Augusto Del Noce and The Problem of Atheism

Published December 5, 2021

Public Discourse

Augusto Del Noce, who died in 1989, ranked as one of Italy’s leading public intellectuals. His seminal text, Il problema dell’ateismo (“The Problem of Atheism”), first published in 1964, has never gone out of print in his homeland. A committed Catholic and distinguished philosopher, he flirted with Communism as a counterweight to his nation’s fascism in the years before the Second World War. The love affair didn’t last. Instead, he spent his postwar career deconstructing Marxism and diagnosing, with exceptional skill, its toxic effects. Yet his thought was largely unknown outside Europe. A decade ago, English speakers versed in the work of Del Noce numbered in the few dozens.

That began to change in 2015 with Carlo Lancellotti’s excellent translation of The Crisis of Modernity. Lancellotti followed it in 2017 with Del Noce’s The Age of SecularizationBoth books are collections of work dating from the late 1960s to the late ’80s. The essays “Violence and Modern Gnosticism” and “The Ascendance of Eroticism,” collected here; along with “Technological Civilization and Christianity” and “On Catholic Progressivism,” collected here, are models of superb cultural criticism. Over the past six years, Del Noce’s thought has gone on to influence the work of Carl Trueman, Patrick Deneen, Charles Chaput, Rod Dreher, and many others.

Del Noce viewed The Problem of Atheism as the cornerstone of his scholarship. But until now, it’s been unavailable in the United States.  That will finally be remedied by its English-language publication on January 5, thanks (again) to Carlo Lancellotti. A professor of mathematics and member of Communion and Liberation, Lancellotti has singlehandedly made Del Noce’s work available to the Anglophone world. His “translator’s introductions” to each of the philosopher’s books are engaging essays in themselves. They give valuable background on the author and key historical context for the essays. They also ease the reader into Del Noce’s style which, at times, can be daunting.

Marx’s Apotheosis of the Political

In The Problem of Atheism, Del Noce argues several key themes. Two are worth noting here. First, the seemingly useful and “scientific” elements of Marxist thought—its economic and cultural tools of analysis—can’t be separated from a radical atheism that “is the key to Marx’s whole work.” Marx offers a new anthropology that completely rejects the Platonic-Christian understanding of man and society. As Del Noce writes:

In Platonic-Christian thought, man is in a necessary relationship with God and in a contingent relationship with society. . . . For Marxist atheism, the relationship with society becomes necessary and constitutive. Therefore in Marxism the Christian subordination of politics to ethics must be replaced by the absorption of ethics into politics.

This has consequences. For the Christian, every man has a vertical obligation of worship, and also a horizontal responsibility for his fellow human beings. But finally each person is a unique individual bearing the imago Dei, from which his or her dignity proceeds. For Marx there is no such thing as man outside “social man”—man in his social relations determined not by God or natural law, but by the economic conditions of history. Truth and the legitimate use of power take on a flexibility shaped by political goals.

As Del Noce notes, “Marx reconciles morality and politics precisely because he negates [Christian] anthropology (think Lenin’s famous sentence: morality is what advances the proletarian revolution). . . .” For Marx, philosophy is no longer a search to understand the world. Instead, it becomes the tool to change it; to bend the world to human will. The resulting bias toward activism and acquiring power creates a curious form of atheist religion, i.e., “the elevation of politics to religion, which is a radically new phenomenon in history.” And this “peculiar, inverted theocratic form engendered by [Marxist-influenced] activism” helps to explain an inevitable drift toward totalitarian intolerance.

Put simply, in rigorous Marxist thought, the ends do justify the means. Christian progressives who try to purify Marxism of its atheist elements or who seek common ground with Marxist-inspired social movements delude themselves. In effect, they build for their followers a halfway house to unbelief.

Goods Displacing God

A second key theme in The Problem of Atheism emerges in Del Noce’s 1963 essay, “Notes on Western Irreligion.” From the 1930s through the early Cold War, Western nations, and especially the United States, tended to highlight their religious faith as an answer to “godless” Nazism, fascism, and Communism. But in the late 1950s, Western elites shifted. They started tuning their message to a different melody. They would beat Communism not by more God but by more goods. In other words, they would outperform “the Reds” with better science, better technology—more and better refrigerators, cars, and televisions.

It worked. Western technology created affluent societies of unparalleled abundance. This new wealth simultaneously drove Soviet Communism into the ground and rendered the God question irrelevant for tens of millions of distracted consumers. Del Noce was never a Luddite. He understood and valued technology’s many benefits. But he also saw that man’s tools tend to become, in practice, man’s objects of worship because they produce immediate, tangible results.

By comparison, the biblical God can seem much more leisurely in answering human prayers and more ambiguous in his responses. Unfortunately, the technological spirit tends toward a world where man himself becomes the raw material and victim of his tools; “a world without soul and without interiority.” Thus, in the end, technology can become “the most complete negation of the awareness of sin, because the latter cannot be cured by any technique but only by a supernatural action—namely, by grace.”

In its material success, the secularized West has become the perfect distillation of appealing, practical atheism. God is not hunted down. He’s rendered vestigial. And then he’s forgotten. That is, if not the plan, at least the effect.

Marx’s Political Religiosity

In recent comments to Public Discourse, Carlo Lancellotti noted that all of the essays in The Problem of Atheism appeared between 1946 and 1964—before the cultural turmoil of the late ’60s. The reader might be tempted to see the text as a museum piece. That would be a mistake. “America currently has rampant forms of political elitism,” he said:

They’re not “communist,” but they do reproduce some aspects of the Marxist-activist template, especially movements connected to race and sexual liberation. The civil rights movement of the ’60s was essentially Christian. Martin Luther King quoted Aquinas. He appealed to the natural law and universal, transcendent principles of justice. Compare that today to the more academically-inspired critical race theory. Again, it’s not “communist,” but it’s philosophically informed by Marxist-related ideas. It doesn’t appeal to [biblical] ethics; it appeals to theories of power and the direction of history.

One of Del Noce’s key insights about Marxism, said Lancellotti,

is that [Marx rejected the reality of] Original Sin. We’re all just shaped by a flawed social system. But there’s nothing wrong with us. And the world isn’t “fallen.” It’s normal and natural as it is. Death is natural. It’s not a punishment. If you take those ideas and blend them with the Genesis account of man’s mastery over nature, but then you remove God from the story, what’s left? There are no limits to human ability and power, and politics becomes the new religion.

The Problem of Atheism is a rich, complex, and important book. For Del Noce veterans, it’s deeply rewarding. Lancellotti wisely encourages new readers—those unacquainted with Del Noce’s work—to read his other books first. But for the adventurous, he offers a very useful guide about which of Atheism’s essays should be read first, why, and in what order, in his translator’s introduction. As I’ve written elsewhere, Augusto Del Noce is the most important thinker we don’t know. Professor Lancellotti deserves our gratitude for making a great Catholic thinker available to an English-speaking audience.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and senior research fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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