Bad, Bad Books

WHEN I FIRST READ Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, I was torn between two feelings. On the one hand, I knew it was an essential piece of American literature, written in the service of a sacred cause. President Lincoln called it the book that started the war to end slavery. As I began to read it, though, I immediately rebelled at how terrible the writing was. It was a tissue of melodrama, stereotypes and cliché. Why, I asked, did this “great” novel have to be assembled from literary junk? My dislike for it felt sacrilegious.

uncle-toms-cabin.jpgI was very pleasantly surprised then, several years later, when I read Orwell’s essay “Good Bad Books,” which named Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the prime example of a book one can admire for its noble intent even while recoiling from its horrible style. It was a good-bad book. No longer did I feel like Uncle Tom had me sideways. Orwell’s distinction between a book’s purpose and its execution was a saving one.

This distinction also had more mischievous consequences. If there is a category of good-bad books, the graph of criticism must also encompass three other quadrants. There must also be bad-good books, books well executed but for a bad purpose. Then there are bad-bad books, execrable in both style and intent. Of course, there are good-good books, too, but they can hardly stir controversy, at least not the kind that matters to me. We all have our favorite books, and I have either discussed mine extensively or plan to do so. Presumably, most of one’s reading life is devoted to good-good books. For now, though, I’m more interested in the space Orwell opens up for appreciating disagreeable books or for abhorring reactionary trash with proper relish.

Bad-Good Books

Evelyn Waugh in 1960

For me, Evelyn Waugh thoroughly dominates the bad-good quadrant. Never has an author’s oeuvre been so grievously backwards in purpose but sublime in execution. His writing is simply angelic. Behold this passage, seemingly a mere throwaway of a paragraph from Scoop. William Boot, the main character, is a first-time passenger in an airplane. He is taking off for Paris from a grass airstrip in London, circa 1935:

The machine moved forward, gathered speed, hurtled and bumped across the rough turf, ceased to bump, floated clear of the earth, mounted and wheeled above the smoke and traffic and very soon hung, it seemed motionless, above the channel, where the track of a steamer, far below them, lay in the bright water like a line of smoke on a still morning.

With these sixty-odd words Waugh ever so lightly conveys three things that would force most other writers into a longer, more laborious effort: (1) the simple poetry of a good takeoff in grand weather, (2) the freshness of Boot’s first experience of flight, and (3) the picturesque connection of the scene to southern England.

I could multiply examples of such writerly miracles, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that when I discovered Waugh, I binge-read half his catalogue in two weeks. It was much like discovering that P.G. Wodehouse had a serious side, and I couldn’t wait to hear what he would say next.

Except that Waugh doesn’t just have a serious side. He is an unreformed reactionary who believes and promotes some of the ugliest, most insidious myths in western culture. Not only does he believe (famously) in original sin—the doctrine that man is created sick and commanded by his creator to be well—he also believes in the same repellant corallary to this dogma that Dostoevsky occasionally flirted with—the idea that sin’s status as an apprenticeship to grace licenses one’s luxuriating in large-scale wrongdoing. Sin boldly, if you’re going to sin! The victory of Grace will be the larger for it. Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited is filled with words to this effect, in asides about God’s special love for drunkards, lechers,  and other chronic “sinners.” Well, if wallowing in filth is such a transcendent form of worship, why bother reforming? Waugh never comes to this point.

It is also in Brideshead Revisited that Waugh puts the ultimate pious hypocrisy into the mouths of the faithful. The book’s heroine, Lady Marchmain, a staunchly Catholic aristocrat, offers this comfort to wealthy folk who might be suffering pangs of guilty conscience:

When I married I became very rich. It used to worry me, and I thought it was wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favorites of God and his saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included.

How nice for her. It must comfort the rich to know they need not envy the “privileges” of the poor. I am glad to have read as much of Waugh as I did in a short time, as I was able to distill his genuine principles from the literary themes he merely vented. His worship of the moneyed class and his fetishization of original sin were, sad to say, instances of the former, not the latter.

Of course lots of us shrug our shoulders when it comes to helping the poor rather than just pitying them. There are insuprable  “structural” barriers to parity, we tell ourselves. How wicked can it be that Waugh uses his religion to dress up the same determinism we all accept under other guises?

If Waugh’s grinding the face of the poor does not trouble you, please note his special dislike for children. Time and again he creates characters who despise children even while advocating having lots of them, voluntarily, one presumes. (A dogmatic Catholic, Waugh opposed birth control.) Like his other blemishes, this one appears in his novels just sporadically enough to make the reader wonder whether it was Waugh’s real stance. The facts of his biography, though, make the truth painfully clear. He did not even like his own children. This knowledge somewhat darkens the light humor his (adult) characters occasionally exhibit when rejoicing that their children are soon to return to boarding school. It is one thing to wish one’s children were not under foot, I think, but quite another to wish them to have separate lives and to loath their temerity for occasionally reappearing on the family scene.

I realize I have dropped over the ledge to pure ad-hominemism, but what is one to say of a man who preached the sanctity of aristocracy and who advocated what we would today call the emotional abuse of children? Personally I cannot quite close Waugh’s case right there, at the foot of those damning facts. It is also true that he was a very tough, unbelievably brave soldier in World War Two, despite being over the hill. (He was 37 when he became an officer in the Royal Marines Commandoes in 1940.) This testimony, for me, stands in a class by itself. Bravery in battle is a virtue that few are called to and very few answer. A chair-bound, cigar-smoking alcoholic who loved the country-house life of endless luncheons above all else, Waugh was hardly cut out to be a soldier, yet he roused himself when he was called and rose far above his pampered background. While I am not quite comfortable saying bravery in war covers up a multitude of sins, it does warrant some forbearance for Waugh. I would have a hard time looking any combat veteran of a liberal democratic country in the eye and telling him his beliefs are despicable. Despicable they might be, but I’m just not the man to lay the accusation. I am too keenly aware of where and how my freedoms are ultimately defended.

I leave my judgment of Waugh exactly where Orwell left his: Waugh is “about the best novelist one can possibly be while holding untenable beliefs.” I will go on detesting his ideas lustily (this is half the joy of reading), but I will also thoroughly enjoy devouring the rest of his beautifully written novels.

Come to think of it, my bad-good list is dominated by Catholic novelists. Walker Percy is my favorite. A southern existentialist who blends Aquinas with Kierkegaard and Faulkner, Percy somehow makes this alchemy of Gothic nouveau work, but in a way I simply don’t have time to explain. The Moviegoer, of 1961, was his big success, but my favorite is The Second Coming, a meaning-of-life novel that pivots on a dreamlike retelling of the Abaraham-Isaac story set in 1970s North Carolina. I also have a smallish soft spot for one of Percy’s influences, Flannery O’Connor. It would be stating the obvious to call O’Connor a master of irony, but the obviousness itself begs certain questions about the compatibility of her rock-solid faith with the indeterminacy of the literary world she creates. Why the gap? Interestingly, O’Connor has the same sadistic flair as Waugh when it comes to torturing arbitrarily-chosen characters. Christopher Hitchens once pointed out that when Waugh decided to mess with a character, that character stayed messed with. O’Connor turns such divine fucking-around with unsuspecting mortals into a singular art form. It can be fun, but very wicked fun.

