Cardinal Gibbons’ Cure for Atheism

James Cardinal Gibbons (1834-1921) was twenty one when Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, and died not long after World War I. He attended the first Vatican Council (1869-70) and supported the decision of Pope Pius IX to declare the doctrine of papal infallibility. His final elevation was to Archbishop of Baltimore. Among his several publications the most popular and enduring is Faith of Our Fathers, an exhaustive account of what Catholics believe and why they believe it. Another of his books, Curing Atheism, was published about the same time that Orestes Brownson, an American Catholic convert, was writing essays against atheism. Doubtless both savvy thinkers had a sense that atheism might well be the wave of the future. While Brownson analyzed the irrational aspects of atheism, Gibbons explained and treated its pathology. Gibbons divides his book into two parts: the first dealing with the historical origins of modern atheism since the Reformation; the second treating how the rise of modern atheism may be confronted and overcome. This article deals mainly with the latter theme.

In the Foreword to his book, Gibbons stresses the origin of all sin, the moment that our first parents defied the authority of God, which opened the door to all other sinning as a revolt against God’s authority to command and to be obeyed. Since that original sin, the natural tendency of humans toward sin (concupiscence) has prevailed. All God’s commands, whether against adultery or theft or homicide, etc. will now be opposed with prideful impunity. But there is one sin in particular that makes all the other sins more agreeable: atheism. For by not acknowledging the natural light of conscience that is God given, one is actually free to make up morality as one goes along. Gibbons cites the Gospel of John 3:19: “Men loved darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil. For every one that does evil hates the light, and comes not to the light, that his work may not be exposed.” Atheism is that flight from the light of which John spoke. Sin loves darkness, and there can be no darker place than wherever one finds the rejection of God’s light.

Faith and Unbelief

 For people without faith there is a common view that religion begins only in the imagination, is without a rational foundation, and is a “blind sentiment” which educated and intelligent people will naturally reject. Then there are those who believe that faith is somehow infused by intelligent insight, and those who do not have the insight cannot be sinners because they have not been blessed with it; at worst, they can only be said to have made a mistake of intelligence. Both of these views erroneously neglect the role the will plays in relation to intelligence.

Gibbons goes on to describe faith as adherence “to any truth on the authority of God, who is the revealer of that truth.” There is no other revealer of divine truth but God. The Church is not the revealer of truth, but rather its guardian. Accepting the truths taught by the Church is recognized as the only sure way to truth, for Christ would not have established a Church and given it authority to teach the truth, as He gave the apostles, if He did not at the same time guarantee to protect that truth from dissolution or corruption down through the ages. Citing Aquinas, Gibbons defines faith as an act of the human intellect, commanded by the will, motivated and supported the grace of God. Intelligence is, therefore, the essential aspect of faith, and faith is certified by intelligently examining the evidence given us in the Gospels, and other places, as “motives of credibility.” But once the credible evidence of revelation is given, it is the free human will, not the intellect, that is relied upon to accept or reject it. So says Gibbons: “In order to believe we must will to believe; will it positively and seriously*” (italics mine). That is, belief cannot be perfunctory or frivolous, as it often is for those who say they believe but only fool themselves when they say so.

That kind of faith is empty of meaning because it has not been infused with the supernatural grace that gives our intelligence the recognition of God working in us. There are, of course, those who will not open their hearts and minds to the possibility of such grace working in them to become aware of a reality beyond the merely animal self. It is the defect so often found among philosophers that they are able to plumb the depths of reason without scaling the mountains of spirituality. This is because they have rejected faith, and so have not passed through the door to the higher knowledge acquired by way of grace and revelation. As Gibbons puts it:

Faith is a power which struggles against the inclination, unhappily innate in fallen man, which drags our soul toward inferior objects, and imparts to us a contrary inclination. Plato would say that faith restores to the human soul the wings that were broken in its fall.

God refuses no one the grace (gift) of faith if they but ask for it, and it is offered to all without prejudice (Matthew 7:7).


Following Aquinas, infidelity is defined as denying the supernatural and recognizing only reason and nature. Infidelity therefore is located only in the will. A person who has never heard of Christ cannot be called an infidel, because such a person does not have the free will nor the motives of credibility to accept or reject him. However, generally speaking, atheism in the West has risen from the fact that most atheists know of Christ and reject him, preferring not infallible revelations of the truth from a divine source, but rather the power of reason to investigate and conclude on its own all the truths that are knowable.

Gibbons rejects the notion made very popular that religion and science are incompatible, and that the rise of science must mean the fall of religion. Indeed, he points to all the brilliant Christian scholars who over the centuries slowly built up the edifice of modern science. It is true that rationalists have changed our perception of truth, and open up pathways of material progress, but they may change our perceptions so often that we become skeptical of owning any scientific knowledge that is permanent and satisfying. Gibbons cites a remark by Maine de Biran:

Religion alone solves the problems proposed by philosophy…. The greatest benefit Religion has bestowed on us is the saving us from doubt and uncertainty, which are the greatest torments of the human mind, the true poison of life. In a mind destitute of religious belief all is undermined, fugitive, and changeable.

