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The Sins of Organized Irreligion

(Reprinted from SOBRANS, June, page 1)
Nearly every Christian, I suppose, has had the experience of being belabored by unbelievers about the putative sins of what is termed “organized religion” — the Spanish Inquisition, the trial of Galileo, the Salem witch-hunts, and so forth. What surprises me is that Christians have been so slow to turn the argument around and point to the record of what we may call “organized irreligion.”

Since we Christians regard faith as a gift, we seldom resent unbelief as such. You can’t very well blame someone for not having received a gift, but there are those who angrily reject gifts, or who resent the good fortune of those who do receive them, or who are otherwise This is 
the lead article to the June 2006 issue, The Sins of Organized Irreligion -- 
Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.something other than people who don’t “happen to be” religious in all innocence.

If religion can be evaluated as a social phenomenon, in terms of its visible effects on human behavior, so can unbelief. To begin with the most colossal example, the militant atheism of the Soviet Union has resulted in the murder of tens of millions of people on grounds of their mere membership in so-called counterrevolutionary or reactionary classes. Graham Greene contends that the Inquisition might have killed that many people, had it been technologically feasible to do so, but we may doubt this. The Inquisition executed tens of thousands of people over several centuries for what were at least treated as individual crimes. Just or unjust, these executions were judicial in form and were performed against persons, not classes. The perversions of Christianity are also to some extent limited by Christianity. The perversions of atheism recall Dostoyevsky’s famous remark, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

This or that atheist may protest against Dostoyevsky’s inference, but the fact remains that many atheists have made the same inference themselves. Enlightened atheists sometimes sneer at Christians who behave themselves only because they fear hellfire — and it may be true that there are higher motives for good conduct — but it is hardly consistent to make this criticism and then to assume simultaneously that such Christians will keep behaving themselves once they cease believing in the afterlife.

I can imagine one kind of atheist — let us call him “the pious atheist” — who arrives at his unbelief without joy, simply as an intellectual conclusion. I suppose such a man would regard Christian civilization with the kind of affection and respect a Roman convert to Christianity in Augustine’s day would feel for the dying Roman Empire, for Cicero and Virgil and Marcus Aurelius. He would feel that, although that world had passed away, it had left much of enduring value. We actually do see pious atheists who may regret the Inquisition but who also cherish Dante, Monteverdi, Spenser, Milton, Bach, Handel, Dr. Johnson. To cease believing in the viability of this Christian civilization is not necessarily either to condemn it or to assume an attitude of enmity toward it.

Yet there is another sort of atheist who does regard himself as Christendom’s enemy. Far from cherishing its past, he condemns it and would wipe out every trace of it in the present. He hates and fears every sign of it: the Catholic Church, Moral Majority, the inscription “In God We Trust.” He thinks that humanity is now free at last from dogma and superstition, and he would get on with the business of creating a new world on progressive and scientific principles. The difference between the two kinds of atheists is roughly the difference between Santayana and Sartre.

Richard Weaver wrote that a person has no right to advocate any reform of the world unless he shows by some prior affirmation that he does indeed cherish some aspects of the world as it is. Our pious atheist meets this test. He sees the passing of the Christian order as a highly equivocal development, if a necessary and inevitable one. He knows he lives in a continuing world, and he has the grace and wisdom to appreciate Christianity as an attempt to express, however imperfectly, truths about that world. If he finds some who still believe, he is not altogether eager to correct them. He understands Gonzalo’s rebuke to Sebastian in The Tempest:
My lord Sebastian,
The truth you speak doth lack some gentleness
And time to speak it in.
And he understands the reflection of Henry V:
There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distill it out....
The pious atheist, moreover, will not be so sanguine about what is to succeed the Christian order. For him the mere negation of God is, in itself, no cultural substitute for the Christian myths and symbols that have shown their power to sustain generations of human beings. Atheism in itself has no cohesive force. Whatever social cohesion it has provided so far has come more from its destructive hostility to the Christian civilization it has totally failed to improve on. Looking at the organized masses of his fellow atheists, the pious atheist may prefer erring with Augustine to being right with such as these.

The godless order has brought us Communism and abortion clinics. It has yet to produce its Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, or Dante. We can understand the man of no religious faith feeling that he at least prefers the company of the believers to that of the current pack of unbelievers.

It may be that the characteristic evils of the twentieth century don’t necessarily follow, in strict logic, from the denial of God’s existence. The historical fact remains that they have followed. As the Marxists say, it is no accident. If it is fair to hold believers responsible for the actions of Christians as an identifiable historical body — “organized religion” — then it is equally fair to hold unbelievers responsible, too.

