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Faith and its Enemies

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Faith and it's Enemies

Fr Alexander Men, 1971


Every Soviet school child would have had instilled in him or her the idea that science and religion were incompatible, that religion was dying out, - and anyway hadn't Marx himself said that religion was the opium of the people? It was to readers brought up in this thought world that Fr Alexander began to address his great study of human religions, beginning with The Sources of Religion (1971) from which this extract is taken. Writing this passage (the introduction) in the heat of the Khrushchev persecutions, Men identified those thinkers, artists and scientists, mostly Western, of this century who have been inspired by the truths of religion, in order to prove his point that religion is an inalienable attribute of humanity through all centuries.

No thinking person will deny that religion has, over the centuries, been a deciding factor in human life. From the stone age to the thermonuclear age, religion has, in its astonishing changes and metamorphoses, been indissolubly linked with the human spirit and with world culture. Egyptian temples and Babylonian hymns, the Bible and the Parthenon, Gothic stained glass and Russian icons, Dante's Divine Comedy and the works of Dostoevsky, the philosophy of Plato and Kierkegaard, the music of Bach and Britten, the social ideas of Savonarola and Thomas Müntzer, are all rooted in religion, for religion gives a higher meaning to earthly life and links it to what is eternal.

Religion has been the determining impulse in many historical movements. Asia's adoption of Buddhism, the preaching of the gospel in the ancient world, the expansion of Islam, the Reformation of the Western Church, all these were important landmarks in the life of mankind. Even the struggle against religion is an indirect acknowledgment of its significance.

Religious faith has influenced great social upheavals and the most secret depths of the human heart, and it is here that its chief strength lies.

Many people, however, while accepting the important role of religion in the past, say that for people of the twentieth century it is dead, or will soon be so. They say that the world is finally entering a period without faith.

Is this so? Is there not rather lying concealed behind the struggle against religion, which has been waged for the best part of this century, an unconscious fear of religion, and a doubt on the part of its enemies in the rightness of their cause?

Even in ancient times, people believed that there was not a single nation without any faith. (1) This still holds true today. As Arnold Toynbee remarked, even atheists should not be thought of as people entirely without faith. (2) Their views reveal a confused religious sentiment, even though that feeling is directed towards earthly objects, individuals and ideas. Anti-religious doctrines are often associated with inner impulses of a mystical nature. Ideological myths accepted in faith are in essence religion in a new guise.

One of the few atheists to risk taking their denial of God to its logical conclusion was Friedrich Nietzsche. 'God is dead!' he exclaimed, and worked feverishly to expel every reminder of God from people's lives. God is dead and consequently the universe is no more than a game of blind elements. Heaven is empty, the world is empty and everything is repeated in the endless flow of time. There is no meaning, there is no purpose, there is nothing that has value. How ludicrous therefore are human pretensions of grandeur. Mankind came out of nothing and returns there together with his pitiable civilization and planet. Nietzsche naturally rejected all the moral principles of Christianity, for the law of sovereign-nature is the survival of the fittest. He spoke with contempt also about the possibility of any kind of social transformations: for what is society if not a display of the same universal meaninglessness?

But few people have come to such radical conclusions. Most atheists have recoiled from the sombre scene of existence without values and have fallen back on what Nietzsche called 'the shadow of God'. In the dead wilderness of unbelief, they have strewn flowers taken from distant gardens among the stones and tried to soften the grimness of the landscape. (Nietzsche himself failed to hold out to the end and took refuge in the concept of superman.) Thus atheistic beliefs have grown up, which furtively insert meaning into meaninglessness, and are designed to reconcile people to what by their very nature they cannot accept. This is why many inconsistent atheists talk about the greatness of the good, about the inevitable radiant future that awaits mankind and for which we must be prepared to make the greatest sacrifices. They cherish selflessness, heroism and justice.

