Monday, 2 December 2013

Albert Camus, The Atheist Christians Love

Albert Camus (source)
Douglas Todd recently wrote a piece in the Vancouver Sun blog about how Albert Camus is his very favourite atheist.

My Favorite Atheist: Albert Camus

Often, when I read a an essay written by a theist about their favourite atheists, I cringe.

Here's a couple of observations about this latest piece that describes the sort of atheist you must aspire to be if you wish to be liked by theists.


As a budding atheist, I resonated with Camus’ views that life was replete with unexplainable suffering, alienation and apparent absurdity.

At the very start of his piece, Todd dishes up the well-worn picture of atheists. Without a belief in God, they see the world as full of unexplainable suffering and absurdity. Although I have my doubts whether the majority of atheists out there dwell on this sort of thing -- they are too busy living their lives which bring them meaning -- these sorts of statements really bewilder me.

I have yet to see just how the existence of the Christian god explains suffering, alienation and absurdity. In fact, the introduction of an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God only brings in the intractable problem of theodicy.

Meanwhile, although deeply tragic, suffering is anything but unexplainable. It is the result of concrete physical forces in the case of diseases and natural disasters and of all too human deficiencies in the case of people doing harm to one another. There is no mystery here when you drop God from this equation. The mystery and absurdity only comes when one attempts to read some ultimate meaning into a system that simply is.

From the little Camus I have read, I always suspected that he was searching for some kind of logic or meaning whereas many atheists recognize that such a rational principle to the universe simply doesn't exist.

For me, Camus stood out from more celebrated atheists, including Jean-Paul Sartre. And, in his humility, Camus remains in a different class entirely from today’s know-it-all atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
What a cheap pot shot this is. Since when did either of these men say they knew it all? They're just not buying your magical book. They're not shutting their mouths and accepting the words of those who, in pompous dress, claim to have all the answers.


With enough sophistication, sophists (intentional or not) can argue anything into existence and lose any true signal in a sea of jargon-induced noise.
Camus, in many ways, was also the opposite of today’s well-compensated atheist celebrities, who sorely lack his (and Sartre’s) philosophical sophistication.
I'm sure you could find some atheists with some philosophical sophistication, but you'll also find that even in the days of Camus, the truth-seekers that own this century - the scientists. It's possible that Dawkins and the New Atheists lack the poetry of Camus because they are grounded in this land we call reality and they are in search of facts.

As I wrote in a post about the last time I ran into a Christian pining for more atheists like Camus, this man of "philosophical sophistication" himself denied he was even a philosopher. He denied even believing in any kind of coherent system of thought! That is indeed the very opposite of what New Atheists like Dawkins, Krauss and Harris are.
Was Camus actually a philosopher? He himself said no, in a famous interview with Jeanine Delpech in Les Nouvelles Littéraires in November of 1945, insisting that he did “not believe sufficiently in reason to believe in a system” (Camus 1965, 1427). This was not merely a public posture, since we find the same thought in his notebooks of this period: he describes himself as an artist and not a philosopher because “I think according to words and not according to ideas” (Camus 1995, 113). Still, Jean-Paul Sartre saw immediately that Camus was undertaking important philosophical work, and in his review of The Stranger in relation to Sisyphus, had no trouble connecting Camus with Pascal, Rousseau, and Nietzsche (Sartre 1962). After they became friends Sartre spoke publicly of his friend's “philosophy of the absurd,” which he distinguished from his own thought for which he accepted the “existentialist” label that Camus rejected.   (source)
As such, Camus was in no position to posit any concrete position about anything, really. His was a position of pointing out the absurdity of things. I would imagine this would make him best friends with the religious establishment. If all is ultimately absurd, then who's to say what's really true or really false? All we have is pathos and religion has been playing that game for millennia.

Another quick point. Unlike the New Atheists, Albert Camus is, of course, dead. As such, Christian scholars can safely study his works, comment on them and speculate about whether, deep down inside, he had a Christian soul that had simply not bloomed due to lack of proper fertilization. For this he can be forgiven. He wasn't all atheist.
Since he was mostly a novelist, he could be forgiven for not learning about the fertile spiritual thinking going on among the far-sighted Western philosophers or religious intellectuals of his day. 

I grow weary of so-called great atheists being set up from the outside as our leaders, prophets and  Popes of a kind of atheist-religion -- a religion apparently based on the non-belief in something! Once they are appointed to rank of general, the religious seem to believe that tearing down their names somehow undermines atheism as a philosophical position and, by unusual proxy, strengthens their own case for the existence of some deity. I'm sorry, atheism doesn't work that way.

Alas, perhaps, if he lived still, Camus may have somewhat agreed with that last point.

I don't want to be too hard on Todd. Well, in this one case, at least. We must remember that he is telling his own story and there are many good descriptions of Camus and the effect his writings had on Todd's own life. I wouldn't want to belittle or diminish this for a second as it is an authentic testimony of his relationship with the author over the span of his life up until now. And although I find Christianity sorely lacking, I still enjoyed this piece.

However, when it comes to painting a picture of atheists and atheism, it's Todd's own palette which lacks sufficient colours to paint an adequate portrait.

He and I both are no Albert Camus.


  1. Funny you interpret Camus as "for some kind of logic or meaning whereas many atheists recognize that such a rational principle to the universe simply doesn't exist." He is an absurdist, existentialist...his entire theme was lack of logic and meaning in the Universe! I am a huge fan of Camus and although in life he rejected that he is a philosopher, in practice, he most certainly was!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Fallulah! I'm first to admit that I'm not very well versed in Camus. Perhaps it's his "framing" here. If I take a step back and even consider his term "absurdism" it seems to me that one sort of needs to believe that some kind of overarching meaning is already in place to then turn around and state it's "absurd". If you start off with no idea of there being any meaning whatsoever, then I really don't see why it need be absurd in the slightest.