These Are A Few Of My Favorite Atheists: Albert Camus

I originally wrote this series, “These Are A Few Of My Favorite Atheists”, for the Mockingbird blog. As well as today’s featured atheist, Albert Camus, in later posts I will also look at NYU philosophy professor Thomas Nagel and 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
“NEGAatheists negative spaceTIVE SPACE” IS A CONCEPT IN THE VISUAL ARTS, particularly in drawing, painting, and photography. A common example is the well-known Rubin vase, which can alternately be seen as a vase or two profiles of a man in silhouette. This is useful, but a bit misleading, because in fine art negative space is not about ambiguity or optical illusion. Negative space in a picture is where other things are not present; it is the emptiness between and around the subjects or picture elements. An artist can sideline the consideration of negative space or make it a more deliberate aspect of a picture’s aesthetic and even emotional effects. Ansel atheists ansel adams photoAdams composed many of his photographs, such as “Dead Oak Tree, Sierra Foothills” and “Saint Francis Church, Ranchos De Taos”, with particular attention to negative space. The Baroque painter Caravaggio used a negative space of deep darkness in many paintings, including the recently rediscovered “The Taking of Christ” (1602). This painting also highlights Caravaggio’s masterly use of chiaroscuro, the contouring and modeling of objects with sharp contrasts batheists caravaggioetween light and dark, object and shadow.

Negative space and chiaroscuro serve visually to focus, highlight, and foreground picture elements and compositional forms that the artist wants to thrust onto the attention of the viewer. And so it is conceptually with an analysis of atheism—the worldview that begins with negative space, with the declaration of what is not present. We are not considering some Manichaean opposition—there is no Dark Side of the Force, there is only the one true God who is light. But we live in a world that is currently a mixed composition, of light and dark, shadow and substance. Many of our neighbors, literally and literarily, are atheists. While there is little seriousness and weight to what I would call the Dawkinsian wing of the “New Atheism”—all bluster, bluff, and rant—there are those atheists who have wrestled seriously with the implications of their affirmation that the Deus Absconditus is finally the Deus Absentia. These are my favorite atheists. And while I believe it is tragic to say fully and finally in one’s heart, “There is no God”, and so I pray for the salvation of my atheist neighbors, I also know that the sunny-side faith of much American Christianity needs to pay attention to the chiaroscuro and negative space of modern intellectual atheism to be fully contoured and modeled, and not just a cardboard cutout of the Gospel. There are atheists worth listening to. Some are dead and some are living.

These are a few of my favorite atheists:

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)atheists camus

“Until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture,” the atheist protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, declaims to the priest Father Paneloux, in The Plague, Camus’ justifiably acclaimed novel. Oran, Algeria (still a French colony at the time), is a city cut-off and self-contained by a deadly outbreak of bubonic plague. Within this quarantined city, Camus places a cast of characters who play out his examination of what it means to be human in a world of absurdity and death. At the center are Dr. Rieux, the enigmatic traveler Jean Tarrou, whom “no one knew where he hailed from or what had brought himatheists the plague to Oran”, a visiting reporter, Raymond Rambert, who early on tries to escape the quarantine, and Father Paneloux, a local Jesuit priest. They are the core of Camus’ story of the struggle against the plague; the rebellion against the absurd reality of an indifferent universe.

Tarrou is Camus’ conscience and Rieux his mouthpiece, but Camus will have nothing to do with cheap shots at religion or shallow stereotypes. He paints Paneloux as a complex and even sympathetic character. Both doctor and priest struggle against the plague; against nature and even nature’s God. Both struggle, in their different ways, with faith and meaning. In the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, I imagine similar struggles are playing out in real life. Tarrou / Camus asks the question with his life, “Can one be a saint without God?”, and if Camus ultimately fails to convince us, he does make us consider the possibility.atheists  myth of sisyphus

Beginning with his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus focused his literary investigations on the question of how to overcome nihilism in an absurd world in which, he believed somewhat paradoxically, that reason and logic pointed to a cosmos with no meaning for man: “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Camus’ starting point was the assumption that humanity’s own rational scientific enterprise had revealed that the heart of existence was a closed material universe that itself was utterly indifferent to the deepest human longings. In such a universe, “suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.” While Camus was not the first to examine the existential question of modern man’s sense of alienation, his works—The Stranger, The Plague, The Rebel, The Fall, The Myth of Sisyphus—were the eloquent highwater mark of the postwar existential sensibility (though Camus rejected the “Existentialist” label).

It is easy to like Camus. Algerian born, member of the French resistance, thoughtful and kind, but an inveterate womanizer. He was the Bogart of atheist existentialism; larger than life, romantic, complex, a “code hero”. No writer since has taken so seriously and expressed so well the implications of the modernist acceptance of a closed universe and the denial of transcendent meaning. Camus’ attempt to assert human value beyond the absurdity of a world without God is imaginative and appealing, but turns out to be only a loop with no exit. Camus, who believed in decency, courage, and compassion, can only assert these traditional values; he can give no foundational reasons for preferring them over selfishness, depravity, and evil. James Sire believes Camus himself may have realized his “failure to go beyond nihilism” (The Universe Next Door, 4th edition, p.125) and sought a road to transcendence through historic Christian orthodoxy (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/october23/39.121.html). The answer to that possibility itself lies in the unseen world: On January 4, 1960, Camus was traveling by car with Michel Gallimard, his publisher, and Gallimard’s family. Michel lost control of the vehicle, which “swerved, went straight off the road, slammed into a plane tree, bounced off another tree, and broke into pieces. Michel was seriously injured [and later died], Janine and Anne were unharmed, the dog disappeared, and Albert Camus was killed instantly. The dashboard clock, which had been thrown into a nearby field, was stuck at 1:55 p.m. Camus had often told friends that nothing was more scandalous than the death of a child, and nothing more absurd than to die in a car accident.” When told the news, Camus’ mother could only say, “Too young” (Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life; pp.413-414). The stuff of legends.

Advertisements

About Michael W Nicholson

I am a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband, father, and grandfather, a brother and a friend. My professional career has been in education. I taught Industrial Arts in Middle School for six years, four years as an adjunct professor in theology and philosophy, and fifteen years teaching classes in Old Testament, Apologetics, and Worldviews in a Christian High School. Like everyone else who breathes in American culture, I am infected with chronic postmodernity, but I am aware of this and regularly administer the treatment: Historic Christian Orthodoxy as contained in the Scriptures of the Old & New Testaments. I am fascinated by almost every subject imaginable, except economics. I have a Ph.D. in systematic theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I believe in a God who wants to be found; who leaves signs and suggestions, trademarks, signatures, and signposts scattered throughout every aspect of our existence. And if we are truly looking, He will find us. God is the great Story-teller, and the story he is telling is the great drama of Reality, unfolding before us and of which we are all inescapably a part. And so I am collecting fragments, in Philosophy, in Science, and in Art and holding these fragments up to the light and turning them this way and that, and trying to see and say how the Story—the metanarrative, the Christian Worldview—is involved in, and makes sense of, every aspect of our being-in-the-world (to borrow a term from Heidegger and take it where perhaps he did not intend for it to go). And by doing this I hope I am helping to light the way Home; back to the sea, the ocean, the Ocean of Infinite Love. My blog covers a wide range of topics around this central theme that the transcendent realm surrounds and permeates our existence. I put up new posts periodically. I hope you enjoy them. I hope they help.
This entry was posted in Aesthetics, Art, Existentialism, Literature, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Let me know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s