Sartre is one of the most influential atheist existentialists. On the other hand, Kierkegaard is seen as the ‘father of existentialism, while most of his later texts were more religious than philosophical in their disposition. Kierkegaard does not believe in the traditional teaching of Christianity and instead wants to build an individual, intimate relationship with God and not through an external institution. Sartre’s private life included polyamory, weird politics and made other philosophers and theologians class him as godless and immoral and questioned whether he could contribute anything to theology, but he did; we see this when we look at his influence over Ramsey, Küng, Plantinga, and Marion. It is clear to see, that Sartre and Kierkegaard offer almost completely contradictory workings when it comes to the existence of God. Nonetheless, Kierkegaard influenced Sartre both directly and indirectly through Heidegger, even though Kierkegaard was the only Christian thinker amongst them. Kierkegaard was a different type of Christian because he did not advocate the rationalist approach adopted by the orthodox religious people of the church. Cox states that Kierkegaard loathes Hegel’s rationalism, because Hegel believes that human thought is a product of a historical process, when in fact, similar to Sartre, Kierkegaard supposes that humans are anxious, weary, and free individuals, who do not experience themselves primarily and are not aware of or taking part in some kind of historical process when thinking about moral problems; and that through reason we cannot discover our purpose as Hegel suggests. Cox also comments that Kierkegaard was skeptical of traditional Christian theology, for assuming that it could make up for God’s existence and nature objectively and supposing that religious and moral beliefs had to do with reason when Kierkegaard thought it had nothing to do with that. For him, it was something completely personal, subjective, and had to do with freedom. Kierkegaard understood that God’s existence could not be proven anyhow, and that is the fundamental reason why we have our own freedom of choice if we choose to believe in him or not. Therefore, being a Christian is a mere choice, that has nothing to do with logic or science, but purely comes down to one’s own faith, and could be regarded as a revelation from God to let humans decide for themselves what they want to be, without forcing them or programming them to do so.
This is where Sartre comes in and expresses his atheist existentialist view. He does not believe in God, because it is not scientifically possible and on the other hand he also says that ‘man is nothing else than what he makes of himself. There is no God that tells us what we should do and who we should be, there is no exact proposal that man has been given so that he knows how he must live his life; so, our essence has not been given to us by God, we must choose this for ourselves. We cannot rely on any outside or inside source for this validation, so there are no justifications for our behavior. And through our free will and choices, we determine who we are and what it means for us to be human. This is what Sartre means when he says existence precedes essence. Sartre also argues that that man is free to act in any way that he likes, he can marry who he wants, he can act a fool, he can refuse to do things, and that no other man has the right to advise him unless of course, he chooses to listen. Also, if the man chooses and believes, there could be no Good or Evil for him, only if he brings this into being it exists for him, otherwise not. Essentially, he deems that first and foremost humans are, and they are free before they are anything else. Meaning that for us to be human, we must not first commit to and fulfill any sort of pre-destined plan. It is only our choices that have moral implications.
Peter Kreeft says that there is a profound insight in this notion, with his free choices man molds who he will be. He argues that even though God creates us, we have the free will and choice to then individually chose who we want to be like Kierkegaard utters. Kreeft says that God associates us with Himself so that we can co-create ourselves with him and that he only creates the objective raw material through inheritance and environment; and through our conclusive choices, we shape ourselves. God does not want to tell us who we must be, or else it would be forced and not be natural and it would basically take the meaning out of living if all our actions would be pre-destined. Countless other philosophers have written about free will, and what it implies for humans. Super claims that Kierkegaard has a synergic view towards salvation, in the sense that he admits that humans cannot do anything concerning their salvation, but at the same time a devoted act of will is needed for an intimate relationship with God. Kierkegaard acknowledged genuine personal freedom in relation to salvation. Super mentions that Kierkegaard’s affirmations of this freedom do not imply that he believed that man could cooperate with God to effect salvation.
Sartre focuses on the idea of the absence of God, and not those of a traditional atheist, and Peter Kreeft argues that atheists become uncomfortable when readings Sartre, and that is a good thing since uncomfortable atheism brings them closer to God. But Kreeft also demonstrates that Sartre contends that free will and dignity can only exist in accordance with atheism and not with the notion of God which Kierkegaard considers. In his Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre expressed that: ‘Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed, that would make no difference from the point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of God’s existence- what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God.’