Accepting God’s grace through the act of faith transforms us from godless souls into souls in whom God’s love is seen to dwell. The soul that denies God’s love, and does not love God, is missing the very path to its happiness in this life and in the next. Such a soul in its independent self pride may suppose that it is happy, or even happier, than the religious soul. But how could it know this? And the case is made more abundantly clear by the number of people who have given up on faith, and later in life returned to it because they know they have thrown away the most precious thing in the world. And finally there are the millions of souls who have converted to Christ for their happiness because they could not find it anywhere else.

Real Cause of Unbelief

There are an uncountable number of souls who do not believe because they are rather partially or totally ignorant of the faith. So many scoff at the teachings of the Church without even knowing what they are scoffing at; they only sense a dim caricature of Christ and his teachings. So easy it would be to reject what is not understood, or understood so imperfectly that one might be right to reject it. A great many unbelievers never knew Christ because they never visited the Gospels, and if they did at all, it was most often a perfunctory visit. Having no reason to go into the matter any deeper, these same souls with one blow strike out all other Christian literature that might have helped them see more deeply into the faith.

Add to that all the reading by infidels, further indulged in, that mock religion and Christ (such as the ridicule of the Church, spread about as if it were a Catholic teaching, that children who die without baptism will suffer in hell for all eternity) and you have begun to indulge a chronic disposition to unbelief that is almost insurmountable. The only antidote to such seemingly deliberate theological stupidity is to ask whether the rejection of religion as so cruel and heartless should be recognized, as not a noble act, but rather as an act of supreme stupidity. Why should such an infidel have not first gone to a priest and asked him to show where in the Bible, or in the writings of any theologian, or in the edicts of any Church council, it was ever decreed that unbaptized children are subject to damnation? But the infidel would hardly ever think to do this, satisfied that he has heard enough to close all further inquiry. If we add to this instance hundreds of other such cases of deliberately scandalous distortions of Christian doctrine, we can see why it is so difficult to spread the Gospel with any kind of sensible ease to those who like to resist the good news. And so it is true that will prevails over reason. If we do not will to see truth, the will directs reason not to see it. For this reason, the person who refuses inquiry when the opportunity is offered, has committed a crime against the very truth that Jesus promised would set him free.

Other Causes of Unbelief

 Gibbons now tackles materialism and pride as root causes of infidelity.

To succeed in the world, to satiate themselves with riches, pleasures, and, if possible, with glory, or at any rate with honors, is their sole care. Some give themselves up with a kind of frenzy to sensual enjoyment… With such dispositions, men are capable of sinking to the lowest depths of degradation, but they will not raise themselves to the heights of the moral order to seek the light of truth. Such men as these do not even dream of studying religion.

An excess of pride typifies the spirit of infidelity. One hears it constantly bandied about, “an eternal sing-song,” that religion keeps men enchained to rules they have not made for themselves. The only escape from such a prison is to be able to think freely and without restraint. But there is a monstrous irony in the term free-thinker, the person who is bound by chains he has forged for himself; for by seeking without God to reconstruct truth and morality according to his own whim, we see him become a slave to his own willful passions. He erects a new New World Order in which he is supreme ruler and arbiter of good and evil, and he is bound, sooner or later, to be overcome by nature’s decree, by other kings, and by God himself. The libertine deludes himself that his happiness is at last secured, and that perhaps, as Diderot desired, all the world will rejoice when the last king on earth is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

Materialism can only be justified by not only getting rid of God, but also by disposing of that pesky remnant of religion, the human soul. But the soul refuses to go away. It asserts itself by the mere consciousness of itself, of its freedom to engage with God or not, of its freedom to choose between good and evil, of its temporary destiny in this world and anticipated immortal destiny in the next. How then can materialism as a philosophy succeed? Probably in a hundred ways. More specifically, Gibbons asks:

How can a soul come to ignore and deny its own existence? How can it sink to this intellectual and moral degradation? The key to this mystery must be sought for in human liberty, which is the principle of all degradation and elevation. We are free and imperfect beings; we may refuse our adhesion to truths of the moral order, and our soul may so far blind itself – not all at once, but by dint of a thousand  weak and base acts – that at length it will come to ignore God, and no longer be able to discern itself.

Gibbons then invokes Plato’s allegory of the cave as a place where men, seated before a fire with their backs to the entrance of the cave, are chained in such a way as only to see moving shadows on the world, which they mistake for the real world. It is only by being released from their chains that it will be possible to turn about and see outside the cave where all things are made visible by the sun’s  light, the light of the true world. The escape from materialism, then, is to be found in repudiating the shadows of pleasure seeking, honor seeking, money seeking, power seeking, etc. Only by seeing past all the vanities we seek to satisfy us will we return to the idea of a higher reality in which abide both the soul and the Creator. Gibbons concludes: “How many men run after this false plenitude of of honor and victory, and, willing captives, know not how to surmount the narrow frontiers of that cavern which can only offer them shadows.” Only by turning away from all the “false plenitudes,” no easy task to be sure, can the visible presence of the soul and God be made to shine forth.

