by Father Robert Lauder
I started reading the magazine Commonweal when I was a freshman in college, and I have been reading it ever since. The bimonthly journal, edited by Catholic laymen, rarely disappoints me. It is not an exaggeration to say that it has had a strong influence on my understanding of philosophy, theology, the arts and on the presence and role of the Church in the world.
The late Msgr. George Higgins, who was perhaps the most informed priest in the American church, claimed that his father once said to him, “I will know that I have succeeded in your education when you are impatient if Commonweal arrives late.”
The Oct. 26, 2012 issue of the magazine had an essay that I found especially interesting and informative: “Fellow Travelers? Four Atheists Who Don’t Hate Religion” written by Paul J. Griffiths, who holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University.
Griffiths analyzes the atheism of four contemporary philosophers and indicates that, in various ways, each wants to hold on to some of the good effects that come from religion even though each denies the existence of God. Though I found the essay informative, interesting and provocative, I confess that I have never read any of the four thinkers’ works. My knowledge of their thought comes largely from Griffiths’ essay. The four philosophers are Jurgen Habermas, Simon Critchley, Andre Comte-Sponville and Alain de Botton.
In philosophy classes at St. John’s University, I occasionally use two of the most famous 20th century atheistic existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, to provoke students to think about the mystery of God. It probably seems paradoxical to use atheists to stimulate students to reflect on the mystery of God, but it seems to work. That may be because atheists see the implications of belief or lack of belief in God. I am wondering if what I perceive as a kind of nostalgia for some religious belief among the four atheists that Griffiths discusses might serve as a pointer toward God. If it does, what can that tell us about God and our belief in God? Can the thought of these and other atheists help us in learning how to present the mystery of God more effectively?
Griffiths reports that Habermas attended a memorial service for a friend who was an atheist but who arranged to have the service in a church. At the time, it did not strike Habermas as odd, but it did 15 years later.
Habermas came to believe that the enlightened modern age has not found a way to substitute for what religion presents as a final rite of passage that brings life to a close. He came to see having a memorial service in a church without prayer, priest or blessing was incoherent and, therefore, was not able to bear the burden that it was intended to bear. Simply put, secularists have not found a substitute for what religion provides.
Critchley believes that only some kind of theological justification can provide citizens with a motivation that will bind them together and move citizens to take an active interest in a self-determining political life. Griffiths notes that though Critchley believes that thinkers such as Augustine, Pascal and Kierkegaard are asking the right questions about subjectivity, the nature of love and the possibility of political engagement as an act of love, he wants a godless religion. But can a godless religion provide the insight and motivation that Critchley desires?
Griffiths also finds the philosophies of Comte-Sponville and de Botton wanting. He thinks that the religion that atheist Comte-Sponville espouses turns out to be an artifact of self-indulgence. De Botton is a secular Jew and does not believe that we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Griffiths points out that de Botton thinks that we can learn about our own failures, depravities and inadequacies from religion even though we do not accept what the religion teaches about God.
As a final statement about what he has learned from the books of the four atheists, Griffiths writes:
“The Church with Christ acts upon its acolytes because he is there. The Church without Christ cannot act in that way. It can fascinate, perhaps even instruct, but it can’t give you the gift of being loved. And that, finally, is what you want.
“The sense of something missing that forms all these books is accurate as far as it goes. Those who do not know Christ and the church do indeed lack something. The existence of such books is evidence of disappointment and grief among some members of our intellectual classes, and of longing for something better. The Church without Christ is better than no church at all, but it is a poor substitute for the church of Christ” (p. 27).[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.