Darkness, Doubt, and Dante

Augustine: Having seen the light...

What do Augustine, Thomas de Quincey, Leo Tolstoy, and John Henry Newman (now Blessed) have in common? That’s right: confessions. Relatively speaking, Tolstoy might have chosen to blog about his plight rather than write through it in longhand, de Quincey would have done well on Salon.com, and Newman called his confession an apologia because he had been put in a defensive mode. But they all wrote about their spiritual troubles and how they solved them. To quote de Quincey in a somber moment:

“Christianity is that religion which most of all settles what is perilous in scepticism; and yet, also, it is that which most of all unsettles whatever may invite man’s intellectual activity. It is the sole religion which can give any deep anchorage for man’s hopes; and yet, also, in mysterious self-antagonism, it is the sole religion which opens a pathless ocean to man’s useful and blameless speculations.”

Historically, accounts of journeys from periods of doubt and anxiety (and addiction) to periods of what Newman called, at the time of his trade to the Catholic church, religious “certitude,” occupy considerably more space on library shelves than the journey in the other direction.

Religion has had the upper-hand in promoting itself as closure (isn’t that what “certainty” is?). Unbelief is saddled with images of confusion (isn’t that what doubt is?) and discontent–aimless searching.

“As the sentence [of the scripture I was reading] ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away….Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee (Augustine, Confessions, Book IX.29; I.1)

Naturally this irrational but culturally potent association between doubt and darkness drives unbelievers crazy. The question is, Why does it arise at all?

Holman Hunt, The Light of the World

Because of an ancient theft of images. Religion has had the advantage of being imagined as a light on a hill, the “radiance” (as in John 14.6) that overpowers the darkness. That is the way Augustine imagined the Church of his day when everything else was, in fact, pretty dark–Rome declining, unable to sustain its institutions, hounded by unwelcome tourists from the north.

Christianity was a kind of theological alternative to demoralization and decline, though as a populist movement it could do very little in the western empire to forestall the inevitable “fall,” which later generations of historians would falsely ascribe to pagan immorality and corruption. To accept Christ, the light of the world, meant different things to different people. But for the Church’s early intellectuals it meant moving out of the darkness towards knowledge, towards wisdom, towards God, love and grace. To move in the other direction was not an appealing option, not even very rational.

The Church has had its way: darkness, hatred, sin, death, and final destruction of the spirit lay like the turbid waters of the Acheron at the end of the atheist’s quest. Who would knowingly move from truth toward a lie, from splendor towards dullness, from Palestrina and Bach toward Janacek? Since long before Dante consigned atheists to the inferno, setting your face against God has been seen as a lonely journey, driven by pride and a corrupt will that puts self in place of the Good. But the Church also traded on its philosophical bounty, especially Platonism, which saw rejection of the Good, now equated to the Christian God, as a rejection of reason.

Jesus enthroned in the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom)

“Atheism” did not actually lose control over or forfeit the imagery of light and truth. It has never really owned it. The theft was evolutionary rather than revolutionary: No (orthodox) philosophers died as a result of the heist, no secret coven of atheists was rooted out by posses of churchmen with a license to kill unbelievers. That point will appear jejune until you recall that such posses were empowered by Rome and local bishops to deal with heretics, well into the sixteenth century. Such unbelief as there was had to exist within the Church because that is where poets and professors earned their meager living.

When atheism has been considered at all by Catholic Christianity, it has been linked with heresy and apostasy as a special category of error–yet (oddly) not as serious as the other kinds because while atheism (by Anselm and the medieval theologians, for instance) is seen as a form of mulish stupidity (Ps.14.1), it is not a threat to the unity of the Church, like heresy, or as willful rebellion against God and his Church, like apostasy. That is to say, atheism doesn’t rise to the same degree of malignancy in the theological calculus, because then as now atheists were a lonely crew of poets and intellectuals and could not organize themselves into parties or schools.

