Three Cultures of Atheism: On Serious Doubts about the Existence of God

Simon Glendinning. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. Volume 73, Issue 1. February 2013.

Regarding general conceptions of the world and the significance of our lives, European societies today are marked by heterogeneity, particularly regarding religious and non-religious conceptions. I think it is important to emphasise the heterogeneity in the citizenry, to acknowledge that Europe today provides a home to an impressively diverse population: to “Moslems, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, or otherwise spiritual non-believers, or agnostics of one kind or another, or atheists, or whatever” (Glendinning 2009, p. 422). However, an understandable interest in the historical antagonism in Europe between the claims of religion and the claims of reason can also warrant an emphasis on an overarching fault-line, highlighting, for example, a basic contrast between “religious” and “secular” citizens (Habermas 2006, p. 4). Social surveys on religious beliefs in Europe typically make judicious room for variety, but here too there is a tendency to read the data in terms of a basic contrast, in this case between avowals of religious theism and atheism. Between these two pole positions, others are then represented as lying on a scale of decreasing religious commitment or (more commonly) increasing religious indifference (Cheyne 2010). Thus, from one side there would be a falling away from unshakable faith in God, towards “woolly beliefs and non-committal attitudes” (Fox 2004, p. 355); and from the other side, there would be a falling away from unswerving atheism towards more or less the same “woolly beliefs and non-committal attitudes.” At the maximally “woolly” meeting point between the two limits, one is invited to find a kind of mindless sheepishness: the complete absence of any interest in religious commitment whatsoever, positive or negative. For many religious believers and atheist disbelievers this radical indifference denotes something far more troubling than an attachment to the “wrong” commitment:

It “denotes such deep mental obtusity that it cannot even perceive the existence of the problem” (Mondin 1978). It is not a God-hole, but rather a God-vacuum at the centre of contemporary European societies. If one looks at statistics concerning belief in God in Europe, it would appear that a sizeable proportion of the population, in fact a clear majority, belong to the ranks of those who would be considered as among the more or less indifferent.

In this paper I outline a way of thinking about this diverse majority which does not construe it simply as slung between religious theism and atheism. In order to think this through I will also make use of a three-fold schema, but the conceptualisation of the relations between them will be different. The categories I will use are: religious theists, modern atheists, and (replacing the category of the more or less woolly-minded indifferent) a-theists. The specification of the last group will be a central task, but two basic traits comparable to those ascribed in the old schema to the indifferent can be anticipated. First, it comprises people who, for the most part, do not have any thoughts at all about God, positive or negative. And, second, it comprises people who, while not full-blown atheists, would avow (if asked) that they do not believe in a God who hears our prayers. Some among them may (if asked) avow that they believe in something, and may even call it “God,” but this is not a religious theism: these people do not live a life that cleaves to religious creeds, and in particular they do not believe in a God able to hear our prayers.

One can certainly understand why the a-theist category might be thought to lie on a continuum of indifference between religious theism and atheism, but I will argue that it should be conceptualised in a distinct way. The category names I am using may not make this entirely perspicuous. However, my interest is not in the correctness of labels but the outline of three cultures of atheism that can be discerned in the contemporary European social landscape by their means. Illuminating this landscape will show why the continuum model and the picture of the religiously indifferent should be rejected.

The three cultures can be introduced by way of two claims which will feature prominently in the discussion. The first concerns the emergence of religious theist faith. The claim is that religious theist faith can only make its way in a culture which maintains serious doubts about God. There is a “culture of atheism” inside religious theism. The second concerns the dwindling of religious faith. The claim is that an individual life (or an entire segment of society) which loses its previously unalloyed religious faith in God nevertheless remains exposed to the religious theist’s doubts. This might seem to be an obvious characteristic of the “culture of atheism” that belongs to modern atheism in contemporary European societies. Modern atheists suppose themselves to be seriously engaged with such doubts: they think they understand them, and spend a lot of time and energy trying to remove them. Indeed, the whole point of the modern atheist mission is (ideally) to provide an understanding of the world and the significance of our lives in which such doubts have been completely removed. By contrast, the third “culture of atheism” I am concerned with, the culture of a-theism, is not characterised by any such mission, and hence the religious theist’s doubts remain within in it in a more profound sense. Whether temporarily or permanently, a-theists cannot make sense of themselves cleaving trustingly to the traditional theist answers to such doubts: they are resistant to the religious theist response to them. However, they do not experience this as a victory over theistic delusions, but as something like a fact of their condition; as something, one might say, they can only bear witness to.

The task of mapping the terrain of contemporary European societies in terms of these three cultures will be developed in three steps. The first step (Sects. 1 and 2) explores the culture of modern atheism, and the relation between its conception of religious beliefs and the dominant discourse of Europe’s modernity. Drawing on Nietzsche and Sartre an alternative understanding of Europe’s modernity is presented which situates it within the horizon of a broadly Christian heritage, a heritage marked by what I am calling a culture of atheism inside religious theism. The second step (Sects. 3 and 4) draws on Wittgenstein and Derrida to specify the culture of a-theism through its distinctive relation to both religious theist and modern atheist points of view. The third step (Sect. 5) concludes by proposing a replacement of the continuum model and the picture of the religiously indifferent with one based on the alternative conception of the three cultures of atheism.


