Three Concentric Circles

Note: Robert Royal will be giving the inaugural James V. Schall Lecture next Thursday, December 5, at the University Club in Washington D.C. under the auspices of the Catholic Information Center. Details are available by clicking here. Owing to the large early registration, only wait-list reservations are now being taken. But we’re hoping that a recording of the event will be available soon for TCT readers and others.

Almost all social movements and institutions can be described in terms of three concentric circles.  In the innermost circle are found the true believers, the real enthusiasts (or fanatics if you prefer), the genuine leaders.  In the next circle, which contains many more people, are found half-believers; they are sincere in their belief, but they have other things to do in their lives than to devote themselves fully to the “cause.”  In the outermost circle are people who only barely believe; but they are believers in the “cause” in the sense that they don’t believe in some other cause (e.g., marginal Catholics who are “Catholic” only because they have not joined a Protestant church).

Take music for example.  The innermost circle is made up of people who devote their lives to music: composers, musicians, music professors at universities.  The second circle is made up of people who truly enjoy listening to music – music fans; but they have many non-musical interests, including family, job, a favorite sports team, and a number of pleasures having nothing to do with music.  The third circle is made up of people who are for the most part indifferent to music, even though they occasionally listen with something resembling pleasure.

The United States, it seems to me, is well on its way to becoming an atheistic nation.  And today’s great atheistic movement can be described in terms of these three concentric circles.

(1) The innermost atheistic circle is numerically a small thing; made up of hardcore atheists.  These people do not simply disbelieve that the universe was created and is governed by a Supreme Being who (in addition to being all-wise, all-powerful, and all-good) is the foundation of morality.  No, they think that such a belief is pernicious; individuals would be better off without such a belief, and so would be society; an atheistic America would be a better thing than a Christian America.

It should be noted that the God these people disbelieve in, and wish everybody else to disbelieve in, is not an abstract or generic God.  No, it is the God of the Bible, the Judeo-Christian God.  For it is Christianity above all that these hardcore atheists wish to get rid of – a religion which, in their opinion, has for many centuries inflicted needless pain and suffering on the human race.

Despite proclaiming itself a religion of love, in their view, Christianity has in fact been a very un-loving religion.  It has been more like a religion of hate than a religion of love.  To this very day – again in their view – if you observe Christianity as practiced by its true believers (e.g., Evangelical Protestants and old-fashioned Catholics), you will see that those believers, far from being motivated by love, are motivated by such vile emotions as racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, etc.

Getting rid of the Christian God means you also get rid of Christian morality.  Hence hardcore atheists are tremendous believers in sexual freedom, abortion, and same-sex marriage.  And since there was no God to create the distinction between men and women, we’re free to do away with that distinction as well.


(2) The second circle has many more members: its atheism is less enthusiastic, and its hatred of Christianity is far less passionate.  So moderate indeed is its atheism that most members of this second circle don’t acknowledge themselves to be atheists – almost as if “atheism” is a dirty word that they are too well-mannered to use in polite company.  Many of these people are agnostics, but agnosticism in America today is for the most part de facto atheism.  Many others call themselves Christians – that is, liberal Christians: Christians who, in the name of modernity, feel free to drop any or all doctrines that were held by the early Church.  Liberal Christianity in America today is for the most part de facto agnosticism.

This three-part association of atheists, agnostics, and liberal Christians may be called the atheistic coalition – for hardcore atheists, though considerably outnumbered by agnostics and liberal Christians, are the leaders of the coalition; the others are followers merely.  The atheists provide the ideas and the strategies; the others somewhat tardily accept the ideas and implement the strategies.  The relationship between agnostics and liberal Christians on the one hand and outright atheists on the other is a “fellow traveler” relationship: similar to the relationship that many socialists and ultra-liberals had to the Communist Party in the USA in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Needless to say, people in the second circle follow the party line faithfully when it comes to sexual freedom, abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism.

People from this atheistic coalition dominate the great “command posts” of American popular culture – the mass media, the entertainment industry, and our leading colleges and universities (including law schools).  And they dominate one of our two great political parties, the Democratic Party, which in recent decades has more and more become an anti-Christianity party.

(3) The outermost circle is made up of people who are barely if at all atheistic, and yet their support for the atheistic coalition is vital to the coalition’s success.  Most of them, if asked, would deny that they are atheists.  Many of them go to church from time to time.  They still say, “God bless America.”  But they subscribe to the atheistic party line; that is, they approve of sexual freedom, abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism, and they routinely vote for Democratic candidates.  And when public schools teach their children and grandchildren that homosexuality is a very fine thing, they offer no objections; for even if they themselves are not quite sure that homosexuality is a very fine thing, neither are they sure that it isn’t.

And so, even though the current situation may seem confused, and still large majorities are opposed to hardcore atheism, it’s imperative to understand the dynamic that’s underway: one circle operating on a second, and the second operating on a third, and the USA gradually being turned into an atheistic nation.


*Image: St. Paul Preaching in the Ruins by Giovanni Paolo Pannini, 1744 [State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia]

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.