Atheists? Not really…

Michael Novak writes in the First Things “On the Square” blog about atheism…

So many of the atheists of our generation do in fact live (at least in many respects) as though they were devout Christians or Jews. What do they lack but churches or synagogues, to distinguish themselves, so far as praxis goes, from being Christians or Jews?

That was the question Albert Camus put after watching the secular saints of his generation sacrifice themselves under conditions of war. That was the paradigm he sketched in the life of the heroic Dr. Rieux in The Plague.

If you listen to their words, they are atheists. But if you watch how they actually live, they are Christians or Jews.

Recognizing this paradox in his own conduct, Jean-Paul Sartre committed himself to scrupulous efforts to live as a true atheist. He tried his best not to draw upon Jewish or Christian capital. He tried to eliminate every trace of Christian or Jewish faith from his practice, even from his thoughts. This task, he wrote, took full-time concentration. Even he, Jean-Paul Sartre, when not on guard, on a truly fresh May morning in Paris, in the brilliant and fragrant air, was tempted to utter a silent “Thank God.” Or in a time of acute danger, to cry out for help. Each time, he had to stop himself.

It is not easy to live as an atheist all the way through.

As they say, read the whole thing.

(And do keep checking out “On the Square”–the editors of FT are trying something new this month, with more extensive commentary from their writers. It’s been wonderful so far.)

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