The best of Fred Hutchison
Faith and atheism in politics: The great divide
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
June 28, 2012

Originally published September 28, 2004

During the culture war of the last forty years, Evangelicals, devout Catholics, and moralists have been migrating steadily to the increasingly conservative Republican Party. Atheists, agnostics, and moral relativists have been migrating to the increasingly liberal Democratic party. This reconstitution of the two parties directly corresponds to the heating up of the culture war. It is no longer possible to understand American politics without understanding the great divide concerning the issue of God.

The new atheism

A new kind of atheism came into existence in the eighteenth century as a result of a reaction against Christianity. Unbelief has always been with us. But a dogmatic denial of the existence of God is almost unique to the West. The fact that the West was once predominantly and fervently Christian and suffered a revolt against Christianity by the intelligentsia has a lot to do with the development of the new atheism.

Armand M. Nicoli wrote a book, The God Question, which has been made into a two-part television program. Nicoli describes the long journey away from God by Sigmund Freud, a famous atheist, and the long journey to faith by C. S. Lewis, a famous writer about the faith. When the screen credits were coming up at the end of the second part of the television program, I found that I had a fresh understanding of the nature of faith and the nature of atheism.

There seems to be a turning point in life for a certain kind of future believer and a similar turning point for the future atheist. God gives to both enough light so they can make a move toward Him. But He does not make it easy and the choice can be agonizing. If one begins to move toward God, one might face a long, difficult road as Lewis did. God gives enough grace for that journey, but does not necessarily make it free of challenge or hardship. There may be inexplicable mysteries and tough trials along the way.

When the future atheist comes to the turning point and makes the fatal movement away from God, this will also be the beginning of a long journey. God does not withhold resources from the one journeying away from Him, but allows him to feel the emptiness from the loss of the divine presence. Atheists grieve the loss of the God of their youth. The atheist path and the faith path both have moments of regret and temptation to turn back.

Interestingly, the atheist never ceases to construct defenses against God. The fact that he feels he must remain on the defensive indicates that the atheists are still haunted by God. Some God-intoxicated men are believers and some are atheists. The remarkable defensiveness of some liberals in debate may come from an atheistic defensiveness at the core of their being.

Atheism is not logical. There is nothing logical about dogmatically rejecting the possibility of the existence of God. Atheism is negative, reactive and defensive, and dogmatic at heart. Atheists use logic as a weapon, but they are not creatures of logic. This may have something to do with the irrational contrariness of many liberals.

Nicoli's discussion group was a collection of believers, agnostics, atheists, and other spiritual types. All were deeply absorbed in the dialog about of the journey towards God and the journey away from God. Both the atheists and the Christians had been profoundly shaped by their journey in relation to God.

I like to call the Western atheists of reaction "Christian atheists." Their lives have been molded by their rejection of the Christian God and the long process of sustaining that rejection. Their journey away from God, their building of defenses, and the kind of alternate life they have lived have all been done in the context of their rejection of God. They can never arrive at a place which is merely neutral toward God. The intensity and long continuity of their zeal of renunciation is suspicious. It brings to mind the Shakespearian line "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" (Hamlet).

I doubt that genuine fervent atheism, as we have known it, can exist in a God-free vacuum. If no God exists, the question would be a matter of indifference. No one would think of saying in the dogmatic tone "God does not exist," if indeed, God really did not exist. There would be no encounters with the divine to fight against. It is only if one has been very much drawn to the God who is there, and then turns away, that a dogmatic denial of His existence becomes imperative. The prototypical atheist of reaction is the one who irrationally says, "I hate God, and furthermore, He does not exist!"

The Christian atheist cares terribly about the God question and proselytizes for atheism just as Christians proselytize for God. One of the atheists in Nicoli's circle on television had to be reminded not to proselytize. Some atheists affect a studied indifference to the God question, but that is likely to be a defensive pose. Atheists love to talk with Christians about the God question, if Nicoli's circle is any indicator. Atheists will debate for hours with a Christian about the God question, if my own experience is any indicator.

There are tremendous attractions of love and hate between the devout Christian and the Christian atheist. They are like brothers at war who cannot leave one another alone. They are like brothers because the lives of both have revolved around a journey based upon the God question. They are enemies because each one discovers in the other a counterpart who is an antithesis of their entire journey of life. C. S. Lewis had a lifelong friend who cared about all the right things, but took the opposite position from him in every one of them.

