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."


And with those words, one reaches the self-contradictory heart of Harvard unbelief--as also in the atheist admiration of Jesus and the agnostic appreciation of the Church. The undergraduate skeptic seems to have forgotten what was the rock on which the Western moral structure has rested for two millenia, forgotten from what book his ethical principles originally sprang, in Whose name meaning and purpose have overtly or covertly been found in life since time immortal, and by Whose will good and evil were first thought to be distinguished and have been held in rigid antithesis ever since.

The typical Harvard non-believer evidently thinks the enormous temple of his values can stand without trembling though the old granite foundation has utterly crumbled. He is deluding himself. Either the edifice must be abandoned for a new structure that we cannot as yet even dream of, or else the old building must be bolstered by new materials almost inconceivable.

Jarring Needed

Like a good liberal nineteenth-century free thinker, he doodles with arguments about an entity named God as if this merely happened to be a nondescript question that struck his fancy. Instead of being made more complacent by Hume and Freud, he needs to be jarred by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche into the realization that the religious question is the questions of questions, that the problem of God is not whether an entity exists or does not exist--about which a cautious skepticism might make sense--but whether the spiritual dynamo of an entire civilization is still running or not, whether the creative force of over twenty centuries can still be felt, whether an awesome Person is dead or alive. Here a decision one way or the other must be made; one "merely for practical purposes" is not "mere," for with postulates so fundamental as this

In the future one hopes that the ominous cries of Cambridge's colored prophetess will remind hurried passers-by of Nietzsche's allegory of the madman who was met with the laughter of the unbelieving populace when he rushed to the marketplace with a lantern in the early morning hours seeking God:

"... 'Whither is God,' he cried. 'I shall tell you. We have killed him--you and I. All of us are his murderers But how have we done this? God is dead. What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Is not the greatest of this deed too great for us? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever will be born after us--for the sake of this deed he will be part of a higher history than all history hither to.'" But Nietzsche's madman, like Nietzsche himself, despaired. "At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke and went out. 'I come too early,' he said then; 'my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering--it has not yet reached the ears of men. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars--and yet they have done it themselves.'"

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Perhaps the most appalling fact revealed by the poll--as well as one of its least dubious findings--is the overwhelming preference among the Harvard-Radcliffe young intellectuals for war rather than surrender "if the United States should find itself in such a position that all other alternatives were closed, save a world war with the Soviet Union or surrender to the Soviet Union." All of those responding to the poll must have been aware that such a conflict could mean nothing less than a nuclear holcaust thaat would annihilate Western civilization, if not our the very species, and in which "victory" would become a word utterly without meaning. Even as did Congress in its frightening patriotic circus last year over a smiliar question--though with even less excuse--the Cambridge undergraduates have shown themselves alarmingly insensitive to what a global, nuclear war would entail.

They have betrayed a disturbing moral insularity and lack of social imagination in identifying the survival of a North American state with the good of higher culture every-where and for all time--a provincialism that should be unthinkable to anyone who has passed no more than his required General Education survey courses. The society for which the highly educated are responsible can comprise nothing short of the globe's entire population--regardless, of course, of what proportion the U.S. State Department may currently choose to recognize.

And on this crucial question a correlation between religious conviction and political policy is dimly suggested which, if it can be trusted, is of the very first philosophical importance. There are two statistical facts 1.) that among the godless, American surrender as the proper alternative in the face of an otherwise inevitable world war with the Soviet Union was outvoted by less than two-to-one, whereas the general vote against surrender ran close to three-to-one 2.) the group of 215 who chose war include over fourfifths of those who were also willing to affirm a belief in the immortality of the soul (all but fourteen persons), while 35 per cent of the non-believers took the opposite stand in favor of surrender.

George Orwell once observed that the death of the soul, Western civilization's renunciation of the belief in immortality, makes the fate of this world immensely the more serious; it could be a spur to a radicalism almost frenetic, hysterical, insane--though Nietzsche's phrase seems more appropriate here: "a higher history than all history hitherto." Yet the orthodox often talk as though the death of the soul would trivialize or vitiate the worth of life altogether. Quite to the contrary, must be the nonbeliever's reply: eternity is only "shortened," as it were--the fate of one's soul, one's hopes for "eternal happiness," for salvation, in short, remain at least as intense and pressing and imperative as ever. It's just that now we only have one world to work with instead of two.

For it may well be wondered if anyone longing for salvation has ever really been drawn by the prospect of continuing to subsist through an infinite temporal series--no one thirsted for "eternal happiness," I suspect, in a literal sense. It would be an insipid life of everlasting borerom, as wits like Shaw have often pointed out. Indeed, it is the fact of death that gives value to life; only the certainty that the temporal series is finite imports any worth to a given point or segment. An immortal man would not be a man; like an unshakeably secure God, he would lack the tragic perspective of the mortal and the limited in which alone value appears. Water has no value to a fish in the ocean--but in a desert: ultimate and absolute. Thus the longing for "eternal happiness" seems rather a fierce hunger for the actualization of value, for the full incarnation of the summum bonumin reality, existence. It's not that the saints are pictured as consciously enduring beyond their bodies' last heartbeats--not just that they can go on cognizing--but that afterwards they are beatified.

And so, in one sense, a socialist lecturing to atheists on political economy is every bit as much preaching to them about the salvation of their souls--propter nos homines at propter nostram salutem--as a priest addressing the faithful about the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. The aim is not heaven, however, but utopia--and a false utopia will no more do than a tinsel paradise would have sufficed for the martyres and the prophets. To atheists, politics is religion; rival schemes of wordly order, are, literally, conflicting eschatologies; and the contemporary sense of individual political impotence is as awful a burden as Luther's overwhelming sense of guilt and sin, of total depravity--"the dark night of the soul"--before he discovered hope in the unmerited gift of Divine Grace.

Like Iscariot, we are prostrated by a weight too oppressive for us to bear, and it is anything but an accident that, as Niebuhr and Tillich and Dawson have shown us, religious language provides the most adequate metaphors for conveying our thoughts and feelings on this subject. But it is of the first importance to remember what the distinguished theologians themselves sometimes forget, that these are only metaphors. Only religious discourse has evolved expressions powerful enough to convey how pressing political concerns have become today because the latter alone today speaks meaningfully of what once the former alone could speak of: that is, the "salvation" of the human "soul."

We have surrendered the belief in heaven and in the resurrection of the dead--but nevertheless, no concern is to the non-believer more vital, urgent, and intimate than that with vitam venturi saeculi--the life of the world to come