Atheists for Jesus? A Caution from the Epistemology of Ethics

Daniel C. Maguire

Words are like people; they can get kidnapped. Religion is one of those words. In our part of the world, right-wing conservatives have commandeered the words religion, faith, and belief to connote that these words bind one to the idea of a personal deity who talks and even writes books and thus acts as a surrogate for reason and free inquiry. This usage has further creedal demands; it insists that we go on living after dying. If we behave, we will meet the deity in happy circumstances in an afterlife; unhappy postmortem punishment is the fate of miscreants.

Those who don’t accept this imaginative construction are not “people of faith” and are therefore “faithless,” with all the negative codings therein contained. They are practitioners of “unbelief,” also very negatively coded in our culture. Truly, there is much in the various constructions of religion that reasonable people can choke on and deny.

Putting Religion in the Dock

Let us admit that under the banner of “religion,” there is a clear veer toward the weird. No area of literature produces the fantastical images that “religious” literature does. We go from lofty Jupiter to Kali the enigmatic Hindu goddess to Jesus the nonviolent revolutionary who was gradually divinized; we move from sexy gods who create with masturbation or intercourse to gods who create chastely with a simple word. There are the extravagant gods of Sumer and the rambunctiously misbehaving gods of Olympus. There are gods who specialize in agriculture, fertility, or war. The dramatis personae divinae are endless. The gods grew with us. When we learned to write, they did too, writing on blocks of stone at Sinai or by sending angels with names like Gabriel and Moroni to compose books or to uncover hidden tablets filled with script. On top of that there are divinized planets, mountains, and rivers, as well as angels, virgin births, resurrections from the dead, and ascensions straight into the heavens without ever going into orbit.

Those who see religion as the mind gone mad have plenty of grist for their critiquing mills.

But That Is Not the Whole Story . . .

Those churning and evolving cultural upheavals that we call the “world religions” have also purveyed some of the foundational moral convictions of modern secular culture. Not all god-talk is mischievous. Religion is a mixed bag. Those who pride themselves on secular purity would blush to know the moral intelligence that proceeded from religious traditions and became common ethical and democratic currency. When the early Hebrews de-divinized royalty, they sowed seeds for democratic Bills of Rights. Hannah Arendt said that with all the serious modern criticism of traditional beliefs and concepts, “the modern world never even thought of challenging the fundamental reversal” on human rights that Judaism and Christianity has brought into “the dying ancient world.” Friedrich Engels wrote that before Christianity became the state religion and lost its subversive power, it undermined “all the foundations of the state” and the presuppositions of empire.

The moral yield of those traditions still fills modern “secular” minds, dominates their assumptions, and guides their ethics. The secular humanists who called themselves “atheists for Niebuhr” understood this. Reinhold Niebuhr was a theologian and a seminary professor who trained students for church ministry. However, his insights into human behavior and political dynamics transcended his own religious interpretations and metaphors. “Atheists for Jesus” or “atheists for the Buddha” would make good sense, because both Jesus and the Buddha (or those who constructed their literary identities) were moral geniuses who pioneered, among other things, the idea of nonviolent resistance as ultimately more efficacious than kill power, an insight that has never been more relevant in our time, when scientifically developed kill-power has become ever more unmanageable and counterproductive.

Sacred and Faith Are Not Dirty Words—Neither Is Atheism

Secular humanism, in order to disassociate itself with certain religious holdings, suffers losses in understanding homo moralis. My book Ethics: A Complete Method for Moral Choice is not written for theists or nontheists as such; it is written for human beings seeking to plumb the meaning and possibilities of life in this privileged corner of the universe. As such it speaks to Thomas Aquinas as much as to Jean Paul Sartre.

Sartre’s atheist credentials are in good order. A story is told of him late in his career. He met two former students with their three-month-old baby. At this point in his life, Sartre’s work was being read in almost any language with print. That had to be more than satisfying. Yet when Sartre took the smiling baby into his arms, he felt that if one took all his work and weighed it against the value of the preciousness he was holding, his work would weigh almost as nothing in comparison. The term sanctity of life—the basis of all law—comes to mind.

To call something “sacred” is the highest compliment in our lexicon. The term is effectively the superlative of precious. It describes experiences where preciousness reaches into ineffability and the peaking of awe. Medievals called this kind of knowledge “mystical.” Secular humanists need not be skittish about the word. It has the same Greek root as mystery, from mueo, to lie hidden. It referred to our deepest loves and most profound value experiences. It relates to what I define as “religion.”

Religion, I submit, is a response to the sacred, however that experience is explained. It need not be explained by positing a personal deity as the necessary grounding of that valuation. Nor does it entail by its nature the notion that when you are dead, you are, contrary to all appearances, still quite alive. Sartre’s experience was, in this sense, religious. It was also—brace yourselves—an act of belief, that form of knowledge that Aquinas said exists in genere affectionis, in the realm of affection. Sartre’s ecstatic appreciation of the signal beauty of that child was not the result of a syllogism or the product of a dry reasoning process. It was a clear example of what the medievals called cognitio affectiva, affective knowledge. It was something he knew believingly, and that is no oxymoron. Pace the Founding Fathers, the truths they proclaimed were not “self-evident,” or all the geniuses of prior history would not have missed out on them.