Augustine refutes a heretic: note the toppled Church

Even Dante does not consign atheists to the darker levels of hell–merely to the deficient form of heaven, Limbo. Here you can find all the right people anyway: Horace, Julius Caesar, Ovid, Socrates, Cato, Vergil, Avicenna, and Averroes–whose common flaw is that they were unbaptized.

What did atheism do to deserve this patronizing neglect?

In the power vacuum created by the decline of the western Church and in the battles waged against heretics by the more powerful theologians in the eastern empire (Byzantium, where the creeds would be written), the ecclesial victors stole the imagery of philosophy and decorated their God like a Christmas tree with attributes that had been, basically, speculative in Greek thought. It was all about light, truth, and wisdom–their own, primarily, metaphysically projected outward onto their new triune God.

The Christian church deserves some credit for this. Hardly a philosophical image is left unexploited: goodness, infinity and eternality, immutability, omniscience (a kind of cheat, but that’s complicated), beauty, love, symmetry and perfection. Their grab-bag of ornaments included smatterings, ripped out of context, from Plato, Plotinus and Porphyry and assorted other philosophers. While condemning “paganism” (and with it, in many cases–for example the second century writer Justin Martyr–their own classical educations), they found the biblicism of their own tradition intellectually weak and aesthetically defective. It would take another century or two to find cradle-Catholic theologians who could pass up the temptations of pagan philosophy because, by that time, the usable bits had been brought in under the roof of the church. There was hardly any light left outside.

At the other end of this transformation, let me be pretty blunt, the Bible was transformed from an uneven collection of stories, poems and prophecies into an icon–if not a relic–while “tradition”–a word that looks innocent enough but refers to the creation of doctrine (teaching) of biblical interpreters–won the day. The artifact of this process, by the way, is the popular “protestant” belief that Catholics don’t read (or know) the Bible. They didn’t need to: the Church knew it for them.

It took until the sixteenth century for a few adventurous spirits to take the book out of its jeweled casket to see if the Church was anything like the book said it should be. But by then the damage (if that’s what it was) had been done. Not only was the Church a lot more complicated, richer, and better dressed than the one in the New Testament, but its God didn’t look very much like the biblical God either. Frankly, however, the Reformers were not all that consistent: the God of the Bible had already been retired in creeds they defended from the fourth century–“God from God, light from light, true god from true god, one in substance with the Father”–when the bishops were speaking of a man named Jesus.

Cardinal in full dress regalia....

With so much light going to the orthodox, there wasn’t much left over for atheists. The creed I just quoted was barely thirty years old when Augustine was born, and even though he quotes massively from sacred scripture, the way he does it leaves no verse unturned, no verb unextrapolated and no simple noun standing in its rightful place. The church had begun to speak allegory, and that would remain its official idiom until nineteenth century protestant theologians added paradox to the tool kit.

Granted, it’s a bit late for atheists to worry about getting back the light that was stolen from philosophy: eleatics, Socratics, skeptics, stoics, epicureans and sophists, all with highly rationalistic if not (exactly) atheistic tendencies. The final nail in the crucifixion of this-worldly knowledge was the teaching that the wisdom of this world (that would include science) is darkness and folly, and that the “true light” is essentially a way beyond, a path to heaven charted by the church.

The word that would come to describe this light is faith (πίστις). And the key thing about faith is that the Church was thought to possess it and (along with grace) dispense it. It was the faith, not faith in a verbal sense as a kind of assent. Much later, the reformers would try to restore an older, and what they thought was a more biblical understanding of St Paul’s favorite word. But it was a quibble. Whoever or whatever possessed it, it was thought be superior to reason; whether you accessed it through a change of heart or through the sacraments, you did not access it in your head. You surrendered to it because you had no other choice.

This is a kind of final-strawism. Thomas Aquinas, as we all know, argued that God could be known through natural reason, to a point, and his five ways or arguments for God’s existence all seem superficially reasonable. But in the long run, the finer things about God–that he is all good, for example–can only be known by faith, because the world we live in is full of ugliness and sorrow and pain and seems to contradict the goodness of God, except as a sadist might define it. The light of truth comes shrouded in darkness. It is the duty of the church, he thought, to reveal it. “Ubi fides est, ratio fallitur.” Where reason fails, faith prevails.

