Speaking Out: Can an atheist be virtuous?

By  Bernadette Timson
  • October 9, 2020

Does virtue require faith? If not, can an atheist be a virtuous person? For many Christians, it does not occur to us to ask this question, because some assume that the answer is an immediate “no.”

However, it is crucial to be aware of this dilemma to dive deeper into our own faith to dialogue more peacefully and effectively with others who do not share our doctrine.

According to paragraph 1803 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, virtue is defined as “a habitual and firm disposition to do good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.”

The study of the ancient world is quite common for virtue seekers, regardless of their religious background. Its significance to early Christianity is that God was deemed an enemy of the ruling classes.

Additionally, the Christian faith was born during a pagan time, where the worship of multiple gods of all forms was prominent. The idea of one God consisting entirely of love confused more people, as the deities of the time were understood solely through human eyes.

To historical figures such as Plato and Socrates, virtues were essential for everyone — they were regarded as separate from religion. Both asserted that living a virtuous life was either necessary or more beneficial to achieve a good life. It was what “separated the man from the child” and built character. Their philosophies may not have lined up with each other or with Christian teaching, as both lived and died before Christ.

However, their lives were devoted to upholding these models of living. Early theologians took inspiration from Plato’s The Republic for the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice and expanded on them with theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

As time progressed, Christianity flourished across the Roman Empire and spread to other regions of the world. Other religions had also survived the test of time, as theism remained prevalent. However, in the early 20th century, the firm position of no God existing began to spread in an organized fashion. It would reach maturity as decades passed, marked by wars, revolutions, rising ideologies and much political change.

While science has been able to explain natural disasters, disease and socioeconomic problems, it has never been able to present the “why” of such tragedies, which can birth a loss of hope.

As part of the Catholic faith, there are two components in our belief. The first is the personal relationship one has with God, resembling the interior life. The other side of the coin is the exterior life, how one lives that relationship by answering the universal call to sainthood’s holiness.

Unfortunately, it appears we are grappling with the problem of people choosing to live without virtue as their guiding star.

While our faith provides a foundation for many to grow in this area, atheism’s philosophy does not. So, can an atheist be virtuous? Yes. Nothing excludes one from learning, practising and living a righteous life; however, it proves less useful without God’s love.

For Catholics, our mission is to evangelize, which can take many forms: extending an olive branch, resolving conflict or furthering relationships.

The philosophical position of atheism is not new to the Church. It is merely the one that is most dominant in this epoch of history.

(Timson, 22, is preparing to attend John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, Calif.)

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