What Atheists Want
Christmas, a kind and generous friend, who is also an unbeliever, sent me a copy of a book
called The Might of the West, described on the dust jacket as
A new interpretation of Western history its development in
medieval times and its decline today.
First published in 1963 by Joseph J. Binns of New York and Washington, the book is readily available through Amazon.com. Given its high approval ratings, it appears to be something of a cult classic, though I am unable to find matches for the author, Lawrence R. Brown, on the Internet. Brown, an engineer by profession, was a learned man, an excellent stylist, and an original and provocative thinker, whose striking thesis, contrary to the established reading of Western history, holds that no real continuity exists between classical and medieval civilization and that of the West, which Brown argues began in the
Brown traces the histories of the six preceding civilizations Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese, Indian, Classical, and Levantine with particular attention to the modes of thought typified by each. The flap copy states the argument clearly.
I am not here concerned with Browns interesting and partly persuasive views regarding the continuity of the civilization we call Western, nor with the implications of his contention that the Jewish civilization from which Christ arose has little in common with the Christian civilization of the West that came later. (Who would think, really, of denying the obvious?) Nor, finally, am I interested in
The primary thesis of The Might of the West, it is true, is not that there is no God and that Jesus Christ is not his son. But Brown does deny that ideas such as cause or God which for him are merely mechanical and emotional words for the same thing are illusions that exist within the mind, not beyond it.
Moreover, he expends much intellectual effort in applying the historicist argument to the Old and New Testaments to prove (a) that the first was edited by Jewish priests to construct a historical pedigree for the Jews who predated the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, about
Much of this was old hat almost 50 years ago, while the historicist method of Biblical criticism was a going operation in the
Atheists actually demand more, not less, of God than do believers, the faithful. Indeed, their fundamental (and fundamentalist) approach to revealed religion demonstrates as much. The atheist quarrel with Divine Revelation at bottom is not that Revelation is nonsense and a fraud. It is that Revelation, such as we have it, is not direct enough.
Like all men impatient of veils and indirection, atheists (of the garden variety, at least) have no use for poetry, which they are quite incapable of recognizing, let alone understanding. Lawrence Brown has made a thorough study of the Bible. Alas, he has given it a literal reading where he ought to have given it a poetic one. Revelation is nothing if not divine poetry, but Brown, like the vast majority of his kind, will have none of it. For him, the Bible is inaccurate and dishonest history that cannot be verified by modern historical research. How can it be said to have been divinely inspired he intimates when all of its books can be shown to have been edited and re-edited by priests and others seeking to fabricate a religion? The notion that the editing, as well as the writing, of the books of the Bible, might have been inspired by the Holy Ghost never occurs to him. (Perhaps the notion was too historicist for Lawrence Brown!)
Of course, the problem with reading the Bible as faked history is that the most important passages of the Testaments, Old and New, are not historical at all but profoundly poetic, moral, and theological. To read the historical accounts in this context allows the reader to understand that the story of the Bible is not the literal narrative of Gods historical engagement with mankind, but the one he wanted us to have, for reasons known only to himself.
One has to feel sorry for atheists. They can believe in the Word of God only if the Book that embodies it can be shown to embody as well the scientific proof of its Truth. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of Jesus Christ has, in one respect at least, been very explicit and direct in telling us that we are saved by faith alone, and that faith is the belief in things unseen.
Atheism is not independence, and it is certainly not freedom. Rather, it is human neediness and dependency in their most extreme form, a cry for divine aid that, in the case of such as Lawrence Brown, expresses itself in pseudo scholarship and, in that of Christopher Hitchens, assumes the form of a curse. Because the atheist, too, is a human being, craving Gods certainty and his love. He only pretends to us and to him that he is not.
Chilton Williamson Jr.
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