Experience and culture: a point of departure for American atheism

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The problems entailed in the affirmation or denial of the existence of God have historically embodied intractable paradoxes. Nothing could be more central to the meaning that constitutes a religious com-munity and to the ideational continuity of its tradition, yet even the problems do not admit of unambiguous statement nor have they offered fixed and perduring patterns of resolution. Ambiguities characterize statement and argument in a fourfold manner: in the basic terms in which question or answer is framed; in the evidence offered for their advancement; in the methods by which this evidence is established, questions resolved, and answers verified; and in the fundamental principles by which question, evidence, and method are connected and rooted in reality.

One may introduce some coherence into this problematic situation, however, by recognizing that atheisms usually derive their character from the prevalent theisms. The arguments for and against the latter, in turn, depend upon the conditions of fundamental reflection of a particular period. Fundamental reflection determines and investigates the subjects whose construal, critique, or analysis provides the foundations for any subsequent sciences or arts or disciplined inquiry. The central arguments about the reality of God, then, change with relative consistency as belief and unbelief mount their own defense or explorations within a particular stage of intellectual history that furnishes for both their point of departure.

Accordingly, this paper proposes to deal with its subject in three stages. (1) It suggests something about the focus of contemporary fundamental thinking. (2) It discusses two thinkers of major influence upon the U.S. over this century, thinkers whose reflections move from this point of departure to diagnose the unreality of God. (3) It outlines three problematic areas which this situation suggests for Catholic theologians: the appropriate question about the existence of God, the cultural resources for its exploration, and the ecclesial nature of the issue.