Was Leo Strauss an Atheist?

Leo Strauss argues for a certain agnosticism toward religious revelations, and yet he does so charitably, in contradiction to those who would merely mock or dismiss the possibility of divine revelation outright. There’s some reason to think that he was privately doubtful about the probability of genuine divine revelation, though I think perhaps less reason than is often supposed.

Is there any reason though, in Strauss’s eyes, to believe in a God apart from the question of revelation, in a divinity that may just as well not have revealed itself by intervention in human history? As far as I can tell, this sort of question is external to the investigation of political philosophy as Strauss committed himself to it, and so there is little indication of his conclusions.

We are left, then, with the question of whether it is really just to characterize Strauss as an atheist. Here’s my take: It doesn’t matter. Strauss may well have been an atheist. I am not. I still consider myself lucky to be an admirer and even an imitator of Strauss.

It doesn’t matter? How is that possible? Isn’t the theologico-political problem supposed to be a central facet of Strauss’s thought? How could that project be indifferent to the truth (or untruth) of divinity?

And yet, I think it can be, because Strauss is mainly interested not so much in the arguments for or against God or revelation (except to express a very reasonable agnosticism in contradiction of dogmatic atheists), but rather in the public and political consequences of different convictions.

If people believe or disbelieve in God and/or revelation, what will that mean for the city? What will it mean for the political community? What will it mean for the activities of any philosophers living in the political community?

For questions like these, what matters is not truth or untruth, but perception. If some people believe there’s an asteroid rocketing toward earth, that matters, whether or not there is an asteroid incoming. In the long run the asteroid itself matters too, of course, very much, but still it is certainly possible to investigate people’s beliefs about the asteroid, and the consequences and utility of those beliefs, in isolation from the question of whether the asteroid is real.

It is possible to think about the virtues of faith and the vices of superstition, and their place in the city, apart from the question of God. It is indeed worthwhile to think about such questions. And on those matters, Leo Strauss is an invaluable source of wisdom and guidance for all of us.

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