The artistic culture of the west has been a prolonged illustration of religion’s monopoly on light, certainty, closure and truth. Think Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s Paradise, Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, Gretchen’s salvation in Faust. And beyond that, think of every Cinderella story, rags-to-riches-epic, chick-flick. These don’t have to be religious as long as the protagonists end up in love and at the castle.

Now think of Waiting for Godot, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the absurd and existentially restless genres of the twentieth century. On the one hand, the drama and music of the period tolled in the death of God and certainty, illustrated by atonality and abandonment of form and the unities of classical aesthetics. On the other hand, we already see this art as periodically limited to the discovery of psychology and the aftermath of nuclear confusion. In fifty years it will be unreadable except by literary professionals interested in last-century movements. If it means anything in the twenty first century, it underscores David Hart’s comment, “The world is dying of metaphysical boredom.” Atheism is hard pressed to be a solution to that situation, at any level.

Even if by some freak chance atheists in 2012 would grow to 20% of the American population they are still hamstrung by a tradition of seeing skepticism and doubt as a menu for spiritual starvation and human incompleteness. They do not seem to be helped by the attempt of a few aggressive atheists to monopolize the term “Brights” to reclaim their right to the image, or by public displays of blasphemy which seem to attack dogmas that an increasingly illiterate laity don’t know are sacred anyway. (45% of Catholics in a recent poll did not know their Church taught the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Imagine how they’d explain the virgin birth).

When atheists attack religion, it seems to many bystanders that they are attacking the solution to a problem, proposing doubt as a cure for certainty, or despair as a remedy for hope. When they do so in obnoxious ways, they just seem to be grousing about the fact Dante doesn’t give them the choicest rooms in his hell. It hardly seems fair that the unequivocal denial of God shouldn’t be the thing that God hates the most.

Is there a way to revive a debate that was really over before the fifth century of the modern era? To give atheists a chance to negotiate God out of his right to adjectives the Church won fair and square in a game of chance? I can’t answer that. Most atheists I know aren’t even interested in trying.

34 thoughts on “Darkness, Doubt, and Dante

  1. Simply lovely. So Superbly Written and Beautifully Funny … it’s delicious to read such a fabulously expressed analysis penetrating so many peculiar complexities and identifying things with such incisive clarity (as usual) … I’m sure you’ll be booed and excoriated by the same old people, and although that’s a shame, they always complain so it doesn’t matter, because you are right anyway. Atheism has never provided a substitute, as far as I’m aware, which is probably why it deserved to be ignored.

    Of course like many other unbelievers, I am attracted to the writings of believers who struggle to express their faith and I would not dream of driving up the wall. Even Pooh, who although he was not aware of it, really was eminently sensible, would not be bothered by any seeming irrationality, so would not be driven up the wall, although he might wish they’d used short, easy words like “What about lunch?” (“Silly old Bear” says Christopher Robin).

    [caps are intentional]


  2. I begin to think that all atheists are good at is denial. Maybe that is all that is required of them. But how dull they don’t respond to anything but each other. Wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have such dullards as members. How would the conversation begin over drinks? “So, when did you first realize you were an atheist?”

  3. Drinking with atheists is only potentially interesting if they’re diluted with believers, but so many blends of atheists are non dilutable. Which would you rather – wine with a believer or whine with an atheist?

  4. I don’t know about your dialog in the comment section but the post was excellent because it points to the suggestion that the next place for overthrowing, replacing, or otherwise maiming Christianity in the west needs to be done with respect to progress. And it needs to be done by splitting doubt from despair. Fair enough.

    Disavowing the exact philosophical real estate upon which an atheist stands is fine since we’re still in the same vicinity and covering similar ground.

