The Recovered Atheist

How the "Naïve Impression of Evil" Saved Me from a Lifetime of Dread and Despair

I remember with uneven clarity my first great encounter with evil. I was 5 or 6 years old and found my father watching television. Onscreen was a desperate fellow, wretched and chain-clad, engaged in some indefinable but backbreaking labor—galley work, I now know. Memory's eye recalls a beard—a tangled, knotted mass—and exhausted clothing, filthy and threadbare.

"Why's that man tied up?" I asked.

"He's a prisoner," my father answered. "He stole something."

Even my own limited life experience corroborated the sense of this: Do wrong, get caught, be punished. To confirm that I had rightly puzzled the situation together, I said, "He's a bad man." My father's eyes held my own and considered me. After a moment, he shook his head.

"He stole bread because his family was starving. They were hungry, and he wanted to end that hunger."

I remember feeling nauseous and something like a cavity opening in my chest. More occurred, of course, but the short of it is that I knew abruptly that life was not always going to be the way I knew it ought to be. Life would not be fair, and I hated this unfairness. I was distressed, bewildered, and angry. Then followed the first great intellectual response of my life: I made a noise like a muffled howl and stumbled away in tears. I still believe this is the appropriate thing to do when innocence is lost.

Undeniable Reality and the Scream in the Night

I didn't know it at the time, but what I had encountered is called the "naïve impression" of evil. Contrary to contemporary usage, "naïve" here isn't a pejorative term; gleaned from old French, it describes an intuition that is unlearned, untutored, and untaught. The naïve impression of evil is thus the moral equivalent of the involuntary physical shudder one feels at sudden cold. It is made up of three successive components that occur nearly simultaneously, but which are nevertheless distinct: the certainty that what ought not to be is; the preference for the way things ought to be; and a rage that strikes like tinder, igniting our indignation against what ought not to be.

Leaving this childhood encounter and fast-forwarding to college, you would find me a faltering atheist studying the Holocaust and confronted again with the enormity of evil. I raged at the Nazis for their unspeakable atrocities. Voicing an ancient complaint, I told my Christian friends that the existence of Auschwitz posed seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their theism: It isn't possible for God to be all-powerful and all-good and for evil to exist; something here must not be true.

Os Guinness once asked, "Have you ever heard an atheist exclaim 'Goddamnit!' and really mean it?" Think about it. What would be vulgar to say in any other context is, as a response to evil, utterly appropriate—in fact, it is the only appropriate response. There I was, shaking my fist at Auschwitz and crying out to a God in whom I didn't believe to condemn something I had no real reason to hate. There again was this naïve impression, the "intuitive flash," as Guinness put it, that what I was encountering was evil and had to be resisted and rejected categorically. I knew—I knew—that Auschwitz was not the way things ought to be. Guinness writes that "Goddamnit!" is often an atheist's unwitting prayer—the first for one whose gut-level instincts are better than his articulated theology.

Previously in this magazine, Greg Koukl argued significantly that an awareness of moral standards demonstrates the existence of God and thus unseats atheism. I would like to revisit similar terrain but traverse a different path. Here is why atheism fails to account for my gut-level reactions to the reality of evil. First, atheism cannot satisfactorily substantiate my hatred of evil and my desire to restrain it. Second, atheism cannot offer a basis for the hope that in our time we can overcome or diminish particular evils. This is an overwhelming loss for anyone who desires a consistent worldview that is sufficiently able to address the perennial questions: Where did we come from? What went wrong? Who can fix it? And how will it end? Failing to answer these questions, atheism proves a life-draining doctrine that ultimately results in only dread and despair.

"Evil" Is Really Saying Something

In the course of studying the Holocaust, I confided to a Christian friend of mine my hatred of Nazism and wondered aloud at so cruel an evil. While my friend shared my condemnation, he insisted that, as an atheist, I had no right to it. He pointed out that to call something evil is a value judgment, and that when it came to competing value judgments, my godlessness held no means to adjudicate between my own values and those of the Nazis. "A man does not call something crooked," C. S. Lewis famously noted, "unless he has some idea of a straight line."

Eliminate God, and you eliminate any corresponding absolute right or wrong. To call a thing evil, then, is mere opinion—one impression set against a million counter-impressions. I was confronted with a choice: Either I accepted atheism and the moral relativism that it required, or I accepted morality and its distinction between right and wrong that carried meaning beyond my own preferences.

It's not that an atheist is incapable of making accurate moral condemnations; it's just that such denunciations are groundless if atheism is true. If there is no final arbiter of right and wrong, then, quite simply, there is no right and wrong. If someone were to tell me that his favorite food is pizza, and I countered by insisting that my favorite food is cranberry sauce, everyone would rightly think me thickheaded. Likewise, if morality is purely personal taste and evil is thus merely subjective, then preference is ultimately arbitrary and condemnation nonsense. Feed the poor? Why not feed them poison?!

