These Are a Few of My Favorite Atheists: Albert Camus

Michael W. Nicholson, author of the Tides of God blog and theology Ph.D., contributes this […]

Mockingbird / 9.23.14

Michael W. Nicholson, author of the Tides of God blog and theology Ph.D., contributes this worthy series on his favorite atheists. We start off with Albert Camus:

“Negative space” is a concept in the visual arts, particularly in drawing, painting, and photography. A common example is the well-known Rubin vase, which can alternately be seen as a vase or two profiles of a man in silhouette. This is useful, but a bit misleading, because in fine art negative space is not about ambiguity or optical illusion. Negative space in a picture is where other things are not present; it is the emptiness between and around the subjects or picture elements. An artist can sideline the consideration of negative space or make it a more deliberate aspect of a picture’s aesthetic and even emotional effects. Ansel Adams composed many of his photographs, such as “Dead Oak Tree, Sierra Foothills” and “Saint Francis Church, Ranchos De Taos”, with particular attention to negative space. The Baroque painter Caravaggio used a negative space of deep darkness in many paintings, including the recently rediscovered “The Taking of Christ” (1602). This painting also highlights Caravaggio’s masterly use of chiaroscuro, the contouring and modeling of objects with sharp contrasts between light and dark, object and shadow.


Negative space and chiaroscuro serve visually to focus, highlight, and foreground pictorial elements and compositional forms that the artist wants to thrust onto the attention of the viewer. And so it is conceptually with an analysis of atheism—the worldview that begins with negative space, with the declaration of what is not present. We are not considering some Manichaean opposition—there is no Dark Side of the Force, there is only the one true God who is light. But we live in a world that is currently a mixed composition, of light and dark, shadow and substance. Many of our neighbors, literally and literarily, are atheists. While there is little seriousness and weight to what I would call the Dawkinsian wing of the “New Atheism”—all bluster, bluff, and rant—there are those atheists who wrestle seriously with the implications of their affirmation that the Deus Absconditus is finally the Deus Absentia. These are my favorite atheists. And while I believe it is tragic to say fully and finally in one’s heart, “There is no God”, I also know that the sunny-side faith of much American Christianity needs to pay attention to the chiaroscuro and negative space of modern intellectual atheism to be fully contoured and modeled, and not just a cardboard cutout of the Gospel. There are atheists worth listening to. Some are dead, and some are living. These are a few of my favorite atheists.

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)

“Until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture,” the atheist protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, declaims to the priest Father Paneloux, in The Plague, Camus’s justifiably acclaimed novel. Oran, Algeria (still a French colony at the time), is a city cut-off and self-contained by a deadly outbreak of bubonic plague. Within this quarantined city, Camus places a cast of characters who play out his examination of what it means to be human in a world of absurdity and death. At the center are Dr. Rieux, the enigmatic traveler Jean Tarrou, whom “no one knew where he hailed from or what had brought him to Oran”, a visiting reporter, Raymond Rambert, who early on tries to escape the quarantine, and Father Paneloux, a local Jesuit priest. They are the core of Camus’s story of the struggle against the plague; the rebellion against the absurd reality of an indifferent universe.

Tarrou is Camus’s conscience and Rieux his mouthpiece, but Camus will have nothing to do with cheap shots at religion or shallow stereotypes. He paints Paneloux as a complex and even sympathetic character. Both doctor and priest struggle against the plague; against nature and even nature’s God. Both struggle, in their different ways, with faith and meaning. In the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, I imagine similar struggles are playing out in real life. Tarrou / Camus asks the question with his life, “Can one be a saint without God?”, and if Camus ultimately fails to convince us, he does make us consider the possibility.


Beginning with his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus focused his literary investigations on the question of how to overcome nihilism in an absurd world in which, he believed somewhat paradoxically, reason and logic pointed to a cosmos with no meaning for man: “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Camus’s starting-point was the assumption that humanity’s own rational, scientific enterprise had revealed that the heart of existence was a closed material universe that itself was utterly indifferent to the deepest human longings. In such a universe, “suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.” While Camus was not the first to examine the existential question of modern man’s sense of alienation, his works—The Stranger, The Plague, The Rebel, The Fall, The Myth of Sisyphus—were the eloquent high-water mark of the postwar existential sensibility (though Camus rejected the “Existentialist” label).

It is easy to like Camus. Algerian born, member of the French resistance, thoughtful and kind, but an inveterate womanizer. He was the Bogart of atheist existentialism; larger than life, romantic, complex, a “code hero”. No writer since has taken so seriously and expressed so well the implications of the modernist acceptance of a closed universe and the denial of transcendent meaning. Camus’s attempt to assert human value beyond the absurdity of a world without God is imaginative and appealing, but turns out to be only a loop with no exit. Camus, who believed in decency, courage, and compassion, can only assert these traditional values; he can give no foundational reasons for preferring them over selfishness, depravity, and evil. James Sire believes Camus himself may have realized his “failure to go beyond nihilism” (The Universe Next Door, 4th ed., p.125) and sought a road to transcendence through historic Christian orthodoxy (see here). The answer to that possibility itself lies in the unseen world: On January 4, 1960, Camus was traveling by car with Michel Gallimard, his publisher, and Gallimard’s family. Michel lost control of the vehicle, which “swerved, went straight off the road, slammed into a plane tree, bounced off another tree, and broke into pieces. Michel was seriously injured [and later died], Janine and Anne were unharmed, the dog disappeared, and Albert Camus was killed instantly. The dashboard clock, which had been thrown into a nearby field, was stuck at 1:55 p.m. Camus had often told friends that nothing was more scandalous than the death of a child, and nothing more absurd than to die in a car accident.” When told the news, Camus’s mother could only say, “Too young” (Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life; pp.413-414). The stuff of legends.

Check back next week for Thomas Nagel!