What do Augustine, Thomas de Quincey, Leo Tolstoy, and John Henry Newman (now Blessed) have in common? That’s right: confessions. Relatively speaking, Tolstoy might have chosen to blog about his plight rather than write through it in longhand, de Quincey would have done well on Salon.com, and Newman called his confession an apologia because he had been put in a defensive mode. But they all wrote about their spiritual troubles and how they solved them. To quote de Quincey in a somber moment:
“Christianity is that religion which most of all settles what is perilous in scepticism; and yet, also, it is that which most of all unsettles whatever may invite man’s intellectual activity. It is the sole religion which can give any deep anchorage for man’s hopes; and yet, also, in mysterious self-antagonism, it is the sole religion which opens a pathless ocean to man’s useful and blameless speculations.”
Historically, accounts of journeys from periods of doubt and anxiety (and addiction) to periods of what Newman called, at the time of his trade to the Catholic church, religious “certitude,” occupy considerably more space on library shelves than the journey in the other direction.
Religion has had the upper-hand in promoting itself as closure (isn’t that what “certainty” is?). Unbelief is saddled with images of confusion (isn’t that what doubt is?) and discontent–aimless searching.
“As the sentence [of the scripture I was reading] ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away….Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee (Augustine, Confessions, Book IX.29; I.1)
Naturally this irrational but culturally potent association between doubt and darkness drives unbelievers crazy. The question is, Why does it arise at all?
Because of an ancient theft of images. Religion has had the advantage of being imagined as a light on a hill, the “radiance” (as in John 14.6) that overpowers the darkness. That is the way Augustine imagined the Church of his day when everything else was, in fact, pretty dark–Rome declining, unable to sustain its institutions, hounded by unwelcome tourists from the north.
Christianity was a kind of theological alternative to demoralization and decline, though as a populist movement it could do very little in the western empire to forestall the inevitable “fall,” which later generations of historians would falsely ascribe to pagan immorality and corruption. To accept Christ, the light of the world, meant different things to different people. But for the Church’s early intellectuals it meant moving out of the darkness towards knowledge, towards wisdom, towards God, love and grace. To move in the other direction was not an appealing option, not even very rational.
The Church has had its way: darkness, hatred, sin, death, and final destruction of the spirit lay like the turbid waters of the Acheron at the end of the atheist’s quest. Who would knowingly move from truth toward a lie, from splendor towards dullness, from Palestrina and Bach toward Janacek? Since long before Dante consigned atheists to the inferno, setting your face against God has been seen as a lonely journey, driven by pride and a corrupt will that puts self in place of the Good. But the Church also traded on its philosophical bounty, especially Platonism, which saw rejection of the Good, now equated to the Christian God, as a rejection of reason.
“Atheism” did not actually lose control over or forfeit the imagery of light and truth. It has never really owned it. The theft was evolutionary rather than revolutionary: No (orthodox) philosophers died as a result of the heist, no secret coven of atheists was rooted out by posses of churchmen with a license to kill unbelievers. That point will appear jejune until you recall that such posses were empowered by Rome and local bishops to deal with heretics, well into the sixteenth century. Such unbelief as there was had to exist within the Church because that is where poets and professors earned their meager living.
When atheism has been considered at all by Catholic Christianity, it has been linked with heresy and apostasy as a special category of error–yet (oddly) not as serious as the other kinds because while atheism (by Anselm and the medieval theologians, for instance) is seen as a form of mulish stupidity (Ps.14.1), it is not a threat to the unity of the Church, like heresy, or as willful rebellion against God and his Church, like apostasy. That is to say, atheism doesn’t rise to the same degree of malignancy in the theological calculus, because then as now atheists were a lonely crew of poets and intellectuals and could not organize themselves into parties or schools.
Even Dante does not consign atheists to the darker levels of hell–merely to the deficient form of heaven, Limbo. Here you can find all the right people anyway: Horace, Julius Caesar, Ovid, Socrates, Cato, Vergil, Avicenna, and Averroes–whose common flaw is that they were unbaptized.
What did atheism do to deserve this patronizing neglect?
In the power vacuum created by the decline of the western Church and in the battles waged against heretics by the more powerful theologians in the eastern empire (Byzantium, where the creeds would be written), the ecclesial victors stole the imagery of philosophy and decorated their God like a Christmas tree with attributes that had been, basically, speculative in Greek thought. It was all about light, truth, and wisdom–their own, primarily, metaphysically projected outward onto their new triune God.
The Christian church deserves some credit for this. Hardly a philosophical image is left unexploited: goodness, infinity and eternality, immutability, omniscience (a kind of cheat, but that’s complicated), beauty, love, symmetry and perfection. Their grab-bag of ornaments included smatterings, ripped out of context, from Plato, Plotinus and Porphyry and assorted other philosophers. While condemning “paganism” (and with it, in many cases–for example the second century writer Justin Martyr–their own classical educations), they found the biblicism of their own tradition intellectually weak and aesthetically defective. It would take another century or two to find cradle-Catholic theologians who could pass up the temptations of pagan philosophy because, by that time, the usable bits had been brought in under the roof of the church. There was hardly any light left outside.
