The Religion of Unbelief: Ethics Without God

Once a week or so, an elderly Negro woman stalks down the crowded sidewalks of Harvard Square and Massachusetts Avenue, crying out in a dire, haunting voice, "Prepare to meet your God!" Her hat and dress are bedraggled, and she carries a worn paper shopping bag in one hand while the other is raised in ominous prophetic warning. The passers-by either smirk or ignore her or shake their heads: the last thing any Harvard or Radcliffe undergraduate expects to do on the public streets or elsewhere is to meet his God--at least in any literal sense, as they might meet their tutor, say, or President Pusey.

In spite of the fact that the CRIMSON poll or any other informal survey would indicate that Cambridge's undergraduates consider themselves a fairly pious lot, the nature of that piety raises serious questions as to whether any previous century might not have pronounced it tantamount to atheism. The explicit rejection of "all belief in anything that could reasonably be called `god'" as "a fiction unworthy of worship" proved to be the least popular alternative offered by the questionnaire, but a clear plurality of the votes went to "a God about Whom nothing definite can be affirmed except that I sometimes sense Him as a mighty spiritual `presence' permeating all mankind and nature." The agnostic's view came in a close second; after it came the traditional Christian formulation and then the belief in "a vast, impersonal principle of order or natural uniformity working throughout the entire universe ... which, though not conscious of mere human life, I choose to call `God'." And thirty-three people felt moved to sketch their own conceptions of the Deity since the poll hopelessly failed to offer them a satisfactory approximation.

All of these views present a God whose substance is so tenuous and vague that, like certain very rare gases, it becomes highly enigmatic to say that He is "there" at all. Such a being certainly seems incapable of having much more of an effect on human life than the normal inhalation of argon. Most of these notions come close enough to Tillich's to be intellectually "shoe," however, and their conformity to the negative doctrines of some of the authorized Judaeo-Christian mystics gives them a certain eccentrically orthodox sanction that allows the West's religious tradition to appear superficially unbroken.

Different Idea of God

But the fact must be stated plainly that the overwhelming majority of Harvard students who possess "the ability to speak the word God without reserve or embarrassment," in President Pusey's Baccalaureate phrase,--and who profess a belief in what that word signifies--do so in a sense that is far removed from both the letter and the spirit of anything to be found in the Hebrew of the Old Testament or the Hellenistic Greek of the New. The idea of God as an ineffable opaque Presence, as the principle causality, or as "the Ground of Being" and "Being-in-Itself" would surely have sent Abraham and Moses, Mary and the Magdalene, Saints Peter and Paul, into gales of reverent laughter: such a rarified and remote ontological abstraction or inarticulate mood of awe would seem an uncomprehending parody of the inexhaustibly rich and concrete Personality whose love and rage and will they each had known with such shattering intimacy. If it is one of the former concepts that is being generally worshipped, however, one ought at least to have the lucidity of speech and honesty of mind to admit that for most Harvard students, the God of their fathers is dead, regardless of What Else may now be around.

Atheists Undisturbed

The Paradox of belief in God at the university deepens when one examines the self-declared unbeliever. The most disturbing thing to be said about the Harvard atheist or agnostic is that he does not seem disturbed. He has rejected any positive belief in some of the cardinal propositions that have sustained an nourished his civilization for thousands of years, but on any issue, moral or political, other than the theistic one, he appears indistinguishable from his believing classmates.

According to the poll, he himself will likely tell you that, on the whole, his loss of all traditional religious faith did not substantially alter his ethical principles, nor does he feel at all obliged by his convictions to persuade the pious to abandon their beliefs. Incredibly enough, well over a third of those who either flatly reject all belief in God or else hold that there are no adequate grounds for deciding the question, nevertheless think that "on the whole, the Church stands for the best in human life," though it suffers from certain minor human shortcomings! And a substantial majority, though naturally denying the orthodox of the Incarnation, still feel that "Christ should be regarded ... as a very great prophet or teacher." "Whether or not he lived, many of his teachings are well worthwhile," an agnostic notes marginally. "The highest ideal of man," another adds; and a former Conservative Jew sees him as a "beautiful and profound symbol."

Skeptics' Apathy

A scant majority do feel that their "moral concern has grown more intense in the absence of any assurance of God's existence or of an after-life." However, the attitude of the atheistagnostic group toward undertaking the risks of world government was the same as for the undergraduates as a whole--evenly divided almost exactly--except that, out of the thirty people who responded that they were indifferent to the whole issue, ten were agnostics and one an atheist! On one of the most crucial questions of the twentieth century, it appears, the "enlightened skeptic" exceeds his believing brethren only in an appalling kind of apathy.

Perhaps the key to a full understanding of these Harvard and Radcliffe undergraduates who will not affirm the existence of God, considered as a group, lies in the fact that about 85 per cent of them will not deny His existence, either--that is, they are predominantly agnostics who look equally askance at the theist and the atheist who both say more than they could possibly know. This is reflected in the factors they most frequently check as having principally contributed to their present religious attitude: "the fact that contemporary science does not appear to require the concept of God to account satisfactorily for natural phenomena" is the reason given more than any other, and of the three factors vying for second place, two are equally epistemic. "philosophical considerations, such as logical refutations of theoretical proofs of the existence of God" and "the irreconcilability of a literal interpretation of the Bible with certain established scientific truths, such as the Copernican or Darwinian theories."

It is probably no accident that the apostasy rate is higher among Christians than Jews, among Protestants than Catholics; for it was Christianity's natal entanglement with Greek philosophy that yielded the world its first major religion which claimed so purely cognitive an activity as theologizing as one of its most essential modes, and focused on the truth value of factual propositions. And it was Luther who proclaimed "the priesthood of all believers," declaring that each man had the right of genuine personal judgment before God on the most intimate matters relating to his soul. Protestant Christianity seems to have had built into it, from the first, a remorseless central drive toward absolute sincerity in the acceptance of liberal truth--a condition that has evidently proved self-undermining so far as the faith of a large number of Harvard undergraduates is concerned. And the factor that stands in second place as cause of the atheist heresy is similarly an objection against the theology of the faith, grounded on the ethics of that same faith: Ivan Karamazov's outrage at "the existence of underserved pain and suffering in the world" prevails as a powerful force among undergraduates still--the paradoxical rejection of God because He is not a good Christian.

Intellectual Detection

Thus among the countless traumas a freshman may fall heir to an agonizing struggle in Hum 5 or Phil 1 with Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Theology is certainly one of the most severe; many a small town has lost its most promising Methodist in those ordeals--and for one reason or another, Anglicans defect at the rate of one out of every four. Freud's Moses and Monotheism or The Future of an Illusion must provoke nearly equal distress: one atheist passes up all alternatives listed on the questionnaire and writes, "God is man's interpretation of what dissatisfies him.... A rejection of God comes through progress towards understanding one's emotional condition." Another similarly explains, "psychological insight: God is a product of man; the most valuable part of religion is ethics--do good to fellows, etc."