  5. Seth, right: The theft was also an exchange–speculation and skepticism become sullied, when in classical philosophy they are the key elements to enlightenment. My point is that religion was successful in giving existential weight to these images–after all, how many philosophers did Plato think were capable of attaining wisdom? Almost none. And what about hoi polloi? No chance at all. But religion claimed that any goatherd could have it, just by being a good Catholic. And I agree that the project for atheists and agnostics is to suggest ways to re-enthrone doubt and skepticism as the handmaidens of knowledge. Problem is, the denialists I know do not think that atheism has any such obligation. Un-belief is a sufficient end. I don’t buy that.

  6. the project for atheists and agnostics is to suggest ways to re-enthrone doubt and skepticism as the handmaidens of knowledge.

    Now that is indeed the question. But I am not sure its the atheists that are needed to do the project. Atheists are folks who state a negative: no belief. That is not a program. Neither do I see theists volunteering to conduct the proposed project. So where do we turn for those of us who really want to see doubt and skepticism as the handmaidens of knowledge?

  7. dardave,
    To your question, where do we turn for those of us who really want to see doubt and skepticism as the handmaiden of knowledge? You question if atheist are needed for the project and that neither do we see thieists volunteering to conduct it. For just about any kind of knowledge we turn to science -more specifically, to the founders and grand theorists of modern pyhsics (quantum and relativity) physicists, the hardest of the sciences. It just so happens that this group has conducted this very project. So “turn here!”.
    It also just happens that I have posted as comments to the essay Quidlibet: Atheist Attitude quotes by some of this group from their conduct of this project. Be prepared for surprissees! The comments are the 5th September 27, the 6th October 1, and the 7th .You can skip my poor words.

  8. “What’s in a name? That which we call an atheist by any other name would deny so much…” That’s the problem, Dave, which these articles by Professor Hoffmann has discussed. Atheism as it is presented in the public arena, and represented in ‘atheist’ type societies, and particularly in arenas where religion is so pronounced (eg America), appears to focus on it’s identity – ‘a-theism’ – and pronouncement of what it does not believe, and denouncement of those beliefs. Doubt for confessing atheists is all about deity denial and I think this article and previous recent articles on this website investigate positive aspects of unbelief as well as ways to apply doubt constructively towards progress and advancement of knowledge.

  9. Ed and Steph, as someone recent to the humanist movement (although an atheist for 50 years and indifferent to the situation until the radical right turned up the heat), I asked the question in all sincerity. I really appreciate the discussion here. As a Ph. D. chemist, programmer and data mining investigator, I know what the search for the best understanding we can get at the present time means. It takes a lot of time, energy, brains and perseverance to put up with the uncertainties engendered by nature. Atheism is not a religion, its a personal relationship with reality. And given today’s television culture, I wonder if it is possible to entice people with anything requiring more than four minutes of attention. Cheers.

  10. Is it possible to view atheism as one possible gene in a geneplex? For example, an atheist isn’t necessarily a humanist but isn’t a humanist likely to be an atheist by the fact that humanism is a godless pursuit?

    I’ve been sort of imagining raw atheism as a counterculture which leads to the sort of critiques I see here. But we also need a label perpetuated that lumps folks that choose to be godless together. Some of the comments I make and that I read seem to be “I propose atheism simply says we’re godless.” and other people going “Look what atheists are doing to antagonize believers? Isn’t that atheism?”

  11. Dr Dave, I don’t have television. It just doesn’t fit into the way I do things (and I’d rather listen to silence on a mountain top than screaming meemies on TV)… unfortunately my academic pursuits are not in the area of scientific inquiry that yours are but I accept limits of our (particularly my) abilities to ever achieve the answers to the universe. I doubt pretty much everything, except the existence of my toes, with little energy 😉 I think you’re right about attention spans of hoi polloi. I also think alot more than just television in this technology obsessed world is to blame.

