Where are the clever atheists of yesteryear?

Christianity has always had bitter enemies, but it used to have better ones. Nietzsche, for example, might have detested Christianity, but at least he understood it.

Another product of those backward Middle Ages

Hence he gave Christianity the courtesy of hating it for what it actually is: a religion of love, compassion and mercy, one that promises that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Not much room for Nietzsche’s pagan Übermensch there – rather than loving the meek, he’d trample over them.

Yet the right to attack Christianity has to be earned: by learning about it, identifying its supposed weak points and offering sound criticism proceeding from a cogent intellectual stance.

However, a critic who proceeds merely from febrile atheism unsupported by any real knowledge – or whose atheism overrides his knowledge – will mouth nothing but embarrassing nonsense. This, even if he happens to be otherwise clever and erudite.

Thus people like Richard Dawkins, Lewis Wolpert or the late Christopher Hitchens, all intelligent within limits, sound like truculent pupils with learning difficulties whenever the word ‘God’ crosses their lips.

For example, those three gentlemen and other professional atheists typically ascribe all wars and genocide to religious fanaticism.

Since the two militantly atheist creeds of the twentieth century, communism and Nazism, between them ran up a higher murderous score than all the Christian centuries combined, one would think such a proposition would be hard to defend.

But that’s where the sleight of hand comes in: those chaps simply claim that communism and Nazism are religions too, albeit secular ones. The syllogism they activate for this purpose is as reassuringly simple as it’s frankly idiotic. Thesis: I don’t like mass murder; antithesis: I don’t like Christianity; synthesis: ergo, Christianity is principally responsible for mass murder.

Because Jacques Le Goff’s profession was history rather than atheism, his book Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 (La civilisation de l’Occident medieval) is informative, well-researched and generally useful. Yet, though atheism is only a side line to Le Goff (d. 2014), it still succeeds in compromising his intellectual integrity.

Anyway, it’s not immediately clear how someone can devote his life to the study of the Middle Ages without cherishing Christianity, even if he doesn’t believe in it. After all, nothing else has ever shaped any period of European history as thoroughly as Christianity shaped the object of Le Goff’s investigation.

Yet Le Goff manifestly doesn’t cherish Christianity, for otherwise his comprehensively educated mind would have prevented him from writing arrant nonsense about it.

For example, Le Goff repeats the popular misconception also shared by other thinkers, including some who described themselves as Christians, such as Leo Tolstoy and Vasily Rozanov (d. 1919).

To Le Goff, medieval Christianity was some kind of disembodied spiritualism: “[Medieval] society… lived under the pressure of Christian ideas of contempt for the body – although the prospect of the resurrection of the body at the Last Judgement forced people to look for salvation also by means of the body.”

The disclaimer part of the sentence is merely a garnish; the meat of the idea is that Christianity despised the body. That misapprehension led Rozanov to loving Judaism while at the same time incongruously hating Jews. Unlike lifeless Christianity, he wrote, Judaism was fermented with blood and semen.

And Tolstoy who, unlike Rozanov, hated Christianity (apart from the Sermon on the Mount) with barely concealed malice, preached (though didn’t practise) sexual teetotalism because he claimed Christ demanded it.

Of course Christianity couldn’t have demanded anything like that because it taught that the end of physical life on earth would arrive with the Second Coming – not within one generation as a result of people desisting from sex.

In Rozanov’s case, this was an unfortunate misunderstanding: he conflated some ascetic strains of Christianity with the totality of Christian doctrine. In Tolstoy’s case, it was wilful distortion. And in Le Goff’s case, it was more like clutching at atheist straws, although his disclaimer points at some inner conflict in his thinking.

Now I don’t mind atheists, provided they either refrain from arguing against Christianity or, if they can’t, simply say they don’t believe in it. Faith is a gift in the strict sense of the word, something presented by an outside donor. Some get that gift, some don’t – such is life.

What upsets me is non-Christians getting inside Christian doctrine, misinterpreting or even perverting it and then launching their attacks from the base of emotionally tinged ignorance.

For it is indeed ignorant to claim that Christianity teaches “contempt for the body”, and it’s especially odd when an internationally renowned historian does so.