Bad-bad books

One of the standouts in the bad-bad quadrant has got to be A Pilgrim’s Pogress by John Bunyan—page after dreary page of Hallmark-worthy platitudes about guarding your virtue and staying true to your goal, which is, of course, to slip the surlies and go to Heaven. What’s so bad about all that?, you ask. More than any other book, A Pilgrim’s Progress tranlsated the Bible’s confused and occasionally atrocious ethics into a comprehensive cultural code that literate Europeans adopted as slavishly as if they had been Monty Python’s unlettered mud-and-straw covered peasants. Somehow, educated elites walked right into Bunyan’s world, where every human circumstance worth contemplating had been lifted from a Bible story.

Whether The_Pilgrim's_Progresswe know it or not, almost all English speakers who have ever cracked a book default to moral terms immortalized by Bunyan. The popularity of his book put a near-permanent stamp of approval on the embrace of supernaturalism and the rejection of reason as the best faculty for judging right and wrong. Literature is always propaganda, as Orwell pointed out, but Bunyan’s was particularly harmful. In aiding intelligent, reflective Europeans to turn so decisively way from classical values, it fought back mightily against the advance of the Enlightenment, just in its birth pangs when Pilgrim came out in 1678. We can only guess as to how many years its fatuous “moralizing” delayed the Enlightenment’s full onset.

This is not to say A Pilgrim’s Progress is utterly worthless. Quite the contrary. Bunyan must come in third place after the Bible and Shakespeare for gifting us with memorable phrases for describing the human condition. Ever felt stuck on the Slough of Despond? You were in Bunyan-land. If you have ever waxed poetic about sticking to a job that felt like hill-climbing (Barry Manilow did—I couldn’t resist), or if you have ever propounded the “hard right” over the “easy wrong,” you may have this widely quoted passage to thank:

This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not me offend.
For I perceive the way to life lies here.
Come, pluck up, heart; let’s neither faint nor fear.
Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe

Without all this earnest pabulum, and much more, by Bunyan, Thackeray would have lacked both a title and theme for his materpiece Vanity Fair. A Pilgrim’s Progress is a bad, bad book, but its deep cultural relevance makes it one that the thinking person can’t ignore.

After Mein Kampf, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead lead the bad-bad book category. (They are not just bad-bad books; they are bad, bad ones.) They achieve such despicability because, in them Rand succeeds so improbably in foisting off naked propaganda as real literature. The books still sell well, and people refer to them as novels. Apparently some of our notable politicians are excited by them, which should rouse suspicion.

who-was-ayn-randOrdinarily a novelist succeeds—and feels obligated to succeed—in putting at least a micron of ironic distance between herself and her message, but Rand apparently felt no such comptunctions. With her, it was real, existing capitalism all the way, and if you felt a limp-wristed need to make literary allowances for the potential imperfections of the market (a la, say, E.M. Forster), you might as well just cease your labors and wait for the Government to come and euthanize you. They plan to do it, and you asked for it anyway, just by paying taxes.

One might muster some symathy for Rand’s inability as a writer to evoke anything like a human feeling if she had only got behind a decent cause or found a less clod-hopping way to advocate for her idea of “objectivism.” As things stand, though, she can’t reasonably be forgiven for building her career on crafting ideological cover for vulgar narcisissism and praising free markets to high heaven while deliberately leaving out the Invisible Hand. Wealth is good in and of itself for Rand, with our without trickle-down. Her arch contempt for government seems like a fine way to say thank you to the only institution able to actuate and safeguard the generation of wealth—by printing money, enforcing contracts, protecting patents, and so forth—but I suppose her hands had been burned by the authoritarian overreach of “government” in her native USSR. In any case, Rand’s flaws have been done to death, even with charitable feeling. Better reviewers than I have dealt with them.

I feel like my contribution to the discussion of Rand lies in the qualms I feel about taking her works all the way to the wall. As bad as she is, I can’t quite go whole hog against her. First, I confess that my thoughts about Rand are offered in bad faith. Although I have read large portions of her books, I have never been able to finish them. (I have never finished Mein Kampf either.) They are so relentlessly bad, and they cause  such a desperate feeling of need to get on to better books, that I simply cannot take the time to read them all the way through. I have, however, viewed a fair sample of Rand’s writing, and I feel vindicated in relying on reviewers as accomplished as Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens to provide a better informed opinion. Aware of my mortal horizon, I mete out my reading time with extreme jealously; if I am persuaded I would find no reversals in Rand’s ideas by reading the full version of her books, I refuse to take time away from Pamuk, Kundera, Conrad and others to do so.

Still, a still, small voice reproaches me. As a general policy, I don’t make more than passing reference to a book in this blog if I haven’t read it in full. If I am to set up as a reviewer of Rand, then, and, even more, to brand her books as the worst of literature‘s worst, it would seem the decent gesture to stick to my principles and give her a full reading. Maybe someday.

Rand also deserves an iota of credit for putting her ideas in narrative form at all. Obviously she had an idea to sell, and the obvious thing might have been just to start from Hayek and expand his ideas into a “tract” about Objectivism. The only reason I am writing this review today, though, is because Rand beat the odds and attained a readership. Had she gone the path of real, professional philosophers, she would have stayed inside the ivory tower and joined permanent battle with her peers by trading blows in the form of unreadable articles and books. Does anyone actually try to “live by” Heidegger’s Being and Time? I didn’t think so. Instead Rand tried to make herself useful to the masses. I admire this trait in two of my favorite philosophers, William James and A.C. Grayling, and it would be stingy of me to withold praise for Rand for the same virtue.

Finally—and perhaps along the same lines—it must be said that Rand has achieved success in the form of staying power. Orwell himself identified longevity as a  potential mark of a book’s quality, whatever the critics say, in his essay on good bad books. If a hundred clever book reviewers take time to deplore a book in the wickedest, most delicious terms, but that book survives after the reviews have faded to the far reaches of the archive, guess who has the last laugh? Orwell would have hated Rand’s books and would have inveighed against them heroically, but he would have been the first to admit that Rand’s longevity, for better or worse, is an undebiable sign of her achievement, no matter what the chatterers say about it.

A final note about bad-bad books in general: they are not entirely bad. They should not be burned or banned. Far from it. Even the worst book imaginable can be useful, especially if it has readers. It is helpful to know what others think, and bad-bad books alert us to the worst thoughts afoot. Furthermore I think the best hope for curing people of bad-bad books is to let them read them. I might never have picked up the habit of reading good books had I not, one day in the 1970s, browsed a copy of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth and discovered the existence, and comforting attraction, of intellectual schlock. Although I did not know it at the time, my desire to read great books, the kind that Don Quixote thirsted for on his deathbed because they are a light to the soul, was possibly born in that moment, when a rebellion against bad, bad books started stirring within me. So I tell myself.



Why I Write

WHEN ORWELL ADDRESSED this question in a 1946 essay, his answer actually mattered. My meditation on it is merely a private amusement.  The puzzle of the writer’s project, though, remains the same, whether considered publicly or privately: the world spins around, virtually everyone gets by without forming a written record of it, and, in the end, isn’t writing just holding up a mirror to things everyone already sees and copes with? Really, why bother?

