The Honorable Atheist
I don’t think it is necessary to defend the idea that there are honest and virtuous atheists. Unlike Leftists, there is nothing innately wicked or innately dishonest in their core values or basic assumptions which require them necessarily to support and defend wickedness, lies, indecency and cruelty.
Indeed, many of them are atheists because they conclude it is the rational position, and, if they are serious, they will hold that same standard of reason in other arenas when facing other questions, and may well live honorable and honest lives, because virtue is life lived according to right reason.
However, I think an atheist society (that is, a society whose basic values and virtues reflected in its institutions and laws are atheist and anti-Christian) cannot be honorable or honest for long. We cannot conclude merely from the fact that an atheist living in a primarily Christian society can be a decent man that the creation of atheist laws will create just laws, or atheist institutions will be decent institutions.
Atheists, even very honest atheists such as I once was, cannot be quite honest about history: either they ignore it altogether (a type of dishonesty) or they believe a self-congratulatory Victorian myth about how the modern world rose from the cesspool of the Dark Ages lead by that archenemy of the Church, winged Science with her Shining Sword of Truth, and in triumphant march overturned all the obscurantist superstitions of ignorant churchmen like Copernicus and advanced, singing with glory, to the clear-thinking Scientific Achievement of men like Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, cured polio, fired rockets to the moon, split the atom, and we even now hover on the brink of one last final step upward to Utopia.
One would have thought the Great War would have put paid to this myth, but it is as current among atheists now as it was in the days of H.G. Wells. We Christians do not expect Utopia to appear on this Earth at any point before Doomsday, but there are good societies and bad, and pre-Christian and post-Christian societies are much more vulnerable to the temptation to be bad.
The testament of history makes it all too clear that such abominations as ritual sodomy, temple prostitution, child sacrifice rule the ancient pre-Christian world, and sacred sodomy, pornography, “one-child policies” and abortion rule the modern post-Christian world, with gulags and holocausts the accompanying the more vehemently anti-Christian societies, and political correctness and thought police accompanying the more benign strains of the disease.
Let us not mistake a belief in virtuous pagans, exceptional men like Trajan, Aristotle or Confucius, with the belief that a pagan society would be honorable or just or tolerable.
Let us also make a distinction between the morality that a rational and honorable atheist can reach and that which a Christian saint can reach. A rational atheist can find perfectly sound reasons to be just, temperate, moderate, and courageous, because these are examples of the reason ruling the unruly and selfish passions and tempers. However, no rational atheist can understand or justify the mystical love of chivalry, of charity to the poor, of self-sacrifice, or any of the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope, or Love. Loving your enemies simply is not rational and no non-Christian can see any reason to do it. At least, not rational by what the material world counts as reason.
Even a rational atheist, such as I was, is and must be a snob, because he must regard ninety-nine percent of all humans who have ever lived, and all the wisest and best men who ever wrote, as either chumps of a massive con game, or fools addicted to folly in the one area that most concerned them.
All atheists are snobs, and snobbery is no basis for an egalitarian society, or one that treats the poor and downtrodden with charity and generosity, or one that treat women with chivalry.
You see, even an honorable atheist has to fall into one of two camps: he either has to have the temperament of a pagan Stoic or grim and fatalistic Viking, someone who regards life leading nowhere but to death, but who defies the eternal darkness nonetheless (perhaps with a touch of self-congratulation because he facing a sad fact other men sugar coat in Santa Claus tales of a life after this one). Or the honorable atheist has a temperament of hedonist, who merely dismisses the innate tragic loneliness of that flicker of human life aboard Sol III with a shrug or a laugh. He knows an infinite darkness will follow the extinction of all human life on earth, and the death of all the stars, but he is concerned only for his own momentary gains and pleasures and pursuits, noble or ignoble.
In the final analysis, all pagan philosophies boil down to Stoicism or Hedonism, the love of duty or the love of pleasure. One can indeed found a society on Stoic doctrines. Both the Spartans and the Romans did so. There is much to admire in these states, if one admires strength and cruelty. One cannot found a society on hedonism, because hedonism is weakness. Pleasure-seeking, when incarnate as a socially protected and legally recognized institution, undermines the discipline needed to protect society from ordinary wars and insurrections, not from the disorders and violent jealousies surrounding mating and reproduction, not to mention the ten thousand minor social duties from tax paying to jury duty to returning a library book –hedonists can give no coherent reason for abiding by these duties one inch past the minimum needed to elude the discomfort of punishment.
