This has me just plain dumbfounded. Neuhaus, founder of the conservative religious journal First Things, quoting Father Ranier Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household:
“The world of today knows a new category of people: the atheists in good faith, those who live painfully the situation of the silence of God, who do not believe in God but do not boast about it; rather they experience the existential anguish and the lack of meaning of everything: They too, in their own way, live in the dark night of the spirit. Albert Camus called them “the saints without God.” The mystics exist above all for them; they are their travel and table companions. Like Jesus, they “sat down at the table of sinners and ate with them” (see Luke 15:2). This explains the passion with which certain atheists, once converted, pore over the writings of the mystics: Claudel, Bernanos, the two Maritains, L. Bloy, the writer J.K. Huysmans and so many others over the writings of Angela of Foligno; T.S. Eliot over those of Julian of Norwich. There they find again the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun. . . . The word “atheist” can have an active and a passive meaning. It can indicate someone who rejects God, but also one who—at least so it seems to him—is rejected by God. In the first case, it is a blameworthy atheism (when it is not in good faith), in the second an atheism of sorrow or of expiation.” (emphasis added)
When believers complain that New Atheists are arrogant or insulting to religion, sometimes they have fair points, sometimes they don’t. The idea that atheists who happen to dare criticize religious claims are bitter and nasty is an all too easy emotional meme to play upon whether its justified or not. Some can certainly be insulting, as any advocates for any position can: there’s no denying it. But the worst of their jibes is to say that the claims and beliefs of believer are wrong, misguided, unfounded, foolish.
Nothing, nothing any of them has said compares to a man fantasizing openly about how pleased he is to think of those who do not share his ideology moaning and groveling in agony for their failure to share in it. Patting them on the head for their subservience to his beliefs and begging for a means to atone. Imagine this in pretty much any other context, and you would see a person shockingly self-involved: a narcissism beyond belief, a childish and arrogant fantasy bordering on the obscene.
Neuhaus, instead, sees it as a deep insight. He launches into this quote right after declaring that for non-believers, humans lives “have no value.” (A common Catholic claim of philosophical superiority which I do not think he or any theologian can actually back up, for all its grand pomposity.) And, of course, this comes after also implying that rationalism leads inevitably to the Holocaust (because, you know, the Nazis were such rational, liberalized folks).
What’s startles me here is the difference in rhetorical excess. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen fit to fantasize about those who don’t share my beliefs groveling and suffering before me, wishing desperately that they could be like me. I don’t think of theists as depraved sociopaths who need to trick themselves into caring about their fellow human beings. Believing these things might well make me feel better about myself, and might even prove effective red meat for inspiring coarse dittoheads to my position. But how would I sleep at night after stooping that low?
Neuhaus, on the other hand, doesn’t even seem to have a second thought about deploying such rhetorical nukes on those who do not share his beliefs. And on top of it all, he and Cantalamessa have the absolute intellectual depravity to claim to judge whether someone’s position is in “good faith” or not.
It shocks the conscience. It’s like finding out that your next door neighbor fantasizes about having you bound and tearful in his basement. You think that one human being couldn’t seriously have such vile designs upon and beliefs about another. And then… then you learn differently.
It’s not the end of the world. It’s, in the end, small and pathetic. And it just sort of makes me sad.