The Catholic Thing
The "Village Atheist" Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 19 March 2013

In P. G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, we find a remarkably contrived scene. The fetching Cora (Corky) Pirbright, Hollywood actress and niece of the Reverend Stanley Pirbright, the local vicar, has decided to get even with the county Police Constable, a man by the name of Dobbs. The latter is otherwise identified as “the village atheist.” This said Constable Dobbs, with his atheism, has been giving the Reverend Stanley Pirbright a tough time. So Corky thinks that it is time to get even with the unbeliever.

This getting even, which I won’t go into, involves one of the most intricate plots known to man. It makes any Sherlock Holmes plot look like child’s play. Corky plans to involve Bertram Wooster and Gussie Fink-Nottle in a parish play. While on stage, the said atheist constable will be conked over the head with an umbrella, administered by Bertie.

The implication is that the only effective way to deal with atheists is with physical force, especially if they are police officers. Arguments won’t budge them. In any case, the constable’s “betrothed,” with the delightful name of “Queenie,” the prettiest parlourmaid in all of England, is worried about the effects of atheism on the soul of this man Dobbs.

This topic of the “village atheist” is one that intrigues me. William Donohue recently published a piece about a Canadian atheist who vilified Mother Teresa, of all people. The nun’s going about taking care of the suffering was said to be senseless and cruel. Better just let the suffering die off, with a little “compassionate” help from their friends. If there is no God, in atheist logic, there usually isn’t much of a place for suffering man either. The ultimate target is obviously the Logos incarnate who was crucified.

Those psalms that tell of the man who says in his heart that “there is no God” have always struck me. Usually, the biblical atheists figure that God cannot see them. So why worry? A new kind of atheism is said to exist today. Classical atheism still retained a sense that man’s existence involved some meaning. Hence, the early modern atheist systems were offered as solutions to our human ills. At the roots of atheism was a utopianism. This early modern atheism claimed that it had the key to human ills. What stood in the way of a perfect world was usually religion itself. Get rid of religion and all would be ducky.

An even earlier atheism was connected with Epicurus and Lucretius, an atheism of escape. It did not want to solve the world’s problems. It just wanted to be left alone to enjoy what it could while it lasted. It too wanted to escape pain as much as it could. All this talk about sin and punishment only made things worse, causing needless fears. But the newest atheism does not pine for anything, except maybe to shut the theists up, a curious desire when you think of it.

The “village atheist” is an abiding figure in modern letters. He is usually an intellectual of sorts, often a medical doctor, a professor, a barber, or a philanthropist. He is too intelligent to believe in the fables or in the supposed meaning of pious life. He often has benevolent instincts, though they may be inconsistent with his beliefs. He shows pity for the less bright. Yet he is touched with a bit of Lucifer, the most intelligent of the fallen angels. Indeed, this connection between intelligence and wisdom often comes up in the life of the “village atheist” or his more gentrified city equivalent.

These considerations are of interest to Catholics. Catholicism is an intellectual religion. Its heroes are Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, Benedict XVI. It makes no apologies for stupidity as such. It frankly delights in presenting the argument against Catholicism better than its opponents present it. Whenever a new book presumably establishing atheism as the only intellectual position appears, we soon find ten books pointing out the flaws in the atheist argument. The first of these is that, logically, we cannot “prove” a negative. We might prove that God exists, but we cannot conjure up an argument that “proves” that He does not.

The “sincere” atheist has fascinated the religious mind. The “sincere” atheist apparently must be praised. It is no fault of his that he cannot see the proofs for God’s existence. It begins to look easier to save one’s soul as an atheist than as a believer.

Yet, I think that Queenie’s concern was right. Something is worrisome if one’s betrothed is an atheist. Briefly, most atheism is a cover for a way of life. How we live does not flow from our atheism. Our atheism runs interference for how we want to live.  

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by athanasius, March 19, 2013
"How we live does not flow from our atheism. Our atheism runs interference for how we want to live."

How true. And nowhere is this more true than in the way modern man wants to pursue his sexual desires. Many of these "atheists" are not mean-spirited, so they do care about helping others. Just don't mess with their desire to bed "whomever, whereever, and whenever" they want.

But this really is a form of atheism, as it sees the need to satisfy all sexual desire now in as many ways as possible because some day it will all be gone. Compare that to Catholic sexuality, which sees the physical act as only having meaning when combined to the complete self-giving to an exclusive other through marriage. Further, even in this case sex is only a foretaste of the more perfect union we await with God in eternity.

But these atheists delude themselves, and so fall victim to their inconsistencies. There is a darkness to this reservation of sexual privileges to desire, and usually this leads to selfishness in other areas as well.

The Christian life is demanding, as are piano lessons. But the reward is well worth it.
written by diaperman, March 19, 2013
Two questions....Are all atheists just using this belief as a cover for how they want to live. Some do this maybe, but do all? Could it be that some identify as atheists just don't believe in the God the Church proclaims because the amount of suffering and unhappiness makes his existence implausible--or even because they've had terrible experiences with the people who claim to represent God?