In our time this tension between an atheistic view of the world and the thirst for the ideal is vividly demonstrated in Albert Camus. While insisting on the 'absurdity' of existence, he nevertheless tried to find a prop, at least in the moral will of mankind. He struggled against tyranny for human rights, he debated, accused and preached. Such an attitude, though, hardly stems from his theory of the absurd. Camus himself confessed as much to his opponents:

Et à la verité, moi qui croyais penser comme vous, je ne voyais guère d'argument à vous opposer, sinon un gout violent de la justice qui, pour finir, me paraissait aussi peu raisonné que la plus soudaine des passions.

[And in all honesty in my discussions with you, I had great difficulty in finding arguments other than a powerful longing for justice which, in the end, is just as irrational as the most unexpected passion.]

There is something tragic and moving about the atheists' attempt to take shelter from the abyss of an indifferent universe, from an empty cold sky. It is not simply fear and dread but an unconscious attraction to those things which dogmatic materialism denies: to meaning, purpose, and to a rational origin of the universe. This mysterious attraction, which is inherent in human beings, cannot be eradicated by any doctrine. Even an atheist such as the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm acknowledged its reality. He wrote that 'The study of people forces us to acknowledge that the need for a general system of orientation and for an object of devotion is deeply rooted in human existence.' (3)

Where does this need originate? For everything in the world surely has its real roots somewhere. No one, for instance, would question that our bodily needs correspond to the objective necessities for life. If through the ages, the human spirit has longed for beauty, goodness, for something higher, something worthy of worship, is it right to see this as mere self-deception? Is it not more natural to recognize that just as the body is connected to the objective world of nature, so also the spirit is drawn to the invisible reality which is both kindred to it and beyond it? Is it not significant that when human beings turn away from this reality, superstitions and secular 'cults' spring up in its place? In other words, if people turn away from God they inevitably turn to idols.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, attempted to derive the idea of God from repressed desires driven into the unconscious sphere of the mind. But may we not turn the question on its head? Are not atheistic substitutes for religion the result of driving out the sense of God, which still makes itself felt? We might argue that the very denial of the highest is nourished by the unconscious element of faith.

Thus, in the period before the French revolution, the philosophy of the Encyclopaedists generated an enthusiasm very akin to religious experience. After his conversion to the 'new faith', Baron d'Holbach, patriarch of Enlightenment atheism, fell, it is said, on his knees before Diderot in the throes of an atheistic ecstasy. (4) His followers in the days of the revolution vowed 'to have no other religion than the religion of nature, no other temple than the temple of Reason'. Faith in humanity, the imminent realization of 'liberty, equality and fraternity', faith in science, in reason, in progress, have all from time to time inspired people to reverence and even engendered strange cults. Think of the founder of positivism, Auguste Comte, and his worship of the 'Supreme Being' - mankind.

At the end of the last century, the German biologist Ernst Haeckel founded a 'monistic' religion of nature which was continued in the work of another biologist, Julian Huxley. Denying a personal God, Huxley thought that the vital force of the cosmos, the creative energy of evolution, could be made the object of reverence. (5)

The movement among the Russian intelligentsia to serve 'the people' patently bears religious characteristics. In 'the people' they saw the salt of the earth, the anchor of salvation, the source of the highest wisdom. This cult gave rise to not a few heroes and 'martyrs'. (6) The history of the civil war in Russia in the twenties is a clear example of how faith in the future, in justice, in a kind of kingdom of Heaven on earth overcame all obstacles. The well trained and well armed enemy forces were opposed chiefly by conviction and enthusiasm in the face of which they had to retreat.

It is no accident that materialists, though in theory claiming the primacy of economics, in practice make appeal to 'consciousness', 'ideas' and 'faith'. Mao Tse-tung, for instance, admitted once that he deliberately fostered the cult of his personality to 'inspire' the masses. He made worship of a pseudo-god, and not the promise of material goods, the lynch pin of his struggle and his policy. Many atheists, as we see, are not at all ashamed to label their views religious. Early this century, one of them wrote: 'We have all the more right to reject "Heaven" since we have all the more confidence in the strength and beauty of earthly religion.' (7) This 'religion' subsequently established its own infallible authorities, its dogmas, scriptures, rituals and saints. (8)

At the other end of the social spectrum, we find something similar. 'Today' wrote the National-Socialist ideologist, Alfred Rosenberg, 'a new faith is awakening - the myth of blood'. He and his fellows turned biological racism into a pseudo-mystical dogma, seducing a people whose Christian roots had at that time been undermined.

