ATHEISM IS A RELIGION (and its attack on other religions as “religion” is a fraud)
It has long been quite a commonplace to seize on this or that aspect shared by overtly anti-religious and anti-Christian movements with acknowledged “religions” and declare that “therefore Comunism/ Nazism/ Socialism/ Anarchism/ Freemasonry/ etc. is a religion”. This is not what this article intends to do. First, because these arguments have too much of the “gotcha!” to be calmly followed; second, because whatever degree of self-sacrificing devotion, ritual accuracy and common identity they may achieve, their ultimate political nature remains undoubted; and third, because we have to be certain of what a religion is before we safely assign any phenomenon to the category.
Religion is not about worship; it is not about belief; and it is not about God or about supernatural entities. For if we had to accept any of these three descriptions, we would have to rule out, among many other systems, Buddhism. Buddhism is not about worshipping anything: in point of fact, it is so little interested in worship that, wherever it goes, it allows previously existing systems of divine cult to continue unhindered. It is not about belief: a Thai Buddhist monk once asked me during a debate not to use the word “faith” of Buddhism, preferring to call it “wisdom”. And Buddhism is certainly not about any supernatural being. The Buddha is no more supernatural than you or I: he is simply man having achieved everything man can achieve by patient intellectual discipline and self-cleansing – like Plato’s Socrates. As for beings “above” man, the Buddhist view of spiritual perfection is entirely non-personal: it does not believe in any God as perfection. Indeed, it could not, because in its system, personality is the denial of perfection. The gods it does accept are mere beings of power. That is why it preserves the cults of earlier religions: it accepts the power of their gods, but only their power. Spiritually, it regards them as inferior in degree and kind to the human Buddha. In Buddhist writings, Brahma, who to the Hindus is the very image of Godhead, the animating soul of the world and Self of all that is, is a figure of the world in need of Liberation, begging the Buddha to set out on his career of preaching and save human beings: even Brahma, that is, is radically degraded.
And yet the commonsense of mankind has always agreed that Buddhism is a religion. It was as a religion, as a religious competitor, that an unholy alliance of Brahmins and Muslim invaders swept it out of its Indian homeland. (By unholy alliance, I do not mean that at any point any Brahmin leader sat down with any Muslim khan and actually planned the extermination of Buddhist monasteries; I mean that there was a converging interest between the invaders and the ancient religion of the land to eliminate a common opponent, and therefore the actions of Brahmins and Muslims objectively co-operated in the destruction of Indian Buddhism.) It was as a religion that Indian, Chinese and Japanese Emperors built it splendid temples, carving whole hillsides in the shape of the Enlightened One. It was as a religion that the Shinto nationalists of Japan persecuted it in the dark time of Japanese Fascism before WWII; and it is as a religion that the Christian West has faced it, either in the form of faddish showbiz adhesion (even to the extent of actors, singers and models wanting to be married according to a “Buddhist wedding rite” – there ain’t no sich thing) offering some sort of spiritual escape in a world where the rigours of Christianity are not welcome, or in the serious form of intellectual and spiritual confrontation between Western and Eastern mysticism. When Buddhism, in turn, looks for interlocutors and opponents in the West, it does not look for them in the schools and the universities, but in the churches. And if Buddhism is not a religion, what is it that two billion human beings hold as spiritual truth in opposition to undoubted religions such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism?
No: Buddhism is a religion. And if Buddhism is a religion, then religion is not primarily about God, worship, or faith. You only think so because the religion of your ancestors places a highly personal God, with a human face, at the centre of the universe; because it exists in the form of worship of this God; and because it places faith in Him very high in the order of virtues – “And now there are only three things that will last for ever, and they are faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.” Even a great philosopher such as Karl Popper could fall into this sort of trap: he got Plato's religion disastrously wrong, because he instinctively placed the cult of gods at the centre of any religious system he could conceive. He could not understand that a man like Plato could disparage the cult offered to individual gods in the country he lived in, even treat it as a mere political convenience to be manipulated to control the lower orders, and yet be profoundly religious; but the centre of Plato's religion is not in the Greek gods we are familiar with, it is in God in the abstract – vaguely identifiable with Zeus – and with the Ideas.
