|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Sunday, July 08, 2007
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.