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The challenge of contemporary atheism

· In the public space of culture ·

What has happened to contemporary atheism? Until a few years ago, atheism resided in a pragmatic space of irreligiousness and indifference, assisted by the modern turn of events which rendered philosophical discourse on the existence of God dogmatically impossible by definition. Today, we are witnessing a double turn.

The first involves a return to theoretical atheism, assisted by references to scientific discourse. After the classic seasons of suspect teachers (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud), today it is the turn of neo-darwinism and neuroscience to furnish arguments for the belief that God does not exist. A God whom some authors prefer to write with a lowercase “g”. The second and more interesting change perhaps, is atheism as a new form of morality. In this case too, historical antecedents can be cited. In the modern age, there is Pascal’s debate with erudite libertinism or Sartre’s celebrated pamphlet on atheism as humanism.

The new apologetics of atheism privileges the reference to empirical science to justify the thesis that without God one can live morally well and even more, one can and must take into one’s own hands the future of an evolution which until now has been blind, so to speak, but can now finally be governed by a human project freed from the tether of ancestral prohibitions formed under a divine authority. The new militant atheism puts itself at the service of biotechnology, substituting the ancient formula of ancilla theologiae philosophy with that of atheism as ancilla technologiae . This change in perspective should not be underestimated. On the one hand, purified of polemical overtones and the conditioning of a poor understanding of the question of God as Creator (which should be thought of as the Foundation of now, and not just the initiator of the past), contemporary atheism manifests an implicit uneasiness with respect to the new power of man. How should one read, for example, the effort to reassure man in his self-referential undertaking of constructing new ways for manipulating the life (and not just the health) of man, if not in terms of the ultimate meaning of existence and the very sense of the whole of reality?

Today, like never before, the power of man over himself and over reality makes clear the need for ethical criteria that are not purely arbitrary and subjective. Militant atheism would like to place itself on this last horizon of meaning, able to justify ethical discourse on a real and true metaphysics of immanence and thus of the negation of God (with an upper-case “G” because it is all too easy to liberate ourselves from a “god” with a lower-case “g.”)

In this sense, atheism powerfully challenges believers to return to giving reasons for a belief which is capable of offering new forms of knowledge about the existence of God and able to shape the sense of human ethos. A sense which for too long has been cultivated within an autonomy incapable of handling the epochal weight of practical and theoretical challenges that man himself has shaped with his own hands. With respect to the attempt, in certain ways classical, of reassuring a positive rapport between science and faith, the apologia of atheism needs a more essential rootedness in the question of ultimate truths because it highlights how the original place of the debate is beyond science itself and its way of interpreting the world. Instead, it has its origins with the question of the meaning of history and the ultimate foundation of reality and thus of life.

One can and must respond to the arguments of the new apologetics of atheism, which is anything but post-metaphysical, trusting in the great resources which human reason, saved by the event of the Incarnation, provides. After a period of weak thought and fluid identities, the question of the seriousness of existence in its necessary rootedness with or against God, is raised again in the public space of culture.

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