The Undergraduate History of Christianity…
In a brilliant essay, the late Joseph Sobran wonders why Christians, who have been incessantly “belabored” about the sins of organized religion, “have been so slow to turn the argument around and point to the record of what we may call ‘organized irreligion’ “.
It’s not as though atheism is sine macula. According to the highest estimates, the Inquisition claimed fewer than two thousand lives, and those over several centuries. In seventy years, by comparison, the guardians of Soviet atheist orthodoxy liquidated a hundred million of their own citizens for ideological impurity or belonging to a proscribed economic class.
Just or unjust, as Sobran notes, the Inquisition passed sentence against individuals for personal crimes, not membership in a group. Its authority was to that extent confined to the Christian-theological sphere, as opposed to caste, level of education, ancestry, ownership of property, private entrepreneurship, domestic arrangements, friends and associates, opinions about politics, and virtually everything else.
Given that all the drowned witches and burnt heretics in history have not yet come up to the foothills of the mountain of corpses heaped up by the post-religious Marxist State, one would think that the apostles of the atheist utopia and abominators of religion would have the decency to shut up. But as Sobran suggests, the narration of Christendom’s crimes against humanity has been for some time now a major cultural industry, especially in the media and the academy.
As a teacher in the university, I have been personally “belabored” on occasions beyond number by students retailing what I have come to call “the undergraduate history of Christianity”. It usually begins with the Evangelists’ defamation of the Jews (“endemic Christian anti-Semitism”), continues with the hierarchy’s suppression of doctrinal dissent and establishment of an “arbitrary” canon (“Christian theology as the instrumentality of political power”); moves on to the exclusion of women from the priesthood (“patriarchal misogyny”); next, we hear of forced conversions and baptisms; then the Crusades (“religious intolerance”); followed by the Inquisition; followed by Galileo’s heresy trial; followed by the Salem witch hunts (more misogny, as well as all of the above); followed by papal collusion with the Nazis (the Church’s congenital anti-Semitism, again); concluding with the sex-abuse scandal (“pedophilia”, but unrelated to homosexuality).
These, and only these, junctures in Christian history – for they know of no others – are recited by students with the alacrity of an incantational formula. When the undergraduate history of Christianity is repeated by writers of popular fiction such as Dan Brown and James Cameron – one is tempted to include Dawkins and Hitchens in this category –, one knows that one is in the presence of a contemporary culture-myth.
As others of their critics have observed, in enjoining its civilizational advantages, Dawkins and Hitchens never get beyond atheism as a Platonic concept, against which the inevitably mixed historical record of religion can hardly measure up. They make the same argument about atheism as that which Marxists have always made about socialism: like “true socialism”, atheism has apparently never been tried. Yet, even leaving aside the officially atheist Marxist State, the entire post-Enlightenment epoch has been a protracted experiment in organized irreligion.
Its record is not obviously more benignant than that of pre-modern theism. During those two centuries, more people died of unnatural causes than in the entire history of man’s inhumanity to man before them. I have already mentioned that the most murderous wars in history have been fought since the Enlightenment, and over anything but religious differences. As for the Church’s putative tyrannizing over private lives, her authority was always trifling by comparison to the tentacular grip and reach of the modern post-religious Welfare State. With their pitiful tithes, Byzantine Emperors and Patriarchs could only dream of the divine right of modern tax collectors to help themselves to more than fifty percent of a man’s labour. And at least the Inquisition’s thought police confined themselves to matters of theological doctrine, as opposed to our own human rights constabularies, who can arraign citizens for the crime of “offending” the orthodoxy of any interest group that demands immunity from criticism.
It is the oddly naive faith that (like “never-tried” socialism), “never-tried” atheism, once implemented, will usher in a world without end of tolerance and justice, that demands the absurd disavowal by Dawkins and Hitchens of any connection between atheism and the post-Enlightenment secular order, including Communism. Hitchens, for instance, dilates upon the rites and dogmas associated with the Communist cult of personality, and concludes that Communism was in fact just another religion(!) (Thus, even the atrocities of an officially atheist ideology can be imputed to a credulous belief in God.)
Hitchens’ argument is typical of the tortured logic of the anti-religious polemic, but in a way – one that Hitchens doesn’t understand, of course –, it’s rather compelling. Communism really was a religion (as Solzhenitsyn noted long ago), and atheism really is untried (and will continue to remain so.)
As Jung demonstrated over a lifetime of scholarship, the religious function of the psyche is a perennial and inalienable human endowment; what everything depends upon is its being authentically and salubriously engaged. Psychic energies that are not invested in the the linking back (i.e., religio) of the conscious ego with an immanent metaphysical order go dangerously underground, until they erupt into individual or collective neurosis. When they do, they propel into the empyreum everything from trivial earthly personalities to tawdry political ideologies. With the attrition of authentic religious forms, such as Christianity, the alternative isn’t atheism, but some ersatz theism – Marxism, Darwinism, or environmentalism –, with their ersatz saints and saviours – Mao, Kim, or Al Gore. Deracinated from the archetypes of an otherworldly heaven and hell, the post-religious consciousness attempts to create heaven on earth, and ends up, inevitably, reifying in the here and now the hell in which it no longer believes. How many more millions of lives would have been snuffed out in the cause of establishing the earthly paradise had it not been for the insistence by religions such as Christianity that the Kingdom of God is not of this world?
If the twentieth century was an experiment in post-religious political organization, it evidently failed. What that failure argues for is hardly the redemption from religion that Dawkins and Hitchens exhort and promise, but its opposite: a long-overdue liberation from the atheist delusion, with its deadly utopian fantasy of creating heaven on earth.