The “Village Atheist”

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, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019