In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was located on Equal Times on April 28, 2021.
It was a story that you could say caused a bit of a buzz. Bees ’arrest’ suspected burglars in Busia, screamed the headline of a March 2021 story from the Ugandan newspaper, the Daily Monitor. The article, which attracted much derision on social media, told the story of a burglar who appeared to find himself apprehended by a swarm of bees after the victim of the house he had broken into decided to seek justice via a witch doctor rather than the police.
In a country where there is a strong belief in the supernatural, such headlines are not uncommon. “Some traditional healers exploit the ignorance of the population,” says Kato Mukasa, a human rights lawyer and chair of the Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO). “[There’s] a category that pretends to have spiritual healing powers. They cause a lot of mayhem.”
While belief in witchcraft is commonplace across the continent, Africa is also considered one of the most religious parts of the world. According to 2017 research from the Pew Center, by 2060, 42 per cent of Christians and 27 per cent of Muslims will live in sub-Saharan Africa. In October, openDemocracy reported that more than 20 US Christian groups opposing LGBTI rights, safe abortion access and sex education have increased their spending to the tune of at least US$54 million in Africa over the past 13 years.
Despite this, humanism – a philosophy and way of life that stresses reason and free inquiry and opposes theism and supernatural views among other characteristics – is making headway on the continent.
“In many African countries humanist groups and individuals are working to make the wider public rediscover their own African humanist tradition, the concept of Ubuntu [a Zulu word and pan-African philosophy which roughly translates to mean “I am because we are”], a secular and humanist framework for compassion, reciprocity, dignity, harmony, and humanity for the purpose of building and sustaining community with justice and mutual concern,” says Giovanni Gaetani, membership engagement manager for Humanists International (HI), the global body of the humanist movement.
When HI was founded in 1952, there were just five member organisations; now, there are more than 170 from 75 countries, including 10 associations in Africa. HI holds a general assembly annually and its World Humanist Congress normally takes place every three years. At a local level, humanist organisations hold physical and (increasingly since the pandemic) virtual meetings for participants to learn and exchange ideas, to allow like-minded people to meet up, and to carry out voluntary work.
“New and emerging humanist organisations are sprouting all around the African continent, for example Humanists Liberia, Humanists Malawi and Secular Humanists Mauritius,” says Gaetani. And beyond humanism, secularism is also making its presence felt. Gaetani points to Sudan, which embraced a secular constitution in September 2020 after decades of Islam as the state religion. Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, the government has “taken strides to promote secularism despite the absence of an organised secular society,” according to Takudzwa Mazwienduna, a Zimbabwean-born humanist and author of the upcoming book A Vehicle for Progress, which looks at humanism in southern Africa, noting the government’s 2016 decision to ban prayer in schools and restrict religion to private spaces only.
Anti-atheist backlash, and advancing rights
While there has been some growth in the humanist movement in Africa, there has also been a backlash in some places, which is unsurprising given the stigma attached to atheism. “In Uganda and Africa, when a child is born, they are automatically inducted into religion,” says Dr Frank Mugisha, who despite being an LGBTI activist has been a Catholic “all my life”. “Atheism is rare and frowned upon so much in wider society,” he says. “To fit in, everyone has to belong to a religion.”
Nigeria – a secular country as set out in its constitution and where 49.3 per cent of citizens are Christian and 48.8 per cent are Muslim – has become the “epicentre of a new anti-atheist backlash,” particularly in the north of the country, according to Gaetani. The country’s most famous atheist Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, will mark one year in jail on 28 April.
Bala was arrested at his home in the predominantly Muslim, north-western state of Kaduna before being detained in the neighbouring state of Kano over a Facebook post that authorities claim breached Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act by insulting the Prophet Muhammed and being “provocative and annoying to Muslims.” Bala is the son of a prominent Islamic scholar whose family had him forcibly sectioned when he first renounced Islam and declared himself an atheist in 2014.
Despite his current detention, he is yet to be charged with any crime. His case had been adjourned until 20 April, but the hearing did not go ahead because of an industrial strike. James Ibor, who heads Bala’s legal team, says they are “exhausting all legal avenues” but are calling on the United Nations to impose sanctions on the Kano state governor and members of his cabinet. “We are also pressuring the UK embassy, the US embassy and the EU delegation in Nigeria, to get in touch with the government and put pressure on them over this,” adds Dr Leo Igwe, chair of the board of trustees for the Humanist Association of Nigeria, and a close friend of Bala.
Rare wins for Nigeria’s non-believers – who number between 50,000 to 100,000 according to Igwe, with only a tiny fraction openly declaring their beliefs – include holding Africa’s first humanist conference in 2001, and the recent launch of the non-profit Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW) which uses the philosophy of humanism as a vehicle to save the lives of those impacted by superstition.
Humanists in Africa’s most populous country hold onto their beliefs, despite the dangers. Igwe has faced death threats for his support of Bala and he even had to temporarily flee his apartment. Femi (not his real name) lives in the south-western city of Ibadan and has been a humanist for nine years but says that he still does not feel comfortable going public with his beliefs. “It’s hard. Many of us get dumped by our romantic partners for being humanists,” he says, adding that his Christian mother would be “heartbroken” if she ever found out, although “that’s still better than the north [of Nigeria] where your family member may poison you for being godless.”
