Nearly every Christian, I suppose, has had the experience of being
belabored by unbelievers about the putative sins of what is termed “organized
religion” — the Spanish Inquisition, the trial of Galileo, the
Salem witch-hunts, and so forth. What surprises me is that Christians
have been so slow to turn the argument around and point to the record
of what we may call “organized irreligion.”
Since we Christians regard faith as a gift, we seldom resent unbelief
as such. We can't very well blame someone for not having received a
gift. But there are those who angrily reject gifts, or who resent the
good fortune of those who do receive them, or who are otherwise something
other than people who do not “happen to be” religious in
If religion can be evaluated as a social phenomenon, in terms of
its visible effects on human behavior, so can unbelief. To begin with
the most colossal example, the militant atheism of the Soviet Union
resulted in the murder of tens of millions of people on the grounds
of their mere membership in so-called counterrevolutionary or reactionary
classes. Graham Greene contends that the Inquisition might have killed
that many people, had it been technologically feasible to do so, but
we may doubt this. The Inquisition executed a few thousand people over
several centuries for what were at least treated as individual crimes.
Just or unjust, these executions were judicial in form and were performed
against persons, not classes. The perversions of Christianity are also
to some extent limited by Christianity. The perversions of atheism
recall Dostoyevsky's famous remark, "If God does not exist, then
everything is permitted."
This or that atheist may protest against Dostoyevsky's inference,
but the fact remains that many atheists have made the same inference
themselves. Enlightened atheists sometimes sneer at Christians who
behave themselves only because they fear hellfire — and it may be
true that there are higher motives for good conduct — but it is hardly
consistent to make this criticism and then simultaneously to assume
that such Christians will keep behaving themselves once they cease
believing in the afterlife.
I can imagine one kind of atheist — let us call him "the
pious atheist" — who arrives at his unbelief without joy, simply
as an intellectual conclusion. I suppose such a man would regard Christian
civilization with the kind of affection and respect a Roman convert
to Christianity in Augustine's day would feel for the dying Roman Empire,
for Cicero and Virgil and Marcus Aurelius. He would feel that, although
that world had passed away, it had left much of enduring value. We
actually do see pious atheists who may regret the Inquisition but who
also cherish Dante, Monteverdi, Spenser, Milton, Bach, Handel, and
Dr. Johnson. To cease believing in the viability of this Christian
civilization is not necessarily either to condemn it or to assume an
attitude of enmity toward it.
Yet there is another sort of atheist who does regard himself as Christendom's
enemy. Far from cherishing its past, he condemns it and would wipe
out every trace of it in the present. He hates and fears every sign
of it: the Catholic Church, the Moral Majority, the inscription “In
God We Trust.” He thinks that humanity is now free at last from
dogma and superstition, and he would get on with the business of creating
a new world on progressive and scientific principles. The difference
between the two kinds of atheists is roughly the difference between
Santayana and Sartre.
Richard Weaver wrote that a person has no right to advocate any reform
of the world unless he shows by some prior affirmation that he does
indeed cherish some aspects of the world as it is. Our pious atheist
meets this test. He sees the passing of the Christian order as a highly
equivocal development, if a necessary and inevitable one. He knows
he lives in a continuing world, and he has the grace and wisdom to
appreciate Christianity as an attempt to express, however imperfectly,
truths about that world. If he finds some who still believe, he is
not altogether eager to correct them.
The pious atheist, moreover, will not be so sanguine about what is
to succeed the Christian order. For him the mere negation of God is,
in itself, no cultural substitute for the Christian myths and symbols
that have shown their power to sustain generations of human beings.
Atheism in itself has no cohesive force. Whatever social cohesion it
has provided so far has come more from its destructive hostility to
the Christian civilization it has totally failed to improve on. Looking
at the organized masses of his fellow atheists, the pious atheist may
prefer erring with Augustine to being right with such as these.
The godless order has brought us communism and abortion clinics.
It has yet to produce its Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, or Dante. We
can understand the man of no religious faith feeling that he at least
prefers the company of the believers to that of the current pack of
It may be that the characteristic evils of the twentieth century
do not necessarily follow, in strict logic, from the denial of God's
existence. The historical fact remains that they have followed. As
the Marxists say, it is no accident. If it is fair to hold believers
responsible for the actions of Christians as an identifiable historical
body — "organized religion" — then it is equally fair
to hold unbelievers responsible, too.
Yet we persist in treating atheism as if it were nothing but a private
cognitive matter, of no public concern, eligible for the conventional
protections we accord to, say, the varieties of Protestant belief.