I have my own reasons for writing, which I will come to in a moment, but first it is worth recalling Orwell’s motives. He wrote, he says, for four main reasons: (1) for sheer selfish pleasure, from the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death . . . “; (2) for  the aesthetic pleasures of seeing the world clearly and representing it in a good, interesting style; (3) to record history; and (4) for a political purpose, “to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.“

portrait-of-erasmus-of-rotterdam-writing-1523.jpg!LargeI think anyone who blogs must be cheered by Orwell’s first reason. No matter how private and retiring a person may seem, he wants and seeks human affirmation. This observation on the human condition, by the way, is one of Hegel’s deepest: even with basic needs fulfilled, Hegel wrote in the Phenomenology of Spirit, people will still struggle to the death over one thing—others‘ recognition of their dignity. The construction of whole political systems and  the production of all culture is rooted in this germ, the desire “to be talked about“ in a certain way. Agamemnon sailed for Troy, not to take back Helen, but to be known as the man who did it.

Of course I have no keen hope for an audience at the moment. For now, I am happy idling in the private theater of my mind, scibbling down my thoughts and relating them to things I’ve read in books. I must admit, though, that I wish for a day when half a dozen readers will fulfill my desire to “seem clever,” as Orwell modestly put it. I would feel silly denying this.

When I was a child I put together plastic models of tanks and jeeps. I did my best to finish them realistically, some days spending six straight hours at it, cutting, sanding, gluing, painting details the size of pinheads. Later I took up woodcarving, mostly of figureens. That pursuit was similarly obsessive. I could chip and chisel away for hours at a time, several days in a row. These days I find that writing satisifies the same impulse, the desire to sit at a desk and labor over accurate if ultimately inconsequential representations of things. I take pleasure in the effort despite its apparent futility.

Obviously I would not write if I thought it were entirely meaningless. The gardener gardens even if all his pretty plants will die in the winter. I suppose my pleasure is a similar one. Gore Vidal was once asked how he most happily spent his time, and he replied that life was at its best when he was “forming sentences.” This from a man who soldiered in a famous, just war, romped in the halls of national power as a child, learned to fly planes, socialized constantly with A-list celebrities, owned a home on the Amalfi Coast, and ate and drank like a king his whole life. Writing a good sentence, though, was what he liked best. There’s a lesson in that.

It brings to mind an observation by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk on his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. “I write,“ he said, “because I love sitting in a room all day writing. . . . I write to be alone. . . . I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words.“ The solipsism of the writing experience appears to give no offence, as far as Pamuk is concerned, and in fact seems to be an essential part of its pleasure. The temptation of this happy loneliness, I am learning, seduces even a minimally talented writer. I find myself wanting to spend as many hours doing it as I did putting together models or carving wooden figures as a kid.

I also write because I am nearly incapable of small talk. Writing gives vent to the big stuff, which would come out in some other venue anyway. When Saul Bellow describes Leon Trotsky in The Adventures of Augie March, he has Trotsky exude a consciousness “of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms.” I find I am perpetually drawn to the same plane. Amusing myself in this grand manner, I realize, courts humiliation. I‘m more likley to come off as  a Wilkins Micawber than any of my heroes. But for better or worse, this is where I am naturally and comfortably engaged—searching for “the most important human words.”

I also feel that by writing I am helping build a society worth striving after, perhaps like the one Orwell wanted. I don’t mean that I am influencing minds, as he did. I mean that I am doing something intrinsically honorable and therefore good for the groups to which I belong. This sounds as immodest as it does purple, but I feel I can cash it out in humbler terms. Writing about literature somehow connects me to my best self, but it also reminds me I have duties to others that take precendence over my desire sit alone in a room and scratch out sentences.

In a beautiful, vaulting essay called “Political Ideals,” Bertrand Russell surveys the relationship between the cultivated self and the good society in these terms:

Political and social institutions are to be judged by the good or harm that they do individuals. Do they encourage creativeness rather than possessiveness? Do they embody a spirit of reverence between human beings? Do they preserve self-respect?

Despite the narrow egoism of the writing experience, I have never emerged from it with my sympathies hardened, my view of humanity narrowed, my creativity dulled, or my values cheapened. Indeed the hours I spend writing incline me sensibly toward the ideals Russell praises. One of the happiest discoveries of my middle age has been that the writing addiction, unlike its predecessors, seems to be good for me and possibly those around me.

Because the self is an essentially social thing—it learns from others, mirrors their traits, adapts to their wishes, stores images of their faces, and so forth– it is always changing according to the company one keeps. (It is also changing for other reasons, but this social aspect is the one that fascinates me.) We have no firm idea what the outcome of all the flux will be. I used to find this prospect a melancholy one, that individuals might lack a stable, enduring identity. Who are we, after all if not a determinate something? But over the years I have learned from literature to revere the indeterminacy wrought by the passage of time and others’ imprints on us. The Polish novelist Wittold Gombrowicz captures this consciousness wonderfully, and with appropriate irony:

I don’t know, truly, whether such things should pass my lips this day, but the stipulation—that an individual be well defined, immutable in his ideas, absolute in his pronouncmetns, unwavering in his ideology, firm in his tastes, responsible for his words and deeds, fixed once and for all in his ways—is flawed. . . . Our element is unending immaturity.

The most esoteric reason I write is to record the shifting locus of self as it takes  Gombrowicz‘s journey.

Finally, Like Orwell I also hope my writing will help preserve my legacy after my death. Though I lack a reading public, my children might read some of these words and find them interesting. Of course I hope for more than that. I hope they will read the books I read, and that their designs for a better world might take shape from the same ideas that held me in thrall. In Pamuk’s list of reasons for writing, he strikes this sacred note: “I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else.” My religion is the same one. Though I am not writing literature, but only the humblest, most laughable footnotes to it, I still write for exactly the same reason, because I believe in the novel and its power to illuminate life. How many children can say for sure that they know what their parents really believed in? Mine will.


In Praise of Grotius

THIS MORNING AS I was reading A.C. Grayling, who was studiously not getting to the point about the morality of carpet-bombing Germany during World War II, I made one of those delightful discoveries that reward even the casual study of history and philosophy.

Hugo Grotius

Discussing whether the Allied bombing was done for a just purpose (i.e. not to cause civilian suffering), Grayling goes on a multi-page excursus about the 17th century Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius. I had seen Grotius’s works referenced before but never really acquainted myself with him. That will change. Grotius, it turns out, is the intellectual father of international law. Because he wrote during the Thirty Years War, he had plenty of fodder for thinking about the rights and wrongs of combat.

One case of which Grotius was aware was the sacking of Magdeburg in 1631. In what we would today call a “clearing operation,” a Catholic army defeated Magdeburg’s Protestant defenders and proceeded to rape, pillage and plunder on a Homerian scale. They then burned the city to the ground, and its ashes wafted for miles around, a useful warning to other Protestants. Incensed by such monstrousness, Grotius spotlighted the fact that the combatants in the Thirty Years War committed the same atrocities as all the “barbarian” armies before them, despite their Christian morals. Once the dogs of war were loosed, Christians of both camps sank to the worst imaginable behavior. And it had always been so, not just in Magdeburg. So Grotius set about writing On the Law of War and Peace, a trilogy that would establish a framework of international law grounded in principles of common human decency. Today international law helps protect civilians around the world, albeit imperfectly.

