January 24, 2007

The Passion of the Atheist

by PG

For some reason I thought recently about an old debate as to whether it was worse to make religious believers perform rites in which they didn't believe than it was to make nonbelievers perform such. The argument of those who thought it was, as best I understood it, was that one cannot blaspheme atheism, so the harm to believers is much greater. A passage I remembered from a favorite book gives arbitrary aardvark's hypothetical -- "Let me suggest another less common, but useful, meaning for atheism: a-theism, contra theism, that is, a belief that belief in god is dangerous and pernicious, maybe evil" -- the flesh (or at least bone) of fiction:

"Especially as he has gone under," he said quietly.

"What was that?"

"Gone under naturally." He beat his palms together in silence; his head fell on his chest.

"I don't understand."

"As his mother did."

"But, Mr. Emerson--MR. EMERSON--what are you talking about?"

"When I wouldn't have George baptized," said he.

Lucy was frightened.

"And she agreed that baptism was nothing, but he caught that fever when he was twelve and she turned round. She thought it a judgment." He shuddered. "Oh, horrible, when we had given up that sort of thing and broken away from her parents. Oh, horrible-- worst of all--worse than death, when you have made a little clearing in the wilderness, planted your little garden, let in your sunlight, and then the weeds creep in again! A judgment! And our boy had typhoid because no clergyman had dropped water on him in church! Is it possible, Miss Honeychurch? Shall we slip back into the darkness for ever?"

"I don't know," gasped Lucy. "I don't understand this sort of thing. I was not meant to understand it."

"But Mr. Eager--he came when I was out, and acted according to his principles. I don't blame him or any one... but by the time George was well she was ill. He made her think about sin, and she went under thinking about it."

It was thus that Mr. Emerson had murdered his wife in the sight of God.

"Oh, how terrible!" said Lucy, forgetting her own affairs at last.

"He was not baptized," said the old man. "I did hold firm." And he looked with unwavering eyes at the rows of books, as if--at what cost!--he had won a victory over them. "My boy shall go back to the earth untouched."

...

"I suppose Mr. Vyse is very angry with George? No, it was wrong of George to try. We have pushed our beliefs too far. I fancy that we deserve sorrow."

She looked at the books again--black, brown, and that acrid theological blue. They surrounded the visitors on every side; they were piled on the tables, they pressed against the very ceiling. To Lucy who could not see that Mr. Emerson was profoundly religious, and differed from Mr. Beebe chiefly by his acknowledgment of passion--it seemed dreadful that the old man should crawl into such a sanctum, when he was unhappy, and be dependent on the bounty of a clergyman.

- E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

January 24, 2007 03:16 AM | TrackBack
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