Albert Camus demonstrated an atheism that was sympathetic to theists. This is remarkably distinct from the “New Atheists” of our time, who argue that theism is dangerous because it opens the door to fundamentalism. But fundamentalism is not just a conviction that one’s sacred text is complete and true, but also a demand that we all believe and act consistently with that text. Camus recognized that this demand for radical consistency is shared by other forms of extremism.
In 1948, Albert Camus gave a speech at a Dominican monastery. The invitation was unusual. At this time, Camus’s best-known novel was The Stranger (1). He was often called “the philosopher of the absurd” because his philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (2), grappled with the question: why should you not kill yourself, given that the universe is without a purpose? And yet, these Dominicans asked Camus to speak on the theme of what the atheist would ask of the theist.
Camus’s remarks to the monks are disarming. He begins with two important disclaimers: “I shall never start from the supposition that Christian faith is illusory, but merely from the fact that I cannot accept it.” And: “I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think (insofar as I can judge of it) in order to reach a reconciliation that would be agreeable to all” (3). Camus goes on to make but a single point: that if he would ask anything of the Christian community, it would be that they would speak clearly against injustice, and not with the cowardly evasions that the Church adopted in response to Nazism.
Camus appears to have come to his atheism both because there is no evidence for a god, and also because of the problem of evil. His biographer Herbert Lottman reports that in his youth, Camus and his friend Max-Pol Fouchet came across a child who had been killed when struck by a bus. The child’s family wept in horror.
Walking away, Camus turned toward the landscape of blue sea and sky. Raising a finger toward the heavens he said, “You see. He says nothing.” Fouchet was certain that Camus had no fundamental objection to religion, although he found the situation of man in the face of suffering and death, alone in the silence from the sky, unbearable. (4)
This is reminiscent of the climactic scene in Camus’s novel The Plague (5) in which a young child suffers an agonizing death while the protagonist, Doctor Rieux, strives, without effect, to save him. After his failure, Rieux confronts a priest who had claimed the plague was a punishment for the sins of the town’s citizens, saying, “That child, anyhow, was innocent, and you know it as well as I do” (5). But unlike Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that the concept of God was contradictory, Camus nowhere attempts to prove, or to convince others, of the inexistence of God.
Camus’s careful attitude of respect and humility is striking for how it contrasts with our expectations of what the committed atheist might say to the theist. It is, for example, a stark contrast to the atheism of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s objection to theism is not just that it is false – a belief that Camus shared. Nietzsche’s later work focuses on the idea that theism is unhealthy. But his first objection, and an objection that he maintains through his writings, is that theism requires us to be inconsistent. We can see this in his early Untimely Meditationon David Strauss (6). Strauss was a popular intellectual of his time, an atheist who believed that we could accept Darwinism and also derive from it something like contemporary bourgeois Prussian values. Nietzsche’s first of the Untimely Meditations is a sustained diatribe against Strauss’s book, The Old Faith and the New (7). What infuriates Nietzsche are the inconsistencies he finds in Strauss’s reasoning. Darwin shows we are animals, but Strauss blithely pronounces us above the animal: the fossil record, Strauss claims, shows that “less perfect forms precede the more perfect, till at last, in the highest strata, we find vestiges of man” (7). (This idea that evolution moves toward ever more perfect beings is of course an error still widely believed.) Strauss, Nietzsche observes, consistently ignores the revolutionary elements of Darwinism, in order to derive his pre-existing values from a pop version of evolutionary theory. Nietzsche claims that Strauss does not face up to the fact that, according to Darwin, he is precisely a creature of nature and nothing else, and has evolved to the height of being by quite other laws: precisely, in fact, by always forgetting that other creatures similar to him possessed equivalent rights, precisely by feeling himself the stronger and gradually eliminating the other, weaker examples of his species. (6)
If Strauss had had the courage to be consistent and honest in his reading of Darwin, Nietzsche reasons, he would have recognized that Darwinism suggests an ethics of bellum omnium contra omnes,war of all against all.
Nietzsche’s interpretation of Darwin is little better than Strauss’s. The competition that arises in natural selection does not mean “eliminating” others of your species, for example. It just means having more viable offspring than them. And there is as much cooperation in nature as there is competition. But relevant here is Nietzsche’s foundationalism about human purposes: he presumes that our purposes required God as a justification. That is, we derived our belief in our human purposes, and the purposes of history and the universe, from our narrative of God. Darwin, and the scientific revolution, kill God. The edifice collapses, and we are left with nihilism – if, and only if, one reasons with rigor and consistency. For Nietzsche, such reasoning is essential to human dignity. The elite – those with the potential to move us toward the superman – are above all self-aware and consistent. Bereft of the foundations of our theory, those who have the courage to reason consistently will have to remake themselves. One theory falls, and the thinker of the future must replace it with a whole new theory. Consistency will require a new kind of person, who creates values without the foundation of theism.
Nietzsche’s requirements ignore that each of us is full of contradictory beliefs. When discussing coherentism (the theory that we should believe only those claims that are consistent with our other beliefs) with my students, I often ask the following question of a class: “Why is it winter now here in New York?” Many students know the correct answer, but always some student answers, “Because the Earth is now farther from the sun.” “And what,” I ask, “is the season right now in Australia?” Invariably the same student says, “Summer.” This is a quick demonstration that many people believe these two contradictory claims. We can find countless such contradictions in any of us – including among philosophers, including in Nietzsche’s writings. For example, Nietzsche’s perspectivalism (the claim that truth varies with one’s perspective) does not cohere with his rigorous demands for consistent and honest reasoning. If all the world is a text, amenable to any reading, as he claims in Beyond Good and Evil (8), then inconsistency cannot be a criticism. Strauss’s Darwin is one interpretation, Nietzsche’s Darwin is another. If we must choose between these interpretations, then we need some criterion that is external to both interpretations; but if these are just interpretations, each as good as another, then criticisms made within either interpretation cannot be used to decide between the interpretations.