The fact that Grotius had to reach back to non-Christian sources (the Stoics) to build his legal framework jolted me. The surprise was not that that Stoics surpassed the Church in the scope of their ethics–I was well aware of that–it was that Grotius, by shifting Christian Europe’s whole “discussion” of just war to a secular footing, became a major individual agent of change in European history. He singlehandedly helped Europe turn a corner toward the rule-of-law tradition it enjoys today.

He also did something for me.

Since 2001 I have occasionally comforted myself with two observations about the West’s essential differences from its Islamist adversaries: (1) the Christian West is older and therefore more politically mature than its adolescent cousin in the Islamic Middle East, and related to this, (2) in our realm, religion no longer contends for state power. No doubt religion seeps into our political culture, especially in America, but nowhere in the West does it mount–or even think it can mount–a campaign to rule a nation. Christianity has politely recused itself from public authority. Looking back to Grotius’s time or, say Torquemada Spain, this is a miraculously good development, and one that seems irreversable.

In Grotius I see a writer who helped bring this miraculous change about. It was not just the nameless, faceless tides of history that pulled us insensibly toward a better future; particular people did it, and Grotius was a giant among them. He was, and is, a hero of human decency.


New Atheism, Old Atheism, My Atheism

Biblical themes [in paintings] sell well. In this one, God hovers over Adam and Eve, kicking them out of the Garden of Eden. As they leave, in an aside to Eve, Adam imitates the expression on God’s face.

Jack Handey, “Ideas for Paintings”



WHEN THE JOURNALIST and critic Christopher Hitchens died in 2011 he was best known as a leader of the “New Atheism” movement, eloquently angry at the masses for still believing in God. It’s a pity. While I believe New Atheism has its merits, its stridency and willingness to pick fights with intellectual inferiors more or less took over Hitchens’ public persona in his last years. Because of this, I don’t think Hitchens will be remembered at his best, at least not before a  pause for reflection. Before his atheist barnstorming days Hitchens was better known as an essayist of generous, broad-ranging mind, ascerbic tongue, and possibly the greatest store of literary knowledge in the English-speaking world.

The “arc” of Hitchens‘ life, if you like, starts with his realization after university that the best and happiest precepts of his homeland, Great Britain, had been assumed “in receivership” by the United States sometime after World War Two. America, as a consequence, inherited a burden that had once been Britain’s–leading humanity’s struggle for ever greater liberty. So Hitch moved to Washington and made it his life’s mission to trace the lines of American receivership through comment and journalism. His Thomas Jefferson: Author of America and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man pay expansive tribute to the passing of freedom’s torch to the United States, and his collection of essays Love, Poverty and War includes a beautiful, extended love letter to America that evokes Whitman in its fellow feeling. Anyone who believes in the American project—that the People can call themselves sovereign and organize a government to advance their rights and freedoms—should place Hitchens’s essays on America alongside Thoreau’s and Emerson’s. They are that good.

My purpose here, though, is not to remember Hitchens at his best. It is to take up his last cause, New Atheism. To my knowledge Hitchens didn’t use the term, which only started to circulate after he and his confederates published their books, went on the debating circuit and acquired a minor fan base. If I sound less than enamored, I suppose I should admit it. The speed with which New Atheism became a You Tube phenomenon, a forum for fist-bumping appreciations of take downs and “hammer blows,” betrayed a movement too willing to desert its founders’ nobler motives. It turned tawdry before one’s eyes.

What I would like to do is recall the books on which the New Atheism movement is based and suggest the outline of a contrasting body of “old atheism” literature. Both genres have much to recommend them. The New Atheism books are much better and much more inspiring than their Internet moment would make them out to be, and the Old Atheism library features wonderful literature that either politely neglects God or depicts an interesting world that admits no signs of his supervision.


I suppose I should start by pointing out the personal. I realized I was an atheist when I was 33 years old. The erosion of my faith had been a gradual one, and by the time it left me entirely, determining the time of death was an idle cause. No single argument or episode had delivered the coupe de grace. I had experienced what Orwell called a “change of mental climate.”

Still, there were droughts and storms that marked the stages along the way. The critical one consisted in my diminishing ability to take myself morally seriously as an evangelical Christian. I was, on the one hand, supposed to wish the best for all my fellow creatures and treat them with constant benficence and forgiveness. An over-ambitious goal, I thought, but one I liked; I thought it best to aim high when it came to treating others well. On the other hand, I was supposed to not only countenance the existence of a hell but also rejoice in the eternal suffering of those who ended up there. Surprisingly enough, an evangelical learns this doctrine in a desultory kind of way: there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, yes, but not for us. It’s all for the Chinese, the blasphemers, the people caught red-handed in mortal sin, and so forth.

In the end, I was unable to reconcile my (genuinely felt) desire to avoid harming others with my doctrinal commitment to rejoice in such a setup. Christians, I am convinced, “live their faith” by ignoring almost all the doctrines on which it is based. This is actually a very good thing. It helps the world go round, without an excess of tears. I read an interview last year in which Bill Hybels, the leader of a highly successful megachurch (who I don’t think is a charlatan, in the ordinary sense), expressed guilt that he rarely preached the realities of hell but said the subject didn’t fit his church’s business model.

I suppose I had read too much Dostoevsky by my thirties to be able to play so fast and loose with my own faith. Anyone who sought heaven, it seemed to me, must long with equal passion for its complement—the whole package: the judgment, the sorting of the blessed from the damned, and, inevitably, the eternal torture of the billions. A Dostoevskan test occurred to me: if I were truly committed to this savagery—far, far more ghastly than the Holocaust because the interred are not allowed to die—I must desire it as its author does. I should be able to emulate God‘s relishing of a mortal’s agony. So I aksed myself; could I torture a human being for five minutes and enjoy it? Five minutes, an indefinably small part of eternity—and only one person—there will be billions in the Lake of Fire! This would be nothing. But of course I fell short of the Kingdom’s glories. I could not proceed to the second term of my thought experiment, feeling cheapened and violated even for entertaining the first part.

God did not quite disappear with a poof at this point, but there did ensue a cascading collapse of dogmas that had long kept my internal life abuzz with cognitive disonnance. Most of these are stock in trade for the apostate, but, like Augustine, I’m committing my confessions to posterity, so I soldier on and fill out the record.

First I admitted one of the shabbiest things about my faith, that it was far too concerned with sex. The Christianity I learned was one that sought above all else to force itself into the bedroom and pronounce judgment on any pleasures it found there. Obviously sex implies intimacies that need to be well managed, but the starting point for doing so is to acknowledge that the sexual experience is a natural one and (for good reason) a great joy. It is bound by no law that comes down from beyond the stars and little amenable to the opinions of aged celibates. Legislating sex is not just a means of imposing social control—usually to the asymmetric disadvantage of women—but it also occasions an unseemly and unecessary amount of guilt. Exhibit A: debased by relentless desire, I spent my sixteenth summer feverishly and repeatedly reading Psalms through Ecclesiastes, hoping that my sweaty, prayerful comiseration with David and Solomon–stalwarts constantly beguiled, tempted and overthrown by women–would somehow dispense with my own base enthusiasms. Alas, it didn’t work: I still wanted to get laid. Only years afterward was I able to rue my guilt as akin to blaming gravity for itself.

