The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Under an Atomic Sky

I went into a church house
where the citizens like to sit.
They say they want the kingdom
but they don't want God in it.

- U2, 'The Wanderer'

Between 1970 and 2000 there were, to my knowledge, exactly two new atheist books that found mass-market paperback publication in English: The Misery of Christianity by Joachim Kahl (Hamburg, 1968; English translation Pelican, 1971) and God is Not Yet Dead by Vítězslav Gardavsky (Pelican, 1973; originally published in German in 1968 following serial publication in Prague, 1966-1967). Kahl, like Gardavsky, was a Marxist, but there they parted. The significance of Gardavsky's book is exhausted by its dates; by the tenure of its author: Professor of Philosophy at the Brno Military Academy (retired 1968, aged 45); and by the Christian-Communist dialogue over whose brusque interruption the book's provenance placed a cross. Kahl's work, on the other hand, is an underground classic: the most caustic, contentrated critique of Christianity written in the 20th century (and most others, for reasons all too obvious from Kahl's tally of the Church's resort to the rack). One mainstream book, Michael Arnheim's Is Christianity True? (Duckworth, 1984) gives the eponomous question its Jewish answer. (No.) Muir Weissinger's The Failure of Faith (1984) was sceptical, eccentric, and fell dead-born from the presses. Richard Robinson's donnish but plain-spoken An Atheist's Values (Oxford, 1964) was reissued as a Blackwell paperback in 1975.

And that, more or less, was it. The freethought publishers - the Rationalist Press Association in England, Prometheus Books in the US - kept plugging away. Hume, Nietzsche, Russell remained in print. Academic presses published philosophical critiques: Michael Martin, J. L. Mackie, Anthony Flew. Three lively translations of Lucretius came out in paperback. But most of my six-foot shelf of godless books, three decades in the filling, consists of small hardbacks from the RPA's Thinker's Library, long out of print, and two or three 60s Pelicans on humanism, all picked up in second-hand bookshops.

The uptick of interest in humanism was part of the 60s ferment around religion. I sometimes think the best mood-capture of that ferment is the second appendix to Frank Herbert's SF epic Dune (1965): new Bible translations, novel theologies, ecumenical congresses, the shock of space travel ... it's all there. Everyone (so it seemed) had heard of Bishop J. A. T. Robinson's Honest to God, which popularised the radical theologies of Bultmann and Tillich. The publication of the complete New English Bible was splashed in Sunday colour supplements. Questionings of Christian orthodoxy, from the loopy (Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods) through the bizarre (John Allegro's The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross) to the far-fetched (Hugh Schonfield's The Passover Plot) saw major extracts published in British popular newspapers. In the words of one of Herbert's fictitious scholars: 'Those were times of deep paradox.'

In retrospect, one of the deepest paradoxes was that the Christians and the atheists were singing from the same hymn-sheet. All of them took as given what science and scholarship had established in the nineteenth century: that the Bible, whatever else it might be, was not history, and not science. The quarrel was over what message it still spoke. Darwin and the Higher Critics had done their worst. The Thinker's Library had spread the word. Kahl's scathing contempt - and Gardavsky's wary respect - were for the most radical modern readings of the scriptures. 'The final conclusion,' said Kahl, 'can only be this - the modern theology based on interpreting the Bible existentially and symbolically is not modern and is completely worn out. What really arouses my anger and scandalizes me deeply is that so much of university theology has tried to justify its existence for more than two hundred years by means of apologetic tricks of this kind.'

Beneath the polar radar of the superpowers in this cold war lay a contraflow of dissent. One deep current was the silent withdrawal of belief. The other was the rise of fundamentalism. In 1975 I mentioned to one of my professors - a palaeontologist and a Christian whose faith was as sound as his science - the creationist critiques of evolution. 'Nobody,' he said, 'takes these people seriously!'

In 2001 the iceberg struck.

I haven't found out what happened to Gardavsky, but I can guess. Kahl's still going strong, an independent philosopher, still an atheist, and no longer a Marxist. I don't know why he repudiated Marxism, but I can guess. A recent re-reading of his book reminded me of some of his points against Christianity: the complete emptiness of the signifier, covering total disagreement in belief and ethics; the endless splintering of its sects; their sanguinary mutual persecutions; the apologetic and academic 'manipulation of authoritative texts so that they can still be put to use today'; above all, its complete failure 'measured by the yardstick of its own claims'. 'Immanent criticism', as he says, 'lays bare the ideological limitations of the conceptual structure of theology'. The problem with the universal acid, as the old joke goes, is to find a container.


One thing I love about your blog, Mr. MacLeod, is that even after you've given me so much good reading through your novels (all of which, Human Front, The Web and The Highwaymen aside, I own. I actually bought the Sky Road and the Stone Canal twice, because I lent them out and they were misplaced or stolen) you give me even more good stuff to read with your recommendations.

Now I've got to go scouring the net for some copies of sixties atheist literature...

Everyone (so it seemed) had heard of Bishop J. A. T. Robinson's Honest to God, which popularised the radical theologies of Bultmann and Tillich.

You're describing the church I grew up in (I was still calling myself a Christian at 19 or 20, some time after I'd encountered Marx). It always seemed to be a place to ask questions about faith - and open-ended questions at that: the sceptical & hard-fought arguments shared that space with the flaky hippie musings. It was an unstable mixture, though - as the 70s wore on I seem to remember less of the "can a Christian take up arms against an oppressive regime?" and more of the "aren't all religions basically telling us the same thing?".)

