Jean Paul Sartre was one of the last important atheist intellectuals; later (Bobbio and Cioran are exceptions) there were just shallow and quite superficial (often vulgar) personalities, such as Singer, Ayer, Onfray Scalfari and A.C.Grayling. Not even close to the depth of thought of the French philosopher.
Sartre has been maybe the one that most of all has tried to find the foundations of an atheist moral code (or whithout God). But it was not triumphant, glorious or proud, like his modern supporters are trying to convince people of (an example here in Italy is Umberto Veronesi). His atheism brought literally to the anguish/distress, to the insecurity, because –he said- the human reason is essentially theological, it means that it works as if the human horizon were a divine horizon.
“The atheism is the persuasion that the man is the creator, and that he’s abandoned, alone, on the world. The atheism is not a happy optimism, but, in his deepest sense, a desperation” he said in 1946 during his famous interview for the “Il Politecnico” of Elio Vittorini. “L’Être et le Néant” (1943) is the manifesto of his philosophical atheism, that in any case, he will officially write in “Cahiers pour une morale”, written 4 years after and that remains an act of faith: ”the decisive absence of faith is the abiding faith”.
Right in that period, in the early Fifties, when the Cold War was at his best, herealized he was “living a neurosis”: even if his philosophy was an ‘active’ one, so far he’d just been a bourgeois writer, like Flaubert. Then his interest for Marxism woke up siding with the Communist Party. Still, as the American philosopher Jim Holt explained, in those years Stalin crimes were beginning to be largely documented, so much that other intellectuals were abandoning the party. “The ex-philosopher of freedom transformed into the totalitarian Sartre”. Raymond Rosenthal talked about him as a “solid Stalinist”.
Indeed begins here the beginning of the shameful past of the highest supporter and theorizer of the atheist moral. The rupture with Camus happened right because Camus decided to denounce the totalitarianism, while Sartre kept quiet in front of the French gulags (“it wasn’t up to us to write about the soviets force labor camps”, he then justified). He excused Stalin’s purges and Mao’s ones, and he described the deserter Victor Kravchenko, who was the first to throw light on the horrors of the Stalinism, as a CIA creation. He espoused the pacifism and, in opposition to the Vietnam war, he encouraged the Soviet Union to fight the Americans, even risking a nuclear war, and defending the Algerian independence, in the preface of Franz Fanon’s book (“The Wretched of the Earth”) he wrote that for an African “shooting to an European is like killing two bird with one stone, it’s like destroying an oppressor and the man he’s oppressing at the same time”. In 1977, on the occasion of the arrest of 3 men charged of pedophilia, Sartre (together with Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucaul and several others) signed a “petition” to ask the sexual liberation (or sexual revolution) for teenagers.
Still, even for the most important atheist in twentieth century, God remained a constant interest through all of his life, like an horizon, like a transcendental illusion, like a known but irremovable mistake. He declared without hesitation that he still had residuals of faith in God who has been the strong aim of his intellectual programme. In particular we’re referring to something that completely changed his last years.
In 1980, few months before his death, when he still was fully conscious (even if his physical abilities were limited), in an interview with a friend of his, the ex-Maoist Pierre Victor (aka Benny Levy), he explained his conversion with a scandalous affirmation, several people consider it a retraction of his philosophical work (he confirmed the authenticity of the interview with Levy): “I don’t feel I am the product of the Chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. Shortly, a being that could be here thanks only to a Creator. And this idea about a creator is referring to God” (by “Nouvel Observateur”, 1980). His conversion was a gradual one to the “Messianic Judaism”.
Among other things, Sartre repulsed his most intimate friends, included his feminist lover Simone de Beauvoir. She was the most shocked and horrified of them all in front of this, she said, shameful conversion: “how could I explain this senile act of turncoat? All of my friends, all of the “Sartreans”, and the editorial staff of “Les Temps Modernes” have supported me in my dismay”. (National Review 11.06.1982, pg.677)