The culture of atheism that is most visible in European societies today is best known for its “expressions of outright hostility, and even contempt for, religion” (Cheyne 2010, p. 2). This point of view is boldly expressed in the words of a caption to a photograph on the Global Secular and Humanist Movement Facebook page. The photograph is of two of the most powerful critics of religion of recent times, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. The caption is a comment by Dennett on the recently deceased Hitchens:

What Christopher showed me—and I keep it in mind now wherever I speak—is that there is a time for politeness and there is a time when you are obliged to be rude, as rude as you have to be to stop such pollution of young minds in its tracks with a quick, unignorable shock.

The very name of the Movement that posted this photograph and caption is indicative of the globalization of the kulturkampf between religious theists and modern atheists that preoccupies intellectual discussions of religion and non-religion today. Of course, the Global Secular and Humanist Movement is only one version, and a rather extreme one at that, of modern atheism. Nevertheless, it attests to a culture of atheism that sustains a powerfully-felt obligation to take a muscular stand against religious belief (see Blackford and Schüklenk 2009 for a representative range of expressions of this).

Whether or not a modern atheist feels obliged on some occasion to be rude, his or her taking-an-atheist-position at all is irreducibly caught up with his or her finding commitment to the creeds of religious faith rationally unacceptable. There is what one might call a double belief internal to taking a modern atheist position. It is not sufficient for this that, for example, for the most part, he or she has no thoughts about Judgement Day whatever. This latter possibility is also one of the chief characteristics of what I am calling a-theism, and I will return to it. However, the crucial feature of the one who takes an atheist position, the one, for example, who feels obliged on occasion to insist that there will be no Judgement Day, is that he or she does so because (by his or her lights) another person believes the opposite, believes, in this case, that there will be a Judgement Day. And while some atheists may be more content than others to live and let live, and don’t make much of their double belief, many, like Dennett and Hitchens, sometimes feel the obligation—in the name of reason and science—to be rude.

The account of the three cultures of atheism argued for in this paper does not leave me as a bystander to this tendency to make a scene. Indeed, I will follow Wittgenstein in thinking one has to make a certain kind of “propaganda” here, being “honestly disgusted” with this kind of modern atheist position-taking (Wittgenstein 1967, p. 28). Modern atheists like to present themselves as dispassionate and open-minded seekers of truth, but take a view of the character of religious theism which precludes a serious engagement with doubts about God. According to modern atheists, religious beliefs are essentially of-a-piece with the sort of primitive and pre-scientific superstitions which have been assigned to the rubbish-bin of Europe’s pre-modern history. And so (not unreasonably at that point) modern atheists think it would be better all-around if religion, like magic or witchcraft, withered away. Any signs of religious revival are essentially aberrations or setbacks in the globalizing movement of Europe’s scientific modernity.

In the following passage, Rosen (2012, p. 152) outlines the kind of philosophical story that informs the modern atheist point of view:

Once upon a time, so the story goes, human beings (or Western ones at least) lived in a world in which morality was seen to be embedded in nature. Nature was an expression of the will of a benevolent creator-God, who had revealed his purposes in it, and morality and science went hand in hand. Each was out there to be discovered objectively. Yet the rise of modern science put an end to that. Various rearguard actions notwithstanding, the mechanistic, physicalistic, nomological—in short, disenchanted—view of the universe has triumphed and the natural world has become one of (as William James put it) “aimless weather.”

Rosen’s story relates the narrative of European (or Western) modernity as the story of a radical break from forms of society dominated by myth and superstition, of a society en route to a rational, scientific, and perhaps ultimately Godless future. Although Rosen gives this story a fairy-tale appearance, it neatly captures the central planks of what one might call the dominant discourse of Europe’s modernity. In our time it is commonplace to suppose that the understanding of the world and the significance of our lives that has been spreading out across the globe from Europe for at least the last three hundred years has become increasingly “disenchanted.”

Another way of putting this would be to say that European culture—with its disenchanted worldview—is becoming, increasingly, a culture of modern atheism. Modern atheism is certainly a salient feature of contemporary Europe’s cultural landscape. But is it a culture whose trajectory it should, narratively speaking, dominate? As I will explain, I do not think so.

What seems undeniable in Rosen’s story is the idea that there has been a profound shift in the river-bed of thinking and believing in European societies over the last three hundred years. However, accepting this does not mean that one must also accept what we might call the modern interpretation of Europe’s modernity: the interpretation which sees this shift as involving an on-going “withering away” of religious points of view and the general rise of atheism. For sure (and rearguard actions notwithstanding) we are not seeing anything like a “revival of organised religion.” However, that does not have to be understood as evidence for a converse thesis of a “rise of atheism.” European modernity is marked by a changeover in the default understanding of the world and the significance of our lives. This centrally involves a shift from an understanding in which God and God’s plan for Man is at the centre of people’s thinking and believing to one in which it is not. But this does not have to be understood as an on-going shift towards atheism. Rather, it means that most “modern” Europeans simply don’t have thoughts about God’s plan for Man at the centre of their understanding of the world and the significance of our lives.

