Are atheists afraid?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 20, 2015

Writing in the Guardian on March 3rd, John Gray addressed what is becoming an increasingly common theme: The concern among atheists that religion is growing, not diminishing, around the world. Along the way, Gray skewers not only the idea that atheism is the wave of the future but the notion that it is somehow the safeguard of liberal values of peace and tolerance.

The essay is filled with knowledgeable references to the many different kinds of atheism there have been even in the modern period, and how many of them have tried to claim a basis in science while embracing ideas that everyone regards as preposterous today. There is a great deal of insight here, but what makes the essay most interesting and valuable is that John Gray himself is an atheist. He is, in fact, an atheist with no anti-religious ax to grind.

Entitled “What scares the new atheists”, Gray’s reflections reveal what I regard as a rare quality in atheists, namely generosity toward those who disagree coupled with significant self-awareness. In saying this, I may be revealing my own prejudices, but at the center of Gray’s account of the almost mythological intellectual world in which today’s atheists seem to live is a deep perception of the limitations of what is essentially a negative philosophy of life.

Gray understands two enormously important truths with surprising clarity. First, the liberal values to which contemporary atheism has hitched its wagon are secularized versions of Christian values that would have been inconceivable without the cultural transformation wrought by Christianity in the history of the West. Second, it is a fool’s errand to try to establish or insist upon any coherent universal values if you begin by denying the existence of God.

Catholic readers will doubtless take exception to one or two of the minor points Gray makes along the way. As several other writers have pointed out recently—and as most Catholics will or ought to understand—it is never adequate to talk about “belief” or “religion” as opposed to atheism. Religions are very different, and Catholicism is unique among all religions in both the historicity of its claims and the authority principle by which it claims to transcend human culture.

But all in all, “What scares the new atheists” is refreshingly instructive—and well worth reading.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 22, 2015 9:18 PM ET USA

    Gray's article evinces the essence of the atheist's primal fear: are human beings subject to an absolute standard of morality? If the answer is yes, then atheism has no legs to stand on. An absolute moral standard implies an absolute law-giver that transcends human opinion. An absolute law-giver imposes an irrevocable constraint on certain human acts, i.e., moral evils. The atheist's terror is today as it has been from the beginning of human revolt against God: constraint on concupiscent urges.

  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Mar. 20, 2015 10:56 PM ET USA

    It would seem to me that an honest one would be frightened that he was wrong. I know that I was miserable before I repented, sought first a higher power, and found God again in Catholicism.