“Lapsed atheist”—that’s how Russian-British satirist and social commentator Konstantin Kisin describes himself in a recent article entitled “The Atheism Delusion.” It’s a clever and humorous twist on the “lapsed Catholic” or “lapsed Christian” phrase, but it’s also more than that. Kisin’s reflections on his transition from atheism to “lapsed atheism” (actually, Kisin now tells people he’s an agnostic when asked his views on religion, but he claims that “lapsed atheist” is a more accurate term) can provide us with some important topics to raise when discussing the Catholic faith with other nonbelievers.
In his article, Kisin describes some of the reasons why he initially found himself in agreement with the so-called “new atheists” (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens), but he then goes on to say that he “began to lose [his] faith in atheism” when the new atheists started to claim in earnest, not only that religion is “untrue,” but also that religion is inherently bad. Kisin found that he couldn’t agree with this assessment, because over time he gradually had come to see religion as both “useful” and “inevitable.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of religion, obviously, but Kisin is opening the door to religion at least a crack.
In his discussion of religion’s “usefulness,” Kisin mainly focuses on the fact that religion can provide the moral foundation and framework that is so essential to the establishment and maintenance of a civilized society. In his opinion, “The central positive feature of the religious worldview is to ensure that human beings do not see themselves as the sole arbiters of truth and justice, that having torn God down from his pedestal we do not put ourselves in his place.” He repeats the observation that had been made previously by thinkers like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: if there is no God, then “we get to make up whatever rules we want.” Kisin points to Stalin and Hitler as cautionary tales of what can happen to societies that abandon any semblance of a moral framework. In fact, thinkers since at least the time of the French Revolution have striven mightily to devise a moral foundation for culture that is not rooted in religion, but without any real success. Nietzsche was largely correct when he claimed that, if there is no God, then society, and human existence itself, tend to devolve into amoral struggles for power.
Western culture has been running on the fumes of the few surviving remnants of the Judeo-Christian ethic for quite some time now, and those fumes are becoming mighty thin indeed (“Just be kind!”), as the moral chaos that passes for contemporary Western culture amply, and tragically, demonstrates. Ireland, a country that has, in recent years, largely jettisoned its Catholic heritage and the moral code that goes along with it, is a case in point.