Interestingly, God allows atheists to collect and accumulate ammunition to use against Him. He seems to let them go. But paradoxically, atheists cannot let themselves go. The discomfiting thing about atheism is that one can never have assurance of atheism as some Christians have assurance of faith. How indeed can one ever be unshakably certain that there is no God? An atheist must have his guard up against God all of his days. He continues through life to fight a God who apparently is no longer pursuing him. In brilliant contrast, some Christians can lay aside all their anxious fears, doubts, and cares find a deep rest in their faith.

Creeds, confessions, and the evangel

Christianity is an affirmative and a confessing faith. Christianity has creeds and confessions and puts a special emphasis on personal faith. Creed is a word derived from the Latin credo, meaning "I believe." Creeds are clear, affirmative, and positive statements about God that are often spoken publically and collectively. "I believe in God, the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son our Lord" (Opening Lines of the Apostle's Creed). As a believer, I often experience joy when I hear a group of believers enthusiastically confess the Apostle's Creed. I love to declare the blessed words to God when I am out walking. The glorious confession of the Christian is the diametric opposite of the dour negation of the atheist.

A creed presents to one who is wavering between belief and unbelief an either/or proposition of crystalline clarity. One must be a confessor of these truths, or a rejecter of them. A creed does not admit a halfway confession. The Christian atheist is one who has decided to reject the creed. A strongly-decided rejection places one in the dogmatism of reaction, and denial of the ultimate authority. This is bound to have a telling influence on one's political opinions. Atheism is anti-authoritarian at heart. Politics involves the use of power and authority. If we set aside the case of atheistic libertarians like Christopher Hitchens, we can say that atheists are generally drawn to socialism because government is to be their substitute God. Their inner political contradiction is that they hate authority and are fond of anarchy, yet are also attracted to statism. It is no accident that revolutionaries of anarchy usher in dictatorships.

The church challenges everyone to have faith in God, but insists that the faith must be authentic and sincere. There must be a distinction between belief and unbelief. Faith is essential to salvation and must not be hedged or equivocated. The divide between faith and unbelief is especially sharp with Evangelical Christianity, which calls all to faith and emphasizes the moment of the new birth. Billy Graham calls it "The Hour of Decision." A favorite verse of Evangelicals is "Choose this day whom you will serve...." (Joshua 24:15). American Evangelicalism challenges everyone right up front to choose God in a way that older confessional versions of Protestantism do not. The confrontational invitation results in a certain number of "no" choices. As a result, atheism in Evangelical America has a sharp tone of rejection and negativism. The vehement "no" is the mark of the American atheist.

Classic Enlightenment atheism

The French Enlightenment produced a classical Western atheism. The new atheism started as a anticlerical movement within the intelligentsia. The Catholic Church had unwisely allied with the monarchy and the aristocracy. They bishops lived in palaces as a visible ruling branch of the establishment. As the old regime became unpopular, the church became unpopular along with it. By the eighteenth century, anticlericalism in Paris had become intense. Not all anticlericalists became atheists. Voltaire, the most famous of the anticlerical critics, remained a theist. Rousseau was a strong theist and was not an anticlericalist, but his religious nonconformity got him into trouble with both the Catholics and the Calvinists.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784), was a leading French intellectual who began as a church man and ended as a hardened atheist. He is the founding father of classical Western atheism. Diderot was educated by the Jesuits, and for a time he considered entering the clergy, but his interests fanned out in many directions. He was a polymath and studied language, literature, philosophy, and mathematics. He was a versatile writer and became part of the Paris literary coffee house culture and bohemian scene. He briefly took an interest in acting, a precursor to his later interest in politics. Diderot suffered something of a religious crisis during his decadent bohemian phase. He left the church and became a trendy deist. Subsequently he became an anticlericalist, then an atheist, and finally a radical materialist. He was now very far from the young man who considered becoming a priest. It is no accident that a lapsed churchman wrote the script for how to be what I like to call a "Christian atheist."

For a over a century before Diderot, various philosophers were tossing around ideas about empiricism and materialism and related ideas about theism and atheism. Diderot's materialist philosophy was based upon the British empiricism of Bacon, Locke, and Hume and upon a mechanistic view of nature that was borrowed from Descartes. Locke and Descartes were theists. Bacon and Hume were skeptics. Diderot was a dogmatic atheist. He combined the skeptical empiricism of Hume with the mechanistic nature of Descartes in such a way as to produce an extremely tough-minded and hard-bitten concept of mechanistic materialism. "Nothing exists but matter in motion." Diderot's material cosmos was a closed system with God left out. The combination of case-hardened materialism with atheistic dogmatism was a real innovation in the realm of ideas. In time, this blend of ideas would come to be seen by many as essential to science. This is nonsense, of course. Good science owes no debt to bad philosophy. But Diderot's innovative myth was powerful and long lived.

