A Note on Sartre’s Atheism

29 September 2009


Being and Nothingness

Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most uncompromisingly atheistic philosopher in the history of the tradition. This is not to say that other philosophers “sort of” believe while Sartre really didn’t believe. This is the vulgar and shallow conception. Sartre’s atheism was neither vulgar nor shallow. Sartre’s atheism was both rigorously theoretical and profoundly felt. This is an unusual combination — profound feelings rarely have a rigorously theoretical background, and rigorous theories are often dispassionately formulated — but in Sartre’s case I think the unity of the practical and theoretical runs throughout his philosophical thought. This is one of the traits that led to existentialism being briefly in vogue in the middle of the twentieth century, along with Beat poets and bongo drums.

Nearly a couple of months ago I touched on this in Existence precedes essence, where I wrote, “Sartre’s atheism runs deep, at a primordial level, and, though felt profoundly, was expressed in abstract and theoretical terms.” It is instructive to contrast Sartre and his position with it opposite number: theism that is both felt at a primordial level and justified on a scholarly, theoretical level. A good place to start would be Karen Armstrong, whose recently published book The Case for God has received predictably favorable and uncritical reviews, but I will consider a different Armstrong book.

short history of myth

The noted religious scholar Karen Armstrong wrote in her A Short History of Myth: “The Neanderthals who buried their companions with such care seemed to have imagined that the the visible, material world was not the only reality.” There are many contemporary books on mythology that are little more than self-help books and utterly without value, but Karen Armstrong’s work is not to be counted among these. She begins at the beginning, as a scholar ought to, in our paleolithic past. And the sentence I have quoted is a distillation of a commonly held view, spirituality in a nutshell, as it were: the world is more than we can see and this is not all that we are.

Ivory diptych from Trier showing Doubting Thomas (c. end of the tenth century)

Ivory diptych from Trier showing Doubting Thomas (c. end of the tenth century)

Doubt, the apotheosis of which is atheism, has long been connected to a sense of the material, the visible, and especially the tangible. There is a famous medieval ivory carving that shows the fingers of Doubting Thomas probing the very wound in Christ’s side so that Thomas might satisfy his doubts by tangible inspection of the evidence. Sartre, rather than appealing to the tangible, appeals to the visible, in his “Existentialism is a humanism” lecture:

I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see.

The last sentence of the quote is a characteristically blunt, if not brutal doctrine. It concedes nothing to human frailty. There are several other points in the same lecture that are of the same general drift: Sartre’s imperative that I must confine myself to what I can see is a distillation of common skeptical views, atheism in a nutshell, if you will.

In so far as confining oneself to the seen is the essence of atheism (according to Sartre) while asserting a world beyond the seen is the essence of mythological thought (according to Armstrong, as quoted above), Sartre is thus positioned not only in opposition to theology but also in opposition to mythology. This is why I wrote above the Sartre was among the most uncompromising atheists in the history of philosophy: he does without not only theology but also mythology. It is, indeed the very tradition of vulgar materialism that lies at the heart of popular Marxism (to which Sartre gravitated after he distanced himself from his earlier purely existentialist views) that makes the kind of assertions that scholars of mythology like Campbell and Armstrong cannot abide: that mythology is a lie, or a mendacious falsehood, or a tissue of nonsense without any redeeming value.


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One Response to “A Note on Sartre’s Atheism”

  1. bwinwnbwi said

    It looks like you stole my copy for your cover picture of Being and Nothingness–nice. I’m a fan of mythology too. It, mythology, according to Cassirer, was a step in the direction of the human spirit’s pursuit of self-liberation, a precursor step leading to the scientific method and analytical understanding. However, it was your blog on Sartre’s atheism that inspired me add a comment. In my own pursuit of self-liberation, Sartre’s for-itself was key in helping me find God.

    Extrapolating from Sartre,I developed a structural way of understanding “reality.” Sartre would probably not agree with me–even though his structure of being for-itself is at the heart of the way I understand reality, but, anyway, here’s my digression on how I went from Sartre to God:

    Free will is a difficult concept to get a handle on. In my own way, I have chased this concept through many philosophers, religions, and ended up with it becoming the sui generis case for all existence and divinity. Here is a brief summary of the religion/Sartre connection; first in terms of metaphor type statement, and second in terms of a dialogue.

    1)In order for God to Be and be free, God must “back into existence”, so to speak; that is, by virtue of not being God, God becomes free in the verb sense, and God becomes free to Be, in the noun sense. This state of affairs suggests the original significance of Sartre’s conception of a being that exists as being-what-is-not-while-not-being-what-is. But, of course, Sartre was not referring to God when he conceived this relationship (indeed, he said this relationship was the reason for the non-existence of God). With the for-self concept, Sartre identified the “mechanics of human consciousness.” However, for me, the “mechanics of human consciousness” describes 1) human consciousness on the one hand, and 2) God’s freedom to be self-conscious on the other. Now for the dialogue:

    “Help me. This is getting out of hand, and I’m tired. Where’s God in all this?” MV said.

    “Right in the middle of Sartre’s self,” I replied. “Sartre also saw time as an intrinsic component of consciousness, but he called it by another name–freedom.”

    “Oh good, that’s got to be the frosting on the cake,” MV responded. “No wonder God’s been invisible all this time. He’s been living and hiding in the head of an atheist.”

    “You got it,” I replied. “He’s been hiding in a being such that in its being its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself.”

    “That’s Sartre’s definition for the ‘for-itself,’ right?” responded MV.

    “You got it right again,” I replied. “The part of the definition which is of particular interest is the part which says ‘being implies a being other than itself,’ for it is here that once again, we encounter the black hole that masquerades as self—the black hole that demands everything, but gives nothing back. This hole in being implies, for Sartre, time and freedom.”

    “Don’t tell me—freedom is God,” said MV

    “Chalk up another one, you’re on a roll,” I replied. “It’s just that it’s a little more complicated than that. Freedom, for Sartre, is not merely a description of external conditions wherein humanity confronts alternative possibilities. It is the state of being to which being-for-itself is condemned. In freedom, the human being is both past and future, but only through negation. With respect to self-consciousness, freedom incessantly negates, as it continually forces us to confront our own nothingness, hence our ‘angst self.’ But this angst is further qualified by Sartre when he says, ‘To be man means to reach toward being God. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God.” Of course, Sartre goes on to show that not only is that desire unachievable, but God too is also an impossibility. The religious search for God is very real, however. In fact, for Sartre, the religious urge is basic to being human. The kicker is that Sartre did not know that the same freedom he used to justify God’s impossibility is actually the self-conscious aspect of God in the here and now.”

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