I also came to see the utter cultural contingency of religion. Almost all religious people inherit a faith determined by geography. Why did I not practice Islam, Hinduism or Russian Orthodoxy? Because I was from Missouri.  What kind of divine plan was this? Did I zero in on the right faith because I was appointed to? Was it fair that everyone else was wrong? Or were all faiths simply clapboarded together out of local myths and superstitions? Suddenly, the “discourse” of competing faiths looked more like the cacauphony of cheering sections at an international sporting match. All the fans were really saying was, “I’m from ______!”

It will be objected at this point that I rebelled against a highly particular version of theism. All I need do is change the offending details, and I wouldn’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water. Ah, the larger, more generous versions of faith! They beckon with wisdom, with magnanimity. But they are purchased at a high price, which I found I could not pay: unprincipled selectivity. Look as deeply into the matter as you wish, and you will find no firm criteria for determining what gets lopped off the older faiths and what stays; what gets designated as metaphorical and what remains literal and real. It is all done by cherrypicking. We have designer faith now.

The availability of such an accommodating range of religious commitment did not save the basic idea, for me. Are you a literalist zealot? To the right, please. Gauzy univeralist well-wisher? To the left. Undecided? Happy hunting! The subjectivity of this exercise raised a question I could no longer treat as merely rhetorical: If religion were so maleable—bending to instinct, commmon sense, or whatever else have you—why bother having it in the first place? Wittgenstein, in his short book Culture and Value said that, if he were to be religious, he would have to submerge himself in faith; it would have to command a change of his whole life. For the great majority of us who actually tried religion, though (Wittgenstein never did), it worked the other way around: faith gave way to life.

Under the circumstances, then, why not apply a great slashing swipe of Occam’s Razor and simply offload religious dogma, which is fated in any case to lose its contest with reality? Occam’s Razor thus applied, I found myself freed, for the first time in my life, of the need to align my principles with religion. Act one was to execrate, without fear of hell, the demented, bombastic palaver that had for so many years usurped reason and empathy as the proper pilots of my soul. I also cursed a great deal, until I felt I had made up for lost time.

And so I put away the things of childhood. By the time I approached the New Atheists I was firmly in their camp, reading them mainly for the pleasure of seeing my own ideas turned out in euphonious phrases and backed up by engaging arguments.

I am slightly out of step in recognizing five rather than four proponents of New Atheism. The movement’s early, definitive catalogue unfairly leaves out A.C. Grayling. Grayling is the movement’s only protagonist, in my view, who takes seriously the idea that atheists should help new apostates cope with their loss by indicating a robust, sympathetic alternative to theism. So I may be alone in doing so, but I refer to five rather than four Horsemen (a silly nickname, but one that has stuck).

For my purposes, the flagships of the New Atheism are Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great (2006), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006), Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (2005), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2007) and A.C. Grayling’s The God Argument (2014). What makes New Atheism new is its activism. It is high time, say the Horsemen, for passive disbelievers to upgrade to anti-theism, a doctrine that proclaims two things: (a) not only is there no God, but we should be happy there is none, and (b) atheists should take an active, offensive role in cultural discourse.

The actuating event for New Atheism can hardly be a secret. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 signalled the apalling level of cruelty religious fundamentalists could rise to and the correspondingly dreadful level of ignorance their faith required. Hitchens set the tone when he remarked that, whatever prayers might have been emanating from the second plane over Manhattan that morning, the highjackers were the most faithful of anyone on board.

So, while New Atheism would conduct a broad attack on belief in God, it was perhaps to be expected that the Horsemen would get their deepest digs into Mohammed’s version. Thus Grayling, on the murders that followed the “Mohammed cartoon affair”:

“Only consider: all forms of fundamentalism are noteable for the infantilising and blinding effect they have on their votaries. Think of the angry crowds of Muslims demonstrating over cartoons they find insulting. Murder is committed because of this, and mayhem long with it. Mass immaturity of this kind requires a pervasive culture of unthinking credulity to foster it.”

Harris, who devotes a whole chapter to “The Problem with Islam,” prefaces his analysis thus:

“By any measure of normativity we might wish to adopt (ethical, practical, epistemological, economic, etc.) there are good beliefs and there are bad ones—and it should now be obvious to everyone that Muslims have more than their fair share of the latter.”

Of course there are sane, peaceful Muslims with whom one can live, Harris allows, but they are the ones who have significantly watered down their faith. This dilution of belief is the only hope for civilizational harmony, in Harris’s estimation: “A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.”

Even Dennett, the logically meticulous philosopher who, alone among the Horsemen, occasionally plods rather than canters, quickens his pace when the target is Islam. Reflecting on Islam’s death penalty for apostasy, Dennett remarks, “Of the Abrahamic faiths, Islam stands alone in its inability to renounce this barbaric doctrine convincingly.” Like Harris, he detects a vague civilizational threat emanating from Islam: “Most Muslims, I would guess, are sincere in their insistence that the hadith injunction that apostates are to be killed is to be disregarded, but it’s disconcerting, to say the least, that fear of being regarded as an apostate is apparently a major motivation in the Islamic world.” Again, Muslims seem to be capable of moderation, but only by the uncomfortable method of ceasing to believe their literal doctrines.

Though the Horsemen don’t seem to have drawn up a coordinated battle plan (they all cover some of the same ground, on the “classic” arguments for God’s existence, for example), they each take particular tacks and excel in particular ways.

The_End_of_FaithHarris’s book is an argument for draining the swamp of religious faith. The will to commit religious violence, he argues, is a catastrophically bad thing. Terrorists will always find a spot on the globe wretched enough to provide a base of operations, and the worldwide proliferation of weapons means they will increasingly be able to inflict massive harm. Faith is the magic spell that unlocks their (human) costraint on harming others, so it is faith that must be critiqued, reduced and ultimately abolished. It is, for Harris, is the “motherlode of bad ideas.” The average person’s toleration of—or, more usually, admiration for—faith is the crux of the threat posed by extremism. Until we learn to deconstruct faith’s privileged place in our culture, we “enlightened” westerners dutifully keep the very sanctuary in which extremism thrives.

A highly capable phrase-turner, Harris is worth quoting at length on how belief gets a free pass:

“Two myths now keep faith beyond the fray of rational criticism, and they seem to foster religious extremism and religious moderation equally: (1) most of us believe that there are good things that people get from religious faith (e.g. strong communities, ethical behavior, spiritual experience) that cannot be had elsewhere; (2) many of us also believe that the terrible things that are sometimes done in the name of religion are the products not of faith per se but of our baser natures—forces like greed, hatred, and fear—for which religious beliefs are themselves the best (or even the only) remedy. Taken together, these myths seem to have granted us perfect immunity to outbreaks of reasonableness in our public discourse.”

Breaking_The_SpellDennett also views faith as having evolved highly successful defense mechanisms, but he seems to appreciate that some readers will not be able to leap over them to attack belief at its core, as Harris seems to wish. And so, of all the Horsemen, Dennett lays out the most patient, deliberate argument against theism. It is designed to walk the (sufficiently curious) theist, step by step, toward a rational undermining of the God hypothesis. Examined sociologically, Dennett claims, theism’s cultural  defense mechanisms— its taboos on rational inquiry and critique, the valorization of blind faith, the threat of divine surveilllance and punishment, etc.—more clearly indicate the falsity of the protected doctrines than their truth. This conclusion is not a knockout, but then neither is the probabilistic evidence that suports any empirical claim. Whether Dennett’s argument wins converts outright or not, it clearly advances the cause of humanism simply by attacking religion’s outer ring of taboos as evenhandedly as it does.

