Atheists have no god to worship. This is by no means a tautology. Belief in god is ingrained in our nature, and Anselm’s proof is the nearest thing to an effective rebuttal of atheism. Put in simple terms, Anselm’s argument is that we know that god exists because we have the category god in our minds—that is, as we should now say, we are programmed to believe in a deity. In a narrow sense, Anselm’s proof depends on our acceptance of the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, but it can also be persuasive, if not perfectly convincing, in other traditions: An unbelieving Darwinist (Edward O. Wilson) has pointed out that god obviously confers fitness on believing members of the human species; otherwise, religion would not be so universal. This is especially clear today when traditional Christians are outbreeding liberals and atheists by a wide margin.
If we have no god or gods, much less God, where does that put us? In one of several rather uncomfortable positions. Some atheists, in rejecting the God of their Sunday Schools, quickly turn to other gods, like Science or Progress or Reason, in whose names they are free to experiment on the sick or oppress the weak. Some of these gods are as evil as the demons created by H.P. Lovecraft: the gods of Race and Nation, Equality and Class Struggle, Freedom and Democracy, and, yes, Science and Progress have demanded the sacrifice of hundreds of millions of human beings.
The gods of mass murder are bad enough, but the murderer may grow sick of killing, and the sight of so much blood may cause revulsion against the little demons. There is one even tinier god it is harder to turn away from, and that is the great god known to children as “Me-Myself-and-I.” Me-Myself-and-I is perfection itself, the ground of his own being, the will that must be obeyed. The worshiper of Self (if we may take the liberty of shortening his name) has no rules outside his self, no standards of good and evil, of true and false, of well or poorly done.
What scientific breakthrough has been achieved by Richard Dawkins? He may be clever as clever can be, but when measured against the accomplishments of a David Lack, he is a mere pygmy. Lack was the ornithologist and ecologist who contributed a great deal to the neo-Darwinist synthesis. Dawkins hardly mentions Lack, but he has two good reasons for this neglect: Lack was, uncomfortably, a major influence on Dawkins’ own approach to evolution, but he was even more uncomfortably a Christian convert who was nonetheless rigorous in applying natural selection to evolution and ruthless in excluding all the mumbo-jumbo of the “life force” or “creative evolution.” Lack was everything Dawkins is not: patient in the accumulation of data, cautious in framing hypotheses, and humble in the face of what he did not understand.
The smug mediocrity of so many atheists might be enough to scare anyone away from atheism, but for the doubters, here is a second really good reason not to be an atheist: They have no religion to practice. This, again, is a bit less obvious than it might seem at first sight. Religion is a precise word. It does not mean faith or belief so much as prescribed forms of behavior that we use to determine the will of god or gods and to act according to his or their will. In imposing a rhythm on our speech and actions, religion elevates routine to the level of art.
Religion is part of our nature. As Thomas Browne observes so beautifully, “Man is a Noble Animal, splendid in Ashes, and pompous in the Grave, solemnizing nativities and Death with equal lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of Bravery in the infamy of his nature.” Browne understood man’s bestial nature: “The Heart of Man is the Place the Devils dwell in.” But the discipline of religion reshapes and refines our nature in much the same way that what Jefferson called “artificial good manners” begins by disciplining our actions and ends by schooling our hearts.
Since man can less easily live without religion than without gods, atheist revolutionaries have been more creative in making up new religions than in inventing strange gods. They go on diets, adopt workout routines, and recycle their garbage with more piety than a Muslim displays going on hajj. If they are “Christian” infidels they lead the “purpose-driven life,” and if they are leftist neopagan atheists, they form prayer chains, every year on Earth Day, to celebrate the Gaia they do not worship. The drollest of the lot are the self-confessed atheists who pretend to worship Thor and Odin, all the while ridiculing Christians for believing in their “superstition.”
As an atheist, I got rather bored with not going to church. Like many other decent atheists, my father occasionally conformed to the rites of the Episcopal Church, and from time to time I attended evensong at Grace Episcopal in Charleston, but for a year or so I took up with the Unitarians. How lustily I used to sing, “From all that dwells beneath the skies / Let faith and hope and love arise. / Let beauty truth and good be sung / In every land by every tongue. Amen.” I think it was the cynicism of “amen” that finally drove me back to Grace Church.