Diderot became co-editor of the famous Encyclopaedia. He transformed the Encyclopaedia into an anticlerical and politically-revolutionary organ. Diderot and the "philosophes" who contributed to the Encylopaedia developed many of the classic arguments against Christianity for atheism.

For example, the philosophes fabricated the story that the pope (who just happened to be a science buff) persecuted Galileo (a church man) for saying that the earth revolves around the sun (an idea the pope encouraged in the beginning and never formally denied). Contrary to popular myth, Galileo's main opponents came from Aristotelian academics and not from the church, which nourished Galileo and made him a celebrity. The infamous lie about Galileo being suppressed by an anti-scientific, closed-minded church was the beginning of the long-running myth that science and religion are enemies. Atheism breeds liars.

The Encyclopaedia had many tracts about science, along with essays about materialism and atheism. This nourished the new myth about a necessary link between science and atheistic materialism. Darwinian atheists are still hanging on to this myth.

Go into any literary or bohemian coffee house in Boston, New York, London, Paris, and Berlin and you can you can still find reincarnations of Diderot. These ghosts of classical atheism replay Diderot's biography in their own lives. They will invariably tell you about their youth in the church, how they left the church, lived a decadent Bohemian life, became atheists, and dabbled in literature, the theater, and radical politics. They always turn out whenever there is an antiwar, green, or antiglobalization demonstration, a gay pride march, or anything with an anti-American tone. Anti-God and anti-American attitudes blend easily together — just as anti-church and anti-old regime once blended well at the barricades in Paris.

Our coffee house atheist is eager to debunk Christianity and proselytize atheism. He argues that the world is material and mechanistic and that God is a myth invented by those in power to dupe the weak and needy. He supposes himself to be trendy. Little does he know how antique and threadbare are the arguments which he parrots. Even though he has never read Diderot, the words of Diderot come out of his mouth as though they had been programmed. Diderot's atheism has become so generic that although Diderot was the original prototype of atheistic materialism, he became in human memory a generic stereotype and a footnote of history.

Freudian atheism

By the time Sigmund Freud (1855-1939) went to college, he was well along on the journey away from the Judaism of his father and was a skeptic about religion. He entered medical school and studied neuropathology. He came under the influence of Ernst Von Brooke, a proponent of a materialist, mechanistic, and chemical basis for the psyche. It may have been Von Brooke's influence that completed Freud's journey to classical Enlightenment atheism. It is doubtful that Freud read Diderot. Von Brooke had probably absorbed Enlightenment thought from later writers and conveyed it to Freud. If we are mere mechanisms, it does not seem likely that we can have a God any more than Pinocchio can have a God of puppets.

Philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach taught that God is man's imaginary projection of his earthly father. Freud's association of his own father with the God of Judaism of his youth made the ideas of Feuerbach believable to him. Freud sought to find a scientific basis in psychology for religion as an infantile wish-fulfillment fantasy and God as a father projection. Although he was very short on empirical evidence to support Feuerbach's theory, he widely propagated the theory to the public through his superior skills as a writer. Some immature Christians do indeed confuse God with a projection of their own fathers. However, the goal of the growing Christian is to get beyond the father projection so they can know the real God. Freud mistook an infantile spiritual error for a mature understanding of God.

The two obsessions of Freud were sex and death. He theorized that the two great forces of the unconscious mind were libido and thanatos. The libido is full of primeval energy and the desire for forbidden sexual pleasures. Thanatos is a death wish. Freud's obsessions about perverse incestual sex and his morbid fascination with death may well have been facilitated by his atheism. The interesting but unanswerable question is whether these personal lusts and pathologies had something to do with turning Freud away from God. However, it seems clear that atheists are heavily represented among hedonists and self-destructive individuals.

Although Freud is now out of favor in psychology, Freudian atheism is not. Many standard psychology textbooks present the theory of religion as infantile wish fulfillment and father projection even though the proof is still scanty. Propagating a convenient theory without much evidence violates the skepticism and rigorous empiricism of Diderot. The skepticism of atheism is selective and hypocritical.

Every campus has many Freudian-style atheists. We find sexual hedonism, a self-destructive death wish, and a father complex in every campus bar. All you have to do is add the line about God being a father projection, and presto, you have a Freudian atheist. The debunking of the Father God may result in countercultural views of male authority. This usually leads to suspicion of American institutions and left-wing politics. Many of the Freudian atheists in the campus bar are likely to be in the Young Democrats Club or other left-wing movements.