This is why the naïve impression of evil is so significant. As an untutored, intuitive response, it helps reduce exposure to external, potentially corrupting influences to a minimum, allowing us to glimpse a sense of evil that is, in one theologian's phrasing, "free from the sophistications perfected by the experts in their commentaries on, and doctrines of, evil." In other words, it's free of the twaddle that sometimes undermines common sense. Most folks recognize that rape, murder, humiliation, racism, and starvation are bad. We tend to be quite clear on what others mean when they use the word "evil" in real-life situations. "If nothing is self-evident," wrote Lewis, "nothing can be proved."

Some types of knowledge precede all others. As an intuition, the naïve impression doesn't run against reason; it anchors it. Like all of our ways of knowing, the organ of our naïve intuition is compromised, and caution is important. Nevertheless, we ignore it at our peril. Standing in the rubble of the Nazi gas chambers in Poland, blown up to hide the evidence, one suspects that even those who do evil are generally aware of attendant shame or guilt. It might not change behavior or signal repentance, but it does underline that they've knowingly done what they know to be wrong.

The moral relativism necessary to sustain atheism became unendurable to me. Evil, I began to realize, was not something I decided, but something I discovered already defined. Auschwitz knocked me back on my heels in what educators call a "disequilibrating experience"—a high-caloric term for the loss of balance that results when your illusions are hammered away. In the course of establishing a justification for my anger, I realized that unless I accepted the existence of a whole lot else—or abandoned my integrity—I would have to forfeit belief in evil. And then the world would be without sense, because my hatred had to have meaning for life to have meaning.

My shaking fist had to say something meaningful about Auschwitz, not just something meaningful about me. To not rage at the gas chambers had to be—it had to be—a real deficiency, a genuine inhumanity. In the end, my taunting of Christian friends turned out to be exactly wrong: It was my hatred of the existence of Auschwitz that posed as a truly insurmountable obstacle to my atheism. Guinness was only partly right. "Goddamnit!" in the face of evil is also often the last prayer of an atheist. It's all theism from there.

Hating Well & Loving Good

As an answer to evil, atheism provides only a narcissistic free-for-all, as colliding individuals compete to refashion reality into a mirror. Biblical anthropology argues the other way around: It is the individual who is made in the image of God. This imago dei has ramifications. If God is a trinity, whose three-in-oneness (or one-in-threeness) embodies at its core the meaning of self-donating, other-centered love, then the great shocker of humanity is that love has been hardwired into us. However contrary to the available data this may seem, we are by design other-centered and self-donating.

This fact alone begins to explain a diverse array of mysteries, from nuptial commitment to hatred of evil. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel insists that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. Love is not neutral. This echoes the Bible's epistle writer Paul, who writes that love requires the abhorrence of evil and the embrace of goodness.

In fact, it is through this double obligation that we find the real spur for rejecting evil. It is never enough to only abhor; rather, we must also actively endorse goodness. Augustine long ago articulated that evil has no ontological status of its own. Evil is perversion, a literal twisting of goodness (imagine here a functioning arm violently wrenched so that splintered bones crack through flesh). Evil is a parasitic abuse of holy things.

This is the locus of our hatred; we abhor evil because of what it does to goodness. Understood in this way, every time we raise our fist against evil, we are participating in an act of love, however imperfectly. However imperfectly, every time we act to limit evil, we stand in fidelity to our transcendent heritage. Moral maturity requires hating well and loving good.

Lest We Think Too Highly of Ourselves

But there is a caution here, necessary as a guard against arrogance. The truth of the imago dei is only one of the great standards of biblical anthropology. The sad second is the great shame of human rebellion, an act that all of us ratify by our own individual attempts at self-sovereignty. Evil, alas, isn't only something "out there." In our fist-shaking indignation, we too easily construct categories of "us" against "them," forgetting what Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded us when he wrote that the line separating good from evil runs through the center of every human heart. I likewise carry within me the capacity for enormous evil; under the right cocktail of circumstances, I might even out-Hitler Hitler. Thus, sobriety, humility, and grace must always ride shotgun with my condemnation: Love without hypocrisy means that we hate not only the evil that others do, but the evil with which we are ourselves complicit.

Hope Despite the Pain-filled Days

The greatest pain of atheism for me was meaningless existence. The fact of evil produced within me a growing sense of futility. Having jettisoned the Absolute (and absolutes), an atheist protesting against evil looks in vain for a reliable source of hope that reform is possible. If we cannot appeal to a transcendent "something beyond ourselves" to satisfy our hunger for justice, then the only thing that we can do is hope in the goodness of humanity. Time and again, this has proved an unsturdy, diaphanous hope.

Humanity is unreliable. At our worst, our convictions are ornamental whores to the shifting fancies of our moods. If our resolution against evil is rooted in whim, humanity is hosed. My own mood changes with my level of sleep, my present health, or what I had for lunch. Even at our best, those with rock-solid integrity too often falter in courage or do not have the muscle to enact their convictions. Moreover, those humanists who have had both the conviction and the strength to remake the world have too often proved to be history's greatest catastrophes—little more than moral entrepreneurs indulging in the inevitable evils of utopian enterprise.

