Saturday, September 25, 2010

Heresies and Humanity

Atheism is, I suppose, the supreme example of a simple faith. The man says there is no God; if he really says it in his heart, he is a certain sort of man so designated in Scripture. But, anyhow, when he has said it, he has said it; and there seems to be no more to be said. The conversation seems likely to languish. The truth is that the atmosphere of excitement, by which the atheist lived, was an atmosphere of thrilled and shuddering theism, and not of atheism at all; it was an atmosphere of defiance and not of denial. Irreverence is a very servile parasite of reverence; and has starved with its starving lord. After this first fuss about the merely atheistic effect of blasphemy, the whole thing vanishes into its own void. If there were no God, there would be no atheists.

Where all Roads Lead, 1922

Is atheism a faith? Anyone who has spent any time listening to debates on religion is probably sick of the question. Atheists and secularists react with hand-waving indignation when accused of having their own dogma. They claim that it's a cheap trick by the believer to turn the tables on them; that they also have beliefs, but beliefs based on proof and empirical verification, and which are always open to revision; and the only reason they pay so much attention to religion is because religion imposes on them and their lives.

It's a fair argument, but I don't think anybody is really convinced. That kind of sober atheism-- one which is a simple refusal to believe in divinity, and doesn't come with any other baggage-- barely seems to exist in the world. We seem to be faced with a choice between religion and anti-religion. Atheism usually comes with a whole corpus of non-scientific belief; support for human rights (whatever they are supposed to derive from), for the scientific method as a duty as much as a tool, for the transcendental importance of knowledge and discovery, for a faith in human progress. Atheism does not demand faith, to be sure. But it usually comes with it.

The funny thing is, the faith of atheists is their most endearing trait-- at least, it is to me. For them, the refracted light of the sacred shines upon science and social change. Well, at least they have retained a need for the sacred and the sublime, even if they relocate it to the Hubble telescope- what Freud would term the return of the repressed.

In the same way, communists and socialists have often been accused of a dreary materialism, an inhuman attachment to dialectic. That, of course, is poppycock. Nobody is more romantic than a Trotskyist. She might hotly deny being a romantic; but who can doubt that she is stirred by the exhilaration of revolution, of renunciation, of faith in the messianic mission of the proletariat?

I knew a communist who complained about people working on May first. I didn't have the gall to ask her if Labour Day should be kept sacred. But it seemed rather ridiculous to me that a materialist would attach such importance to ceremonial, to tradition.

Ridiculous-- but also, strangely redeeming. Real, sober socialism is a hateful thing. But the cult of socialism-- singing The Red Flag, calling each other comrade, waving hammer and sickle banners, Che Guevera t-shirts-- who can resist a certain fondness for all those trappings? As Chesterton wrote in Heretics: "I myself, to take a corpus vile, am very certain that I would not read the works of Comte through for any consideration whatever. But I can easily imagine myself with the greatest enthusiasm lighting a bonfire on Darwin Day."


  1. In a way it's amazing how many parallels socialism has with Catholicism: comrades (brethren), cadre (episcopacy), party (church), bourgeoisie (heretics), class traitor (apostate), revolution (salvation), etc

    Fr Kane's lectures in Dublin on socialism 100 years ago are still well worth reading (Connolly's Labour Nationality and Religion is a response to them)


  2. I think the strongest parallel between communism and Catholicism is that they are both intellectually rigorous systems. Unlike liberalism, for instance, which seems full of contradictions.