John Dewey and atheism

John Dewey (1859-1952) represents a distinctive kind atheism resulting from a blend of the pragmatism of William James and the historicism of George Hegel. Interestingly, both James and Hegel were theists.

The theory of pragmatism posits that the worth of an idea is measured in its "cash value." Cash value is shorthand for one's appraisal of the benefits of the idea after they are put into action. If the outcome of the action is subjectively pleasing, the idea has "cash value." Cash-value thinking drains words of all meaning except their most obvious and short-term application.

Dewey's thinking about education was "instrumental." He was looking for ideas and programs as instruments for shaping kids into useful citizens. He was convinced that his instrumental approach to education could change human nature for the better. Thus, education was to be the premier institution for social engineering.

In spite of these messianic dreams, Dewey's educational program has had a heavy retarding influence on the intellectual development of American school children. Pragmatism is inherently anti-intellectual. When we read the classics in school, most of the benefits for our lives will come much later. The benefits cannot be instrumentally directed or predicted or reckoned in cash value. Only the simplest instruction manual is purely instrumental. If we go through life impatient for immediate application, we will cast aside most of the books that might have enriched our lives, and we will be ignorant of most of the profound ideas that make for a cultured and civilized life. The outrageous popularity of James and Dewey in America has made us less literary, less intellectual, less civilized, and less able to read, speak, and think with clarity.

Pragmatism does not necessarily lead to atheism unless you add historicism. Historicism is the belief that man is the product of the culture and the times in which he lives. Since societies are in continual development, human nature — it is supposed — is also in continual development. Human values change with the times. Dewey was an extreme historicist. He believed the morality and wisdom of the past consisted of arbitrary rules by obsolete authorities that are not applicable to new situations. He was also an extreme determinist. He believed that what we are is determined by the here and now.

Our society is filled to the rafters with historicist nonsense. Anyone with moral scruples or time-tested values will be derided by his peer group as not being up with the times. "Cool" and "hip" (and equivalent terms) are synonyms for posturing according to the latest fad. A historicist world casts off its cultural memories and is terminally shallow and riddled with mindless fads.

No universal moral laws or eternal wisdom can exist in an historicist world. Anyone interested in God will be challenged by religious liberals to redefine his concept of God to bring it up to date. What kind of God will be continuously morphing in his nature so He can be trendy, cool, and in step with the times? I don't know. Ask Hegel.

Pragmatism rules out learning all the heady metaphysical ideas that made it possible for Hegel to reconcile his idea of a divine spirit with historicism. Such abstract and mystical ideas have no pragmatic cash value. Ideas of divinity are stripped away by Dewey's pragmatism and we are cast adrift into a world of flux. This is why Dewey's historicist pragmatism leads to atheism.

In order not to be shaped by the flux in a random way, Dewey thinks we must search for ideas with cash value and for instrumental methods and programs. The populace must be shaped according to these programs by the state. Dewey was a statist who believed fervently in social engineering. Public educational institutions were to be the premier institutions for social engineering. There is no place for God in Dewey's programs, which are founded on atheistic presuppositions. The triumph of Dewey in public education is really what doomed prayer and the Ten Commandments in school. The vestiges of God in the schools would have been driven out by the pervasive influence of Dewey's philosophy if it had not been done by the Supreme Court.

Dewey's cosmos is the most spiritually and intellectually shrunken cosmos imaginable. Pragmatism and instrumentalism are inherently simplistic and anti-intellectual. They hinder the development of a more advanced level of thinking. Historicism is just as anti-intellectual as is pragmatism. Historicism implies that the great literature of the past is irrelevant to men of this day because man has changed and society has changed. Therefore, all the literature worth reading is contemporary literature. Such an approach drains our minds of the great literary treasures and wisdom of the past. Jacques Derrida's demented deconstruction of great classic literature and reinterpretation of them as archaic conspiracy theories follows the cues of Dewey's historicism. In the shallow world that Dewey made, Renaissance men, great writers, great philosophers, and great theologians have been rapidly disappearing from the scene.

Dewey's pragmatic world is one in which the mind is too stunted to even conceive of a full-bodied idea of God, or Truth. The instrumental process-oriented mind is functional for practical tasks, but is incapable of entertaining complex ideas. Such folks are only capable of conceiving of political ideology on the level of a cartoon, a symbol, or a slogan. They are amenable to group-think, so many of them are captured by the left, which specializes in group-think, slogans, and sound bites.

..........Readers, I have overrun my self-appointed limits for this essay, so I have edited out the part of my program which was to be devoted to Marx's atheism and Darwin's atheism.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31