This is, I submit, how it is today in European societies, and hence there is clearly some justice in thinking of it as a culture of atheism. However, there is also good reason not to think of it as a culture on the way to becoming dominated by modern atheist points of view. Indeed, as far as the culture of this European culture is concerned it would seem more plausible to say that the world of Europe’s modernity has remained remarkably Christian.

To make room for this thought one has to reject the modern interpretation of Europe’s modernity. Moreover, one has to reject this without endorsing some idea of a revival of religion either. Instead, what we need to acknowledge is a deep historical sense of Europe’s modern trajectory as, in certain crucial respects, profoundly continuous with its religious heritage. At issue in modernity, I want to suggest, is not a radical break with that heritage, where modern science has all but “put an end” to religious points of view, but the persistence in Europe of a religious, and specifically Christian, understanding of ourselves as totally alone, of existing in a world without God. This Christian point of departure for religious faith has become the norm for contemporary experience without it. In the next Sect. 1 will develop this line of thought through a reading of texts by Nietzsche and Sartre.


Looking out over the ramparts of contemporary Europe, Nietzsche asked himself in his today, which is not so very far from our today, “Why atheism today?” (1973, p. 53). If one is looking for a defence of or recommendation for accepting atheism today in Nietzsche one will likely be thoroughly baffled by his answer:

Why atheism today?—“the father” in God is thoroughly refuted; likewise “the judge”, “the rewarder”. Likewise his “free will”: he does not hear—and if he heard he would still not know how to help. The worst thing is: he seems incapable of making himself understood: is he himself vague about what he means?—These are what, in the course of many conversations, asking and listening, I found to be the causes of the decline in European theism; it seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in vigorous growth—but that it rejects the theistic answer with profound mistrust.

This is a very difficult passage to interpret, and perhaps it does not fit completely with the view I want to defend, but it is surely anything but a defence of taking a modern atheist position. It is more like a “vox pop” of Europeans on their views on the decline of religious theism. And whatever Nietzsche supposes himself to have heard here has given him the impression that “the religious instinct is indeed in vigorous growth.” But what can this mean?

To illustrate what Nietzsche may have, in his way, picked up on here, I want to cite from a “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 in February 2012. The day’s “Thought for the Day” was given by the Christian author Anne Atkins, and her theme was ways of knowing others that are made possible with words, through the use of language. She began by talking about modern technologies of communication, which open channels to people well out of earshot. She spoke next about the idea of communication with non-humans (dogs, specifically) where there is some communication but where expression in language gets us only so far. Finally she considered the question of communicating with God, and invited listeners to imagine a curious scenario in which a channel for communication could be opened in this case:

Now suppose for a moment God could communicate with us. We can’t see Him, touch Him, or smell Him. But imagine how it would revolutionize the human condition if we could hear His voice; we would be able to know his will, understand his character, and follow his ideas. If he could speak to us, we would be able to know him, as a friend.

Here, I want to say, what Nietzsche is calling “the religious instinct” is clearly flourishing. The human condition in the world is experienced as one in which God is self-evidently absent, it is one in which we cannot know his will, and so cannot be sure of his ideas. We cannot know God even as we might know our dog. He is incapable of making himself understood. In short, everything that Nietzsche’s vox pop disclosed as causes of the decline of European theism belongs precisely to the understanding of the human condition in the world that characterizes a religiously construed life for Christians. Of course, Anne Atkins did not leave it there. On the contrary, for her the “theistic answer” remains alive and available. Immediately following her acknowledgement of everything that is cited as a reason for the decline in European theism, she breaks into a different mode altogether:

“In the beginning was the word.” He came to earth, not just God as man, but his very thoughts expressed in language we can understand.

The possibility of a relation to God in a world of natural law, and the possibility that our prayers might be heard, these are not rejected as irrational pre-scientific conjectures, but embraced by faith as irreducible to our ordinary experience of the world. In other words, the most radical objection to faith, what we might call a radical culture of atheism (“We can’t see Him, touch Him, or smell Him”), is what gives the theistic answer its measure, its movement. Our being alone, the non-presence of God, is experienced here as, precisely, undeniable, and hence as presenting a serious doubt, a worry in a real sense: something with which religious believers must grapple in order to make their way. Again, this is the culture of atheism within theism. Modern atheists, by contrast, take the non-presence of God in the world (“We can’t see Him, touch Him, or smell Him”) as a reason to reject any theistic answers whatsoever. What Nietzsche’s “vox pop” suggests, however, is that expressions of atheism in Europe today are, fundamentally, a moment of Christian experience itself.

