Can Atheists Be Good Citizens?

Around thirty years ago, the redoubtable Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) asked and answered the question that is the title of this column. My present task is not to try to improve upon one of Father Neuhaus’s typically gleaming essays, but only to remind readers of it, and refer them to it (here).

Father Neuhaus answered the question in the negative: atheists cannot be good citizens. The kinds of atheists he described thirty years ago, however, are no longer merely “present.” Rather, they dominate our intellectual and moral discourse.  A smothering atheism not only trumpets the absence of God but insists that even references to God in the public square are dangerous and, therefore, impermissible.

Quoting historian James Turner, Father Neuhaus censured “shapers of religion” who “made God more and more like man.” We have aggressively de-divinized, or desacralized, much of the world. But there is a reason why the First Commandment is first.  Get that one wrong and what follows is a moral trainwreck of such immensity that no human engineer can rectify it.

C.S. Lewis observed, in The Problem of Pain, that “From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and of itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the center is opened to it. This sin is committed daily by young children and ignorant peasants as well as by sophisticated persons, by solitaries no less than by those who live in society: it is the fall in every individual life.”

Once we remove God, Truth, or objective reality from society, the residue is egomania, leading to moral mayhem. And modern life is without authoritative standards, as Will Herberg (1901-1977) already noted decades ago.

In the absence of overarching moral standards, we necessarily turn to what suits ourselves. The result is ethical solipsism: having spurned our religious duty to become God’s, we become, instead, little gods.

When citizens limit themselves to the dimension of self-celebration, they increasingly have no means by which to assess the spiritual and political degeneracy around them – in which they share.  They are left only with the self-destructive mantra that “if it feels good, it is good.”

What is legal is, then, no longer founded on what is just. Even custom and convention are no longer rooted in what is morally right (think of Antigone). Opinion finds little direction from knowledge and no guidance by wisdom. Justice, the natural law, wisdom – all these are, at best, “abstractions” with no place in, or bearing upon, matters of state.

Nor is there any Aristotelian “final cause,” the end or telos toward which we proceed and in which we “live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Aristotle observed that “the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.” (Nicomachean Ethics, I [9]) A secularized politics lampoons the idea that its task is to help us perceive and perform noble deeds.


The good citizen is marked by vision, the educated ability to tell good from evil in what we think and say and do. Now it’s been replaced by a moral myopia, which cannot see beyond this space and time, a nihilistic relativism buttressed by ignorance.

The good citizen is marked by virtue, which means, according to John Hardon, S.J. (1914-2000), “a good habit that enables a person to act according to right reason enlightened by faith.” In its place now is the vice of pursuing mere power or wealth.

The good citizen is marked by valor, which means chivalric bravery in seeking the truth and, having found it, acting conscientiously according to its principles. In its place today is mere risk-taking for personal advantage.

That we live because “God put us in the world to know, to love, and to serve him, and so come to paradise” (CCC #1721) is rejected as contrary to our (arid) personal thinking and to our (vitiated) political sense.  That wisdom is “a reflection of eternal light, a perfect mirror of God’s activity and goodness” (Wisdom 7:26) is regarded as absurdity, for the only “wisdom” today is that there is no wisdom.

“A good citizen,” wrote Father Neuhaus, “is able to give an account, a morally compelling account, of the regime of which he is part. He is able to justify its defense against its enemies, and to convincingly recommend its virtues to citizens of the next generation so that they, in turn, can transmit the regime to citizens yet unborn.”

Neuhaus doubted atheists could present “a morally compelling account” – of anything. Paradoxically, today’s atheists share that judgment, except they contend that there is no morally compelling account to be given.  Such an “account” would proceed from a comparison between what is and what should be. The contemptuous dismissal of the supernatural means that politics is beyond rectification. The political anorexia that characterizes the last half-century reflects a poisoned wellspring.

Genuine education, Sydney J. Harris has remarked “turns mirrors into windows.”  Modern politics, though, is a house of mirrors: chaos reigns and corruption rules because the windows through which we should perceive truth are closed and nailed shut. So we wander in an ethical maze, unsure of our direction and of our destiny. (cf. Psalm 81:11-12)

From Genesis to Revelation, we are warned about idolatry, about false gods. Too rarely, however, do we realize that the most dangerous, the most perfidious, idols, are those with human faces who tell us, not only that we can be like God (Gen 3:5), but that we can be God.  There is the beating heart of totalitarianism, the specter of which haunts contemporary politics.

It wasn’t just Father Neuhaus who told us that atheists cannot be good citizens.  A prophet did the same: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed is the person who trusts in mankind, who makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord.’” (Jeremiah 17:5)


*Image: Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dalí, 1937 [Tate, London]

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Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous articles, books, essays, and reviews. He has taught at Notre Dame, Auburn, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has also served as “Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is incardinated in the Diocese of Charlotte.