It is a cliché of Jewish atheist novels that American Jews feel even more alienated than usual on Christmas, which they celebrate by going out to Chinese restaurants, where they will not be troubled by hearing about what happened in that “little town of Bethlehem.” Here, then, is a third drawback to atheism: Atheists have no religious calendars. It is true they make up special days to commemorate long-forgotten days of their revolutions. Who really could celebrate the scummy events of 14 Juillet, much less the disgraceful seizure of Rome by the Freemasons on 20 settembre? It is a sign of how far down the revolutionary road we have gone as a nation that we no longer celebrate Independence Day but are content with the Fourth of July. We have forgotten Washington and are satisfied to dedicate one day to his achievements along with those of Martin van Buren, U.S. Grant, and Jimmy Carter, but Martin Luther King, Jr., is given his own day—the only American so honored—despite the fact that hardly anyone under the age of 60 can remember the mischief he made with the words he stole.
If religion gives rhythm to our actions, a religious calendar imparts rhythm to the entire year. Every religion has its rites of birth and death, of sowing and reaping, of victories and defeats. Christianity, in taking over the Greco-Roman calendar, immeasurably enriched it. The old spring rites that celebrated the god of the new wine are now directed toward the God of our new life. The Catholic and Orthodox churches have nearly as many saints and martyrs as the Romans had minor deities that protected the home and the fields, and there is hardly a well or hilltop in Europe that does not commemorate the deeds or death of an ancient Christian.
In one of the deepest conservative books of the last century, Maurice Barrès showed us the significance of sacred places. A hill in eastern France, which might have been originally revered after a lightning strike, became a meeting place for Druids and later a temple of Jupiter and finally a Catholic church. Poor atheists—and this is the fourth good reason not to be one of them—have no sacred spots, no churches or shrines. Yes, they erect patriotic memorials to dead butchers or demagogues, but it only takes a generation for Grant or King to be as forgotten as the kings of Judah.
There was a time when college entrance exams required an entering freshman to name the kings of Judah. This was a reasonable expectation so long as even nonbelievers were drilled in the Scriptures—a fifth advantage that the religious have over atheists. No society worth living in is without a set of sacred texts, whose word (whether fully understood) is law. Ancient Greeks settled boundary disputes by referring to the text of Homer, and the Romans, when they could not consult the Sibylline Books, had recourse to the sortes Vergilianae, a method of divination that consisted of picking random passages out of the Aeneid.
Scriptures and even canonical literature, because they are sources of authority that lie beyond our own individual whims, discipline our minds and tastes and compel us to have a share in the common sense of our people. Personally, I might prefer Keats to Milton, but in declaring such an opinion I make myself a laughingstock among civilized men and women. In a Christian society everyone must take seriously the admonitions of Christ and His disciples. Personally, a philanderer might prefer another man’s wife to his own and contemplate a divorce, but if he acts on that impulse he will be cut off from communion. Naturally, I am speaking of a time when the term Christian was not applied to the frauds and impostors who cry “Lord, Lord,” as they are chasing after other men’s women—and their money.
Scriptures, if they are to retain their authority, have to be taken seriously and, to a great extent, literally. The liberal interpretation, so favored by Anglicans and Methodist parsons who insert into their Easter sermons such declarations of faith as “There is a sense in which Christ really did rise from the dead to live in our hearts,” is fatal to religion. To take a text literally is not the same as fundamentalism, which is really an invitation for every man to make up his own Bible. Scriptures have to be read within an authoritative tradition—and, if I had more space and a different title—the lack of authority and tradition would be two more black marks against atheism.
Reason and science, as valuable as they are, are not and will never be sufficient to explain the highest aspiration of mankind. It is still true, more than 50 years after the publication of David Lack’s Evolutionary Theory and Christian Belief, that “Science has not accounted for morality, truth, beauty, individual responsibility, or self-awareness.” The good-hearted secularist (as Lack points out) is at a loss to account for the virtues he believes in. The believing Christian—or Muslim or Jew or pagan—has an answer. After all, Voltaire was right about one thing: If god did not exist, we should have to invent him. The same can be said of religion, scriptures, and churches. The greatest folly of the French Revolution was the attempt to substitute the cult of “the Supreme Being” for a religion that had been sinking its roots and sprouting flowers and fruits for 1,800 years.
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