As an aside, Dennett adds an innocent-looking practical recommendation to his theoretical argument. I have witnessed its striking consequences firsthand. Rather than indoctrinating children in the truth of a single religion (i.e. their parents’), Dennett says, have them study a wide range of religions as cultural artifacts. My children have done just this, and to strapping effect. The German school system gives students (parents, actually) the choice between taking a weekly religious class in “their” faith—Catholic or Protestant—in which case they have the idols of their tribe paraded handsomely before them, or they can take a course in “ethics.” Ethics class includes a comparison of religions, in which the students learn of Hinduism’s castes and reincarnation, Judaism’s founding flirtation with the blood sacrifice of a child, Christianity‘s talking snakes, plunging swine, and bloody crucifixion, and so forth. You can imagine the outcome. Having a thumping great carnival of religion’s outrages on reason and decency presented as a course of academic study was, for my children, not only a kind of verboten fun, for betraying what cretinous dolts grownups could be, but it also had a wonderfully leveling effect on their view of faith. The demented looniness of, say, reincarnation, became transparently and equally evident in the doctrines of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and so forth. One of my kids, to her immense moral credit and to my great pride, expressed feeling sorry for religious people. They believed such contemptible nonsense.

God_is_not_greatIf Dennett conducts a sweeping Napoleonic assault on theism, cavalry to the center, reserves formed up behind them, Hitchens is wickedly and delightfully Maoist in his combats. His jabs from all sides show that being all over the place can be a highly effective strategy, at least for a maestro. Among other things, Hitchens critiques the evil things religion has done or sanctioned through the ages, its core metaphysical claims, its pretensions to moral authority, and its unusual dislike of pork. At his best when his teeth are set straight into a text, Hitchens draws impolite conclusions from Biblical scholarship airing the (long-evident) theory that the good book had human origins. The four-layered text of the Gospel story, Hitchens observes:

” . . . is, all of it, quite evidently a garbled and oral-based reconstruction undertaken some considerable time after the ‘fact.’ The scribes cannot even agree on the mythical elements: they disagree wildly about the Sermon on the Mount, the annointing of Jesus, the treachery of Judas, and Peter’s haunting ‘denial.’ Most astonishingly, they cannot converge on a common account of the crucifixion or resurrection. Thus, one interpretation that we simply have to discard is the one that claims divine warrant for all four of them.”

Although Hitchens does more than his bit to bring down theism, his ancilliary claim that religion poisons everything clearly reaches too far. I am not thinking of the good acts religion supposedly inspires or the consolation it offers the downtrodden. Both those “contributions” are questionable, for reasons Hitchens reviews thoroughly in the book. But one of religion’s cultural artifacts is undeniably good, and a sober Hitchens (or any good humanist) would have to admit it. In his 2011 The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama argues convincingly that Christianity gave us nothing less than the rule of law. In Medieval Europe, the clerical class was able to hold an abstract body of “sacred” law over the heads of kings, to which even they were accountable. Not just any legal code would do, though; it had to be perceived as existing prior to, and therefore independently of, the princes and kings; otherwise they might be seen as its self-serving authors. Christitanity provided both the law and the politically independent Heaven from which it rang forth. Cry death to religion if you like, but its idea of divine transcendence gave us this pillar of democracy.

God_delusionIn his own way, Dawkins also sees the attack on religion’s outer defensive walls as a crucial task. He sounds much like Harris and Dennett on the topic in this introductory remark:

“A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts—the non-religious included—is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.”

What mars religion for Dawkins is that its followers wish to have their cake and eat it too. Religious “truths” are so sacred as to deserve the widest berth of respect, but they also, repeatedly and manifestly, tread on the realm of science, where the price of admission is respect for rational disputation. An acclaimed biologist, Dawkins shines while painstakingly dismantling the main claims of “intelligent design” (I cannot give the term its now-standard capitalization), especially its superficially plausible appeals to the improbability of highly complex systems—an updated version of an argument known as Paley’s Watch. Acknowledging that science cannot yet disclose the initial conditions of the universe—which would reveal the dynamics of all physical processes—Dawkins argues that every step of scientific progress we have achieved has tended away from the animistic impulse to impute design and toward an impersonal understanding of nature. The original sin that tempts religion to do science consists in a false dichotomy at the base of the design argument. Beholding the world’s awesome complexity, the partisan of intelligent design concludes it can’t have been thrown together by chance, so God did it. Chance just couldn’t have done it. Dawkins responds:

“No, indeed, chance is not the likely designer. That is one thing on which we can all agree. The statistical improbaility of phenomena such as Euplectella’s skeleton is the central problem that any theory of life must solve. . . . But the candidate solutions to the riddle of improbability are not, as is falsely implied, design and chance. They are design and natural selection.”

The third chapter of The God Delusion gives a master class in natural selection as an evidence-based, superior alternative to the non-sequitur of God-as-designer. Readers who take to it will find hours of pleasure in Dawkins’ 1997 Climbing Mount Improbable, an extended refutation of the problem of irreducible complexity.

the-god-argumentOf all the Horsemen, Grayling’s voice is the gentlest, but his arguments still cut deep. He opens The God Argument on this melodiously sympathetic note:

“There are people of sincere piety for whom the religious life is a source of deep and powerful meaning. For them and for others, a spiritual response to the beauty of the world, the vastness of the universe, and the love that can bind one human heart to another, feels as natural and necessary as beathing.”

But Grayling comes to much the same radically anti-theistic position as Harris: “ordinary” or “moderate” faith, as positive a thing as it might be for given individuals, is nonetheless an instance of blind ideological subservience and therefore an unmitigated social ill. “So the argument cannot be,” Grayling concludes, “that the world needs to rid itself of ‘bad religion’ in order to promote ‘good religion’ in its stead.“ Actually, all five Horsemen end up here, which would seem to suggest that either they all devised the same calumny against religion, or they are on to something. My money is on the latter.

It also means they are all radicals. Grayling shows his cards plainly. He does not just seek to trim back religion’s worrisome excesses, but to etxtirpate them, as literally as they can be. Don’t bother trying to work out a religion’s internal consistency as an indicator of its truth, he enjoins—we’ve already done that for well over a thousand years—but consider each religion sub specie aeternitatis:

“Often, religious apologists claim that critics of religion are ignorant of the finer points of theology and doctrine, accusing them of failing to read theology in formulating objections; but they thereby entirely miss the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises.” He expands: “Physical trees can be cut down branch by branch for practical reasons, but conceptual trees have to be cut down at the root.”

