Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
July 1982 Issue [Article]

The Lord and the Intellectuals

They're too smart to believe in God, but they all believe in religion

Since the Enlightenment, a healthy contempt for religion and those who promote it has been widespread among those who cherish the powers of reason. But lately, in what is proclaimed as a secular age, atheism and anticlericalism have fallen very much out of fashion. Even—one might say especially—among those with no time for religion in their own personal lives there is a new respect for the prevailing religious superstitions. Intellectuals have lost the courage of their nonbelief.

Confirmed Marxists plead the case of the rebels in El Salvador by quoting nuns and archbishops. Secular Jews make alliances with anti-Semitic evangelists who think that God gave religious and other Jews a textual break on the West Bank. Conservatives who haven’t been to church or synagogue for years invoke the importance of “religious values.” Gibbon said of the many religions in the declining Roman Empire that they “were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful.” Today’s policy intellectuals, or philosopher-magistrates, hold the last two views simultaneously.

Flannery O’Connor once devised a character called Mrs. Shortley, who was bucolic and superstitious but nobody’s fool:

She had never given much thought to the devil for she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it. For people like herself, for people of gumption, it was a social occasion providing the opportunity to sing; but if she had ever given it much thought, she would have considered the devil the head of it and God the hanger-on.

Mrs. Shortley’s views on religion are pretty much shared by the urbane Mr. George Will. In his most recent collection of columns (The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions), Will quotes from Chekhov’s description of a character: “He was a rationalist, but he had to confess that he liked the ringing of church bells.” Will adds, “Me too.” But, as demonstrated in other columns in the same collection, Will also approves of churchgoing and true belief as valuable constraints on minds less rationalist than his own.

Mr. William Barrett, philosopher of this parish and former editor of Partisan Review, falls into the church-bell temptation in his recent memoir, The Truants. Mr. Barrett was an intimate of Delmore Schwartz, Mary McCarthy, Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv—that lot. He was on easy terms with secular liberalism, and in The Truants describes how a combination of Jewishness and skepticism kept the team at arm’s length from American religiosity. Yet here he is on Lionel Trilling’s obsequies, which took place in St. Paul’s chapel at Columbia University, with a rabbi and a minister officiating:

Yet I remember being faintly troubled at the time; and as I reflect on those last rites I find myself more and more troubled by the perplexing questions they beget. Was the service religious or not? In some sense it was not completely secular—there was the chapel and there were the psalms. Suppose there had been a completely secular service. Imagine it taking place in one of those funeral parlors—they often dignify themselves by the name of chapels—farther down on Broadway. . . . Even the imagination of such a service seems shocking and inappropriate for a man like Trilling. It was fitting that there should be a chapel and those psalms. . . . Hence the psalms.

Horror at the aesthetic defects of a secular departure soon drives Barrett to question his very nonbelief. In a passage that the great rationalist Trilling would have found extraordinary, he poses “the nagging question” raised by his preference for psalms:

Suppose we, as moderns, still feel the aesthetic need for this archaic language at such times. How many generations before its use as an aesthetic adornment for a funeral service begins to lose its force, and becomes a routine gesture? . . . And if that archaic language does become at last routine, what would be required for its renewal?

Of such are calls for religious “renewal” born. Anything but burial “farther down on Broadway.”

A final temptation to religious posturing among the formerly enlightened is the sheer utility of pretended piety as a rhetorical weapon. A recent example is Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, which contains a detailed rebuttal of “the suggestion, made by some Christian fundamentalists, that the nuclear holocaust we threaten to unleash is the Armageddon threatened by God in the Bible.” Schell insists “it is not God, picking and choosing among the things of His creation, who threatens us, but we ourselves.” How does Schell know this? If he believes in God (which internal evidence does not suggest despite the devotional uppercase Hs and Gs), why is he allowed to interpret His plan? And, if he does not believe in God, why mention Him at all in this connection? The Christian fundamentalist view of Doomsday may be unpolished, but it is unfalsifiable, just like the opposing view that God does not want our extinction. It is not for humanists to say which of these positions is “blasphemous” (Schell’s word).