I postulate the existence of God for the same reason Einstein postulates that lightspeed is the same to all observers, and for the same reason Newton postulates that bodies in motion tend to stay in motion — namely, it is the postulate which, if accepted, leads to a rational and coherent view or model of the universe, one which makes accurate predictions, and if rejected leads to a view or model of the universe which makes inaccurate predictions, or requires paradox and ad hoc explanations.
As an example of a perfectly good prediction, I point toward Humanae Vitae, which predicted the outcome of a society based on contraception with uncanny accuracy, and long before such signs could be seen. Contrast this with the naive predictions of Marxists or Objectivists about what a perfection of utopia would be achieved if only we changed our laws and institutions, which would then (by magic!) change human nature to what unfallen Man enjoyed in prelapsarian Eden. I assure you that any theory which requires “magic!” as a middle step is not going to be accurate.
Christian theory says that man ought not divorce his wife, except in case of adultery. No word of Christ is more clear. The worldly theory is that no fault divorce is necessary in order to help people escape unhappy marriages, and that the general happiness of mankind is thereby increased. No theory is more obviously hooey than that. Ask half a dozen children of broken homes about their happiness, or their willingness to trust or willingness to wed.
I cannot be convinced that one should believe in God because the order of society of better off if the majority is believers, and this for two reasons.
First, it is simply false. Christian societies are in constant upheaval and change as the energy of Christian morality forces reforms as wide ranging as the abolition of slavery to the sacramentalization of monogamy. Christianity is not a force for conservation. Christian truths are eternal, and do not belong to any period of time. Perhaps Hinduism, or some religion that preached that the social order from Brahmin to Untouchable was ordained by the gods would be conservative — but not a religion that worships a God who is no respecter of persons. No Christian believes or can believe that the king and rulers of this world are free of sin. No Christian is allowed to pay divine honors to an Emperor or Pharaoh or God-King or its modern equivalent, the Marxist Dialectic of History.
Second, no matter how useful a belief might be, if the belief is false, it cannot be believed.
All the claims made above provoke several questions: A pagan society founded on Stoic principles (Rome, Sparta) can be tolerable, for a time. Can an atheist society grounded in Stoicism (France?) do just as well?
To answer the question we have to define tolerable. Let us recall that Imperial Rome had gladiatorial games, divorce, abortion, infanticide, slavery, and one of the most brutal and efficient systems of justice in ancient history. The Spartans had the most brutal and efficient military police-state in ancient history, complete with secret trials at night, bands of young men sent out to terrify and kill slaves at random, military sodomy and helotry (which is worse than slavery—a slave owned by the public treated worse than a slave owned by a master who at least has some self interest in the wellbeing of his property). Spartan women, unlike their Athenian sisters, were allowed to own property, but they lost their boy children at age seven to the agogy, youth military training and boot camp. The Spartans had a pit called the Apothetae in which babes, examined by the city elders and thought unfit, were dropped to their death without any memorial. So ‘tolerable’ for this question includes tolerating many things no Christian can tolerate.
To answer the question we next must ask what values or virtues necessarily come out of atheism and become part of the laws and institutions and moral atmosphere of the society, and discover if they are tolerable values.
Unlike classical paganism, atheism is not a world view, it is merely a theological belief about one issue: it is the faith that God does not exist. Modern atheists will say that they disbelieve in all gods equally and impartially, but if you live among them, as I did, or overhear their conversations, it is perfectly clear that the God in whom they do not believe is the Christian God of the Old Testament.
An atheist of the Socialist cult, Karl Marx, is not the same as an atheist of the Objectivist cult, Ayn Rand. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein are all atheists, but they do not seem to agree on what kind of values or virtues society should promote and celebrate in its laws and customs.
However, looking at the names just mentioned, I offer the insight, or perhaps this is merely the suspicion, that atheists and pagans both tend to be power worshippers.
