Remembering Albert Camus and Longing for the Old Atheism

As fans and followers of Nobel Prize-winning writer and philosopher Albert Camus are celebrating the centennial of his birth today, people of many faiths and no faith at all do well to remember his legacy when it came to religion. Most importantly, as an unbeliever, Camus offers a powerful counter-example to the stridency and animus of the "new atheism" associated with Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others. Indeed Camus makes us long for the days of the "old atheism" when religious people weren't mocked for their so-called irrational beliefs; bullied by the charge that "religion poisons everything"; and told to step aside while secularism sweeps clean the religious debris from public life.

To begin with, Camus was humble about his unbelief, recalling Benjamin Constant's caution that there is something "worn out" about being too intensely against religion. Camus freely admitted that he didn't believe in God, but he chose to speak "in the name of an ignorance that tries to negate nothing." In other words, his own lack of faith did not presume that others must be wrong about theirs -- certainly not in a way that he could prove with certainty. For this reason, he resisted "atheism," adopting instead the mantle of the "unbeliever" (incroyant).

One need not be religious, nevertheless, to appreciate how religion contributed constructively to civilization and contemporary life. As a young university student in French-Algeria, Camus completed a thesis exploring the relationship between Neo-Platonic and Christian metaphysics. A central figure in this study was St. Augustine whom, as a fellow Algerian, Camus held a great affinity. According to biographer Herbert Lottman, St. Augustine was, for Camus, "the 'bishop' of North African writers, whether believers or non-believers. Camus saw in this saint the artist with all the strengths and weaknesses of the 'African' Camus felt himself to be." Camus was especially taken by Augustine's searching inquiry into the problem of evil. Contrary to new atheists like Hitchens -- who suggests that religion is the carrier of plague -- Camus recognized that evil is a human problem. As Dr. Rieux remarked in Camus's superb novel The Plague, "each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it." Camus, like Dr. Rieux, shared the same questions religious believers ask; he just couldn't accept their answers -- or their hope. He found consolation not in the faith of Job or the salvation of Christ but in Sisyphus: the prospect that, through rebellion and endurance, Sisyphus could be happy.

Interestingly, for all his focus on Sisyphus's solitary struggle, Camus believed that solidarity was born of rebellion. And the common moral problems that believers and unbelievers face together in political life -- the plague of Nazism, for example -- also requires them to work together (as Camus did editing the French Resistance newspaper Combat). In a famous talk delivered in a Dominican monastery in Paris, Camus extolled the importance of pursuing simultaneously cooperative engagement and respectful disagreement. "I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think .... in order to reach a reconciliation that would be agreeable to all." Rather, he insisted, "the world needs real dialogue," which is only possible "between people who remain what they are and speak their minds. This is tantamount to saying that the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians." But Camus did not stop there. He went on to urge Christians to "speak out clearly" and "pay up personally" which too many Christians refused to do while Hitler overran Europe and sent millions of Jews to their deaths.

In one famous exchange over the purge trials of Vichy collaborators, Camus reacted strongly against Catholic intellectual Francois Mauriac for "throwing Christ in my face." Camus couldn't have been more right. But neither should unbelievers throw their strident atheism in the face of believers. In this polarizing era of ours, we do well to recall the grace and humility of Albert Camus and model of cooperative engagement he exemplified. The new atheism offers nothing comparable at the very time when moral and political struggles -- among them against religious extremism -- threaten and implicate believers and unbelievers alike.