This kind of selective indulgence shown toward religion has some ironic and some farcical consequences. The attitude of conservatives toward belief has always been a fairly cynical one; it reinforces tradition and continuity and (in some fortunate epochs) actual obedience. Among liberals and radicals, therefore, there has traditionally been a suspicion of political clergy and a feeling that the priests should stick to minding their flocks. Hasn’t there? Well, it depends. When Ngo Dinh Diem took a well-timed vacation from the exercise of despotism in his native (South) Vietnam, his hosts in the United States were the Maryknoll Order. At that time there was much liberal fulmination about Francis Cardinal Spellman and his “meddling,” for all the world as if the Church had no business interfering in politics. Now today, when the Maryknoll Order has its martyrs in El Salvador and is quick off the mark with a burst of “liberation theology” (an audacious oxymoron), all manner of moon-faced liberals can be found to argue for the healing and creative role of Catholicism. (And for the sake of symmetry, Tom Bethell of the American Enterprise Institute denounced the raped and butchered Maryknoll sisters as “bull-dyke socialists.”)

Piety on the left is a terrible thing to behold. A recent issue of the Washington Monthly was consecrated to articles about the right place of religion in American life. Ms. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend called, in a striking contribution, for “A Rebirth of Virtue.” She did not dwell on any religious belief of her own, though the reasoning was clearly of Roman provenance. All she thought was that it would be good if other people got religion. In a reference to her late father she made the following point:

In 1968, for instance, my father was able to earn the trust of black and white women and men largely because it was clear that he believed in them and in their values. His religious conviction made him acceptable to many people who after his death could vote only for George Wallace.

Yes. Religion helped Bobby Kennedy win votes. The trouble is that George Wallace was also forever using his flock. He also liked to give the impression that he “believed in them and in their values.” If Ms. Kennedy Townsend gets the religious revival that she seeks, how is she going to confine its validity to what she calls “liberals”?

Once allow that “religious convictions” are admirable in themselves, and where is the limit? It’s not denied that the Reverend Jim Jones gave some purpose and meaning to the (abbreviated) lives of his unhappy followers. All agree that the Black Muslims rescue junkies and dropouts. Shiite Islam has cheered the lives of people in downtown Teheran. Presumably—and reportedly—Satanism creates a kind of bond and obligation among its adherents (people who otherwise “could vote only for George Wallace”?). Once aboard the religion train, you have no reason to alight at any particular stop.

The ultimate example of a nonbeliever using appeals of a pseudo-religious kind, to charm those who think that such appeals make the speaker more impressive rather than less, occurred in Vienna in June 1979. The salt deal was being signed, and in one of his speeches urging acceptance Leonid Brezhnev said to Jimmy Carter: “God will not forgive us if we fail.” This unlikely exhortation was later “clarified” by Soviet spokesmen. After Brezhnev’s flack, Zamyatin, had failed to strike the remark from the official record, another spokesman said, perhaps more revealingly than he knew: “It was simply because he [Brezhnev] wanted to express his commitment to salt in terms that Carter would understand and identify with.”

Precisely. If a guy believes he has been born again, it’s reasonable to assume that he will believe anything. At any rate, it’s worth a try.

Carter fell because, among other reasons, he was seen as a gullible and feebleminded person. Gullibility and credulity are considered undesirable qualities in every department of human life—except religion. Like William Barrett, who is a “modern” until he reaches the cemetery gates, many people will deride a man’s tendency to wishful thinking until they reach the “private matter” of his religion. Yet why should we consider the inculcation of credulity into children and adults to be desirable if performed by ministers of a (recognized) church? Why are we praised by godly men for surrendering our “godly gift” of reason when we cross their mental thresholds?

Sometimes, among people of advanced views, a distinction is made between religious belief, held to be desirable, and “organized religion,” held in traditional contempt. You would think such people had invented religious belief themselves. But the desire for such a distinction is natural and understandable. Pope Innocent III told Simon de Montfort to massacre all the heretics in cities held by the Albigensians. When asked how the heretics could be distinguished from the faithful (in order that they might be burned and broken in a fair-minded way), the Pope replied, “Kill them all. God will know his own.” Whether the liberated Catholics of today, and non-Catholic admirers of the present Pope, like it or not, there would have been no papacy without that directive.