In a European world in which Christianity has not been a mere walk on part but for nearly 2,000 years the playwright, set designer, lead actor and critic, it is not obvious how this could be otherwise. Sartre understood his existentialist phenomenology as an atheist philosophy, but he made no attempt to produce philosophical arguments against the existence of God, and had no illusions about this Christian historicity. In his biography of Flaubert, published in 1971-1972, Sartre (1979, p. 2124) sketched the historical situation in the West as follows:

Flaubert writes for a Western world which is Christian. And we are all Christians, even today; the most radical disbelief is still Christian atheism. In other words it retains, in spite of its destructive power, schemata which are controlling – very slightly for our thinking, more for our imagination, above all for our sensibility. And the origins of these schemata are to be sought in the centuries of Christianity of which we are the heirs, whether we like it or not.

Sartre’s existentialism does not try to present any kind of refutation of religious beliefs. Rather it calls the religious theist back to his or her own responsibility for cleaving trustingly, beyond knowledge, to religious creeds. Indeed, for Sartre, faithful believing requires this radical culture of atheism: without passing through this atheist level it could not be a religious theism.

Modern atheists, however, do not see things existentially (in terms of lived differences of level) but epistemologically (in terms of the epistemic standing of beliefs). For the modern atheist, religious theist beliefs are like, say, beliefs in an unobservable planet, or some other unobservable entity—but involve believing on ridiculously poor grounds. For modern atheists, that is to say, God is conceived as a being of some (weird) kind, an item in the entity-count of what one might take to be or to exist, and an item which, if we reason rightly, we would do better to cross off any intellectually respectable list. Indeed, the modern atheist will suppose that, if we reason rightly, we are all likely, eventually, to come to agree that “belief in God” is a childish superstition, something that has no place whatever in a mature life shaped by modern scientific advances in our understanding of nature and ourselves as natural creatures.

The search for God is, on this view, simply mad, irrational, deluded. Indeed, this is exactly how Nietzsche represents the thinking of those “who do not believe in God” in his famous parable of “the madman” who “seeks God” (2001, §125). Of course, Nietzsche’s parable is often read as itself an atheist text: a text delivering the news of the death of God, which somehow would come to mean simply the non-existence of God as a being. This is quite wrong. Here is how it begins:

Haven’t you heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern and ran around the marketplace crying incessantly “I seek God, I seek God.” Since many of those who did not believe in God were standing around together just then, he caused great laughter.

Why would anyone, even a madman, bring news of the death of God to those who do not believe in God, to atheists? Perhaps because he thinks the conception of God as an existent being, falls a long way short of whatever is being sought by someone who seeks God. As Stephen Mulhall puts it “[Nietzsche’s] contention is that our perception of God as nonexistent does not amount to the transcendence of an illusion” (2005, p. 22).

And when the madman goes on to say, in words which seem to pitch us into a crucifixion event, that “we are the murderers of God,” he does not give a picture of the end of a human all too human life but of the wiping out of a world:

We are all his murderers. But how did we do this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing?

Such comparisons show that the madman is not one with the atheists of the marketplace. Their understanding of God perhaps belongs very squarely within an epoch of the death of God, but it is not the madman’s understanding. For the madman the idea of “God” is not the idea of an existent being, or the intentional object of a religious belief, but (as it were) the intentional correlate of an entire way of thinking and believing; the point of focus for a whole life. The event of the death of God, cannot then be understood simply like the death of something or someone within the world, or an event within the domain of everything that is. Rather, it is an event, some 2,000 years in the making, which is the opening up and holding sway of a world within which such worldly events take place, including the worldly crucifixion event which, we can now say, took place within the very world it came to open up.

Moreover, this event is not over. The deed—the murder of God—has been done by “all of us” the madman says, and yet we know not what we have done: the news of the deed has yet to reach the ears of the atheists of the marketplace. And so the madman fell silent:

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; they too were silent and looked at him disconcertedly. Finally he threw his lantern on the ground and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he then said; my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering. It has not yet reached the ears of men.

Let me add: perhaps it had not reached Nietzsche’s ears either. The changeover in the European world from a theistic default to one which is not poses deep questions for absolutely everyone caught up in it, “all of us,” and there is no reason to think they find their most compelling answers in Nietzsche’s work either, or have their last word in Nietzsche’s word.

However, I think we should go along with Nietzsche in one whole dimension of his way of bearing witness to the movement of the Christian world into our time: the atheists of the marketplace don’t get it at all, they can’t understand this movement except in terms of an epistemological break from a culture dominated by an illusory ontological commitment, and they cannot understand their own relation to religious beliefs except in terms of a conflict over the shape of a well-formed, not-mad, human life. In the marketplace—that space of exchange where everything has its value, that place, call it Europe today, where anything can be exchanged with anything and in which anything can be sold—there are, so the modern atheist thinks, the views of the religious theist believer and apparently alongside them, diametrically opposite them, contradicting them, the views of the modern atheist disbeliever. And this modern atheist thinks: “There is no God, but this other person reasons wrongly, and he believes there is. I believe the opposite of him. I contradict him.” It is to the characteristic “double belief” of the modern atheist that I will now turn.


