Atheism of late has gotten a bad name thanks to its rather callow contemporary adherents—Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. But history has produced a few brilliant atheists as well—like my favorite, Nietzsche—and the Church’s best theologians have long taken atheism seriously.
The insightful British Thomist, Herbert McCabe, OP, distinguishes between two different types of atheists in his excellent collection of essays God Matters. McCabe points out that some atheists reject what they take to be a peculiar religious conception of God: God as a sort of really big, really powerful guy, a “Top Person,” to use McCabe’s phrase. In rejecting such a (mis)conception of God, McCabe says, Thomas Aquinas is an atheist too.
But there’s another type of atheism, one exemplified by Bertrand Russell, which amounts to the refusal to ask a particular type of question. Contrary to the picture atheists often try to paint of themselves as bold questioners and champions of truth, such an atheism amounts to a sort of intellectual suicide. It is this type of atheism that Thomas’ much celebrated and much maligned “five ways” are meant to counter.