 The Shadow of Skepticism

Gibbons regards skepticism as the twin evil of materialism, for it is through skepticism that materialism might be justified. The shadows of materialism are exalted above the light of moral truths that turn us toward God as the soul’s good. Who needs God when the pleasures of the world and the pride of self are so plentiful? Let us then doubt – no, let us cease all talk of the great I AM who is greater than our human ego. But skepticism, like materialism, abides in its own shadows. What an irony is this, that Rationalism should exalt Reason over Religion, and end with a skepticism that doubts even the  great insights proclaimed by Reason. Jules Simon, one of the great prophets of Rationalism admits to his chagrin: “In science, as often as we make any advance, we find an abyss.” (A prophecy later well illustrated by Einstein’s revolt against quantum mechanics.)

The implication is disastrous for religion, say the rationalists. If we can know so little for certain in the natural world, what does that say for how much less we can know about the supernatural? Nothing can be known as absolutely true, except that nothing can be absolutely true. Oh, really? But if this be true, if we say that Nature herself is finally incomprehensible, yet we know for a certainty that Nature exists, why can we not know for a certainty that God, who is infinitely more incomprehensible, cannot also exist? And if we cannot know perfectly well how our souls exist, why should we conclude that they do not exist? Gibbons concludes: “We mistake the laws of our nature and of our actual condition if we deny the existence of God because his nature is incomprehensible to us. Such pride would be ridiculous were it not profoundly criminal.” It is sometimes said that a thousand and one minor uncertainties do not amount to one great uncertainty. It is in our nature not to be able to solve all uncertainties at once. Let us then live with certainty not just as an idea to be pondered, but as a reality that we can take hold of; let us believe that there are more things absolutely true than the absurd fallacy that Nothing can be known as absolutely true.

Clearly, with the rise of materialism and skepticism it was inevitable that Reason itself should fall. The rank distractions of materialism from the life of the spirit, together with the logical inconsistencies of skepticism, have rendered modern Reason broken and trashed. Every proposition of possibility is now urged into the world of actuality. Skeptical sophists of the good, the true, and the beautiful now rule the land; so that good can become evil and vice versa; the beautiful can be worshiped as what is ugly; and why not, since the true had already been questioned and judged no longer the coin of logical thought? Hegel started this catastrophe that is still reverberating into modern times with his worship of the Subjective Monster; more evidence, if it was needed, that Will triumphs over Reason.

As Gibbons puts it: “The true root of unbelief is the will. It is pride, it is sensuality, it is egotism in some shape or other which hinders the will from turning toward Jesus Christ.” To those who say that Reason rules, and that all must be submitted to Reason, so that the mysteries of religion must in course of time be abandoned and perish, Gibson replies that there is no mistake in acknowledging mystery as a friend to both Religion and Reason. “… in things of the purely natural order the human mind meets with obscurities, with unfathomable mysteries; why, then, should it take offense at mysteries of the supernatural order?”


The sophistries of materialism and skepticism are thus explained as among the root causes of infidelity. Gibbons does not prescribe a definite cure other than the deliberate opening of the soul to grace and inspiration. But he does show the path that is usually followed to become an infidel, and by turning our way back on that path we may find our way back to fidelity and truth and love. These are among the closing thoughts of Curing Atheism:

Infidelity is not an elevation, but a degradation; it is a fall, it is a moral and intellectual decline and this decline in a young man who has been educated in the Christian Faith is usually brought about by the ruin of more faculties than one. Some young men fall into infidelity in consequence of manifold low and degrading actions, which have extinguished their moral life. Many, thank God, descend not thus far; they stop themselves on the sad decline. They lose the Faith by hostile teaching, by irreligious reading, by intercourse with indifferent or adverse companions, by the very atmosphere of infidelity that surrounds them; but though their soul may have undergone many falls, the moral life still animates it…. But what I have often seen, what we see every day, is this: men of ripe intellect, after years of wandering, return to the Faith and to the practices which it imposes, acknowledging and declaring, in all humility, that their unbelief was  but the fruit of vanity, ignorance, or passion. It is a fact of daily observation that men regain the summits of faith by the pure and persevering love of truth and virtue, as they descend into of abyss of infidelity by pursuing a contrary path. A pure and humble soul, loving truth and justice, opens of itself to the light of faith; and the holier it is the higher in the moral order, the greater its knowledge of God and of itself, the deeper and more lively will be its faith. Faith grows in direct proportion to the purity and moral light of the soul.


What Gibbons could not have foreseen is the extent to which modern psychology has focused on other causes of atheism. For a look at some of these causes see my article at Catholic Insight here:  The Psychoanalytic Roots of Atheism « Catholic Insight