The best atheist: Camus or Bill Gates?

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


November 9, 1998

Contrast clarifies vision. To set two things in opposition to each other is to see both more clearly.

With that in mind, it is interesting to contrast two views on God, religion and the human soul. One is the perspective of Albert Camus, a Nobel Prize winning writer and an avowed atheist; the other is that of Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, the richest man in the world and someone who appears to be rather indifferent religiously.

Camus, who died in an auto crash in 1960, was a complex man. After one of his plays opened, some of the audience, knowing him to be an atheist but surprised by the religious tone of his play, asked him about his religious beliefs. He replied: "It's true that I don't believe in God, but that doesn't mean I'm an atheist, and I would agree with Benjamin Constant, who thought a lack of religion was vulgar and even hackneyed."

Meeting students in Stockholm after receiving the Nobel Prize, he engaged frequently in dialogues about God and Christ, telling them: "I have Christian concerns, but my nature if pagan."

Gates, in an interview with Time magazine last year, was also questioned about his religious concerns. His answers stand in sharp contrast to those of Camus. Asked whether there was anything special, perhaps even divine, about the human soul, he replied: "I don't have any evidence on that."

Earlier in the interview, he had stated: "I don't think there's anything unique about human intelligence. All the neurons in the brain that make up perceptions and emotions operate in a binary fashion. We can someday replicate that on a machine. Earthly life is carbon based and computers are silicon based and that is not a major distinction. Eventually we'll be able to sequence the human genome and replicate how nature did intelligence in a carbon-based system."

Asked if he goes to church, he replied that his wife is Catholic and she goes, but, for himself: "Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning."

An interesting contrast! Two very different men – Camus, an atheist, but with a chronic, anxious itch for religious questions. Gates, a believer, but seemingly indifferent to religious issues! Which is healthier?

My bias is for Camus. But why? Is an anxious, neurotic atheism really preferable to a calm, benign religious indifference? Is a philosophical temperament and the interest that this engenders somehow morally superior to a more one-sided interest in technology?

Different people will answer those questions differently, but my vote is for Camus. However, my rap against Gates is not about the value of technology, computers or the Internet, nor about the merit of the software he produces (which I both use and like).

My knock on him is my censure against our culture in general (which so rewards Gates because in many ways he is its prime analogate). What's wrong with our culture, in terms of wisdom and depth, is not that it sometimes rejects God, soul and religion, although I do see that as a fault.

What is more serious is that our culture, like Gates, too often treats questions of deeper meaning only in terms of empirical data, efficiency and what can be found on the Internet. The end result is that it often does not find religious questions even worth asking. This leads to a one-dimensional soul, dead of wonder, flat enough to think that if God is to be found it will be on the Internet, cost-accounting the merits of spending an hour at church on a Sunday morning.

Bias or not, give me Camus' atheism any time! For all its technical success, computer software is hardly the theory of relativity, let alone the theology of redemption. And Gates? A bright man indeed, but Albert Einstein he is not, at least not until, like Einstein, he begins to speak of realities and meanings that can't be replicated in computer software.

There is an interesting twist in the answer Camus gave his audience in Stockholm: "I have Christian concerns, but my nature is pagan." What's wrong in our culture is that too often we have neither of these, Christian concerns nor a pagan nature. Nor do we realize that the two are inextricably linked. A true pagan might not believe in God, but that doesn't mean he or she is an atheist.

The culture of Microsoft, our culture, is the opposite. It might well believe in God, but it is atheistic because too much within it militates against believing in fire. We are too absorbed with the proper functioning of mechanics – and there is nothing wild, fiery and divine inside a machine.