Knowledge is awareness, and much of our awareness is affectively experienced even before it can be voiced in words. Moral knowledge is particularly situated in the affections before it moves on to logic and debate, which indeed it must. John Dewey, no raving theist, put it this way: “Affection, from intense love to mild favor, is an ingredient in all operative knowledge, all full apprehension of the good.” It is the animating mold, he said, of all moral knowing.

I am not alone in my usage of terms like religion, faith, and sacred. These terms are not everywhere demeaned or sidelined. (In fact, there is no one who considers nothing sacred.) As historian Daniel Pals says, religious ideas, usually not understood as such, “affect our literature, philosophy, history, politics, psychology, and indeed almost every realm of modern thought.”

Realistic social theory cannot ignore power, and the fact is that nothing so stirs the human will, for good or for ill, as the tincture of the sacred. As John Henry Newman said, people who will not stir for a conclusion will die for a dogma. Small wonder then that thirty-four renowned scientists led by Carl Sagan and Hans Bethe in their “Open Letter to the Religious Community” urged religions to attend to the plight of the planet. “Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred. . . . Problems of such magnitude, and solutions demanding so broad a perspective must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension.”

Excommunicating Belief

Secular humanists, in divorcing themselves from fundamentalist religious excesses, marry into a false ethical methodology. Forget deities and an afterlife and the fundamentalist pursuit of oracular magical knowledge, knowledge that can with no evidence refute Darwin and trump the rest of science. Forget all that for a moment and think ethics, which Schopenhauer called the supreme challenge to the human mind. Ethics involves belief and, yes, faith in human perception of the good; it involves mystically deep cognitive encounters with human and terrestrial good. Ethics is born where poetry is born, and secular humanists don’t want to leave that behind. As Schopenhauer put it, “The metaphysics of nature, the metaphysics of morals, and the metaphysics of the beautiful mutually presuppose each other, and only when taken as connected together do they complete the explanation of things as they really are, and of existence in general.”

There are many meanings of belief, faith, and religion that do not fall prey to the hypothetical assumptions and verbal piracy of conservative religionists. Professor of Chinese religions Chun-Fang Yu states that in the Chinese religions of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, “there is no God transcendent and separate from the world and there is no heaven outside of the universe to which human beings would want to go for refuge*.”As professor Hsiao-Lan Hu notes, the Chinese languages do not even have a word that parallels the English word religion. What Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism do have, however, is a profound experience of the sacred and an ethical payload that that experience spawns. They are not examples of ‘unbelief”; they are classics in the art of cherishing life and examples of belief in life’s stunning possibilities.

“What’s in a name?” (or in a word) asks Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. A lot. An Encyclopedia of Unbelief is at a disadvantage. It defines itself negatively. It cries out for a subtitle because omnis negatio in affirmatione fundatur—every negation is rooted in some affirmation. It is important to know what you are for in order to know what you are against. To assume an identity as an unbeliever is to allow yourself to be defined by your adversaries: those idiosyncratic religionists.

Secular humanists who may have a better claim to being the “silent majority” might be more successful in their causes if their positive beliefs, their faiths, were more in evidence. Secular humanism has the advantage of honesty. It does not pretend that a hypothesis is a fact, but it stumbles over its own purity if it banishes a crucial aspect of human moral intelligence.


* As Professor Morton Smith writes, in the ancient world from which Judaism was born there was not even a “general term for religion.” The closest thing to it was a term meaning philosophy of life.


Suggested Reading

  • Arendt, Hannah. 1959. The Human Condition. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
  • Chun-Fang Yu. 2000. “Chinese Religions on Population, Consumption, and Ecology.” In Visions of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption, and Ecology, edited by Harold Coward and Daniel C. Maguire. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Dewey, John, and James H. Tufts. 1932. Ethics, rev. ed. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Hsiao Lan Hu. 2007. “Rectification of the Four Teachings in Chinese Culture,” In Violence Against Women in Contemporary World Religion: Roots and Cures, edited by Daniel C. Maguire and Sa’diyya Shaikh. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.
  • Maguire, Daniel C. 2010. Ethics: A Complete Method for Moral Choice. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1958. Marx and Engels: Selected Words in Two Volumes Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
  • Pals, Daniel L. 1996. Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sagan, Carl, Hans Bethe, et al. 1990. “An Open Letter to the Religious Community.” Available from the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, 1047 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10025.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1915. The Basis of Morality, 2nd ed. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • Smith, Morton. 1956. “Palestinian Judaism in the First Century.” In Israel: Its Role in Civilization, edited by David Moshe. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Daniel C. Maguire

Daniel C. McGuire is a professor at Marquette University. His article “Christianity Doesn’t Need God” appeared in Free Inquiry’s October/November 2014 issue. Reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. Read more at

Words are like people; they can get kidnapped. Religion is one of those words. In our part of the world, right-wing conservatives have commandeered the words religion, faith, and belief to connote that these words bind one to the idea of a personal deity who talks and even writes books and thus acts as a …

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