What, then, do all these religions have in common, if not gods or worship or faith? Or, to put in another way: how, on what grounds, does Christianity confront Buddhism? How does Islam confront Buddhism? How did Hinduism confront Buddhism before Buddhism was exterminated in India? How do the religious systems of China and Japan confront Buddhism? The answer in all cases is: as a way of describing existence. As systems about “life, the universe, and everything”. Religion is a philosophy of existence. In the case of Catholic Christianity, it demands a certain kind of cult, involving a certain kind of sacrifice; but that is because it holds a particular view of the nature of man and what it calls “creation”. Conversely, because the God of Plato was not nearly so important – and because he had no concept of creation out of nothing – the philosopher's attention, and that of his followers, tended to be shifted towards the Ideas, as being the ultimate truth about each feature of reality.
To show the importance and significance of philosophical doctrines of existence in religious systems, let’s talk about the just-mentioned idea of creation. It is a fact that most of the world's religions (with the exception of Islam, which can be described as a heresy of Christianity) do not believe in “creation” in the sense of “creation out of nothing”, and that what many handbooks of comparative religion sloppily call “creation stories” are stories of re-creation, of the re-ordering of a previously existing, and indeed eternal, material universe. Both Buddhism and Hinduism believe in the eternity of existence, as did all Greek philosophical/religious systems, and the religion of ancient Egypt. Creation is nothing but a Christian idea, anticipated by certain strands of Hebraism. (Though by no means all. The Book of Genesis, which is a synthesis of two different pieces of pre-existent Jewish sacred writings, has both: its first chapter has the Spirit of God hovering over a pre-existent primordial mass which it simply puts in order, while its second chapter clearly describes creation out of nothing.)
Now what this means is that everything that exists depends upon the assent of God for its existence, in effect owes not only its form, but everything that makes it, to one single source – and that source a personal one, a will, an assent. (Thomas Aquinas once pointed out that, though a beginning in time is a part of the Christian faith, it is nevertheless possible to conceive of a universe that is infinite in time and that nevertheless depends upon the will of a transcendent God for its existence.) In Christian philosophy, we owe not just our life, but our being, to the fact that the God in three Persons made a conscious decision, something that can actually be compared to a human decision, to create; and that He could have decided otherwise.
This creates a bond of dependency, and most often of gratitude, towards God, as towards our parents, only even more so; and gratitude, as indeed opposite emotions, are only possible because the creative power it postulates is personal and capable of making decisions. We could not be grateful to a power that had been bound by internal necessity to create. This creates not only the possibility of love for God (Aristotle once remarked that we would think it rather strange to hear of someone loving Zeus) but even of hate for Him. The intense, personal hatred for God one finds in a number of contemporaries is a Christian reaction and would not be possible in Hinduism or Platonism or Buddhism. The sense of radical dependency of man upon God, the sense of man’s need for God, is entirely a by-product of the doctrine of creation out of nothing, and does not appear in Buddhism; a Buddhist who heard you speak of “Man’s quest for God”, which is a commonplace of Western pseudo-religious talk, would look at you blankly, or simply reinterpret your statement within his/her own categories, understanding it as “Man’s quest for Liberation” and removing the intensely personal emotion of the Christian and post-Christian world altogether. Such difference does a difference in abstract doctrine make.
Before I go on, I want to add that the idea of gratitude for existence seems to me one of those points at which the Christian revelation appears so entirely natural, so suited to reality as we experience it, so relevant to our lives and our feelings, that it seems to me to give emotional and possibly even logical support to the faith itself. To love is natural, and to be grateful for what you love seems to me such a natural development that a religion that does not allow us to feel that gratitude seems to me deficient in the primary appreciation of reality. That is why that tremendous outburst of gratitude for life and breath, Beethoven’s Ninth, says so much to me. Western atheists of the monistic-materialist kind, as it has long been pointed out, are particularly unfortunate in this. They are no less than the rest of us the heirs of a tradition of emotional connection to the fact of existence; yet they find themselves in the emotionally unsatisfactory place of having to be grateful only for lesser things. You may be grateful to Beethoven for the Ninth Symphony, but you have nobody to be grateful to for Beethoven. Thankfully, I know exactly Who to thank.
If, then, religion is primarily a philosophy of existence, then atheism certainly is a religion; and it is for this reason, too, that I feel nothing but contempt for Wicca, as for Asatru, James Hillman’s post-Junghianism, and all the other neo-paganisms. Even in the rare cases where they do not claim the full status of a religious body, they claim to be delivering a religious message; and they aren’t. If religion implies a view of existence, they do not even begin to be religious. They do not even begin to claim that they have any real view of existence; all they say is that their message will suit people’s psychic inner realities, that is, that it will make them feel better. I regard all these neo-paganisms as religious masturbation. The person who moves from Wicca to atheism has taken an enormous step forwards in terms of intellectual responsibility, honesty, and religious truth.
