June 2006
                       (page 1)

The Sins of Organized Irreligion
by Joe Sobran

     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 

     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 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 

     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 

      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, 

     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 

     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 

     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.


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