And if you ever met an atheist they'd probably be a socialist of the old school, and if you ever met a creationist they'd probably be Plymouth Brethren or Elim. I did know one new-style evangelical creationist at school; he was also our local National Front member, so I think you could say he was an outlier.

But I'd say the iceberg hit (or the icebergs converged on us) long before 2001. Ten years before, to be precise.

Steven, the old Thinker's Library stuff is mostly from the 30s and 40s, and often reprinted from earlier. Many of them are still very interesting. H. J. Blackham's Humanism from the 60s is good, as are the two skinny Pelicans Objections to Humanism and Objections to Christian Belief.

Phil, the Anglicanism you describe is very recognisable from the sort of people I used to meet in CND ... and in the Humanist movement, funnily enough. It's a religious sensibility rather different from my own background.

Ha. I grew up thinking that 'Protestant' was basically another word for 'Anglican' (I mean, we weren't Catholics, so...) and was quite bemused when an RE teacher gently corrected me - he said he knew my church, and he didn't think it was very Protestant at all. Which of course it wasn't.

I'm not at all surprised by the Humanist connection. Christian commonwealth, innit. That Erasmus, very bright bloke.

On a completely unrelated note, I've just finished reading Beyond Good and Evil and I have to ask; how long had it been since you'd read it when you wrote The Cassini Division? There are two excerpts at the end of the book that are uncannily close to the True Knowledge in the way they read...

I was surprised you didn't mention the recent books on Atheism as Dawkins, Hitchens etc. These books are making $$.

As for Hitchens, who makes a big part of his $$ from speaking, why 100% break with the left?

Hitch thinks secularism is an element of US foreign policy.

I'll write about Dawkins et al soon, I hope.

Steven, I hadn't actually read Beyond good and Evil but may have read excerpts from it in the Penguin classic Nietzsche Reader, and I'd read Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist. All of this was years earlier. Stirner and some modern Stirnerites were a much more recent influence. You can find them at Non Serviam.

Non Serviam?

As far as RE's comment about Mr. Hitchens, I believe his break with the left had a lot to do with what he perceived as the dogmatization of the Marxist factions within the socialist and communist organizations most leftists identify with.

There's something to the criticism; one of my college friends is a Syrian Communist Organiser trying to cut his teeth in Québec and it's almost disturbing to hear him go on about communism. The words of Lenin and (yes, disturbingly) Stalin echo throughout his rhetoric as though they're self-evident to the point of tautology: there's no question as to whether or not they were right, it's simply a question of enlightening other people to their inspired message.

I am of course taking liberties with his wording, but the point is that there is a cult-esque following to these political philosophies & thinkers which repels the secularist in me and, apparently, Mr. Hitchens.

My personal political views - while rooted in socialism - have become very much libertarianized in recent years and well I guess Oym en individialist enerchist, ecktchelly...

uhmm.. you forgot to name drop John Lennon, Heidegger, and my dad. Please remember them, especially my dad, next time you write.

Steven, I don't think it was Marxist dogmatism that repelled Hitchens from the left. As far as I can recall, he says he found himself 'in the same trenches' as the neocons over support for US intervention in Yugoslavia. His initial published reaction to 9/11 was a column that basically framed it as blowback. Very soon after, or perhaps at the same time but inarticulately, he saw the attack as the beginning of a war between secularism and reaction - on that he was glad to be in. His contempt for the left came from their failure to see it that way. But he has said that while he's no longer a socialist, he still 'vibrates to Marxism'.

I'm pulling together a post on 21st century atheism.

P.S. 'non serviam' is here, a site maintained by my friend Svein Olav Nyberg.

Thanks so much, Mr. MacLeod!

As far as what I said about Mr. Hitchens, I was simply repeating what I'd heard him say in an interview on the CBC programme called The Hour, he may simply have been trying to plug his book or, likely, dumbing down to explanation to appeal to a highly capitalist, nearly american crowd.

What happened to Gardavský is mentioned at the end of a memorial article by a colleague (in Czech, of course): in 1970, when the "normalization"'s purges got into the full swing (the date you list is apparently oversimplified), he was thrown out of the philosophy department, army and the Party and worked in various menial jobs, writing philosophy and fiction for samizdat. He died "persecuted by the State Security with a book in his hand" in 1978. Should you wish to know more details, I could pick them out (this is nice: when on a tour in the USA, "He experienced a courtesy from the American hosts-partners in one chapel who put a hammer and a sickle on the ceremonial table.")

BTW, can't you add date to the comments' time?

If you get the chance to hear BBC R4's Friday edition of 'The Now Show' then go for it. There'll be a fatwa declared by all the Children of the Book, never fear. As for myself, I had to stop driving due to the laughter...

Bob Shaw

Jan, many thanks for your comment. I would indeed appreciate more details. Listy, eh. I had that journal in the back of a van once :-)

I'll see what I can do about adding dates.

Re: your comment

"Between 1970 and 2000 there were, to my knowledge, exactly two new atheist books that found mass-market paperback publication in English"

Sorry about the very late comment.

There weren't *many* mass-market atheist books, you're right, but there were more than two.

Here are two more that didn't originate from academic philosophy publishers, the RPA or Prometheus, and which were not classics like Nietzsche or Russell's 'Why I am not a Christian':

Ludovic Kennedy, 'All in the Mind' (1999).

George Mikes, 'How to Be God'


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