How I Teach Atheism to Seminarians
Decorum sometimes wrests from friends and family desultory queries about my job. They know I teach at a seminary, so they ask after my courses. “Mostly church history this semester,” I say. “Some modern philosophy, and a course on atheism.” “Atheism?” many balk. Others of more urbane sensibilities nod approvingly. “Well,” they say, “I suppose it is useful to train seminarians to defeat the enemy.”
My course on atheism does nothing of the sort. In fact, my first lecture outlines what our course will not do. It will not teach students to brandish dialectic against internet atheists. It will not dignify the dogmatic scientism of a Richard Dawkins or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, pretenders both to atheism’s tiara. And it will not teach the sort of genealogical legerdemain so common in religious circles that reduces every position with which Christians disagree to atheism in three easy steps. Desirous of apologetics the course will not provide (perhaps), some students invariably and quietly drop it.
Those who remain make a start by discussing St. Silouan the Athonite’s saying: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.” As with all apophthegmata, its meaning is hard-won. Perhaps the saying recommends the spiritual practice of imagining one’s own damnation. Perhaps it invokes the cry of dereliction from Golgotha, when Christ wails in voce Adami. Or perhaps it plays on the sign over Dante’s inferno: lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate (“abandon all hope, ye who enter here”). Whatever its meaning, students notice that the special difficulty rests with the “and” in the saying’s middle. How ought we to think the first and second parts of the saying together? What might it mean to keep one’s mind in hell and not despair?
What if, I ask students, avoiding despair is not the opposite of keeping the mind in hell but rather the result of so doing? What would it mean to wager that keeping our minds in hell is in fact a means of avoiding despair?
When we turn to scripture, students notice how it teaches readers again and again to purge their false notions about God. Often enough this teaching arrives in the form of the ban on worship of gods other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:2–4): the golden calf, the statues of the prophets of Ba’al, and so on. Students know as much from the Decalogue—and anyhow precious few among them struggle personally with Ba’al worship. As often, though, scripture imagines worship of the God of Israel to be idolatrous. Amos reports that God hates Israel’s songs and rejects her worship because it did not include care for the poor (Amos 5:21–24). And it is our “earthly nature” bent toward idols that Christians are to “kill” (Col. 3:5; Gal. 5:19). The lesson is plain: neither Israel nor the Church remains innocent of idolatry. If some idolatries worship false gods, others rather worship God falsely.
At which point I ask students: How should we Christians divest ourselves of idolatry as scripture enjoins? How to ensure we are not worshipping God falsely? How to discern an icon from an idol?
Here we need not begin ex nihilo. Among the grace-gifts left from Christendom’s scuttling is a collection of thinkers—many darkly brilliant—whose atheism renders them expert at idol-destruction. Why not, I ask, brave the wreckage and borrow their criticisms?
And so the semester wades—slowly, deliberately, attentively—through Feuerbach and Marx and Nietzsche and Freud. What students discover as they learn from the école du soupçon’s fiercest minds is how often the idols they dash against the rocks we Christians smash too—or should. Who could deny that often enough theologians qualify away the singular peculiarity of revelation? That Christian praxis sometimes spiritualizes poverty and so sacralizes the very powers the Gospel destroys? That the inversion of value on Golgotha does not sometimes hypocritically vest power in a cassock? Students notice too how often Judeo-Christian motives slink beneath even the most ferocious atheism, an irony David Bentley Hart has named “Christian atheism.” What is Feuerbach’s atheism but a one-sided apologia for the scandal of the incarnation? Marx’s a new, doubtless very different, preferential option for the poor? Nietzsche’s a deranged affirmation of the way and the truth and the life? And what is Freud’s “godless Judaism” but an accidentally prophetic word in the vein of Amos or Hosea? In every and each case, students see with Karl Barth that sometimes “the cry of revolt against such a god is nearer the truth than is the sophistry with which men attempt to justify him.”
Our course closes with selections from Dostoevsky—and not (only) because I am an Eastern Christian cliché. In truth nobody better rendered atheism’s moral wager against a Christian calculus (think The Brothers Karamazov’s “Rebellion”). Nobody better depicted the risk of atheism’s possession (think Demons’ Kirillov). And nobody better divined the spiritual nepsis requisite for practicing Holy Saturday beyond Holy Week by tracing how atheism’s shadow is cast only by Christ’s light (think Demons “At Tikhon’s”). At length I reveal that our semester has performed a studied imitation of Tikhon’s revelation to Stavrogin: “God will forgive your unbelief, for you venerate the Holy Spirit without knowing him.”
I teach atheism to seminarians not out of some smug satisfaction derived from initiating pious young men into the ranks of the undeceived. Nor do I teach it principally to exercise student ability in dialectic. Rather I teach atheism to seminarians to train them in the timeworn art of allegory—of finding Christ wherever indeed he hides.
I would not counsel my course’s attempt to stave off despair by keeping one’s mind in hell to the spiritually immature or intellectually unserious. Here be (actual) dragons. But if your students like mine have graduated from milk to meat (1 Cor. 3:2), you might—in Merold Westphal’s elegant phrase—try teaching atheism next Lent. After all, we have nothing to lose but our idols.
Justin Shaun Coyle (PhD, Boston College) is a Ukrainian Greek Catholic who teaches philosophy and theology at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. His first book, The Beauty of the Trinity: A Reading of the Summa halensis, is due out next year from Fordham University Press.