Atheism, on the other hand, is religious in everything except its outer trappings. Its own discourse about itself, its use of language, its relationship with the world, are all typical. To begin with, the claim of atheism is historical: its main doctrine is that “today” – in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, twenty-first century – we can no longer believe what our more ignorant fathers believed. That is, our time has had a newer and more advanced revelation of the nature of reality, which overpasses and replaces theirs. But this is the claim of every one of the world religions, from Zoroastrianism to Buddhism to Christianity to Islam. There always is a point in which a “true” doctrine about the nature of the universe is reached, which is bound to replace all the previous ones, which are either insufficient (Christian view of Hebraism and occasional Christian doctrine of the earlier religions as praeparatio evangelica; Muslim view of “peoples of the Book”; Buddhism) or positively wicked (Zoroastrian view of the wickedness of previous religion; occasional Christian claims that all previous religions except Hebraism were ran by demons; Muslim view of jahiliya). This is an inevitable feature of the growing consciousness of civilized man that history is a real and a changing force.
Not all great religions share this feature: those which do not arise from a reform or historical revelation – Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism – do not postulate a similar break. But it is certain that the break in question is a religious phenomenon; it is never used of, for instance, the rise of philosophical schools that are less than new revelations. Confucians do not make such claims for Confucius, nor Kantians for Kant.
Another religious feature of atheism, which arises from the same root, is its implicit demand for exclusiveness. To be what is normally called an atheist does not allow you to entertain any opposing view of reality. This is easily understandable: the only justification for such a historical movement of reform is that it represents a genuine improvement in our understanding of reality, that its claims are true, or at least truer than any other. Therefore, to entertain the possibility of opposite claims is to slide from the better to the worse. Western Atheists make a claim to intellectual clarity and focus that demands that they should not allow their intellects to be fuddled by the claims of what they call “religion” – that is, all religions which are not theirs. Many of them would feel something like guilt if they found themselves drawn, on any grounds (e.g. emotional) to any other religion; especially to the bête noire, Catholic Christianity.
This is reflected in the way atheism speaks of itself, a way which has effectively taken over our culture – to the great damage of honest understanding. In ordinary discourse, and, as I hope I am making clear, very much against the logic of the facts, the word “religion” is generally used as the opposite of the word “atheism”. This use is strictly comparable to the early Christian use of the word “pagan”, village-dweller. Just as Christianity, opposed to all other religions, came to label them all as “village practices” – paganism – so too atheism labels all competing views of the world as “religion” and sets itself against them. And I would have you reflect on the fact that, in these usages, the highest achievements of the human mind outside the religion itself are treated as no less “village practices” than the real superstitions of the countryside; Socrates and Plotinus are no less heathen than the ignorant rustic leaving a sacrifice to his village god; and to the Muslims, the whole great civilizations of India and China are entirely, and Western Christendom partially (we are “people of the Book”), outside sensible discourse.
In the same way, the dichotomy “atheism/religion” places most of the greatest manifestations of the human spirit beyond the bounds of serious discourse. Beethoven composing the Ninth Symphony and the Solemn Mass is as much under the grip of superstition as the most ignorant Neapolitan waiting for the blood of St.Januarius to liquefy. Think of the solemnity with which he declares, as the very climax of his symphony and indeed of his career: Brüder! Überm Sternenzelt/ Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen!/ Ihn stürtzt nieder, Millionen?/ Ahnest du den Schopfer, Welt?/ Such Ihm überm Sternenzelt!/ Über Sternen muss Er wohnen. To any coherent atheist, this is at best a piece of historically-determined nonsense, the superstitious transfer of a father-figure into the top of the world; that was how the Soviets of old used to present it, as soon as they realized that they could not altogether get rid of religion. And so we lose the greatest work of art (except for Dante’s Comedy – and guess what, we’d have to lose that too) of our tradition: it has ceased to have anything real and consequent to tell us, because at the heart of its message is the Christian God.
To sum up my argument, the opposition “atheism/religion” is false. Far from being linguistically neutral, is a particularly fraudulent piece of linguistic imperialism. It makes, in fact, an eminently religious claim, that demands that only one way of thinking about the universe be seen as valid, and the rest be seen not only as mistaken but as temptations. Atheism is not the opposite of religion, any more than Christianity is the opposite of religion. The effect of this false opposition, bought like a pig in a poke by the whole of contemporary culture (including even C.S.Lewis and not a few churchmen!), is to cast the whole intellectual past of man into the shadow of one tremendous new revelation; which is exactly the same claim that the missionary, reforming world religions, from Zoroastrianism on, always did and still do.