Not everyone who is not religious has this kind of marketplace view of our world as an homogeneous space of belief entrepreneurs, each vying with every other for a buyer. Wittgenstein was not a religious man, but he knew that when it came to his relations with people who cleave to religious creeds he was not—at least not always and at every moment—in a marketplace of conflicting beliefs. For example, regarding someone who believes in the Last Judgment, and by this he meant someone whose life was run through with this belief so that “whenever he does anything, this is before his mind,” Wittgenstein (1967, p. 55) says this:

If someone said: “Wittgenstein do you believe in this? I’d say “No.” “Do you contradict this man?” I’d say: “No.”… If he said “there is a German aeroplane overhead,” and I said “Possibly. I’m not so sure,” you’d say we were fairly near. [But with religious belief] it isn’t a question of my being anywhere near him, but on an entirely different plane… If you ask me whether or not I believe in a Judgment Day in the sense in which religious people have belief in it, I wouldn’t say “No. I don’t believe there will be such a thing.” It would seem to me utterly crazy to say this.

Wittgenstein accepts that you can say of him that he “believes the opposite” of the religious believer, but it is, he insists, “entirely different from what we would ordinarily call believing the opposite.” It is not about having the opposite thoughts, but about having different sorts of thoughts altogether and of typically having no thoughts at all concerning what is to the fore in the believer’s life. When Wittgenstein writes and teaches in philosophy there is clearly this great effort to think and to say what he thinks about many different matters. And since he does not talk about God as a believer might in any of these contexts one might well be inclined to suppose that he is an atheist. But this, I think, is a mistake. Wittgenstein said of himself that he is “not a religious man” (Rhess 1981, p. 94), but I want to show in this section that it is quite wrong to confuse him with an atheist disbeliever, a modern atheist of the market place. He was, I will suggest, writing and thinking in an a-theist condition, cultivating a culture of a-theism.

There is a sequence of remarks in Wittgenstein’s presentation of little scenes of “believing the opposite without believing the opposite” or “contradiction without contradiction” where the contrast between Wittgenstein’s own relation to religious belief and that of the modern atheist is developed in a fascinating way. However, the published notes forming this sequence are, for reasons I will come to, particularly hard to read, and as far as I know have never been explored. I will try to follow them here. As we have just seen, Wittgenstein presents himself as being asked by another: “Wittgenstein, what do you believe? What do you think? What would you say?” He then presents himself as giving his own answer, or imagines trying to give his own answer. So we are given a believer’s belief and Wittgenstein imagines being asked if he would say he believes the same or not. And he says that, in the sense in which a believer believes, it would be crazy to say he held a view which contradicts it. His beliefs and the beliefs of the believer are, he says, on an “entirely different plane.”

However, once, just once, in the recorded discussion he speaks not of “Wittgenstein” and his own response to a believer, but about what “an atheist” might say. The sentence in the published text is both sketchy and (it would seem) poorly typeset. It runs as follows: “If an atheist says: ‘there won’t be a Judgment Day, and another person says there will,’ do they mean the same?—not clear what criterion of meaning the same is” (Wittgenstein 1967, p. 58).

There really is no clearly expressed thought transcribed here. Indeed, there seem to be two distinct but equally plausible ways of rendering the notes into good sentences. First, we could read it as an illustration of the basic scene of contradiction and its complexity, with Wittgenstein here replacing himself with “an atheist,” as one might well suppose he might. We could then read it like this:

Suppose an atheist says: “There won’t be a Judgment Day,” and another person says: “There will be a Judgment Day.” Should we say that these two people mean the same by “Judgment Day”? The question is not so simple because it is not clear what criterion of “meaning the same” is in play here.

This seems natural enough, but one can also give the lecture notes a slightly different rendition, one which situates them as belonging to a critical reading of a modern atheist interpretation of the scene of contradiction:

An atheist might say: “There won’t be a Judgment Day, but another person says there will.” Should we see it like this? Should we suppose that we can line up the beliefs like this, as the atheist supposes, can we put them side-by-side like this, one affirming and the other denying the same thing? Can we affirm that the two mean the same? What criterion of “meaning the same” would speak for this?

The remark that follows in the recorded text does not speak conclusively in favour of one way of rendering the oddly recorded remark over another. The text continues: “They might describe the same things. You might say this already shows that they mean the same thing.” On the other hand, this continuation can also be read in two ways, in line with the two former renditions:

There is a criterion of meaning that would seem to settle this question conclusively: namely, if they describe the same things when they are asked what Judgment Day is. If they both describe the same things this shows they mean the same.

Or, alternatively:

The atheist is sure they do mean the same. He says that they might describe the same things and that this is the criterion for them meaning the same thing. He says that if they do describe the same things, then this settles the matter: they mean the same.