    Seth, I think geneplex is an unfortunate metaphor and while humanists, self identified, do tend to be represented by humanist societies whose members are in practice atheists, it is not an exclusively atheist approach to life. In previous posts, Joe has discussed the history and origins of humanism in detail, and I don’t think societies like the British Humanist Society today have much to do with Erasmus. There are many religious humanists who would rather identify themselves according to their religion than as humanists necessarily. I think not including belief in deities in our interpretation and inquiries into the universe, is far more complex than lumping people into a group called atheists. I’m not joining. I’m a believer… 😉

  12. Dr. Dave and any interested.
    The full excerpt from Quantum Questions is found at:
    Mystical Writings of the World’s Greatest Physicists . . . founders and grand theorists of modern (quantum . . . will be one of the central questions of the . . .
    www:ssshambhala.com/html/catalog/items/isbn/978-1-57062-768-cfm?selected Text-EXCERPT-CHAPTER
    I include the entire site description since there are several sites with the book name., only this site seems to have the full excerpt.
    I appreciate the dialougue.

  13. What if someone were to say that atheism and radical skepticism are a necessary prelude to true understanding, that the Via negationis and the long dark night of the soul are necessary precursors to a full spiritual/intellectual life? What if it were argued that most atheists and skeptics don’t go far enough, that they hold on to something rather than taking the risk of denying everything? What if it were argued that all wisdom traditions point to this necessary step, and that there is no contradiction between Greek and Jewish insight, that they are just two different approaches to the same thing, the first being philosophical, and the second mystical? What if there was a modern midwife, someone who could help modern mass men navigate the dark paths toward inner light with scientific precision? Would anyone be interested, or would everyone prefer to remain in the twilight realm where certainty and uncertainty cannot be distinguished? Would they roll their eyes at the claims of yet another guru and his over-zealous disciples? Or would they take a chance, and dare to actually hope that someone could lead them to inner peace?

  14. For those that bemoan the gnu atheists and their fervor, we can take a page from the politics of the radical right and employ the “Overton Window” to our advantage. A cause always needs an advocate for the radical position so that compromise can be made with a more moderate group. Thus, let the gnu atheists do their thing, while the humanists do the growing by assimilation (resistance is futile).

  15. To continue this promising diaglogue, hopefully not to end it.

    The two most important midwives of history:
    The Greek – Plato- 400 BC – with his allegory the Cave.
    The Jewish Jesus – 30 CE – with his idiom the Kingdom of God
    Both were faced with an enormous problem: the need to proclaim their discovery of the solution to the human delimma, the solution being beyond normal sense perceived language, to the largely unresponsive masses.
    Thus Plato fashioned his Cave alegory: mankind was like men in a cave – seeming to be so restrained by chains so that they could only face the walls in front, unable to turn to face the entrance from which the light of an outsde fiire cast shadows on the walls. They came to believe that the shadows, all that they could see, was all that there was. One of the men discovered that the chains were an allusion of and turned to face the light.
    Some 400 years later Jesus proclaimed his discovery of the solution, fashioning his idiom the Kingdom of God. As a Jew he had the advantage of building on the Torah – containing the highest developed God knowledge of any culture of its time. To overcome the language problem he spoke of the Kingdom in indirectly – in prables. The Kingdom is like some everyday sense perceived experience, but with some stark twist overturning common sense understanding.
    Now I have opened a can of wormes. Without developing,, I dare name the crucial Christian problematic. As Reimarus (1770) – the father of the Quest for the historical Jesus (prsenting the challenge: the NT presents two images of Jesus, the person of history and the mythical Christ of fFaith,) said in effect: Search the Scriptures and see if Christianity was not based on a mistake. Indeed it was – Christianity was based on Pauline kerygma – rather than the so-called Jesus Kerygma.
    Just here I make reference to the first 13 comments to the RJH essay The Importance of the Historicl Jesus. The comments contain a reconstruction of the Jesus tradition in the form of a letter I mailed to Joe which CFI failed to pass on and which in frustration I posted (under some stress) as comments. It is largely excerpts from the works of three scholars whom I judge to be the most authorotative on NT critical historical scholars. Overlok the typos.