Priding themselves on their practicality, atheists of all cults tend to be attracted to moral codes like utilitarianism and to politics of the realistic or Machiavellian school. The only thing we can say for certain is that an atheist regards man as a natural and not as a supernatural being: there is no deeper meaning to man, he is merely a big-brained ape without hair. An atheist like Heinlein can disparage the inhumanity of communism or eugenics, but he cannot offer a coherent philosophical reason why, if man is merely a beast, he should not be bred like a beast to cull the weak.
(Indeed, in one chilling scene in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, Heinlein, allegedly an arch-individualist libertarian, has his main character Mike the Martian lament that teaching mankind to be peaceful and psionic utopian communists halts the glorious progress of Darwinian evolution. Jubal, his mentor, rushes to assure him that the mooks and chumps and subhumans who cannot learn the psionic disciplines of Mars have already flunked the Darwinian test, and will die off, so there is nothing to worry about! This bit of chilling Hitlerian master-race talk from a guy who says he is an individualist!)
An atheist is a philosophical naturalist: only nature exists and not supernature. An atheist can do nothing for a ceremonial, magical, or mystical reason. Now, on an individual level, such an atheist can indeed be an honorable fellow, one who does not cheat on his wife nor cheat at cards. But society is itself a mystical thing, a union like a marriage, a being that is more than the sum of its parts.
Atheists of the Socialist Cult embrace the mystical nature of society wholeheartedly and worship it as fiercely as the ancient heathens worshipped Moloch and Dagon, and they demand meaningless or counterproductive sacrifices to their idols. Communism is the most violent version of this cult, and it has killed and killed and killed in such astronomical numbers that the Aztec gods are appalled. Even Tezcatlipoca, god of the smoking mirror, never starved whole Kulak populations slowly and cruelly to death, and had Walter Duranty of the New York Times lie to the world about it.
Atheists of the Objectivist school reject the mystical nature of society, and they end up regarding the laws and customs as optional, and the nation of one’s birth not as a home, but as a hotel.
No one is willing to fight and die to defend his hotel.
A social order with no mystical ceremony surrounding it cannot exist. Atheists of the Objectivist school cannot form a coherent society: such a society would either fragment into ever smaller groups of ever more small-souled selfish individuals, or it would evolve despite their professed creed, some sort of a mystical heart that granted unity and coherence to the collective body.
Running a culture without a cult is like running an army without flags, ranks, or uniforms: man is a ceremonial animal, a worshipping animal, and if you deprive man of sacraments and God, man will not worship nothing, he will take whatever is his highest value and turn that into an idol.
It is a law of nature that idols rot, or a law of supernature. Taking any valuable thing and elevating it above its peers ruins the value of the thing. Compassion for the poor, when it becomes a god, becomes communism, and creates gulags. Equality for women, when it becomes a goddess, becomes feminism, and creates a politically correct environment of man-hating. Liberty, when elevated, becomes license: we are browbeaten every day about how glorious sodomy is, and how wrong marriage is because it excludes sodomites, and sober courts and officers of the law demand the alteration of marriage and military and education and all other institutions to accommodate the practitioners of a sexually neurotic malfunction, and all in the name of liberty, glorious liberty. And so on.
If compassion, equality, and liberty become corrupt when they are given divine honors, when they are adored and glorified, anything becomes corrupt.
Only God is strong enough and pure enough not to be corrupted when worshipped as God, and this is the one thing an atheist society cannot worship. Therefore by a supernatural law as inescapable as a law of nature, any atheist society, libertarian, liberal, communism, or whatever, must eventually erect whatever it most highly values as an idol, and that idol will turn on them and rend them.
So my answer is negative. One cannot base a society on atheist stoical values for any length of time, because if the institutions and laws are utilitarian, then the weak will be sacrificed to the strong. The belief by individualist or Objectivist atheists that an atheist social structure ought not oppress the weak is opposed to the alleged pragmatism of utilitarianism, which will inevitably become embedded in the laws and institutions, and which inevitably involves worship of naked power. You can run an efficient military, or a slave camp, along stoical atheist lines, but not a community.
Third question: Can it be said that Stoicism, unlike Christianity, is primarily conservative?
