorized denominationally and theologically so, Michael Novak argues, can atheists. He offers what might be called a taxonomy of atheism:
One. Those rationalists who believe in science, rationality, and truth, and who abhor relativism and nihilism, and who have very firm moral principles grounded in reason itself — but who see no evidence for the existence of God, neither for the theism of the ancient Greeks and Romans nor the personal God of Judaism and Christianity. They might wish that they could believe in God, but their intellectual conscience will not allow them to.

Two. Those relativists and nihilists who do believe, as Nietzsche warned, that the “death of God” has also meant the death of trust in reason and science and objective rules of morality. Such atheists, therefore, may for arbitrary reasons choose to live for their own pleasure, or for the joy of exercising brute power and will. This is the kind of moral nihilism that communist and fascist regimes depended upon, to justify the brutal use of power. It appears, also, to be the kind of atheism that Ayn Rand commended.

Three. Those who do not believe in the personal God who heeds prayers, and is concerned about the moral lives of individual human beings — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. Instead, some who call themselves atheists actually do recognize a principle of intelligent order and even awe-inspiring beauty in the natural world. They also believe in a kind of primordial energy or dynamic power, which pushes along, for example, evolution and the potentiality of human progress. They are at about the same stage in thinking about morality and metaphysics as the ancient Greeks.

Four. The “Methodist atheists” — those who maintain all the qualities of niceness and good moral habits and gentle feelings associated with the followers of Wesley down the generations, but do so without believing in God. In other words, they remain indebted to inherited Christian moral sentiments, even while they seldom or never darken church doors. They have come to think that believing in God is a little like believing in Santa Claus. They have outgrown the metaphysics, but not the ethics.

Five. The merely practical atheists — that is, those who by habit remain members of a religious faith, and who share a certain pietas regarding their family gods, and continue going to church according to the old routines, but whose daily behavior and speech show that they actually live as if God does not exist. Their religiousness is formal, routine, empty — or very nearly so. Indignantly, they may insist that they are not atheists, a term they probably associate with #2 above.

Six. Those like Friedrich von Hayek, who wished he could be religious but confessed that he seemed to have no “ear” for it, just as some people have no ear for music. He felt he was an atheist by defect. [more]
Michael Novak on Atheism on National Review Online

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