Yet we persist in treating atheism as if it were nothing but a private cognitive matter, of no public concern, eligible for the conventional protections we accord to, say, the varieties of Protestant belief. For some people it may be that, but it is time to recognize that atheism is also a systematic, organized, and socially powerful negation, driven by furious hostility to religious tradition. Personally, many of its votaries are boorish and indiscriminate in their refusal to give Christianity real credit for anything; they have no desire to assimilate anything of its heritage, even those parts Christianity itself assimilated from its various pagan heritages.

The militant-atheist animus belongs to what I have elsewhere called the “alienist” animus, the willfully estranged attitude toward the general society typical of modern intellectuals and found, in various ways, among some so-called minority groups. The fault lines of alienism don’t really coincide with obvious social lines of division. It may occur more often among, say, Jews, than among Mormons, it may be increasing among Catholics as it decreases among Jews, but its occurrence can never be predicted in the individual case on the basis of group membership. In fact, some so-called minorities, such as “gays,” are not even minorities by inheritance.

Some numerical minorities, like Mormons, aren’t even thought of as minorities in the subtle special sense of the word now current. That word virtually embodies a presumption of disaffection from the general society, and this disaffection is itself presumed to be justified by what is termed the minority’s victimization at the hands of a more or less monolithic majority. If we look more closely, I believe we will even find that the very idea of a minority in this sense is largely a rhetorical device for covertly attacking what remains of the Christian culture.

Tension and hostility between different ethnic and credal groups is natural, but it is also a reciprocal affair: neither side is likely to be wholly innocent. Still, the Christian side, as it happens, is likely to have a certain Christian willingness to give a charitable benefit of doubt and to assume a share of the guilt. It is only natural for the non-Christian or anti-Christian side to accept this favor without returning it. For this reason Christians in the modern world have been slow to recognize and respond adequately to their enemies — even their declared enemies.

When an intellectual tells us that “the white race is the cancer of history,” clearly using the white race as a surrogate for historical Christendom, we are hearing something other than the voice of the disinterested intellect. We are hearing an expression of nihilistic hatred. Unbelief as such does not impel this kind of fanaticism.

It is remarkable that we have been so slow to recognize this specific form of hatred, so much in evidence, as a social problem or even as a social phenomenon. The language abounds in words signifying the hatreds, fears, and suspicions of cultural insiders toward outsiders. We are all acquainted with racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, nativism, and the like; these words have a certain hothouse quality about them, suggesting their recent invention to serve particular needs. Even older words such as prejudice, bias, bigotry, discrimination, and hatred itself have taken on the same anti-majoritarian connotations, although it is humanly probable that there is hostility of at least equal intensity in the opposite direction. We have no specific vocabulary at all to suggest this reciprocal possibility.

Yet disaffection from the society one inhabits is always an available attitude. A glance at Shakespeare confirms this. His plays offer a gallery of characters who, for one reason or another, have chosen an attitude of antagonism toward their societies. Some, like Shylock, are not without provocation; some, like Iago, indulge the universal temptation to envy, with no real excuse. Shylock gives his angry reasons; Iago can’t explain himself except to himself — and he is struck dumb when, his full villainy exposed, his society confronts him.

For our present purposes, Edmund in King Lear may be the most interesting example. Presumably Shakespeare doesn’t believe in the gods Lear believes in, but he clearly doesn’t care for Edmund’s cavalier attitude toward them. The pious characters — Lear, Cordelia, Kent, Edgar — are all shown as Edmund’s moral superiors, whatever their other defects. We know little about Shakespeare’s own religious beliefs, but he patently respects a society’s right to its sense of the sacred, to the shared symbols of holiness held in common by unreflective people — which is to say, by most people in their unreflective moments.

Almost without exception, Shakespeare’s “alienated” characters are villains — enemies of social peace and order. They are recognizably human, and they sometimes appeal powerfully to our sympathies, but there is no doubt of their villainy in action. Their villainy consists precisely in their active enmity toward the society around them. The apostate is also a social defector.

The assumptions embodied in the very structure of these plays are directly opposed to the assumption that hatred and hostility are always to be imputed to society. This imputation itself expresses hostility, and we do well to raise our guard against those who make it. Whatever atheism may mean abstractly, in our own world it often means a specific and militant hatred of Christianity, a hatred as particularist as anti-Semitism, and as deadly.

This essay originally appeared in Center Journal (Spring 1985) of Notre Dame University, Notre Dame, Indiana.

Joseph Sobran

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