His statement indicates that people would still be responsible for their own actions, even if an omnipotent God would exist. Sartre had a problem with the notion that if God really is omniscient, that would mean he would always know our every next move; but that would imply that we are not free because we would be bound to act in such a manner, which God has already predicted and has been aware of all along. So, this means for us to live in a world where the future is not pre-destined (which it is not per Sartre), it must imply that there cannot be a supreme God within the universe. Essentially, Sartre believed that a being cannot be all-knowing while at the same time giving us freedom because this impression does not make logical sense to him. Kierkegaard and Sartre both still support the idea that humans are free and responsible for all their actions, but other than that their underlying ideas of what this implies and why it is the way it is, vary greatly. Sartre believes that Christians would blame God for their actions and all the wrong-doings in their life. He thinks that the belief in God is bad faith since we avoid freedom and responsibility, which to him is a mere indicator that there cannot be God, but this is not the case when we look at Kierkegaard’s idea on faith as demonstrated earlier. In addition, Sartre thought that humans are afraid of their freedom and the responsibility that they carry, that is why they sometimes like other people to make decisions for them and that sometimes doing so relives us greatly because we do not feel responsible as a result. In being and nothingness, the result of freedom meant to Sartre that we could never escape from the awareness that we have from ourselves because if we are conscious of what we are, we can never really just be what we are. As we see in the case of a waiter, who is just playing the role of a waiter, but because he is aware of his every action, he is not being authentic and Sarte adopts this idea on to everything else. Sartre asks himself why we should want to be fully what we are while at the same time being too aware of this. The only being which can at the same time just be, but also be aware of this is God, but since God does not exist in Sartre’s view this notion is impossible.
One could argue Sartre confuses freedom with the independence granted by God. To Sartre existentialism was the endeavor to draw all conclusions from an atheist standpoint, contrary to Kierkegaard. Sartre has no fear because he does not believe in God. But instead, he probably believes in the evilness of humans because of the concentration camps and what he witnessed during the war.
Also, there is no such a hell as demonstrated in Christianity that Kierkegaard would believe in. For Sartre, hell is other people, as we can see in his play where the gaze of other people leads the characters to go insane; since each wants to be seen in such a way that goes along with the image they have construed of themselves in their own mind. But since each person in the play wants this, the characters clash greatly. Podmore mentions that we have a dread of self-disclosure before God; Sartre’s domineering divine voyeurism which includes ‘the look’ can also be applied to a Christian and his belief that there is an omniscient God looking over him:
‘shame before God, that is, the recognition of my being-as-object before a subject that can never become an object…I posit my being-an-object-for God as more real than my For-itself; I exist alienated and I cause myself to learn from outside what I must be. This is the origin of fear before God’
In Sartre’s mind, relating to this context, God is a being who looks at him, even though he does not want to be looked at and is therefore seen as an unwanted invasion. Later, Sartre mentions that he was once looked at by God and that he felt his gaze on his head and his hands, and that he was prevented and further spared from this by his outrage. He claims that he grew very angry, because it felt so tactless and that from then on he never felt his gaze again. Podmore thinks that in this case, anxiety arose due to the self’s violation by an unknown, extraterrestrial other. Even though Sartre does not believe in God, later he probably contended that this was some sort of confusion and that was he saw and felt could not have been real. She states that from Kierkegaard’s point of view, the ‘terror threat’ of a divine trial could actually confirm the truthfulness of the relationship to God; one that many people fear and that induces terror because of the unknown, and the implication that if God really would exist, the position it would put and subvert us, humans, too. So, a lot of people avoid this whole notion altogether.
As Stewart mentions, Sartre still believes that God would be the only exit from the dialectic of recognition. This is also what Kierkegaard suggests; his methodology is to substitute the reductive human gaze with the divine look of God instead. He wants to get rid of human judgment and instead only wants to be judged by God’s standards. This does not mean that the gaze of the human falls away, instead, it holds no great importance to our being, and most importantly it has nothing to do with our relationship to God and therefore is way less significant than Sartre plays it out to be.
Kierkegaard is often misunderstood because of his complex relationship to God and specifically Christianity. Kierkegaard criticized the Danish church because he was focused on a more real and spiritual Christianity as opposed to their constitutionalized approach.
Kierkegaard wrote in his journal: ‘But before God, the infinite spirit, all the millions who have lived and live now do not form a mass; he sees only individuals’ This demonstrates the turning point when Kierkegaard took his philosophical individualism to a more theological individualism, as Super concludes. Kierkegaard saw God as the only one who could exercise salvation over man. Kierkegaard also wrote in his journal: ‘There is an infinite, radical, qualitative difference between God and man. This means, or the expression for this: the human person achieves absolutely nothing; it is God who gives everything; it is he who brings forth a person’s faith, etc. This is grace, and this is Christianity’s major premise’.