Many of the radical clergy of our own time seem almost haggard in their effort to prove, by their own shiningly political example, that Marx was being unfair in dismissing religion as the opium of the people. Pity for them that their understanding of Marx is as muddled as their understanding of the Bible. What he said was this:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The demand to give up the illusions about its conditions is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that men will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that they will break the chain and cull the living flower. (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

What is being argued in this passage is not that religious enthusiasts and prophets are dope peddlers. That is the universal vulgarization of Marx’s opinion. What Marx meant is that there is a chord of credulity waiting to be struck in all of us. It is most likely to be struck successfully if the stroke comes concealed as an argument for moral and humane behavior.

But if you believe in religion as a reinforcement for other people’s morality, then why not Mormonism? Or snake-handling? Or Mithras or Dagon or Zeus, or any of the thousands of defunct deities added up by H. L. Mencken? True believers always balk at this point, murmuring feebly on occasion that one has to believe in something. Satanism does very well by this argument. The ontological proof of Satan’s existence is just as good as that of God’s, and the reasons for propitiating him are, on one analysis, slightly more compelling.

So atheism strikes me as morally superior, as well as intellectually superior, to religion. Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong. Does this leave us shorn of hope? Not a bit of it. Atheism, and the related conviction that we have just one life to live, is the only sure way to regard all our fellow creatures as brothers and sisters. The alleged “fatherhood” of God does not, as liberation theology has it, make this axiomatic. All it has meant, throughout history, is a foul squabble for primacy in Daddy’s affections. In just the same way that any democracy is better than any dictatorship, so even the compromise of agnosticism is better than faith. It minimizes the totalitarian temptation, the witless worship of the absolute and the surrender of reason, that may have led some to saintliness but can hardly repay for the harm it bas done.

We need a general “deprogramming,” of the sort that even our churches endorse when the blank-eyed victim is worshiping the Reverend Moon. The desire to worship and obey is the problem—the object of adoration is a secondary issue. Professedly godless men have shown themselves capable of great crimes. But they have not invented any that they did not learn from the religious, and so they find themselves heaping up new “infallible” icons and idols. Stalinism, which was actually Stalin worship, could not have occurred in a country that had not endured several centuries of the divine right of kings. It is the religious mentality that has to be combated.

In pursuit of this goal, it’s often necessary to be rudest to the nicest people. P. G. Wodehouse’s glutinous character Madeleine Bassett believed that the stars were God’s daisy chain. Bertie Wooster was too well bred to contradict her to her face, but added as an aside, “All rot, of course. They’re nothing of the sort.” Madeleine Bassett was a sweet and tender girl, and Mr. Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, is by all reports a fine fellow. In the same slushy issue of his publication that I’ve already mentioned, he shares with us his own deeper feelings. He tells how he used to worship President Roosevelt, and how he last turned to the Bible as a believer on that dark and dread day of April 12, 1945. Later, he surfaced from the bleak post-Roosevelt years with a new scheme. As he tells us:

Gradually, I began to build a new faith, one in which the love and courage and indifference to wealth of Jesus and Saint Francis were central but no more so than the humor and delight in life I found in the character of FDR and in the books that became most important for me, Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn, and that is expressed in the great prayer “0 be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness.”

As William Barrett would say, “Hence the psalms.” (“O be joyful” is a psalm and not a prayer.)

Is it possible that Mr. Peters, or his magazine, both devoted most of the time to exposing and combating cheap illusions, would write in that tone on any other topic? That they would permit themselves so many non sequiturs or so much sentimentality? I take leave to doubt it. Mr. Peters ends by calling for a religious revival. The awful thing is that he may well get it. Then he will be compelled, both literally and metaphorically, to say whether he believes in God or merely in religion.

 writes for the Nation.

More from

| View All Issues |

February 2001

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now