Is Atheism Evil? Karl Barth on Truly Dangerous Atheism

Is atheism evil? Is atheism good or bad? Ask the average self-described “Christian” on the street in North America and you’ll get a decisively negative answer. But it is a bad question, a misleading one. For there is not only one form of atheism, and most of them tend not to be straightforwardly “good” or “bad.” In the below quote, Barth addresses three types of atheism. The first two types were much more prevalent in his day than in ours, although in recent years we’ve seen a particularly loud form of the second type emerge (here is one news clipping that comes to mind). Barth does not believe that these two types are particularly worrisome. In fact, he speaks not only of their weaknesses but also of their strengths. Rather, it is the third type that is “the real enemy.” And in discussing this third type Barth indicts your average North American “Christian” who—as a body—seems absolutely incapable of recognizing this critical point. 

Karl Barth, Fragments Grave and Gay, 46–47. Bold is mine.
Addressing myself particularly to ‘Christian’-minded readers of this essay, I should like to add the following in regard to the phenomenon and problem of ‘atheism’. There exists in the East at the present time, connected politically of course with dialectical materialism, a rather fiery form of atheism . . . that opposes the Church, religion in general, and thus also what is taken to be the Christian faith, in a more or less militant and aggressive fashion. . . . [There is also an] older, Western, cold type of atheism that is essentially defensive. The universal validity it claims for the negation of faith is based on the alleged sole validity of the scientific and technological method of thought, but in practice it merely claims the liberty to express that claim and . . . freely to renounce the Church and Christian faith in the name of an intellectual elite, ‘looking forward to a time when this renunciation will have become general’. Both types of atheism have their special pathos, their special strengths and weaknesses. I should like to say this about them. Atheism is not abominable, because evil, dangerous or pernicious, in either of these forms, even in the Eastern form which is now so greatly feared and therefore so bitterly denounced by the honest[*] Swiss. The atheism that is the real enemy is the ‘Christianity’ that professes faith in God very much as a matter of course, perhaps with great emphasis, and perhaps with righteous indignation at atheism wild or mild, while in its practical thinking and behavior it carries on exactly as if there were no God. It professes its belief in him, lauds and praises him, while in practice he is the last of the things it thinks about, takes seriously, fears or loves. . . . God is spoken of, but what is meant is an idol that one treats as one sees fit. Who can acquit himself of this third form of atheism? Let all who believe themselves to be Christians consider this: that in this third form atheism is a really evil thing. But this is the form in which it prospers in Christian families, homes (including ministers’ homes), groups, associations, institutions, [political] parties and newspapers. This is the form of atheism that is fertile soil for the growth first of the mild, then of the wild, first of the Western and then of the Eastern type, and from which both continually draw their strength. The atheists of the other kind live on the fact that we are not better Christians.

[*] Do I detect a hint of sarcasm? 



Anonymous said…
I am not entirely sure how helpful it is to equate atheism with idolatry (though of course there is an internal logic to it). Would you want to say more with respect to Barth's view of the two or your own?
- David
It's hard for me to say more without knowing why you are unsure it is helpful. Would you want to say more?
Anonymous said…
No, I don't have much to add. I suppose I just use the words differently . . . and that is part of the point. For me idolatry is always negative while atheism just seems to be of a different category but I can't flesh that out at the moment.

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