Given Wittgenstein’s insistence that he does not contradict the believer, I strongly favour reading these notes as probing a modern atheist interpretation of the scene of contradiction. And I think the reference to “You” in his discussion (“You might say…”) implicitly means, “You, atheist”, as I believe it does again in the remarks that follow that I will cite in a moment. Moreover, the remarks that follow seem clearly intended to show that the conviction that we should say they “mean the same” in the scene of contradiction is a characteristically atheist interpretation, and that Wittgenstein rejects it.

To continue then. We have just been given a criterion for the two “meaning the same.” In the remarks that follow I take Wittgenstein to be trying to persuade us not to focus on religious statements in isolation and to think of them instead as traversing and inflecting great swathes of someone’s thinking and believing; that “what belongs to a language-game,” here as elsewhere, “is a whole culture” (Wittgenstein 1967, p. 8):

We come to an island and we find beliefs there, and certain beliefs we are inclined to call religious. What I am driving at is, that religious beliefs will not… They have sentences, and there are also religious statements.

These statements would not just differ in respect to what they are about. Entirely different connections would make them into religious beliefs, and there can easily be imagined transitions where we wouldn’t know for our life whether to call them religious beliefs or scientific beliefs. You [my stress, SG] may say they reason wrongly.

In certain cases you [we could stress this too, to stress that Wittgenstein is inviting his interlocutor to think about what they in fact do say, SG] would say they reason wrongly, meaning they contradict us. In other cases, you would say they don’t reason at all, or “It is an entirely different reasoning.” The first you would say in the case in which they reason in a similar way to us, and make something corresponding to our blunders… You [i.e. “one”, SG] could also say that where we are reasonable they are not reasonable—meaning they don’t use reason here. (Wittgenstein 1967, pp. 58-59)

The effort to see the beliefs as straightforward contradictions requires a specific interpretation of religious statements: one has to think of the religious believer as someone who, at this point in their thinking and believing, simply “reasons wrongly,” and whose view, at least on this point, needs correcting accordingly. Wittgenstein’s interlocutor gives just such an interpretation, and he is also the one who wants to insist that “there won’t be a Judgment Day, but another person says there will.” In other words, the interlocutor is the one Wittgenstein calls “an atheist.”

Wittgenstein accepts that some people are convinced by “superstitions.” At issue here are cases where (among other things) someone draws conclusions on the basis of extremely weak reasons or on the basis of faulty reasoning. It is in such cases where, opposing that evidence or correcting their reasoning, we (we moderns) really do contradict them. And Wittgenstein further accepts that if a religious believer were to think that he holds his beliefs in the kind of “rational” manner characterizing our scientific statements then we should certainly say at this point: “here is a man who is cheating himself.” (The target of Wittgenstein’s charge is one Father O’Hara, we will come back to him later.) But this is not the point of view that interests Wittgenstein. What we might call the “authentic” religious believer (Wittgenstein does not use this word, but the contrast case of a believer who is not “cheating himself” is, in any case, implied) is not someone who, as the modern atheist supposes, “reasons wrongly” on some point. The religious believer’s beliefs are of a very distinctive sort, quite different to typical scientific beliefs, but the modern atheist’s assertion of double belief—that “there won’t be a Judgment Day, but another person says there will”—supposes that there are two beliefs in view here that can be traded in the marketplace of reason; just as if one were to assert that “there won’t be an eclipse tomorrow, but another person says there will.” In the latter case the two market sellers may well contradict each other, “they mean the same.” To think the same about a believer and someone who does not have religious beliefs—and this is the interpretation of the modern atheist—is, Wittgenstein thinks, crazy. He would never say such a thing, he would think it obscene to say such a thing.

Wittgenstein is not a religious man, and so (one might say) he rightly passes for an atheist, but if the atheist is the one with the double belief, the one who says, for example, “there won’t be a Judgment Day, but another person says there will,” he would never say of himself: “I am an atheist,” as if he knew exactly how he stood, and knew what to say, at every step, about his relation to religion, to reason, and to faith. Moreover, he clearly knows that the one who has the most serious doubts about God, the one who would never say “Well, possibly” as if they were talking about the existence of a planet or an aeroplane, is not the atheist but the “religious man,” the religious theist.


This brings me to the final text I want to draw on in this discussion about cultures of atheism and serious doubts about the existence of God. The text is an abbreviated and simplified version of an improvised answer given by Jacques Derrida to a question on atheism put to him by John Caputo at a conference on “Other Testaments,” held in Toronto in 2002.

