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At a Distance
February 7, 2008

What Atheists Want
by Chilton Williamson

Over 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 13th century and represents the living tradition of a people interrelated by blood and culture from the Carolingian era to that of the French Revolution.

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. “Mr. Brown is especially concerned with the Levant, and in a brilliant reconstruction of the life of Jesus, shows him to be the product of a civilization fundamentally different from our own, and not as rationalized into Western thought.”

I am not here concerned with Brown’s 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 Mr. Brown himself, an obscure author whose single work has been entirely without influence among historians, archaeologists, and the general public. Rather, my subject is Brown’s mode of historical exposition and the counter-theological assumptions and expectations that underlie it, all of which appear to be shared by the more notorious atheists of the present day, including, especially, Christopher Hitchens, author of the recently published God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

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 400 B.C., when Brown claims the historic Jews actually became a people; and (b) that the second is a composite work whose individual Gospels were written by different men with varying doctrinal agendas. Christianity, he concludes, was actually founded not by “Christians” but by Hellenic Jews, and developed by them.

Much of this was old hat almost 50 years ago, while the historicist method of Biblical criticism was a going operation in the 19th century. Moreover, Brown’s measuredly skeptical argument is a far cry from Hitchens’s adolescent rantings and insults. Yet both books, like the atheist traditions they represent, do raise a question, namely: What do atheists really want from the God controversy? Their answer would be, Nothing but the empirical truth, since God does not exist. The true answer, however, would seem to be — Everything! What they want is for God to prove his existence for them directly and unambiguously, rather than speaking to them from behind a veil.

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 God’s 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 God’s certainty and his love. He only pretends to us — and to him — that he is not.

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