There is something of Nietzsche in some of the “New Atheists” of our time. Sam Harris claims that conflict between religion and science is a zero-sum game, which is just another way of saying that he expects consistency in all our reasoning. As a result, he declares that “science must destroy religion”. Richard Dawkins argues in The God Delusion (9) that theism – at least, in its fundamentalist form – is harmful. His primary characterization of fundamentalism is the belief that a sacred text is unrevisable and true. But this widely-used characterization is not sufficient. Fundamentalism is not just the belief that some sacred text is literally true, but also the demand for a rigorous consistency. There could be, and probably are, many people who believe the Bible is literally true, but who live within the constraints of a liberal society. In contrast, the fundamentalist demands that all the consequences of his sacred text be derived and observed. Of course, he will fail at this task – many Christian fundamentalists cite Leviticus to condemn homosexuality, for example, but none of them follow its requirement that they wear clothes woven of only one kind of fiber, or that they plant their field with only one kind of seed. The fundamentalist’s demands for consistency are arbitrary at best, and self-serving at worst, but they are above all extreme, going beyond what the rest of us would demand of ourselves or each other. This, coupled with their desire to force their beliefs on others, is what makes them dangerous.
Fundamentalism is harmful, but it is not obvious that non-fundamentalist religion causes net harm. Dawkins argues that religion is harmful in part because “even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes” (9). Thus, non-fundamentalist religion opens the door for fundamentalist religion; after all, it is the fundamentalist who is striving most vigorously for consistency, a kind of logical extension of – one might even argue, a sign of respect for – the moderate religion. But religion is only a unique threat if religion solely allows, or otherwise is most likely to allow, for fundamentalism.
When Camus gave his speech to the Dominican monks, he was in the midst of an important change in his philosophical beliefs. He came to recognize that human beings have a human nature that determines what is better or worse for them, and as a result there must be constraints on our freedom if we are to maintain a society where humans can flourish. This was a decisive break with existentialism. His novel The Plague well illustrates this new perspective. Remarkably different than The Stranger, the novel portrays a group of men working closely together in solidarity to oppose an outbreak of disease in their quarantined city. Gone is anything like the bitter loner Meursault of The Stranger, unable to care for or connect with his fellow man and alienated from any purpose other than seeking the simplest pleasures for himself. Seeing the consequences of this shift, Sartre lamented, “Where is Meursault, Camus? Where is Sisyphus?” (10)
More importantly, Camus came to understand that Marxism was the greatest threat of his time. This view made him a pariah in French intellectual circles, but it was also correct. In Man in Revolt (11), he argues that Marxism, and other revolutionary movements, become unjust when they become blind commitments to a single purpose (in this case, the coming of the communist utopia) and silence free speech and dissent for that purpose. We could restate his point to say: the dangerous Marxists not only believed that Marxism was true, but they wanted to force others to believe Marxism, and they demanded we make our lives consistent with their Marxists doctrines. In short, they were fundamentalists, and murdered tens of millions of people in the name of their doxa. Camus captures this insight in his closing paragraph to Man in Revolt, a passage as beautiful as any in philosophy, where he refers to Marx as “the prophet of justice without mercy who lies, by mistake, in the unbeliever’s plot at Highgate Cemetery” (11).
It might seem ill advised to be suspicious of demands for consistency, but although consistency is a virtue, it is neither the sole nor the most important virtue for theory development and reasoning. Scientists rightly prefer a theory that has greater predictive power to a theory with less predictive power but that is consistent with their other beliefs. And nearly all of our mathematical and logical systems fall to a theorem discovered by Kurt Gödel that shows we are unable to prove such systems consistent (12). As a result, were we to demand that we use only mathematical systems that can be proven consistent, we would be left with only very weak and simple systems, and science would be impossible. Instead, we continue to use diverse mathematical systems for their power, with the expectation that we will revise them if we discover a contradiction in them.
Essential to liberalism is the humility to live with contradictions. Not because contradictions are good, nor even reasonable, but because a demand that we expunge all of our contradictions is contrary to epistemic humility. We are not so wise as to know, for any arbitrary belief, whether that belief is true or false. Camus recognized this by modeling humility in his writings and speeches. Our best methods to find truth rest on values that are essential both to liberalism and to the scientific method: allow free discourse, test our claims in the public realm, recognize our own fallibility, and respect the rights of others. We should therefore retain the benefits of liberalism, even when these are inconsistent with some of our other beliefs. The atheist would do better to plea instead of criticize: insist that the theist accept the liberal values essential to our civilization, rather than accuse the theist of moral or epistemic failure. Let him who contains no contradictions cast the first accusation.
- Camus, A., “The Stranger”, 1942
- Camus, A., “The Myth of Sisyphus”, 1942
- Camus, A. “The Unbeliever and Christians,” in “Resistance, Rebellion, and Death”, 1948.
- Lottman, H. “Albert Camus, A Biography”, 1997.
- Camus, A., “The Plague“, 1948.
- Nietzsche, F. “David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer.” In “Untimely Meditations”, 1873.
- Straus, D., “The Old Faith and the New“, 1871.
- Nietzsche, F., “Beyond Good and Evil“, 1886.
- Dawkins, R., “The God Delusion“, 2006.
- Sartre, J-P., “Reply to Camus”, in “Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation“, 1952.
- Camus, A., “The Rebel.[Man in Revolt.]”, 1951.
- Gödel, K., “Über Formal Unentscheidbare Sätze der Principia Mathematica und Verwandter Systeme, I.” Monatshefte für Math. u. Physik, 1931.