Many other examples could be given of how, when the idea of God is expelled from consciousness, it comes back to people though in a perverted, hardly recognizable form. This proves that people have an ineradicable need to link their lives to something higher, something holy.

Apologists of atheism attempt to represent their ideology as the result of intellectual progress, as the most 'modern' of ideologies. In reality, atheism existed long before the emergence of the major world religions and has always been a symptom of spiritual crisis, impoverishment and decay.

The 'mass atheism' of our tragic times is not an accidental occurrence. It is not at all the case that faith in God has run out among European peoples. The decline in faith has three principle causes. The first lies in the fact that Christianity was at the 'epicentre' of urbanization, a process which has inflicted heavy damage on the spiritual values and moral state of society. This hurricane has not affected the followers of Islam and other religions to the same extent. The full force of the blow fell upon the Christians. The second cause has to do with mistakes made by leaders of the churches, and the way some of them have perverted the true spirit of religion. The third cause lies in the shallow 'bourgeois mentality' that Berdyaev spoke about, in the ideas of secularism and of the Man-god. (9)

These ideas originated in ancient times but were most clearly expressed at the time of the Renaissance. At that time, about 400 years ago, the Western world faced the temptation of pagan humanism and for the most part this temptation was not resisted. Man as the 'measure of all things' was raised to the rank of the divine, human reason was declared to be the supreme judge of the deepest questions of existence and human nature proclaimed to be essentially harmonious and sublime.

The ideologists of the Enlightenment and of rationalism created the theoretical framework for these ideas. A veritable cult of science grew up: social transformations came to be regarded as the only cure for all the world's ills and the idea of continual progress, which flourished in the nineteenth century, reinforced these attitudes.

Atheistic humanism, having repudiated Christian humanism, continually announced the end of religious faith. However, faith not only stood its ground but continued to flourish. The period from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries gave the church a multitude of saints, ascetics, and theologians; missionary activity took Christianity beyond the borders of Europe; and new spiritual movements arose.

The answer to this was attempts to eradicate Christianity by force. Massive persecutions of the church erupted at the time of the Convention. Bishops and priests were executed, churches were turned into clubs, tombs of the saints were defiled (for example that of St Louis). Notre Dame cathedral was turned into a place for the worship of Reason. (10) A hearse was driven through the streets of Paris loaded with holy objects, which was intended to signify the 'burial of God'. But it soon became clear that the atheists had not 'buried' God at all but only a pile of church paraphernalia.

The 'storming of Heaven' did not end with the French revolution. Again and again, it resumed, now under the banner of evolutionism or of biblical criticism, now under the pretext of the struggle against reaction. Bismarck and the French ministers, the German social-democrats and Russian revolutionaries from their different sides unrelentingly attacked Christianity. At the turn of the century, however, a poll amongst members of the artistic world indicated that in the opinion of the majority; religion was far from collapsing. The American philosopher, William Hocking, wrote at the time: 'Hasten not to judge that the spirit of the age is becoming irreligious... Potentially, at least, men are becoming more religious. This development of religion is still a latent fact ...' (11) . As this fact became less and less hidden, atheism again resorted to violence.

During the first thirty years of the twentieth century, social upheavals in Russia, Mexico, Germany and Italy led to a veritable war against Christianity and other religions, a war which in the Peoples Republics of China and Albania subsequently became total. All possible weapons, from propaganda in the press and on the radio, tribunals and pillories to brutal mass executions, were unleashed to put an end to religion. Hand in hand with the militant anti-god movement went indifference, a cheap rationalism and the 'new' humanism - a poor imitation of the Renaissance. But the victory, so much hoped for by the persecutors, did not materialize.