Also don't religious people at times use their beliefs as a cover for how they want to live. I have known more than a few people who use religious fervor and hyper-piety as a mask to cover up their pretty obvious character flaws.

Don't we all do this sometimes? Is this really a problem unique to atheism.
written by Layman Tom, March 19, 2013
Fr. Schall,

Thank you for this article. You don’t need affirmation from one such as I, but I did want to mention that I found your piece a brilliant set up for two incredibly profound ideas at the end. The first being that atheism is not a motive force for one’s behavior, rather being the rationalization needed to actually engage in it. This is a very succinct and powerful argument. I knew an avowed atheist once and spent many frustrating hours in discussion trying to help the poor lad see his error and the danger he was putting himself in.

The second point that struck me did so with considerable force. The idea that it may be easier for the non-believer to find salvation than one who has been brought up in the church is something that has bothered me lately. Vis, it seems like the more I learn about my faith, the further it seems I am from the mark. Don’t get me wrong, I have never felt like I’m doing a great job. I am constantly beset by my own sinfulness. Yet, the idea that there is a fullness of faith that I have yet to explore scares the hell out of me, because it seems like the more my eyes are opened, the more I have to work on and the more that impedes my way. To think that you, of all people, may at least understand this dilemma gives me hope.

So thank you. And God Bless.
written by DS, March 19, 2013
Rather than conking an atheist over the head with an umbrella, I prefer Pope Francis' approach. At his first meeting with the press, he acknowledged that non-Catholics and non-believers were in the audience. Then he blessed them all as children of God.
written by Degaulle, March 19, 2013
I agree with the author about the usage of 'atheism' as a cover for certain lifestyles, but I would consider many of these people tend either to a vague paganism, complete with angels, heaven, universal life-after-death for all 'nice' people (which probably excludes people like me!), with no adverse consequences for their sexual, or other, behaviour; or to a weltanschauung more accurately described as anti-theism, possessed of real vindictiveness. I suspect the vindictiveness could be from our stinging their repressed consciences. As for atheists per se, there appear to be many sincere ones. I recall recently reading about the journalist Nat Hentoff, a self-described stubborn Jewish atheist, who has suffered for his anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia views. One can't help admiring people like that, but perhaps it is simply that God has chosen not to provide people like Mr Hentoff with the grace of faith, so that they might more clearly display His other graces-no cynical anti-theist can accuse him of simply choosing this morality out of Fear of God.
written by Tony Esolen, March 19, 2013
To Diaperman above: I have never yet met a man who looked in the mirror and said, "I myself am proof that a benevolent God cannot exist. No benevolent God would ever have created a wretch like me." No, it's always the OTHER guy who is too wicked for God to have created him. But if I can acknowledge that a good God can have made me and can love me, even such as I am, then the problem of moral evil vanishes in the fire of my own honest self-examination.

The second point is that Christians are called upon to engage in continual and mortifying self-appraisal. That is what the sacrament of Penance is all about. I am reminded of the comments of an atheist (then a convert) reading the New Testament with the intention to judge it, and then finding to his discomfiture that he was the one being judged. Neither the Old nor the New Testament gives anybody much quarter for self-satisfaction. The motto "Believe in yourself" would have struck any ordinary Jew or Christian not only as blasphemous -- it would have struck them as patently ridiculous.

I'm told by converts that the main obstacles to belief are not intellectual but moral. Consider how many things in the ordinary person's life must change utterly, if he turns from no-faith to faith, with his eyes wide open ...
written by jason taylor, March 21, 2013
Athanasius, my imperfection leads me to think that if only desire rather then principal is counted, that is one advantage, though not enough to make up for the prosaic nature of a materialist universe. Be that as it may it is both uncharitable and unchivalrous to use such an argument, and it has no relevance to the truth or falsehood of athesim.
written by Layman Tom, March 22, 2013

Thanks for addressing my point. I agree that a large portion of what stands between us and holiness are moral obstacles. God knows we all face them. I proffer, however, that the unbeliever could not absorb the entirety of it all at once, thus could never approach this with eyes truly wide open. One would need to hold dual doctorates in Theology and Philosophy while remaining adamantly opposed to religion to make that type of turn.

What's the old adage? Of those to whom much is given, much is expected. Therefore, my problem is that I truly desire more and more knowledge, part of which I gain from reading and contemplating the subject matter on this site. Yet with that intellectual growth comes more understanding of exactly how far I still have to go. So in a way, the wide eyed newby who makes his sincere confession of what he believes are his sins is probably going to have less trouble listing those sins than someone who grew up catholic and has been adding to his list of shortcomings just by merit of learning. Chances are we have many of the same common crosses to bear; it’s just those who pick up the pace can see more crosses to pick up that those in the pack may not.

I guess if it were easy...


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