The Atheistic Literary Style

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I’m currently about halfway through G.K. Chesterton’s book Eugenics and Other Evils, and as always, am quite enjoying his keen wit and wisdom. Earlier today I came across this passage I found particularly interesting, in which the author observes that atheists write in their own unique and characteristic style:

[T]here is such a thing as an atheistic literary style… materialism may appear in the mere diction of a man, though he be speaking of clocks or cats or anything quite remote from theology. The mark of the atheistic style is that it instinctively chooses the word which suggests that things are dead things; that things have no souls. Thus they will not speak of waging war, which means willing it; they speak of the “outbreak of war,” as if all the guns blew up without the men touching them. Thus those Socialists that are atheist will not call their international sympathy, sympathy; they will call it “solidarity,” as if the poor men of France and Germany were physically stuck together like dates in a grocer’s shop. The same Marxian Socialists are accused of cursing the Capitalists inordinately; but the truth is that they let the Capitalists off much too easily. For instead of saying that employers pay less wages, which might pin the employers to some moral responsibility, they insist on talking about the “rise and fall” of wages; as if a vast silver sea of sixpences and shillings was always going up and down automatically like the real sea at Margate. Thus they will not speak of reform, but of development; and they spoil their one honest and virile phrase, “the class war,” by talking of it as no one in his wits can talk of a war, predicting its finish and final result as one calculates the coming of Christmas Day or the taxes. Thus, lastly (as we shall see touching our special subject-matter here) the atheist style in letters always avoids talking of love or lust, which are things alive, and calls marriage or concubinage “the relations of the sexes”; as if a man and a woman were two wooden objects standing in a certain angle and attitude to each other, like a table and a chair.

Chesterton was writing half a century before Francis Schaeffer and others began writing about worldviews, but he’s talking about the same thing. Our presuppositions about how the world came into existence and how it continues to work really do affect the way we think–and write–about everything “from clocks to cats.”

The Soul With Its Pants On

I enjoyed this quote by the title character in Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:

I took to studying the ones of my teachers who were also preachers, and also the preachers who came to speak in chapel and at various exercises. In most of them I saw the same division of body and soul that I had seen at The Good Shepherd. The same rift ran through everything at Pigeonville College; the only difference was that I was able to see it more clearly, and to wonder at it. Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good  was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins–hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust–came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and it’s pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body (p. 49).

A Terrible Indictment of Human Nature

I came across this quote listening to the audiobook of Basic Christianity by John Stott, which you can download for free here until the end of the month. Stott is talking about the development of liberal theology in the early 20th century, in which the biblical concepts of original sin and total depravity were replaced by a belief that men are fundamentally good. Rather than being sinful in our very nature, we are merely corrupted by things external to us; we are victims rather than criminals. But this does not jive with reality. Consider Stott:

Much that we take for granted in a civilized society is based upon the assumption of human sin. Nearly all legislation has grown up because human beings cannot be trusted to settle their own disputes with justice and without self-interest. A promise is not enough; we need a contract. Doors are not enough; we have to lock and bolt them. The payment of fares is not enough; tickets have to be issued, inspected and collected. Law and order are not enough; we need the police to enforce them. All this is due to man’s sin. We cannot trust each other. We need protection against one another. It is a terrible indictment of human nature.

Thanks be to God who, in Christ, has delivered me from this body of death! He has given me a new heart and a renewed mind. He has placed within me the Holy Spirit, by whose power I am delivered from slavery to my own sinful nature into the happy bondage of righteousness!

Where Can I Hide From God?

I love this passage from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which the great Reformation theologian expounds upon the sensus divinitatis — the “sense of the divine” — which exists within every human mind. Calvin argues that even those who most despise God are unable to escape the awareness of divinity which is “engraved upon men’s minds”:

If, indeed, there were some in the past, and today not a few appear, who deny that God exists, yet willy-nilly they from time to time feel an inkling of what they desire not to believe. One reads of no one who burst forth into bolder or more unbridled contempt of deity than Gaius Caligula; yet no one trembled more miserably when any sign of God’s wrath manifested itself; thus — albeit unwillingly — he shuddered at the God whom he professedly sought to despise. You may see now and again how this also happens to those like him; how he who is the boldest despiser of God is of all men the most startled at the rustle of a falling leaf.

Whence does this arise but from the vengeance of divine majesty, which strikes their consciences all the more violently the more they try to flee from it? Indeed, they seek out every subterfuge to hide themselves from the Lord’s presence, and to efface it again from their minds. But in spite of themselves they are always entrapped. Although it may sometimes seem to vanish for a moment, it returns at once and rushes in with new force. If for these there is any respite from anxiety of conscience, it is not much different from the sleep of drunken or frenzied persons, who do not rest peacefully even while sleeping because they are continually troubled with dire and dreadful dreams. The imious themselves therefore exemplify the fact that some conception of God is ever alive in all men’s minds.

A Preacher’s Best Kindness

Why Jonathan Edwards preached the doctrine of hell:

“If there be really a hell of such dreadful, and never-ending torments, as is generally supposed, that multitudes are in great danger of, and that the bigger part of men in Christian countries do actually from generation to generation fall into, for want of a sense of the terribleness of it, and their danger of it, and so for want of taking due care to avoid it; then why is it not proper for those that have the care of souls, to take great pains to make men sensible of it? Why should not they be told as much of the truth as can be? If I am in danger of going to hell, I should be glad to know as much as possibly I can of the dreadfulness of it: if I am very prone to neglect due care to avoid it, he does me the best kindness, that does most to represent to me the truth of the case, that sets forth my misery and danger in the liveliest manner.”

~ Jonathan Edwards, Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God

On Doing Good for the Poor

In the mid-18th century, the British Parliament was tampering with the price of various commodities, imposing tariffs and duties on the importing and exporting of these commodities in the American colonies and elsewhere in the Empire. Then, as today, this type of government meddling was ostensibly meant to help the poor. Thankfully, many American patriots realized that these centralizing policies helped no one but the State, and only served to perpetuate the dependency of the poor on their masters.

Check out this scathing commentary from a letter penned by Benjamin Franklin, published in The London Chronicle in 1766, titled “On the Price of Corn and Management of the Poor”:

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick or lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many alms-houses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor. Under all these obligations, are our poor modest, humble, and thankful; and do they use their best endeavors to maintain themselves, and lighten our shoulders of this burden? On the contrary, I affirm that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent. The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness. In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty.

[Read the full letter here. It’s great!]

Capitalists and libertarians are often accused of being apathetic toward the condition of the poor. In reality, capitalism remains the best and most effective means of alleviating poverty ever devised. For more on why Christians who are concerned for the poor (and, really, this ought to be a redundant phrase) should be capitalists, I highly recommend Jay Richards’ book Money, Greed, and God (my review).

Cashing In On Guilt

“There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted—and you create a nation of law-breakers—and then you cash in on guilt.”

~from Atlas Shrugged