Christianity long ago foresaw these battles which are foretold in the Bible; and from that same Bible the church draws confidence that she will never be overcome.

True, among Christians there have been those whose will has been paralysed by the pressure of secularism (12) . They were tormented by the question: does the church have a future? But they posed this question as if the church were only a human institution and they forgot Christ's words to Peter: 'I will build my church and the powers of death shall not prevail against it' [Matt. 16.18].

This promise is obviously not a call to passivity. What would have happened if instead of 'preaching the gospel to all nations', Jesus' disciples had shut their doors and stayed at home? Even then Jesus' message would have lived on in the world. Had the apostles fallen silent, then 'the stones would have cried out'. Jesus would have found himself other followers.

On the other hand, it is legitimate to ask has not the world lost the need for faith today? Is it not satisfied with what 'secular' culture can provide?

There is some evidence that this is so: the prolonged pressure of anti-religious forces have inevitably left their mark. Yet only a prejudiced person could deny that the hunger for faith is constantly reawakening even in the atmosphere of persecutions, secularism and denial of the spirit in the name of utilitarianism.

The contemporary situation makes it possible to see the very heart of religion, its true essence in sharper outline. If nowadays people no longer go to the hippodrome chanting prayers as they did in Byzantium, and do not drown heretics in the Volkhov river as they did in ancient Novgorod, then this is a gain, not a loss for faith. Faith, having lost its ties with the state, has been freed from the dead weight of its nominal adherents. When Christianity was made into an official ideology, the consequences were more often than not ugly consequences and church life was poisoned. It is far better for a 'pagan' of whatever kind to acknowledge himself to be what he is than to call himself a Christian to please surrounding society (13) .

Today's atheism is not a radical new stage of consciousness, rather, it reveals the reality of the spiritual dimensions in society. In the West, many church leaders deplore the fact that 'the churches are empty', but in so doing they forget how far worse it is if churches are full but hearts are empty. The outward fulfilment of ritual is by no means always a safe indication of a healthy faith, and conversely poor church attendance is in no way a proof of a decline in faith. Moreover, outer forms of church life were always changing in the past and will go on changing in the future. So there will inevitably be times when the need for changes affects the number of people regularly attending church.

But we must look deeper for the key to the problem: in the needs of the human spirit itself. Does not the revolt of the 'new left' - this contemporary nihilism - tell us that even when they have lost God, people passionately seek the absolute and are not satisfied with the reality to hand? Today the drama of Faust is being re-enacted: people are discovering in themselves the eternal longing for the things of the spirit and a dissatisfaction with what they have achieved. It is indicative that this longing is especially evident in the developed countries that have achieved material prosperity. The greater the power of 'mass culture', technology and urbanization becomes, the more keenly will individuals feel the weight of the new fetters laid upon them; whereas religion, as a contemporary writer has rightly remarked, 'remains the most personal of all forms of human activity' (14) . Lost in the labyrinths of civilization, it is in religion itself that the spirit again and again finds for itself a solid foundation and inner freedom. The individual person, the highest manifestation of what is human, will always find its refuge in the holy.

The progress of faith obviously cannot be measured by statistics alone. C. S. Lewis said that if the rebirth of Christianity has really begun it will develop slowly, quietly, in very small groups of people. And this imperceptible renewal is actually happening everywhere, even where it might be least expected.

It does not follow, however, that we should ignore those facts that do come to the surface. After everything that has befallen religion in the period of secularization, nearly 90% of the world's population consider themselves to be believers nowadays (15) . True, the Communist writer quoting this figure adds the rider that among the formal adherents of religion are quite a number of people who are indifferent; but then among those who subscribe to atheism there are many who are secretly believers or who are close to faith.

