In their latest conversation, they cover topics as diverse as great (big) books, Evangelicals and Sarah Palin, Ernest Fortin, and the nature of God. This interview was conducted over email. The earlier interviews can be found here, here, here, and here.
Ken Masugi: There has been a spate of books about atheism. Your argument over the years has been that reason and revelation require one another to bring out their greatest strengths. Is atheism synonymous with a commitment to an infantilism? Is hard atheism worse for people's souls than soft agnosticism or even soft belief? I'm alluding to the problem of soft despotism, as Tocqueville called it.
James V. Schall, S. J.: The recent books about atheism have often been written by physical scientists. Reviewers have often remarked that the said scientists, if they proved one thing, proved that, if they knew as little about science as they seem to know about philosophy, we have to question the validity of the whole scientific enterprise! My favorite comment was in, I think, the Times Literary Supplement. A reviewer said that, when he began the book, he thought the scientist-atheist was a first-rate philosopher, but, by the time he finished the book, he realized that he was only a second-rate philosopher.
Actually, I notice that the atheists have recently become missionaries. They are out to convert the world, which makes me suspect where their atheism came from in the first place. The ancient atheists seemed more logical, that all their thought would allow was as much inner peace as possible until it's all over. I think that Christians and other believers, to strengthen their own faith, should encourage atheists to write more and more books on why they are atheists. There is no more convincing proof for Christianity than the reasons the atheists give for their being atheists.
Chesterton when he wrote Heretics, in 1905, never had looked at a Christian book, but he had read every atheist and unbeliever book he could find. As he began to read them, he discovered that they somehow contradicted each other, especially about what they thought that the Christians held. He began to wonder how something could be so odd as to be attacked for such contradictory reasons by atheists who did not agree with each other either. This perplexity began to give him the horrid thought that something so strange as to be attacked in this way by scientists and atheists must either be the most mixed up thing in the universe or it must be true. I think the reading of the atheists still yields this "horrid" suspicion.
The question you asked really goes back to the remark of the pope, that the major task of modern thought is to separate eschatology from science and politics as themselves claims to solve all of man's this-worldly problems and destiny. The "modern project," as Strauss critically called it, is really a form of inner-worldly eschatology that corrupts the real temporal meaning of this world.
So-called modern philosophy wants to argue that religion did not solve man's problems, so it would suggest by its own methods that transcendent issues that did originally arise from religion could be solved by modern secular means. The figure of Francis Bacon is prominent here. We should divert all our efforts to improving man's "estate." Added to this is an almost all-prevailing Rousseauism that insists that "structures" are the problem, not the souls of actually free men, as both Plato and Scripture told us. The fact is that no matter what the technology, the soul problem remains the same in every generation, in every regime. No reformation of the structure, of family, economy, or state will "cure" this inner problem, and if it could, it would simply mean that we are not free. The problem is not "medical" or psychological, but moral and metaphysical.
You mentioned "soft atheism" or "soft belief" as related to atheism. Actually, I think Nietzsche is right here. He was scandalized not because God did not exist, but because believers, who were supposed to act as if he did, did not so act. His disbelief is closer to scandal than to philosophy. But the other side of Nietzsche is a passion for the "what would it be like if it were true?" His famous aphorism, "The Last Christian died on the Cross," is nothing less than the plea of a utopian who is searching for ultimate being. He just cannot recognize it if its followers do not. Nietzsche can even be looked on as someone who wanted himself to be God, or at least to have His power to form all things anew. Nietzsche never really rejected "the last Christian."
Christianity, on the other hand, did not want to make men to be "like gods." It was content to leave them as finite and fallible men, but ones who needed hope, the possibility of repentance, and some source besides themselves on which to place their confidence. I think at bottom that Nietzsche, who is often considered to be at the bottom of modern atheism, is really at the bottom, as Walsh says, of the participation in being that violently reacted to the pseudo-metaphysics of modernity's philosophers, who, to go back to my comment on Aristotle, did think that politics was the highest science, and thus an eschatology.
Link (here) to the full interview of Fr. James Schall, S.J.