Well, while I say that Christianity is revolutionary, and always forms an opposition to the world and to the powers of Hell that rule this world, keep in mind that Christians are ordered unambiguously to support their leaders and rulers in prayer and in deed, to obey Caesar as they might obey God. The only real reason for Christian disobedience to Caesar is when Caesar insists on divine honors, or abridges the laws of God, as with, in the modern day, the mass killing of unborn children.
Stoicism, if taken seriously, has little or no reason for revolution. The stoic hardens his mind with Buddhist indifference to pain and suffering, accepting adverse fate with indifference and equanimity. A stoic is supposed to die like Socrates, without complaints, and not to die like Christ, complaining of thirst and crying out My God, why hast thou forsaken me? A society based on stoic virtues would necessarily be a very cruel and merciless sort of place, because stoicism places all the blame for suffering on the sufferer. There would be no undeserving poor in the stoical society, because the society would institutionalize the ideal of self-reliance to the point where all poverty was seen as a just and deserved reward for lack of hard work: or else merely your bad luck to the posted to a bad spot, but no more cause for unmanly complaint or alleviation than when a soldier is posted in the breech.
I am not sure if that makes Stoicism necessarily a conserving force, however. Cato of Utica fought Caesar, and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita fought his cousins the Kuvuras, each as his duties required, and a noble pagan contempt for pain, wounds, and fear was a part of their character, and their motive to fight, if the accounts by Plutarch and Vyasa are to be believed. These were battles that shook the world.
Fourth question: Is this pre-Christian society’s great shortcoming?
Not in my opinion. Pagan society’s greatest shortcoming is power worship. The mystical idea that the poor are blessed and should be cared-for, the mystical idea that womanhood is fragile and sacred and mysterious and must be guarded with chivalry, the mystical idea that the strong should serve and defend the weak, is found nowhere in pagan civilization, neither in the Hellenic world, nor in the Near East, nor in the Far East. In pagan societies the Emperor always eventually ends up being the Son of Heaven, the king always ends up as a god-king. The idea that an Emperor would appear in barefoot to do penance for a massacre is revolutionary in a way no modern man, who has drawn in Christian notions of equality with his mother’s milk, can truly appreciate.
To a pagan, the scene where Pontius Pilate confronts a ragged troublemaker from an unknown family, a bastard with no father, would be a comedy scene: the right and proper rebuke to give the troublemaker is that rebuke that Odysseus gives loud-mouthed Thyrsites during the conclave of kings in the ILIAD. The great man takes up the baton, studded with gold nails, used by the speaker in public assemblies to show he has the floor, and with that rod he beats the wretch until the wretch bleeds and howls, and all the gathered kings laugh in lighthearted scorn, and the social order is maintained. Neither Confucius, nor Lao Tzu, nor Aristotle, nor Vyasa the sage who penned the Bhagavad Gita, nor any wise man of antiquity would have sided with the troublemaker over the forces of power, law, order: no pagan holds the villain or churl or peasant or slave to be higher than the rulers and powers of this world.
Fifth Question: On the point of a majority belief in God to build a better society, I can see why mere popular belief is not sufficient to create a Christian society, but is it not necessary?
My point was that the usefulness of a belief does not and cannot persuade anyone to believe the belief. Belief is assent to what is true, not to what is useful. Recall when you were three or four years old, how joyfully you awaited the coming of Santa Claus, and how good your behavior was so that you would not get sticks and coal for Christmas? But no adult believes in Santa Claus. It does not matter how good the belief made us feel nor how good it made us act: we believe the truth because it is true, not because it is comfortable.
This question is a different question entirely. If we are asking whether Christian faith is necessary for a good and just society. My answer is not ‘Yes’ it is ‘Hell, Yes’.
No non-Christian peoples can live under a constitutionally limited democracy. The attempts to do so end with socialism, or some other form of creeping totalitarianism, or the grotesque wreckage of modern Europe, which cannot even summon the political will to adjust the retirement age, or stop killings by Muslims of film-makers on street corners.
This is an operation of a law of supernature: without God as the center and apex of the social order, something else must be put there. The modern belief that this apex can be left blank and void is mere horsefeathers. That something becomes an idol, metamorphosing from merely a high and noble thing highly valued to an obsession that trumps and tramples all opposition, and the idol becomes corrosive of the social order.