In his answer to Caputo, Derrida draws out three points that provide a fitting summary of the main claims of the discussion so far. First and affirming the idea of a “culture of atheism” inside theism, Derrida claims that faith presupposes, as a condition of possibility, serious doubts about God: there is a culture of atheism that belongs to the fundamental structure of religious believing. Second, Derrida claims that we misunderstand the “authentic” religious believer’s statements when they are interpreted as claims about God as an existing being. And, third, he suggests that even if one does not live a life that cleaves to a religious creed it is by no means obvious that this implies that one ought to affirm of oneself “I am an atheist.” Modified for reading purposes, Caputo’s question and Derrida’s answer runs as follows:

JC: In your text “Circumfession” you say that you “rightly pass for an atheist” (“je passé à just titre pour une athée”), instead of just saying that you are an atheist. Why don’t you just say “I am an atheist”? Is it because you have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God? Or some doubts about whether you are an atheist? JD: I think that we may have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God. If the belief in God does not pass through a culture of atheism, if it does not go through a number of atheistic steps—not only the critique of idolatry but also steps against the re-appropriation of God in metaphysics as an existing being—if one doesn’t go as far as possible in the direction of atheism one does not believe in God. The true believers know that they run the risk, they have to run the risk, of being radical atheists. Levinas says somewhere that he is in a certain way an atheist, because he does not interpret God as an existing being. God is not an “absolute being.” So if you don’t go as far as possible in the direction of atheism then the belief in God is naïve and totally inauthentic. In order to be authentic, the belief in God must be exposed to absolute doubt. And I know that the great mystics experience this. They experience the death of God or the disappearance of God or the non-existence of God. I pray to someone who does not exist in the strict metaphysical meaning of “existence”; that is, to be present as an essence or substance. If I believe in what is “beyond being” then, in a certain way, I believe as an atheist. Believing implies some atheism, however paradoxical it may sound. And I am sure that the true believers know this better than others; that they experience atheism all the time and this is part of their belief. It is in this epochs—in this suspension of the position of the existence of God—that faith appears.

I say “I rightly pass for an atheist” (“je passé à just titre pour une athée”). I say this because I know that in everything I have done so far, let’s say in terms of “deconstruction” and so on, I have given a number of signs of my being a non-believer in God in a certain way, an atheist. And yet, nevertheless, I can’t say myself “I am an atheist,” as a position. I would never say and I think it would sound obscene to say “I am an atheist.” I would not say “I am a believer” either.

Here again, we have the avoidance of an unequivocal positional avowal for atheism from someone who is not “a religious man.” For a long time we have tended to think that if someone, especially a thinker or intellectual, does not have thoughts about God they must be an atheist. Thinkers like Wittgenstein and Derrida are among those in our time who have made a start in reflectively coming to terms with their non-belief in new way: to speak to it and from it otherwise than as an atheist. I am suggesting we see them as cultivating a culture of a-theism.

It will not be denied that there is a genuine interest in religion that effort. However, it seems natural to think that if it is not an atheist position, it must be something that has less interest in religion than atheism proper. Indeed, it seems natural to think that what I am calling a-theism is, in reality, nothing more than an atheism that has lost its anti-religious vigour or a theism that has lost its religious faith, ultimately, then, a part of a wider culture of religious indifference. I will conclude by returning to this thought.


We can obtain a quick and accessible sense of the idea of religious indifference from an essay on the subject by Cheyne (2010). In that essay Cheyne suggests that we need to distinguish two basic forms of “the modern turn away from religion,” “a hard and a soft version” (2010, p. 2): “The hard version is clearly atheism, consisting of explicit disbelief, often accompanied by outright expressions of hostility towards, and even contempt for, religion. The soft version is characterised by an absence of religion as a central concern of life.” However, this is not the end of the story, and Cheyne’s “soft version of atheism” is paralleled by “soft versions of belief” too (2010, p. 3). The imputation of religious indifference thus applies to both sides of the classic atheist/theist divide, identifying a dimension of convergence, from both ends, towards people who are simply “not that interested in religion” at all.

As noted at the start of this discussion, religious theists might perceive this situation as disclosing a growing God-vacuum at the heart of contemporary European societies. But modern atheists too might be inclined to look critically on those who “live without belief”: they lack the back-bone of those with greater “intellectual self-confidence” (Cheyne 2010, p. 2).

If one’s thinking is configured only around a distinction between religious theism and modern atheism, seeing things this way can seem unavoidable. What strikes the religious indifference theorist looking at statistics in which, as we seem to see in European societies, both poles of commitment are (even combined) in the minority, is that there is a “large segment of respondents who seem not to care about the matter one way or the other” (Cheyne 2010, 2). Thinking exclusively in terms of this kind of spectrum is not always inappropriate. For example, if one group of people want to paint the whole town red and another want the opposite, want no red at all, one can well imagine a continuum of attitudes moving from strong preferences at each end towards general indifference or total apathy at the centre. However, if we take the idea of existing in an a-theist condition seriously we will not be inclined to conceive it this way. Of course, as we have seen, anyone who, if asked, says that they do not believe in a God who hears our prayers, does indeed, in some sense, “believe the opposite” of a religious theist. However, if Wittgenstein’s analysis of this relation of “believing the opposite” is accepted, then this is not as straightforward as modern atheists suppose. Is there some way we can tease out something of this crucial nuance among those who are typically called indifferent? Is there a way of seeing them as belonging to a wider culture of a-theism?

