The Atheist’s Dilemma

In his 1940 review of Malcolm Muggeridge’s social history, The Thirties, George Orwell describes the gradual amputation of modern man’s soul—an operation that went mostly unnoticed. Orwell argues that this operation was both inevitable and necessary. “Religious belief, in the form in which we had known it, had to be abandoned.” Yet he acknowledged the terrible vacuum that had been created. Instead of progress, mankind witnessed the worst sort of atavism:

It is as though in the space of ten years we had slid back into the Stone Age. Human types supposedly extinct for centuries… have suddenly reappeared, not as inmates of lunatic asylums, but as the masters of the world. Mechanisation and a collective economy seemingly aren’t enough. By themselves they lead merely to the nightmare we are now enduring….

Muggeridge was a disillusioned Marxist but not yet a Christian (he would be in later years). He found himself wistfully recalling snatches of biblical wisdom from his semi-agnostic childhood. Such an outlook is inconsistent to Orwell’s mind and he clearly desires an alternative.

[I]f one assumes that no sanction can ever be effective except the supernatural one, it is clear what follows. There is no wisdom except in the fear of God; but nobody fears God; therefore there is no wisdom. Man’s history reduces itself to the rise and fall of material civilisations, one Tower of Babel after another. In that case we can be pretty certain what is head of us. Wars and yet more wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions, Hitlers and super-Hitlers – and so downwards into abysses which are horrible to contemplate….

In this respect Orwell was at least more honest than the late Christopher Hitchens, who believed that religion was the primary, if not the sole, instigator of evil and tyranny in the world. There is a paradox at the heart of any atheist’s struggle with religion. People like Orwell may be scandalized by Christian belief (and more so by its imperfect practice). Yet once you remove religion from society, do things really improve?

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