Saturday, February 4, 2012

Monarch of All I Survey

Reading over a writer’s account of her brief acquaintance with the late Christopher Hitchens, it struck me that the first problem of an atheist is that he is bound to be a lonely person. Hitchens, of course, was temperamentally lonely: so irascible by nature, so little prone to give his fellow men credit for virtue, that he was bound to isolation. Those whom he got along best with seem to have shared his critical personality and, even more tellingly, seem to have spent little time with him. A dedicated iconoclast is a dangerous person to befriend.

Christopher Hitchens was temperamentally lonely, but loneliness is an occupational hazard of every honest atheist. The materialist viewpoint that intellectual atheism demands necessarily relegates men to solitude—or perhaps it would be better to say, it prevents them from ever escaping the solitude into which they are born. All infants begin life lonely, because all infants begin life bound strictly inside their own point of view. Father and Mother are there to take care of I, to wait on I hand and foot. All those other shadowy figures are distractions, or entertainments, or unpleasantnesses that go away after a little while, leaving I back with Father and Mother, warm, comfortable, and well-fed. It is a long time before most babies begin to realize that I is in fact not the only consciousness—that other people—their parents and siblings first of all—may have other points of view that differ from their own, not merely by some accident, but per se. It doesn’t just happen that Mommy wants me to stay inside when I want to go out; it happens because Mommy wants this—this thing that I do not want—and that is only possible because she sees things differently from the way I see them. Mommy is also an I. Mommy has a mind as independent and autonomous as my own.

Once this is understood, a yet more drastic concept remains to be grasped: the concept that other people might be right and I wrong. It is a concept that may seize hold at any age—I have known seven-year-olds who grasped it, and forty-year-olds who didn’t—and of course there are plenty of people who admit it humbly in theory but don’t quite seem live their theory out.

Atheists tend to be humble in theory. Many of them are in fact not officially atheists but agnostics: too logically rigorous to assert the absolute negative that There is no God, they still hold that the evidence overwhelming suggests His existence to be highly unlikely. But the theoretical humility of the atheist seldom extends to a personal humility. However intelligent the Christians around him may be, an atheist can’t help but think that he knows better than they do—not merely on the matter of God, where of course we Christians likewise suspect that we know better than the atheists—but on every matter. No honest atheist can really respect anyone else’s opinions, because no honest atheist can believe in any mind but his own. To put it another way: in denying God, the atheist becomes like God.

This is not intended as a put down, a paradox, or an exaggeration. The atheist by definition is prohibited the assumption that men have a spiritual part of them, that there is in human beings some thing other than mere chemicals swirling in a mix more or less favorable to health, beauty, and intellectual achievement. If we are all material and only material, then we are all accidents and only accidents—well developed accidents, perhaps, fortunate accidents even, but accidents nonetheless. And our choices, and our thoughts, and our very reasons for doing what we do and thinking what we think—these too are only accidents, more or less likely to prolong our biological coherence past the arbitrary mark of threescore years and ten.

We all know better than this in our heart of hearts. Even if we tell ourselves, and tell those around us—even if we shout it from the housetops that human reasoning is a fraud and a fake, and that arguments are only the results of synapses firing in the brain—experience whispers otherwise. We all experience life as if we understood it. We can deny that the understanding exists, but we cannot live as if we were without it, unless we also make ourselves go mad. Really consistent atheists will insist that there is no difference between reason and madness; but I am hard put to think of an atheist who really drove himself to the point to prove it, unless it were poor Nietzsche, who had other problems. No, most atheists will insist that there is no such thing as thought, while thinking very hard themselves; and so most atheists, without realizing it, will begin to feel like gods. If everyone around them acts unreasonably—reacts merely, like a plant under the sun or a fox before a bear—if everyone around them is thoughtless, but they still experience thought themselves—then they can’t ever really stand in someone else’s shoes. Their I is I indeed. The notion that I might be wrong and someone else right is psychologically untenable, when there is no right or wrong. They are all like children whom Mommy wants to keep inside—and they can’t see why she would keep them in, except for stupidity or spite; for they have denied reason, and stupidity and spite are the only explanations left. The more good natured Is will pity the stupid; the more irascible will rale at the spiteful; but not one for a moment seriously entertain the thought that there is another I. They have denied the possibility in principle.

So all people must be unreasonable to the atheist—except himself. He may “know” himself to be unreasonable—though how one can “know” even that is a question, when one has asserted the non-existence of the very tool for knowing—but he cannot escape his sense of his own reason. He lives on an island of rational experience surrounded by a sea of irrational human chatter. He is, like Cowper’s shipwrecked sailor, a king; a god—but a king and a god alone.

I AM monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
O Solitude! where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms,
Than reign in this horrible place.

I am out of humanity’s reach,
I must finish my journey alone,
Never hear the sweet music of speech;
I start at the sound of my own.


  1. Interesting. Ever read any Sartre? He says some similar things (because he actually believes them I'm afraid).

    I suspect as a practical matter, casual atheists needn't adhere to this view. The dedicated, thoughtful ones, however, seem to have little other choice.

  2. No, never done any Sarte--directly, anyway; I've read _about_ him though, if that counts. Ditto Kafka. The only one of that bunch that I've read originally is Camus ("The Stranger"). Did you do Sarte for French class?

    Yes re the casual atheists.