The atheist is much closer to God than the agnostic.
In Christ’s words “My God, My God – why hast thou forsaken me” we sense the passion and grief that comes from Man’s separation from God. The atheist strives both to maintain this separation, while railing against all those who claim it can be overcome. Their faith in emptiness itself (Nihilism) or their assertion that they have the right assert their own meaning (Existentialism) is a comprehensible – if confused – act of faith.
They know something more is required – and they refuse to be fobbed off with second-hand goods. They sense, as Weil puts it:
“God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.”
The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future – reaching out into the far future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness, and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake. And it is a defect in such enthusiasts that they seem unwilling to leave anything to Providence, unwilling even to leave the future flexible, as one must do; and they forget that in any case, for all we know, our successors may decide to switch ideals and look for a different utopia before any of our long shots have reached their objective, or any of our long-range projects have had fulfilment. It is agreeable to all the processes of history, therefore, that each of us should rather do the good that is straight under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump, that those who are ever thinking that life is vain unless one can act though the central government, carry legislation, achieve political power and do big things.
From Herbert Butterfield’s Christianity and History
I came across the wonderful book in a second-hand book store in Sheffield – it is a real forgotten treasure: a great history Professor reflecting upon the relationship of history to faith and moral action.
I love this passage partly because it describes so well one of those tempting traps all dreamers can fall into. We think we know what should be done, we think we know what the future should be like, we think we should be the one to push the buttons. But this is all vain: the truths we’ve grasped are only partial, whatever we want others may not want, and there are no buttons – life is far too complex to be directed by anyone – least of all us.
These points seem true regardless of our faith or any lack of faith. However Butterfield also describes how faith in Providence – God working his purposes out over time – can help us manage our anxiety and our passion for moral change. A combination of utopian dreaming and atheism is particularly dangerous because you can have no faith that change will happen right, unless it is you who are in charge of that change (for there is no guiding Providence at work). More frighteningly still, you are free to breach all moral principles in pursuit of your dream, because nothing matters except the dream.
Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only no one were able to acquire material power over others. But to the human being who has faith in some force that holds dominion over all of us, and who is therefore conscious of his own limitations, power is not necessarily fatal. For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is deadly poison. For them there is no antidote.
Of course the existence of the religious totalitarian seems to contradict Solzhenitsyn. We can certainly find plenty of religious people who are quite capable of believing that they know what God wants and that they are entitled to act out his wishes.
But even a religious maniac must – logically – recognise he could be wrong. He knows he is subject to another power – even if he has deceived himself that he is its agent.
Those who reject all moral authority outside themselves, the true existentialists, cannot be wrong. This is why the poison of power is so dangerous to them. Not because they are essentially any worse than the religious, but when you see no constraint other than what you are able to achieve with the power that you do have then the temptation to acquire more power, and to protect yourself with that power, can quickly become over-powering.
Logic impels each honest atheist to become a tin-pot dictator. What other choice can he have? Who else can he believe in than himself? When push comes to shove even ordinary standards of integrity and honesty must be sacrificed if they get in the way of success.