The Magazine

Atheist Tracts

God, they're predictable.

Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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As if we were back in eighteenth-century France, atheist tracts are abroad in our land, their flamboyant titles defiant. The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, Letter to a Christian Nation, Atheist Manifesto, Atheist Universe: These are not subtle insinuations against God, requiring inferences from readers, but open opposition inviting readers to join in thumbing their noses. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, newly published, offers comfort and scholarly reassurance, if not consolation, to atheists who might otherwise feel lonely--as, believing what they do, they surely must.

Atheism isn't what it was in the eighteenth century. Now, the focus of the attack is not the Church, which is no longer dominant, but religion itself. The disdain one used to hear for "organized religion" extends now to the individual believer's faith. Despite the change, politics is still the thrust of the attack. It's just that the delusion of religion is now allowed to be the responsibility of the believer, not of some group that is deluding him. A more direct approach is required.

In our time, religion, having lost its power to censor and dominate, still retains its ability, in America especially, to compete for adherents in our democracy of ideas. So to reduce the influence of religion, it is politically necessary to attack it in the private sphere as well as in the public square. This suggests that the distinction between public and private, dear to our common liberalism, is sometimes a challenge to maintain.

If religion, then, cannot be defended merely on the ground that it is private, what might be said in its behalf for the public good? We know from behavioral studies that, to the embarrassment of atheists, believers, or at least churchgoers, are better citizens--more active and law-abiding--than those who spend Sunday morning reading the New York Times. But why should this be so? And is it really true that atheists, with their newfound aggressiveness, are not public-spirited?

A person of faith might respond to the atheists that God's providence rules, but His mind is unknown to us. We might hope or guess or infer that God gives us freedom to make mistakes, to sin, to offend God, even to expound atheism--but we could not be sure of this. Our uncertainty as to God's intentions preserves the distance between man and God and prevents us from claiming imperiously that we know what God wants to happen. From this negative conclusion one might move to the positive inference that in leaving us free, God leaves us to choose and, to make choice effective, leaves us to choose not merely this or that detail of our lives, but a way of life comprehensively in politics.

But surely not just any politics, arbitrarily posited. We must have a politics that aims at justice. The atheists say that God is unjust because He allows injustice to exist, to thrive. Worse than that, God is complicit in injustice. The reason why "God is not great," in Christopher Hitchens's book title, is that God allows himself to be used, hence diminished, by His believers. Note that the atheist Hitchens, like a believer, wants God to be great. A God of limited powers is not God; God must be omnipotent to ensure that justice triumphs in the world. Hitchens doesn't believe in God, but that is because he does believe in justice. Justice must be realizable if the reproach to God is that He is unjust.

Now we must take a further step guided by human reason alone. Edmund Burke said, with a view to the atheism of the French Revolution, that we cannot live justly and happily unless we live under "a power out of ourselves." By this he meant a power above us, transcendent over our wills and our choices. We must choose to live under a power that limits our choices. In America we have a Constitution that limits our choices, not so much by forbidding things as by requiring us to make our choices through a political process of checks and balances, enforced by a separation of powers. But Burke means to argue that humanly contrived constitutional limits are not enough. Human government is not viable or sufficient without divine government above it in some unspecified relationship.