At the other end of this transformation, let me be pretty blunt, the Bible was transformed from an uneven collection of stories, poems and prophecies into an icon–if not a relic–while “tradition”–a word that looks innocent enough but refers to the creation of doctrine (teaching) of biblical interpreters–won the day. The artifact of this process, by the way, is the popular “protestant” belief that Catholics don’t read (or know) the Bible. They didn’t need to: the Church knew it for them.
It took until the sixteenth century for a few adventurous spirits to take the book out of its jeweled casket to see if the Church was anything like the book said it should be. But by then the damage (if that’s what it was) had been done. Not only was the Church a lot more complicated, richer, and better dressed than the one in the New Testament, but its God didn’t look very much like the biblical God either. Frankly, however, the Reformers were not all that consistent: the God of the Bible had already been retired in creeds they defended from the fourth century–“God from God, light from light, true god from true god, one in substance with the Father”–when the bishops were speaking of a man named Jesus.
With so much light going to the orthodox, there wasn’t much left over for atheists. The creed I just quoted was barely thirty years old when Augustine was born, and even though he quotes massively from sacred scripture, the way he does it leaves no verse unturned, no verb unextrapolated and no simple noun standing in its rightful place. The church had begun to speak allegory, and that would remain its official idiom until nineteenth century protestant theologians added paradox to the tool kit.
Granted, it’s a bit late for atheists to worry about getting back the light that was stolen from philosophy: eleatics, Socratics, skeptics, stoics, epicureans and sophists, all with highly rationalistic if not (exactly) atheistic tendencies. The final nail in the crucifixion of this-worldly knowledge was the teaching that the wisdom of this world (that would include science) is darkness and folly, and that the “true light” is essentially a way beyond, a path to heaven charted by the church.
The word that would come to describe this light is faith (πίστις). And the key thing about faith is that the Church was thought to possess it and (along with grace) dispense it. It was the faith, not faith in a verbal sense as a kind of assent. Much later, the reformers would try to restore an older, and what they thought was a more biblical understanding of St Paul’s favorite word. But it was a quibble. Whoever or whatever possessed it, it was thought be superior to reason; whether you accessed it through a change of heart or through the sacraments, you did not access it in your head. You surrendered to it because you had no other choice.
This is a kind of final-strawism. Thomas Aquinas, as we all know, argued that God could be known through natural reason, to a point, and his five ways or arguments for God’s existence all seem superficially reasonable. But in the long run, the finer things about God–that he is all good, for example–can only be known by faith, because the world we live in is full of ugliness and sorrow and pain and seems to contradict the goodness of God, except as a sadist might define it. The light of truth comes shrouded in darkness. It is the duty of the church, he thought, to reveal it. “Ubi fides est, ratio fallitur.” Where reason fails, faith prevails.
The artistic culture of the west has been a prolonged illustration of religion’s monopoly on light, certainty, closure and truth. Think Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s Paradise, Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, Gretchen’s salvation in Faust. And beyond that, think of every Cinderella story, rags-to-riches-epic, chick-flick. These don’t have to be religious as long as the protagonists end up in love and at the castle.
Now think of Waiting for Godot, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the absurd and existentially restless genres of the twentieth century. On the one hand, the drama and music of the period tolled in the death of God and certainty, illustrated by atonality and abandonment of form and the unities of classical aesthetics. On the other hand, we already see this art as periodically limited to the discovery of psychology and the aftermath of nuclear confusion. In fifty years it will be unreadable except by literary professionals interested in last-century movements. If it means anything in the twenty first century, it underscores David Hart’s comment, “The world is dying of metaphysical boredom.” Atheism is hard pressed to be a solution to that situation, at any level.
Even if by some freak chance atheists in 2012 would grow to 20% of the American population they are still hamstrung by a tradition of seeing skepticism and doubt as a menu for spiritual starvation and human incompleteness. They do not seem to be helped by the attempt of a few aggressive atheists to monopolize the term “Brights” to reclaim their right to the image, or by public displays of blasphemy which seem to attack dogmas that an increasingly illiterate laity don’t know are sacred anyway. (45% of Catholics in a recent poll did not know their Church taught the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Imagine how they’d explain the virgin birth).
When atheists attack religion, it seems to many bystanders that they are attacking the solution to a problem, proposing doubt as a cure for certainty, or despair as a remedy for hope. When they do so in obnoxious ways, they just seem to be grousing about the fact Dante doesn’t give them the choicest rooms in his hell. It hardly seems fair that the unequivocal denial of God shouldn’t be the thing that God hates the most.
Is there a way to revive a debate that was really over before the fifth century of the modern era? To give atheists a chance to negotiate God out of his right to adjectives the Church won fair and square in a game of chance? I can’t answer that. Most atheists I know aren’t even interested in trying.