After all, St John writes in his gospel that “the Word was made flesh”, not a disembodied spirit. Also, the Apostles’ Creed, while saying nothing about the soul, states instead the belief “in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”.

The Church always treated as heretical all movements that denied the physical reality of Jesus. Thus in 325 the First Council of Nicaea unequivocally trounced the Docetic heresy that claimed that Christ only seemed to be human.

That year is outside the period specified in Le Goff’s title, but the 451 Council of Chalcedon just makes it. The Chalcedonian definition specified that Jesus is “perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man”.

And surely the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) falls into the period under study. That was a foray against the Manichaean Cathar heresy that regarded the material world including the human body as the work of the devil.

Jesus himself never preached anything like “contempt for the body”. For example, he blessed the wedding at Cana by turning water into wine – this though he knew perfectly well what happens after nuptial celebrations.

Nor, if the evangelists are to be believed, was Jesus himself necessarily abstemious: “The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber…”

Jabs at Christianity are scattered all over Le Goff’s text. For example, he accuses Christianity of wiping out the culture of classical antiquity:

“The vandalism shown by medieval Christianity was exercised at the expense of antique paganism just as much as it was at the expense of medieval heresies (whose books and monuments were pitilessly destroyed) and was only one aspect of the historical totalitarianism which made it wipe out all the weeds which were growing in the field in the past… However, when Aristotle or Virgil… escaped this ostracism, it was to be ridiculed.”

This is bilge. Surely Le Goff must be aware of Plato’s influence on Christianity early in his designated period of study and Aristotle’s late in it? And if he thinks that Aquinas merely used Aristotle for ridicule purposes, he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Ours is an asset-stripping religion: Christian thinkers took what they found useful in antiquity and discarded the rest. Thus Aquinas is said to have baptised Aristotle, that is fused his philosophy with Christian theology. One consequence of such fusion was the preservation of ancient thought, not its ridicule.

As to Christianity ridiculing Virgil, and presumably other Latin poets, one wonders how much Le Goff knew about poetry. In fact, Western versification owes to Virgil, Horace and Ovid so much as to owe them practically everything. It was only in the late nineteenth century that poets began to deviate from classical models, and even then only cautiously.

Elsewhere Le Goff blames the Church for the “technical poverty and stagnation” of the Middle Ages. This too is so nonsensical that one has to believe the author was blinded by his atheism.

As a historian, he must have been aware of the technological progress directly attributable to the Church during the Middle Ages. The Cistercians, for example, built the first European foundries and revolutionised wool weaving.

Anyone who has seen medieval Romanesque and Gothic churches will bear witness not only to their aesthetic beauty but also to the intricate technology involved in building them. Yet it wasn’t just great cathedrals but also great universities that were founded under the Church’s aegis.

The Middle Ages saw such vital inventions as vertical windmills, mechanical clocks, spectacles and saddles with spurs. And three-field rotation discovered then changed agriculture for ever.

It’s true that medieval scientists and engineers fell short of developing jet travel, computers and 4×4 SUVs. But by the standards of their time, they produced something that’s a far cry from the “technical poverty and stagnation” of Le Goff’s fantasy – and Christendom certainly did better in that respect than any other contemporaneous civilisation.

Still, it’s unsporting to argue against modern atheists – one almost wishes for worthier opponents. So Friedrich Nietzsche, please come back. All is forgiven.  

5 thoughts on “Where are the clever atheists of yesteryear?”

  1. Hitler was certainly not an atheist, that becomes quite clear in his Mein Campf. Also if God does exist, why is it that not all people get the “gift” to believe in him? It just does not make sence to me..

    1. It doesn’t make “sence” to me either.i imagine that Our Lord gave us free will to be militant atheists and “eliterates”…

  2. “Tolstoy . . . preached (though didn’t practise) sexual teetotalism because he claimed Christ demanded it.”

    A good idea for all to follow. Just not starting today.

  3. If I were an atheist I would not want to lock horns with you, Mr.Boot. Though I dare say Nietzsche would not have minded. But then again, Nietzsche was no atheist. He’s too divine.

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