For some people it may be that, but it is time to recognize that atheism
is also a systematic, organized, and socially powerful negation, driven
by furious hostility to religious tradition. Personally, many of its
votaries are boorish and indiscriminate in their refusal to give Christianity
real credit for anything. They have no desire to assimilate anything
of its heritage, even those parts Christianity itself assimilated from
its various pagan heritages.
The militant-atheist animus belongs to what I have elsewhere called
the “alienist” animus, the willfully estranged attitude
toward the general society typical of modern intellectuals and found,
in various ways, among some so-called minority groups. The fault lines
of alienism do not really coincide with obvious social lines of division.
It may occur more often among, say, Jews, than among Mormons, it may
be increasing among Catholics as it decreases among Jews, but its occurrence
can never be predicted in the individual case on the basis of group
membership. In fact, some so-called minorities, such as “gays,” are
not even minorities by inheritance.
Some numerical minorities, like Mormons, are not even thought of
as minorities in the subtle special sense of the word now current.
That word virtually embodies a presumption of disaffection from the
general society, and this disaffection is itself presumed to be justified
by what is termed the minority's victimization at the hands of a more
or less monolithic majority. If we look more closely, I believe we
will even find that the very idea of a minority in this sense is largely
a rhetorical device for covertly attacking what remains of the Christian
Tension and hostility among different ethnic and credal groups are
natural, but these are also reciprocal affairs: neither side is likely
to be wholly innocent. Still, the Christian side, as it happens, is
likely to have a certain Christian willingness to give a charitable
benefit of doubt and to assume a share of the guilt. It is only natural
for the non-Christian or anti-Christian side to accept this favor without
returning it. For this reason Christians in the modern world have been
slow to recognize and respond adequately to their enemies — even their
When an intellectual tells us that “the white race is the cancer
of history,” clearly using “the white race” as a
surrogate for historical Christendom, we are hearing something other
than the voice of the disinterested intellect. We are hearing an expression
of nihilistic hatred. Unbelief as such does not impel this kind of
It is remarkable that we have been so slow to recognize this specific
form of hatred, so much in evidence, as a social problem or even as
a social phenomenon. The language abounds in words signifying the hatreds,
fears, and suspicions of cultural insiders toward outsiders. We are
all acquainted with “racism,” “ethnocentrism,” “xenophobia,” “anti-Semitism,” “nativism,” and
the like; these words have a certain hothouse quality about them, suggesting
their recent invention to serve particular needs. Even older words
such as “prejudice,” “bias,” “bigotry,” “discrimination,” and “hatred” itself
have taken on the same anti-majoritarian connotations, although it
is humanly probable that there is hostility of at least equal intensity
in the opposite direction. We have no specific vocabulary at all to
suggest this reciprocal possibility.
Yet disaffection from the society one inhabits is always an available
attitude. A glance at Shakespeare confirms this. His plays offer a
gallery of characters who, for one reason or another, have chosen an
attitude of antagonism toward their societies. Some, like Shylock,
are not without provocation; some, like Iago, indulge the universal
temptation to envy with no real excuse. Shylock gives his angry reasons;
Iago can not explain himself except to himself — and he is struck
dumb when, his full villainy exposed, his society confronts him.
For our present purposes, Edmund in KING LEAR may be the most interesting
example. Presumably Shakespeare does not believe in the gods Lear believes
in, but he clearly does not care for Edmund's cavalier attitude toward
them. The pious characters — Lear, Cordelia, Kent, Edgar — are all
shown as Edmund's moral superiors, whatever their other defects. We
know little about Shakespeare's own religious beliefs, but he patently
respects a society's right to its sense of the sacred, to the shared
symbols of holiness held in common by unreflective people — which
is to say, by most people in their unreflective moments.
Almost without exception, Shakespeare's “alienated” characters
are villains — enemies of social peace and order. They are recognizably
human, and they sometimes appeal powerfully to our sympathies, but
there is no doubt of their villainy in action. Their villainy consists
precisely in their active enmity toward the society around them. The
apostate is also a social defector.
The assumptions embodied in the very structure of these plays are
directly opposed to the assumption that hatred and hostility are always
to be imputed to society. This imputation itself expresses hostility,
and we do well to raise our guard against those who make it. Whatever
atheism may mean abstractly, in our own world it often means a specific
and militant hatred of Christianity, a hatred as particularist as anti-Semitism
— and as deadly.
This essay originally appeared in Center Journal (Spring 1985) of
Notre Dame University, Notre Dame, Indiana.
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