  16. You should be conscious of what you are throwing away. As Constantin Brunner puts it:

    Greece and Rome thought nothing of the thirty thousand gods, and the mysteries, and all the art treasures and all the poets and philosophers of Greece and Rome; Greece and Rome, and all humanity, regarded the whole of civilization as nothing, and the poor hanged Jew as everything, as their Lord, to whose service they gave everything they had not thrown away. And all this came through the Jewish am haaretz literature.–http://constantinbrunner.info/sbise/1/200503150938.htm

    • Joe himself pretty much said anything I could say on the matter when he mentioned how the Bible is a book of its own time. He said “I have no quarrel with those who want to appreciate the Bible as a product of its own time and culture—with all the conditions that attach to appreciation of that kind. My quarrel is with people who want to make it a document for our time and culture.”

      And what would have me do to be more conscious of this Jesus anyway? I’ve read the New Testament. When can I throw away the Kingdom in favor of the cave?

  17. Thus, to the end of days, all rational men will bow low before this Jesus of Nazareth; and the more self-knowledge they have, the more humbly they will acknowledge the superabundant glory of this great manifestation.–Fichte

  18. Pingback: Darkness, Doubt, and Dante, One of a Series of Unfortunate Reposts | The New Oxonian

  19. “When atheists attack religion, it seems to many bystanders that they are attacking the solution to a problem, proposing doubt as a cure for certainty, or despair as a remedy for hope.”

    The best assessment I’ve seen to date of the US view of atheists. No sure the rest of the West is so judgmental.

    Re: appropriating the “light” – men are moths who need not be led to the candle. They like bright lights all by themselves, especially the fire that throws no light – drugs.

    If redacted Jesuits ever got hold of our personal DNA, and a contract to look after it, I’d be more content than I am now.

  20. Joseph, it’s a MIRACLE – I fully and entirely agree with one of your posts! I’m actually presenting a paper on this topic at the AHA conference this year – “The Symbolic Poverty and Potential of Humanism”. In short, I argue that Humanists need to get over their allergy to symbolism and ritual and try to develop positive Humanist alternatives to religious symbols and narratives. There is much potential for this within Humanism, I’m sure – I think Sagan was a master at it, though some of your writing seems to suggest you disagree ;).

    Readers may enjoy the following, which I wrote when we started The New Humanism magazine:


    • James, excellent article. The Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix is celebrating 12 February with its “Darwin Day Fish Dinner” at 11:30 AM at their Humanist Community Center (hsgp.org). Now that we have a physical facility, we are looking at how to enlarge the community. I think that most of us at HSGP, while skeptical in many ways, have decided that hyper-skepticism is counter productive in a community, and that we enjoy the community we find here.

      • A question: When and just how did “Humanism” become transformed from its origins to loose its relgious identity? Pico della Mirandola associates with the origins of Humanism – one of the most read of the Renaissance philosophers. “Humanism” is not anti-Christian as it has come to mean in some quarters of modern discourse. Late medieval and Renaissance humanism was a response to the standard educational program that focussed on logic and linguistics and that animated the other great late medieval Christian philosophy, Scholarsticism. The Humanists, rather than focussing on what they considred futile questions of logic, semantics and proposition analysis, focussed on the relation of the human to the divine, seeing in human beings the summit and purpose of God’s creation. (They looked out of the cave to see the sole cause of the shadows). Their concern was to define the human place in God’s plan and the relation of the human to the divine; therefore, they centered all their thought on the “human” relation to the divine, and hence called themselves “humanists”. At no point do they ignore their religion; humanism is first and foremost a religious and educational movement, not a secular one (what we call “secular humanism” in modern political discourse- -(to return humanism back to the cave). Pico sought out nothing less than the reconciliation of every human philosophy and every human religion with Christianity.”

  21. Pingback: Darkness, Doubt, and Dante (via The New Oxonian) | The New Oxonian

  22. An after word: – – taking Humanism back within the cave – unable to recognize the sole cause of the shadows – hence loosing its status of being in the kingdom of God – thus removed from Reality,

  23. Alas, most atheists would prefer to sacrifice the traditional symbols and concepts rather than reinterpret them within a modern context where they can acquire some semblance of meaning and relevance. The simple fact that traditional symbols and concepts no longer speak to moderns does not mean that we should abandon them. If only because those seemingly irrelevant symbols and concepts are inseparably fastened to the value system that undergirds progressive societies.

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