There are grounds for saying that in the twentieth century, contrary to the forecasts of sceptics, religion has begun to play a role in some ways greater than in past centuries. Evidence for this can be found in the most various cultural spheres. For example, whereas two or three hundred years back many artists who depicted Gospel themes looked on them in the main as formal subjects for a picture, nowadays we find a genuine mystical feeling in the work of prominent artists such as Marc Chagall, Nikolai Roerich, Georges Rouault and Salvador Dali. Religious and mystical problems engage writers today in a way that they did not a hundred years ago, with the exception though of Russia. (16) Prominent in the defence of spiritual values are Charles Péguy, Leon Ploy, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, Julian Green and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in France; G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene in England; Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Heinrich Böll in Germany; Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Russia; J. D. Salinger, Ray Bradbury and John Updike in America; and Giovanni Papini in Italy. The drama of spiritual searchings and crises is forcefully portrayed in the writings of Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke. And many writers, even when criticizing the religious life of their contemporaries, aimed to purify faith and renew it. Such was also the intention of the denunciations by the prophets of old and the Church Fathers, who condemned any deviations from the true religion.

In the past, the overwhelming majority of scientists saw no contradiction between religion and natural science. We have only to think of Kepler, Newton, and Pasteur. Among scholars of our time, talk is about a synthesis of faith and knowledge. Charles Townes, Nobel Laureate, inventor of the laser, has commented on this. He said:

The aim of science is to discover order in the universe and through this to understand the essence of things we see around us, to understand the life of man. The aim of religion, it seems to me, may be defined as comprehending (and consequently understanding) the purpose and the meaning of the universe and also the manner in which we are related to it. This higher ultimate force we call God (17) .

The words quoted are not a random or isolated opinion. This view is shared by those who are forming the modern picture of the world. Albert Einstein speaks of the meaning of faith for the scholar. Max Planck, Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger speak about the connection between science and religion. Arthur Eddington, James Jeans and Pascual Jordan thought that knowledge of the world was the way to knowledge of God. Leading twentieth-century scholars in many branches of science have adopted an anti-materialistic stance. In physics we think of Werner Heisenberg; in mathematics, of Georg Cantor; in biology, Theodor Schwann; in neuro-physiology, Sir John Eccles; in anthropology, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; in palaeontology, the Abbé Breuil; in ethnography, P. W. Schmidt; in history, Arnold Toynbee; in psychology, Carl Jung.

The position in philosophy is indicative too. The greatest thinkers of our century, whether the intuitionist Henri Bergson, the Thomist Jacques Maritain, the 'organicist' Alfred North Whitehead, the existentialist Karl Jaspers, or 'the champion of freedoom' Nicolas Berdyaev, all proclaimed the supreme spiritual value of religion. There is a flowering of new theology: Orthodoxy being represented by such figures as Sergi Bulgakov, Pavel Florensky, and Vladimir Lossky; Catholicism by Romano Guardini, Yves Congar, and Karl Rahner; Protestantism by Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr. There is new religious thinking in Judaism (Martin Buber) and in Hinduism (Aurobindo Ghose) (18) .

Western interest in mystical teachings, in yoga and Zen, is on the increase. New movements are starting not only in Christianicy, but in Islam, in Buddhism and even in paganism. Some of the social and political leaders of this century, for example Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, have been prompted to action by their religious principles.

It is not to decry these significant new developments to say that at times there is much that is immature and contradictory in them. The very diversity of the ideas and the quests (from the extreme left to extreme orthodoxy) shows how full to overflowing is the river of religion.

The upsurge is naturally also making itself felt in church life too. None of the last four centuries has known a pope as popular as John XXIII. The second Vatican Council which he summoned opened new perspectives in the dialogue between the church and the world, paved the way for new paths in theology, ecumenism, the apostolate, liturgy and understanding of the Bible. (19) The waves of discussion touched off by the Council, in their intensity reminiscent of the early church councils, demonstrated the strength and vitality of Christianity. Fearless free criticism of religious institutions coming from the faithful themselves and from theologians is a sign of a vigorous church life.