Do not confuse the humble unwillingness to fund an established national church with the desire to remove God from the apex of the social order. The Founders established a limit on Congress’s ability to dictate matters of faith and doctrine not because the Christian faith was unimportant to the social order, but because it was all-important; too important to allow for meddling by politicians and leaders.
The Founding Fathers clearly meant and intended God to be the center of American life, not self-indulgence, pornography, and the greed of the eyes and lusts of the heart. The image on the back of the dollar bill shows the eye of the Omniscient as the capstone of the new tower of civilization, the new temple, which no king, no ruler, and no Caesar is worthy to surmount.
Last question: I made that claim that the universe makes no sense to those who do not believe in God, and that their model cannot predict nor explain the phenomena. How it is that atheists are so often right, when they are wrong about that basic point?
This is something of a sore spot with me, since I know a bright young man (a grown man, now) who was talked out of believing in the Christian faith of his childhood merely by being exposed in his Freshman year at college to the Greek philosophers, historians and playwrights. Seeing such noble and honorable and wise men as this, such great characters of history, great thinkers, he came to the conclusion that Christianity could not be good, since so much good was found outside it. I thought this was an illogical conclusion for two reasons: (1) the elements of the classical world that are admirable, such as the very learning of the philosophers my friend was reading, were preserved by Christianity and by nothing else. (2) The elements of the classical world that are abominable were reformed out of existence by Christianity and by nothing else. Christianity married Jewish spiritualism to Hellenic philosophy, enriched both, and ushered the modern world into being: it is not an opponent to Hellenic civilization but its flowering.
So my friend’s idea that good Christians are required to believe that no such thing as a virtuous pagan exists, otherwise Christianity is false, is a simplistic, and not a Christian, idea.
Logic works in chains. If you accept postulate A and A leads to B, and B to C, then A leads to C. A logical atheist can look at some point B and correct deduce conclusion C even if the ultimate link of the chain of reasoning is outside of his scope.
When I was an atheist, I came to the conclusion that homosexuality was illogical. One need only look at the shape of the sex organs to see that they have an innate purpose to them, and there is no moral code, not even the most liberal or libertarian, which does not contain a tacit appeal to the innate purposes of things for moral authority. An atheist can rightly conclude that a sex act which does not involve sex is illogical. An atheist can conclude that the nature of reason is such that to defy reason is to defy goodness: that is it morally wrong to be illogical, for the same reason to tell lies is wrong. From this comes the conclusion that homosexual acts, because illogical, are therefore morally wrong.
An atheist can also reason that the social order, and the vicious nature of competition for mates, requires men to support children they father, and, if possible, the social order should require those men to love and cherish their children. Anyone not a total fool can see that marriage is the only institution that has even a small chance of requiring men to support and love the children they father, and that marriage and fornication are mutually exclusive and incompatible, both logically and psychologically. Any atheist who has seen the vicious nature of sexual competition for mates—such as, for example, me, a newspaperman who got to cover stories about murders motivated by jealousy—can come to the conclusion that marriage is not merely needed, but essential, for the social order, and for human happiness. So even an atheist can conclude that fornication is wrong in principle.
My Christian friends, most of whom (ironically) supported and applauded fornication as something to be tolerated, if not celebrated, were shocked at my conclusions. They said it was wrong for me, as an atheist, to see that there was a design in nature, because I saw no designer. They believed that there could be no purposes in nature unless there was an intelligent purpose, something intended by an intelligent and purposeful actor called God.
I thought my friends were bad Christians, but also bad philosophers: everything from Darwinian evolution to the aggregate actions of the free market display purpose, and the shape of the wing of a bird declares its purpose is to fly, even the wings of ostriches and penguins, despite that no bird ever in history pondered between his options and decided or determined by a mental process of reflection to use his wings for flight. The word “design” is not limited to rational processes of reflection, no more than human actions and only human actions are “purposeful”—there are “purposes” even in inanimate nature. It is not the decision of the individual bird to be use the wing for flight: but anyone who says a wing is not shaped “for” flight is blind.
The reason why atheists can sometimes get their conclusions correct is that sometimes, perhaps by accident or habit, the atheist will start from correct premises. They do not know the ultimate reasons for things, but they still have the faculties of reason and common sense God gave them.