What We Can Learn From a Departed Atheist
Albert Camus died fifty-two years ago in January. Camus was a French writer, in the mold of those who explore philosophical questions through literature. He was paired early in his career with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre until their famous public falling-out in 1952 when Camus rejected communism, especially its Stalinist form. Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, the second youngest person in history to be awarded this Prize (Rudyard Kipling was the youngest).
Camus enjoys periodic revivals. We are in one now. He deserves it. His principal works, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, sold in the millions, and they continue to sell every year as a new audience discovers him. His final novel The First Man made a huge splash when it appeared in 1996, thirty-six years after his death. Journalist Elizabeth Hawes’s Camus, A R0mance came out in 2009 and has sold briskly. Camus remains alive in public consciousness.
Camus was granted the Nobel Prize as “the conscience of post-war Europe.” Unfortunately when he received it, his role in French letters was at a low point chiefly because of his opposition to the French approach to the “Algerian problem,” but his star was rising in the United States.
Why would I, a Christian, remain interested in a long-gone French atheist philosopher? Perhaps because Camus’s passion grabbed me by the throat when I was young. Perhaps because Camus assessed the Christianity he knew in France fairly and refused to judge Christians by cheap standards. Perhaps because I continue to think that honest atheism is the main alternative to simplistic religion. Mostly it is because his way of life made, and still makes, sense as a noble path to follow in a world without God – by which Camus meant, chiefly, without the hope of eternal life Christians say they believe. I continue to find him challenging because he explored questions we all have: What is the purpose of life? What good is it to rebel or revolt at anything? How can I have some impact on my world? I confess that I admire Camus and, more recently Christopher Hitchens, as honest antagonists to my faith.
Camus thought it pointless to search for meaning in a world that had no purpose – absurd, he called it. The world is strange and alien, and like characters on a stage, we are out of touch with our real selves. Yet Camus did not berate Christianity for attempting to ascribe meaning to the world; he said only that he was unable to affirm it.
Camus accused Christianity, overall, of losing both its clarity of voice and its spirit of protest against injustice. You have to admire someone who, without hostility or pettiness, calmly and reasonably asked Christians to live up to the ideals of compassion and truthfulness and the opposition to oppression Jesus displayed. He did not call the church to follow his ideals, a move he considered dishonest; he called it to live up to its own beliefs and goals. Camus asked his Christian audience “if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it.” With him we might lament, “the world in which I live repulses me, but I feel connected to the people who suffer there.”
In a time when bickering and pettiness occupy so much of our attention, we do well to hear an honest atheist committed to the search for a larger good and a broader life. It took courage for Camus to strive for social good, since he did so in contradiction to his own insights. Can we who view the world with hope do any less?
published 03 Feb 12