Indeed, if the claims of atheism were right, atheists would certainly be right not only in holding it but in rejecting other views: one must seek for the truth, and cling to it when one finds it. So, from their point of view, they are perfectly justified in assenting to the implicit claims of atheism; indeed, if, having accepted its claims, you wanted to do otherwise, you would be in danger of hypocrisy and wanting it both ways – which is morally wrong. It is exactly as a religion that atheism claims to reveal an ultimate truth about the nature of existence. That is fine and proper. But intellectual life in the contemporary world will not be unpoisonoed until atheists get rid of that s rooted in the false opposition atheism/religion.
A part of that is the utterly fraudulent self-image of atheists as clear, disenchanted thinkers. It says: we are the clear thinkers; you are the sentimentalists. You cling to a false and consolatory view of the world. This is plainly and simply wrong. What would be consoling would be to know that there is NO judgement after death, NO eternal life, NO terrifying demand in this life and punishment in the next. If you want the exact picture of the Christian idea of the afterlife, listen to the first three numbers of Verdi’s Dies irae sequence from his Requiem. First comes the horror of death itself, the final destruction, the fall into nothingness described by the Dies irae in music of unmatched terror; then there is an unsettled, unpacified, restless waiting – Mors stupebit – indicating that death as such has solved nothing, and that all accounts remain unpaid and outstanding questions unsettled; then the tuba mirum, the call to Judgement – something even more terrible than death. Verdi (like the Thomas Mann who wrote that great Christian masterpiece, Doktor Faustus) may have declared himself an agnostic, but he had been taught his first elements of music in a church, had been educated in a church school, and his first and last compositions were religious; even disregarding the massive presence of Christian doctrine in pieces such as La Traviata and Il Trovatore, there is no doubt whatever that his Requiem shows more understanding of Christian doctrine than many supposed Christians have.
As for rationality, Catholic theology is as rational an enterprise as any other philosophy, if you accept its premises. It is no coincidence that many of the greatest philosophers in history, including the greatest, Thomas Aquinas, were Catholic theologians. One thing that I know to be true merely by experience – and not just personal experience either is this: what really annoys people who adhere to a more or less atheistic view of the world, is not our faith. They are quite happy to watch us picturesquely genuflect and cross ourselves; they are even willing (so long as there aren’t too many of us) to watch us take part in politics and argue for things they regard as wrong. What really annoys the heck out of them – and I have seen this happen again and again – is that we Catholics “always have an answer”; that is, that, unlike them, we have actually reflected about life and have a system of explanation. Well, duh. Sorry for being rational. Or rather, not sorry at all.
While, however, the Christian picture of the future life is indeed far more terrible than atheists are generally willing to appreciate – and while the thought of everlasting dissolution and NO future life might well be a relief from that to many aching spirits (think of those convicted criminals who actually opt for the death penalty, or of most suicides: what are they all asking for, if not that their individual existence should cease for ever?), in general death is indeed a terrible thing, universally dreaded, and a message which promises life after death can indeed be presented as escapism – if the terrible Christian idea of Judgement is left out of account. This is at the heart of the atheist refusal to believe in eternal life. As I said, the atheist (monistic materialist) self-conception is that, we are the rational people, willing and able to face the truth, and you are the sentimentalists, cradling yourselves in consoling fictions. This sort of notion dominates the contemporary media (at least in England); as, for instance, in all the occasions in which a member of the Christian minority in this country is encouraged to speak about the “comfort” which his/her religion represents. Like it’s comfortable to know that you are always in the presence of an all-seeing eye that knows everything you do, better than you do! If any idiot journalist were to offer that old chestnut to me, I’d give Carl Barks’ answer: if you’ve got comfort, I’ll take vanilla. That is simply not what it is about; but it shows to what an extent materialistic presumptions dominate common English discourse.
Of course, resurrection of the body and eternal life are absolutely central Catholic doctrines, but that is not primarily why they are rejected by atheism; indeed, many materialists speak as though they had never heard of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and as though they imagined the Christian picture of eternal life to be bodiless and disincarnated! The rejection of eternal life has to do with the internal dynamics of the religion itself, its self-image of people who have left illusions behind, to need no comfort, to be facing unflinchingly the most terrible realities. Which is why we Catholics are not infrequently baffled to receive arguments that do not seem to be answering Catholic points at all, but rather to set up straw men to knock down. I would not say that atheists are personally dishonest; it is in part pure ignorance, and in part an emotional connection to the idea of death such that atheists form not only their own attitude, but their own counter-attitude. In fact, I rather think the emphasis of modern “new religions” on life after death is a by-product of the atheistic insistence against the idea. The fact that it is presumed that reason stands against it – whereas what in fact stands against is only reason applied to monistic-materialist dogma – means that there is a strong temptation to believe in it because of the naturally rebellious motion of the will (which is one thing atheism does not account for, though Christianity does). Belief in eternal life, in effect, has a tang of the forbidden.