Hope is a dangerous business. Like Claudia in the film Magnolia, too many of us have been dumped on by those whom we ought to have been able to depend on most. We learn the wrong lessons and resolve to take no chances, sticking instead with the lonely misery that we know rather than be exposed to new disappointments.

It's too little to say that we simply hope in the wrong things. So many of us misplace hope because we get hope itself wrong. Hope is a compound, necessarily comprised of both expectation and desire. If we have desire but no expectation of satisfying it, then we have not hope but despair. If we have expectation but do not desire what we expect, then we have not hope but dread. The real presence of these twin components further indicates that the object of our hope has the power to deliver.

For the Christian, this expectation of the power to deliver is substantiated by the memory of the acts of God in history. Even in our depravity, we feel the echo of our origins and are haunted by the recollection of the Great Mercy and the deeper recollection of a paradise once owned. While humility is demanded by the shame of paradise lost, Christian expectation is predicated upon a God who has kept his promises, thus validating a forward-focused hunger for paradise regained—for the renewal of all things and for the overturning of evil in time. Meanwhile, the glad-hearted Christian is stirred by memory and longing to act now—to stand against the present shadows and to roll back evils one by one by one.

It is here that the inadequacy of atheism is most profound. Looking back on its history, atheism can claim no great mercies or sacrificial acts of benevolence that might nurture faith in itself. While all the great organized faiths have done their share of evil, the record of atheistic humanism is a repeated debacle, an unbroken recital of bloodshed and horror. An atheist who is consistent with his beliefs cannot point to a reason for hope. Thus, atheism could not account for my own obstinate, gut-level certainty that hope was plausible. This simply would not do.

And so . . .

"We are all looking for a conviction worth the toil of living," said Abraham Heschel of the human predicament. Atheism offers us nothing. It fails to adequately describe the way things really are; it runs contrary to our gut-level certainties; and it cannot account for the hope that is in us. Impotent in the face of the perennial questions, atheism is an idea too small for all of reality. When crisis hits, people yearn for more than half-baked ideas that do not correspond to life as we experience it. A college student expressed it to me this way: "I'm searching for something with honesty, integrity, and courage," he said. "I'm looking for a belief with b*lls." I take his point; atheism is a castration. And so . . . we must look elsewhere. •

The Sacred and the Profane

Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia

Viewing Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia has been called the most sacred and profane of all film experiences. The movie is about isolation and the life-crushing loneliness that accompanies relationships that have been torn raw by evil. It is also about the physical and moral decay that attends daily life. Death is all around; it grips each of the characters, changing many of them.

Though Magnolia follows a crowd of interconnected individuals, Anderson centers on Claudia, a drug-addicted young woman who struggles with past abuse and is too afraid to confront life. Inspired by the lyrics of singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, the Claudia character sees herself as so disastrously ruined as to be unlovable, when into her life comes the possibility of intimacy and grace—as terrifying as they are intoxicating.

At its heart, Magnolia is a love story, but one played out amid the "piss, and sh**, and lies" of a broken world plagued by human wickedness. The way into love is redemption, and Magnolia explores the exodus of the human soul from captivity to real freedom. But there is no Pollyanna-ish sentimentality here. Deliverance hurts. There is catharsis, but not all of the stories in Magnolia end well. This is a film that knows there are no isolated sins. Our private evils have a rippling effect that extends out to those around us, into our communities, and even to places beyond. Magnolia also knows that we are not alone. Sprinkled throughout the film are thematic and visual clues attesting that there is a sovereign "something" out there who will stop at nothing to set his children free from the bondage of their own lusts, anxieties, and pain.

Magnolia is masterly, but it's a journey best taken in the company of friends. It can be a rough, vulgar, and (seemingly) irreverent uphill grind. But the view from the top is profound. •

No Evil Without Good

C. S. Lewis and the Objective Moral Law

In part one of Mere Christianity, "Right and Wrong as Clues to the Meaning of the Universe," C. S. Lewis makes the case for absolute truth. Observing how people invariably claim the moral high ground when arguing with one another, Lewis concludes that "human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it." He then goes on to explain why this sense of an objective moral law cannot be attributed to mere instinct or social convention.

Lewis's dismissal of subjective truth is important to his understanding of evil. If truth is truly objective, then to realize that evil exists is also to acknowledge that some transcendent standard exists by which we can recognize the existence of evil.

Of course, we need to be cautious about how we use the term "exist." Following firmly in the footsteps of St. Augustine, Lewis recognized that while good has real existence, evil does not. "You say 'no good without evil.' This on my view is absolutely untrue: but the opposite 'no evil without good' is ab-solutely true."

To say that evil is a real thing causes immediate trouble, Lewis recognized, because it implies that God as sole creator must have created evil. To say that God did not create evil, but that evil remains a real thing, also causes trouble because it implies that there is something else out there that is equal to God in his creative role. "The truth is that evil is not a real thing at all, like God. It is simply goodness spoiled. You know what biologists mean by a parasite—an animal that lives on another animal. Evil is a parasite. It is there only because good is there for it to spoil and confuse."•

From Salvo 7 (Winter 2008)
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This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #7, Winter 2008 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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