Protestantism, too, is exploring new avenues. The enormous success of the evangelist Billy Graham proves the strength of people's longing to hear the word of God. The Protestant initiative leading to the founding of the World Council of Churches is evidence of a thirst for the unity of all Christians which has never been known before in history. It is striking that ecumenism was born and lives at just the time when the world has seen an increase in racial intolerance and nationalism.

The vitality of the Orthodox Church is remarkable given the exceptional inner and outer ordeals it has suffered in the last decades in Russia. It is true that John Robinson, the English theologian, tries to minimize the importance of this fact in his well-known book by relating it to what he calls 'secondary religiousness', that is the intensification of faith in societies that are historically in decline. (20) However, to include Russia in this category shows a poor understanding of the dynamics of the contemporary world.

In the USA, this classic model of the 'consumer society', where the pursuit of comfort now threatens spiritual values, a widespread youth movement focussed on the Gospels has unexpectedly arisen, a movement which is called the 'Jesus revolution'. In Europe, the Taizé community attracts hundreds of thousands from different lands, members of different churches. In Africa and Asia, the number of new movements and preachers is increasing.

The fate of the Bible in the contemporary world bears strong witness to this. Not only are there astronomical circulation figures, annotated and illustrated editions, not only does the popularity of biblical themes in music, and television and screen testify to its undying attraction, but there are also hundreds of new researches and books resulting from an unprecedented flowering of biblical scholarship.

In the twentieth century, for the first time a serious dialogue has started between the churches, and between religions, between believers and non-believers. Even communists have been compelled to participate actively in this dialogue. Simultaneously in a number of countries, for example Latin America, the episcopate and the clergy are joining ranks with fighters for freedom and social reform.

If communists used to speak of religion as their implacable enemy, many of them are now obliged to change their attitude. A member of the central committee of the communist party of Chile, O. Millas, speaking about the social struggle of Christians, pointed out that they 'see the sense of their piety in the passionate love of their neighbour and unconditional faith in man. Catholics of this kind are not prevented from being revolutionaries by their faith, but on the contrary, it helps them in their struggle.' Taking this into account, Fidel Castro wrote that his revolution 'had never in any way been anti-religious'. Similar voices are also heard in Europe. Thus Georges Marchais openly affirms that 'Christians have a basis to join movements for democratic reform and to contribute to the building of a freer society'. This is far removed from the dismissal of religion as the 'opium of the people'.

It is not uncommon to hear that religion has only existed until now because it 'adapts itself' to the needs and conditions of the time. In recognizing this, atheism unwittingly testifies in favour of religion. It is well known that adaptability is a sure sign of an organism's vitality.

It is also said that religious conversion is 'bowing to fashion'. Maybe to some superficial minds, this is true. But 'fashion' by no means always plays a negative role. Has it not helped a large number of people to understand and appreciate icon painting and ancient church architecture? Is it not remarkable that the thing that they had stubbornly tried to suppress for so long has become a 'fashion'? Fashion is often nothing other than a simplified reflection of processes taking place in the depths of society.

The famous physicist Max Born spoke of a precipice towards which civilization is rushing, and emphasized that only religious ideas can return society to health. He wrote:

At the present time fear alone enforces a precarious peace. However this is an unstable state of affairs, which ought to be replaced by something better. We do not need to look far in order to find a more solid basis for the proper conduct of our affairs... [It is] the principle which in our own part of the world is taught by the doctrine of Christianity; the principle which Mahatma Gandhi had actually carried into practice (21)

Thus we can safely assume that those who talk about the 'death of religion' are short-sighted, or have deliberately closed their eyes to reality, or finally, are victims of false propaganda.

Today as never before, the words spoken two thousand years ago by the apostle Paul sound out with greater relevance: they thought us dead 'and behold we live' [II Cor. 6.9]

The extract is taken from Istoki religii, Moscow 1991, pp. 13-24. The title to this translation has been supplied by the editor.

Text © 1999 Elizabeth Roberts

(footnotes may follow)