Grayling’s arguments against theism are more concise than his fellows’ but at least as effective. Where he really excels is in his articulation, in the second half of The God Argument, of a humanistic framework for morality. A topic the other Horsmen more or less glide over, Grayling turns the discussion of morality into a positive argument for dropping theism. The Bible, to take just one holy book, is nearly bereft of moral “laws” that are not trivial, cruel, wrongheaded or unintelligible. For Grayling, we can take a quantum leap toward better morals by starting from a humanistic perspective “based on our most generous and sympathetic understanding of human nature and the human condition.” Which thinking, decent person would not want a morality whose scope extends beyond the Iron Age to address such issue as human rights, environmentalism and animal cruelty? Who would not wish for a system informed by the science of at least the 17th century, to say nothing of the 21st? To return to a personal point, today’s evolutionary psychology makes a well-deserved mockery of “Saint” Paul’s ridiculous injunction to simply avoid sex. We can do much, much better. But we must leave behind the primitive notion of divine command if we are to find our better selves.

Despite my philosophical loyalty to the New Atheists, my heart belongs to an earlier time and a constellation of authors who simply leave God out of the discussion. Their depiction of a moral universe that derives its beauty and drama from human inputs alone, for me, amounts to a benign neglect of theism. It seems the grownup attitude to take.

George Eliot’s Middlemarch, often discussed as the greatest novel in the English language, evokes most of its pathos from Dorothea’s lonely but upright struggle to answer competing demands on her human kindness. Not once does she lift up her eyes to the hills in expectation of divine help, nor does she cry out in prayer. Both her loves are true, for the arid Causebon and the ardent Ladislaw, but her soul is only fulfilled by the latter, when he finds his stride as a journalist cheering the (very worldly) fight for greater workers’ rights. Causebon, with his dismal Etruscan fish deities and long hours at study, had climbed so high on the mountain of faith, he chased away the last vapors of its meaning. Dorothea bore patient, dignified witness to his gravity, even when it failed to disclose the divine. Eliot did not require Dorothea to explicitly reject God; she simply designed her moral code without the help of the God hypothesis.

E.M. Forster wrote his sunniest story, Room With a View, in the same key. Although Lucy Honeychurch is not Dorothea, she is an intellectually restless young woman who finds that her ethical map of the world has been overlaid onto a choice between two men, one holy, one humane. And of course, she chooses George, the underdog and humanist, defined by his joie de vivre. We know George will win Lucy’s hand when we find him restlessly unable to admire the dark interior of a Medieval churchr while the Tuscan sun beckons outside.

Joseph Conrad leaves God out much more explicitly. Lord Jim has its protagonist go almost literally to the ends of the Earth to reclaim his lost soul (a sea captain, he abandoned ship in a storm and left the passengers to die, which they did not), but there are no gods in the far Pacific to redeem him. It is only service to a fellow wretch that brings Jim within sight of salvation.

Typhoon can almost be called a raging affirmation of man’s alienation from the divine. A useful literary experiment in going too far, Conrad says things in wrath that one regrets and takes back somewhat in the calm afterward. The novel’s message, to anyone who needs to take extraordinary courage, is deservedly famous: “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the only way to get through.” Conrad‘s protagonist, Captain McWhirr, dwells so deep in the viscera of human fortitude, though, he shuns all external counsel, even the wisdom accumulated in books.  As McWhirr’s first mate, Jukes, shies at a falling barometer, McWhirr asserts that they’ll recconnoitre the approaching storm by making straight for the one spot the climatology charts say they should not go: the storm’s theoretical center. “How can you tell what a gale is made of till you get it?” he poses. The tack toward the storm “is only to let you see, Mr. Jukes, that you don’t find everything in books. All these rules for dodging breezes and circumventing the winds of heaven seem to me the maddest thing.” This is Conrad in his deepest element, on the far shores of human isolation, bereft of God, bereft of recorded wisdom. We either get through alone, or we follow someone else’s idols to wreck and ruin.

For Robert Graves, belief in God is just one of the ideological swindles he publicly disowns in Goodbye to All That, his memoir of trench warfare in World War One. He is touchingly English in his farewell to the deity, which can only be described as indirect: “I went on leave in April 1916,” he recalls, “That Good Friday was the last occasion on which I would ever attend a church service.” Small wonder. As England’s blimps quietly realized the war that was enriching them might usefully be drawn out, and as the common people diverted their minds from gore and death with abstract patriotic myths, Graves was in France, doding gas and reasoning in this manner about combat:

“I went on patrol fairly often, finding that the only thing respected in young officers was personal courage. Besides, I had cannily worked it out like this. My best way of lasting through to the end of the War would be to get wounded. The best time to get wounded would be at night and in the open, with rifle fire more or less unaimed and my whole body exposed. [Men in trenches were usually shot in the head.] Best, also, to get wounded when there was no rush on the dressing-station services, and while the back areas were not being heavily shelled. . . . One could usually manage to crawl into a shell hole until help arrived.”

Could a God have designed a world in which men were made to reason like this, that their suppliers back home might grow rich and fat? Like Hemingway, Graves simply could not square his war experience with the home front’s pantomime of religious faith and the part so blandly played by the hymns and amens in propping the whole crime up. By the turn of the century, Englishmen were barely even mouthing the words to the Church of England liturgy anymore, but their mute vote for God would help sustain the myth that dying in war for England’s glory was a high, sacred thing. The generation that returned from the trenches would kill off the last vestiges of this pious monstrousness. Not one soldier in a hundred, Graves reflected, had any religious faith.

As “old atheists” go, Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor and author of several Holocaust memoirs, is almost too quiet on the God question to bear. Flatly, somewhere in the middle of The Drowned and the Saved, he makes the one-sentence declaration that he entered Auschwitz an unbeliever and came out the same. One is reluctant to tread on his laconic formulation by analyzing it. But it is remarkable that, even ravaged by the worst evil in history, he recuses himself from discussing the possibility of a deity who might deliver justice. Levi simply passes over the God question with the same icy disregard as Henry James.

Speaking of James, I must confess to being less in tune with any  old atheist tendencies in American literature, something to catch up on, I suppose. Henry almost certainly would have had interesting quarrels, if he bothered, with his more credulous brother William, author of “The Will to Believe” and The Varieties of Religious Experience. Melville’s Moby Dick has been said to be about both God and his absence: I am not qualified to weigh in. I doubt The Red Badge of Courage can include devotionals to a beneficent God, but that theme will have to wait as well. If one seeks plainspoken atheism in American literature, though, it cannot be missed in Mark Twain. His posthumously published Letters from the Earth anticipates many of the same arguments the Five Horsemen will advance, loudly and indelicately.

Letters is a kind of sustained caterwaul against the miserable vacuity of Christianity’s more offensive dogmas. Twain’s voice is not pleasant—it rasps and caws—but then neither was Bob Dylan’s voice pleasant when he used the electricity of Highway 61 Revisited to indict the whole “establishment.” Like Dylan, the electrified Twain was deploring his peers for holding on to offensively obsolete myths. Twain‘s message, as usual, is in his style, which cannot be justly summarized. Here, he goes on a characteristic tear about what philosophers call “the problem of natural evil.” It can only be reviewed at full length:

“The human being is a machine. An automatic machine. It is composed of thousands of complex and delicate mechanisms, which perform their functions harmoniously and perfectly, in accordance with laws devised for their governance, and over which the man himself has no authority, no mastership, no control. For each one of these thousands of mechanisms the Creator has planned an enemy, whose office is to harass it, pester it, persecute it, damage it, afflict it with pains, and miseries, and ultimate destruction.