In principle this should not be difficult. The feature of modern atheist disbelief that encourages the idea that it does straightforwardly contradict religious belief is that it construes the latter as “reasoning wrongly” about the world and our lives. So the mark of an a-theist variation will be some kind of resistance to this way of construing religious points of view. In other words, we need to show that it is not that they do not care “one way or the other,” but that they are resistant both (in one way) to one way (to religious theism) and (in another way) to another way (to modern atheism’s construal of religious belief).

With this in view we might think of the culture of a-theism in terms not of one but of two related spectrums: the first one concerning the degree of resistance to religious theism, and the second concerning the degree of resistance to making the reasonableness of a religious point of view a question of science. To “pick up” those who live their lives in an a-theist condition, we need to hold both contrasts in view simultaneously. In short, we need to ask people to think not only about standard “questions of God,” but need also to ask them whether they think science “always … sometimes … never” has the last word on the reasonableness of religious beliefs.

At the extreme “negative” end of the first spectrum there are those who are the least attracted to religious theism, and at the extreme “negative” end of the second spectrum there are those who would never make the reasonableness of religious theism a question of science. So, moving up the scale of the first we have people who are increasingly more attracted to religious points of view, with unalloyed faith as the “positive” end-point of this spectrum. And moving up the scale of the second we have people who are increasingly more inclined to make the reasonableness of religious theism a question of science, with a scientistic “always” as the “positive” end-point of this spectrum. Taking the two spectrums together (think of them as sliders on a mixing desk) the typical limit pairs would be marked, on the one hand, by religious theists who are never inclined to make the reasonableness of religious theism a question of science, and, on the other hand, by modern atheists who are always attracted to making the reasonableness of religious theism a question of science. However, with this twin spectrum in view one can also readily see that there are variations between these limits with complex, rich and critical relations to what both the religious theist and the modern atheist care about most; not at all the woolly-minded sheep of the indifference theorist.

Mapping paired locations around these two spectrums shows up some very interesting cases. Among the various possibilities of combination, two are especially worth noting. Consider first someone who is both near the “negative” end of the first (“God”) scale, and also near the “negative” end of the second (“science”) scale. This is where we would find Wittgenstein: he says he is not a religious man—but he is also resistant to (“honestly disgusted” by) those who see every problem from a scientific point of view. One might say that although, in one respect, he seems rightly to pass for an atheist, in another respect he is also close to (and yet still on an “entirely different level” from) an authentic believer. Consider now someone who is (supposedly) located at the “positive” end of the first (“God”) scale and also near the “positive” end of the second (“science”) one. This is where Wittgenstein locates Father O’Hara: O’Hara says he is a religious man – but it seems that he is “one of those people who make [the reasonableness of religious beliefs] a question of science” (Wittgenstein 1967, p. 57). He is, Wittgenstein suggests, a religious theist who is “cheating himself.”

The two spectrums help to explain why it is fundamentally distorting to represent those who do not have subjectively certain positions either for or against religious theism as weak-kneed or apathetic versions of each. Whether they found themselves already in this condition or shifted into it later in life, the defining characteristic of what I am calling a-theists is that (unlike religious theists) their everyday understanding of the world and the significance of our lives is not articulated by religious beliefs. However, (unlike modern atheists) they do not experience this as the achievement of a rationally superior position but (whether temporarily or permanently they do not know) as the facticity of their condition. These are people who may encounter religious people as intensely serious (if for them at least partially inaccessible), and who may fully respect the legitimate authority of science (though they will not regard that authority as unlimited): but they are not people whose thinking and believing either begins and ends with God or with the “aimless weather” of modern science. The idea that a “large segment” of the population displays something which, at its worst, approaches “deep mental obtusity” (Mondin 1978) or a lack of “intellectual self-confidence” (Cheyne 2010) in virtue of not finding either religious theism or modern atheism compelling should be rejected: it is an idea that confuses “not caring one way or another” with a resistance both to the creedal faith of the religious theist and to the scientific commitments of the modern atheist.

The culture of a-theism is not, therefore, “a lazy recumbency” (Rauch 2003), as religious theists and modern atheists alike might be inclined to think. Indeed, in the final analysis it is arguably the culture of modern atheism which is closest to a position of genuine religious indifference. Given the modern atheist’s characteristic approach to the shape of awell-formed, not-mad, human life—where that is judged by the epistemic standing of someone’s beliefs—living in a (Christian) world where God is (remains) experienced as absent, would seem to make their position a relatively straightforward and unproblematic one. Serious doubts about God are no sooner entertained than they are completely dismissed as without serious evidence and hence rationally absurd. But if those who self-confidently call themselves atheists are, in this way, so fundamentally closed to serious doubts about God, it is not clear that their regular appeal to the need for open-mindedness should be taken very seriously either: it is nothing more than a scientistic pose, and should be treated as such. Perhaps, as efforts to cultivate a distinctive culture of a-theism grow, the culture of modern atheism will … wither away.