One final consideration. Many atheists will argue that atheism is unlike what they call “religion” in that it is not organized. But this is simply another symptom of the way in which the basic facts of Catholic Christianity have been taken to be typical of all religion. There is no such thing as “organized religion” outside Christianity. This is a fact common to Jewish synagogues and Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Buddhist monasteries: that they all arise from the initiative of the local community or of some prominent person, a king, a local lord, a rich merchant. Of course, there is a recognized category of especially learned and religiously validated persons who are indispensable for whatever religious activity goes on; in that sense, you cannot have a synagogue without a rabbi whose learning has been in turn validated by other rabbis, or a Hindu temple without dedicated priests of the right caste and learning. But these people are called there by the local lord and/or the community, and, from the moment they are installed, answer no other authority. There is no such thing as a Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or pagan Pope or Episcopate, not even the deciding General Assemblies of many Protestant bodies; the whole idea of a single religious authority, organized and independent of state or popular control, is a purely Christian and Catholic one. Any comparable phenomenon, such as the peculiar role of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, is local, and certainly most of the world’s Buddhists do not acknowledge him any special status.
Why this should be so, and whether Christian practice is better or worse in this than that of other religions, is not a matter for this essay; it is enough to remark that Christianity, and especially the Catholic Church, is in this far less like most religion than atheism itself, with its networks of volunteer clubs corresponding to the temples and synagogues of other religions, its acknowledged intellectual leaders and itinerant speakers, its far less intense congregational life. The largish number of half-hearted, unorganised agnostics and atheists who compose a considerable section of any Western community, and the minority of intense, organized, club-joining, letter-writing, semi-professional atheists, form a pattern extraordinarily like the social structure of Buddhism, where the monks are religious in a special way that is simply not shared by the rest of society. A professional atheist speaker is far more like a Brahmin or a Rabbi than either of them are like a Catholic priest, and in nothing more than that they gain their status entire status by their acknowledged intellectual eminence. A Rabbi or a Brahmin must be learned, able to discuss in public the depths of the community’s religious philosophy; so must an atheist leader. Other features are more adventitious; a Brahmin can spend his whole life without necessarily officiating at any religious function or sacrifice, but if he does not study the Vedas and Hindu philosophy, he has betrayed his caste. As for the Rabbi, or for those Muslim figures that an uncomprehending West labels by the all-purpose term “clerics”, it is simply impossible that they should not be learned. A Rabbi is a master; that is his definition. In all religions but Catholicism, eminence in religious learning is an absolute must for the religious professional, and the one common defining feature.
The Catholic priesthood, on the other hand, neither claims an exclusive on wisdom and learning (though we hope that most priests will have their share) nor ascribes it too all its religious professionals. Priesthood is based on being consecrated to sacrifice, and consecration is given not necessarily on the grounds of learning, but of character. A few among the greatest of our priesthood – St Patrick of Ireland, the Curé d'Ars – were rather poorly educated, but stood out for their character and for that specifically Christian virtue – the intensity of their love for God. Of course nobody would think of judging a Buddhist monk by that standard; his religion neither sets nor understands it.
Except, then, for the partial exception of Catholicism, learning and wisdom are the characteristics of the man of religion; and they are the claims that alll public promoters of atheism make for themselves as they set out to evangelize in the name of their religion. This, indeed, is another feature that confirms that religion, any religion, must be understood quite simply as a philosophy, specifically a philosophy of existence; because those who are most closely concerned with it, the professional men of religion, are as a rule quite simply the wisest and most learned. And that is all that we need to say here on this subject.
This, then, is my view of the intellectual movement that calls itself atheism (or humanism, or a number of other things). Of course, the fact that humanism/monistic materialism/agnosticism/ atheism must be regarded as a religion does not mean that it is mistaken; that atheists are mistaken in holding it (though they may be slightly mistaken in what they think they hold); or that they would do better to come and kneel before the Crucifix in one of our churches (though that is indeed my own view). But it is important that the Pharisaism that says that you are rational and we are not, that you are keen-sighted and we are sentimental, that you have an inborn intellectual superiority over us, should receive a vigorous and utterly negative answer.