Not one has been overlooked. From cradle to grave these enemies are always at work; they know no rest, night or day. They are an army: an organized army; a besieging army; an assaulting army; an army that is alert, watchful, eager, merciless; an army that never relents, never grants a truce.

It moves by squad, by company, by battalion, by regiment, by brigade, by division, by army corps; upon occasion it masses its parts and moves upon mankind with its whole strength. It is the Creator’s Grand Army, and he is the Commander-in-Chief. Along its battlefront its grisly banners wave their legends in the face of the sun: Disaster, Disease, and the rest.

Disease! That is the main force, the diligent force, the devastating force! It attacks the infant the moment it is born; it furnishes it one malady after another: croup, measles, mumps, bowel troubles, teething pains, scarlet fever, and other childhood specialties. It chases the child into youth and furnishes it some specialties for that time of life. It chases the youth into maturity, maturity into age, age into the grave.

With these facts before you will you now try to guess man’s chiefest pet name for this ferocious Commander-in-Chief? I will save you the trouble — but you must not laugh. It is Our Father in Heaven! It is curious — the way the human mind works. The Christian begins with this straight proposition, this definite proposition, this inflexible and uncompromising proposition: God is allknowing, and all-powerful. This being the case, nothing can happen without his knowing beforehand that it is going to happen; nothing happens without his permission; nothing can happen that he chooses to prevent.

That is definite enough, isn’t it? It makes the Creator distinctly responsible for everything that happens, doesn’t it? The Christian concedes it in that italicized sentence. Concedes it with feeling, with enthusiasm.

Then, having thus made the Creator responsible for all those pains and diseases and miseries above enumerated, and which he could have prevented, the gifted Christian blandly calls him Our Father! It is as I tell you. He equips the Creator with every trait that goes to the making of a fiend, and then arrives at the conclusion that a fiend and a father are the same thing! Yet he would deny that a malevolent lunatic and a Sunday school superintendent are essentially the same.”

Some intelligent design!, Dawkins might say. But surely there is rest, redemption after life’s travails? The Christianity Twain mouthed as a young man preached exactly this—that in heaven’s mansions each worthy soul would be laved in tender mercies and endless delights. But of course, Twain dissolves this idol in acid too. The Good Book describes a heaven that is, well, problematic on the point of its pleasures. Again, I find I cannot cut Twain short. His narrator, Satan, is gossiping with his brother angels:

“For there is nothing about man that is not strange to an immortal. He looks at nothing as we look at it, his sense of proportion is quite different from ours, and his sense of values is so widely divergent from ours, . . . .

For instance, take this sample: he has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race — and of ours — sexual intercourse! It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!

His heaven is like himself: strange, interesting, astonishing, grotesque. I give you my word, it has not a single feature in it that he actually values. It consists — utterly and entirely — of diversions which he cares next to nothing about, here in the earth, yet is quite sure he will like them in heaven. Isn’t it curious? Isn’t it interesting? You must not think I am exaggerating, for it is not so. I will give you details. . . .

Meantime, every person is playing on a harp — those millions and millions! — whereas not more than twenty in the thousand of them could play an instrument in the earth, or ever wanted to.

Consider the deafening hurricane of sound — millions and millions of voices screaming at once and millions and millions of harps gritting their teeth at the same time! I ask you: is it hideous, is it odious, is it horrible?

Consider further: it is a praise service; a service of compliment, of flattery, of adulation! Do you ask who it is that is willing to endure this strange compliment, this insane compliment; and who not only endures it, but likes it, enjoys it, requires if, commands it? Hold your breath!

It is God! This race’s god, I mean. He sits on his throne, attended by his four and twenty elders and some other dignitaries pertaining to his court, and looks out over his miles and miles of tempestuous worshipers, and smiles, and purrs, and nods his satisfaction northward, eastward, southward; as quaint and nave a spectacle as has yet been imagined in this universe, I take it.

It is easy to see that the inventor of the heavens did not originate the idea, but copied it from the show-ceremonies of some sorry little sovereign State up in the back settlements of the Orient somewhere.

All sane people hate noise; yet they have tranquilly accepted this kind of heaven — without thinking, without reflection, without examination — and they actually want to go to it! Profoundly devout old gray-headed men put in a large part of their time dreaming of the happy day when they will lay down the cares of this life and enter into the joys of that place. Yet you can see how unreal it is to them, and how little it takes a grip upon them as being fact, for they make no practical preparation for the great change: you never see one of them with a harp, you never hear one of them sing.

As you have seen, that singular show is a service of praise: praise by hymn, praise by prostration. It takes the place of “church.” Now then, in the earth these people cannot stand much church — an hour and a quarter is the limit, and they draw the line at once a week. That is to say, Sunday. One day in seven; and even then they do not look forward to it with longing. And so — consider what their heaven provides for them: “church” that lasts forever, and a Sabbath that has no end! They quickly weary of this brief hebdomadal Sabbath here, yet they long for that eternal one; they dream of it, they talk about it, they think they think they are going to enjoy it — with all their simple hearts they think they think they are going to be happy in it!”

There are probably millions of Americans, if they even care about books at all, who are quite happy with the fact that this book of Twain’s remains obscure. I recall starting to read it as a teenager and quickly putting it down out of fear of hell fire. It’s been a long trip since then.

Despite going on at such length about disbelief, I don’t wear my atheism on my sleeve, certainly not to the satisfaction of the New Atheists. It may be a dreary fact or a cheerful one, but there are simply too many differently-minded people to get along with, and I don’t wish to lose the habit of doing so. My own private atheism, if you like, is simply one in which I laugh at Jack Handey’s idea for painting a new Eden with its God defamed. And I do it without fear I am being watched.


A Thought on Prince

594PRINCE COMPLETELY ECLIPSED everyone who tried to do the things he did. He even traveled back in time to outdo his forebears. (These feats may have been enabled by the fact that he was a god, a point I will come to in a moment.) To get straight to his eminence, though, Prince out-funked Sly Stone. He out-strutted Mick Jagger. He out-freaked Rick James, and he may have out-worked James Brown, perhaps one of the reasons we are mourning him so soon. In addition to his flash, Prince also wrote deeply affecting poetic songs about love, regret, and longing. I, for one, am inclined to believe Sinead O’Connor was telling the truth when she said the tear she cried at the end of the video for “Nothing Compares 2 U” was real.
28princeguitar-master768I am not qualified to comment on all of Prince’s talents, but I feel I can pay proper homage to him at the altar of guitar playing. Anyone who has ever tried to play a guitar must watch and listen to his inhuman performance at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when he joined Tom Petty and some other classic rockers for a rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” A tuneful but mopey song in its original version, “My Guitar” utterly transforms when Prince joins the band after the third chorus and erupts into a three-minute long guitar solo that achieves exit velocity sometime around minute one and then proceeds to changes guitar history. At the end of it, the only thing a mortal guitarist can do is stand at the edge of the blast radius of What Just Happened, vacant, unmanned and stupefied, wondering if anyone will ever dare pick up a guitar again. In that moment one could credibly fear that Prometheus stole more than fire from the gods, that he took their terrible divinity itself, that it might loose itself on the world from time to time. Indeed Socrates thought the divine lightof the gods sometimes shown forth from mortals. You may have another explanation for Prince’s perfection that day, but I will never believe it.