Igwe says that while he fears that there may have been an increase in witchcraft accusations in the face of the global public health crisis caused by Covid-19, the pandemic has shown that humanism is needed more than ever to strengthen rights and promote science. “Covid-19 has once again made it clear that superstition, paranormal beliefs and faith-based narratives offer us nothing in terms of our growth or progress in the face of diseases,” Igwe tells Equal Times.
For Amina Ahmed – the wife of Mubarak Bala, who is herself a humanist – humanism “can help women to stand up for their rights” and advance the cause of gender equality in Nigeria as “most women are being [metaphorically] caged due to religious beliefs.” For Roslyn Mould, former president of the Humanist Association of Ghana and the first African woman to be elected to the board of HI, humanism could be a crucial tool for wider gender and sexual emancipation across the continent. “As an African, humanism teaches us to decolonise our minds from dogmatic cultural and religious ways of thought that create divisiveness among our genders and diverse sexualities and hinders our development as a people. It is important that we drive equality, taking equity into account, on our continent amongst men and women.”
Flourishing in Uganda, despite the challenges
In the continent’s east, humanists are watching the Bala case daily. Africa’s humanist roots are firmly planted in Uganda. It was the first country to register a humanist organisation (UHASSO) in the mid-1990s and it is one of the few African countries to have a humanist organisation in every region. Still, according to various sources, less than one per cent of the Ugandan population describes itself as ‘without religion’, in a Christian-majority country within a secular state.
In 2014 a notorious act was signed into law to make homosexuality illegal, driven by foreign and local evangelicals, before being struck down, but religion continues to have a grip on Uganda. Bodies like the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda are still involved in politics and before the pandemic it was not uncommon for flamboyant prophets to commandeer packed megachurches.
But an increasing number of atheists are asserting their presence in the public space. Mukasa can often be seen on TV, while Robert Bwambale is renowned for founding the Kasese Humanist School, in the west of the country, where educators teach LGBTI and women’s rights, climate change and democracy.
Despite facing backlash – Mukasa’s car was set on fire and his workplace was vandalised, while Bwambale was the victim of a community smear campaign – humanists in Uganda won’t stay silent.
About 31 of the country’s groups, led by the newly formed Ugandan non-profit African Humanist Celebrant Network (AHCN), which trains humanist celebrants (someone who officiates non-religious marriage, funeral or other ceremonies) across Africa, are petitioning the Ugandan parliament to change the country’s Marriage and Divorce Bill to allow for humanist ceremonies. Apart from South Africa, humanist ceremonies are banned across the continent but Uganda’s humanists claim that the nation’s constitution contains protections against discrimination for non-believers, and argue that the ceremonies “give us a platform to show the world that it is perfectly fine to live a life without God”.
Unsurprisingly, there has been some opposition, with Bishop Jacinto Kibuuka, who leads the Christian Ecumenical Council of Uganda, vowing in December to draft an opposition petition, although nothing has happened yet. “Those voices who claimed same sex relations were a culture war by the West against Africa and the Church will re-emerge and cast humanist marriages as market entry for same sex marriages – precisely because they are non-denominational, promote free choice and individuality,” says Ugandan analyst Angelo Izama.
But whatever happens, Mukasa says the country’s humanists are here to stay. “When we registered our first organisation, there were very few people saying ‘I’m an atheist’. But right now if you follow our page online you would be surprised at the number of people saying ‘to hell with religion,’” says the activist. “We are eating into [religion], we are weakening it, even when [their followers] are making inroads we are making inroads too.”
It isn’t often that HumanistFreedoms.com expects to feature a job opening for a major architectural firm. We don’t even have a classifieds section! But we’ve come across something that we couldn’t overlook. According to Archinect, Selldorf Architects is searching for an Advanced Architectural Designer and a Project Architect. Not ready for “Wow!” yet? Keep reading.
What caught our eye was the job ad’s assertion that “Selldorf Architects is a 70-person architectural design practice founded by Annabelle Selldorf in New York City in 1988. The firm creates public and private spaces that manifest a clear and modern sensibility to enduring impact. Since its inception the firm’s guiding principles have been deeply rooted in humanism. At every scale and for every condition, Selldorf Architects designs for the individual experience. As a result, its work is brought to life–and made complete–by those who use it.” Sounds like a pretty good reason for any architect who happens to be a humanist to pay attention right?
How about Annabelle Selldorf’s 2018 essay Pressing for Evolution in the Field – (NewCities.org), when Selldorf advocated for greater equality in architecture, “For us to move forward as a society and within our architectural coterie we need to tackle the structures that seek to curtail women’s progress. This is both an issue of policy and individual responsibility. Ultimately, gender equality is an issue of humanism and respect. It is only until we eliminate the notion of “the other” that we will begin to truly achieve a fully evolved and equitable society. It is both an internal and personal endeavor to overcome our own biases as well as an external one to push for change within our field and broadly.“
And then there’s the amazing projects the firm has been involved in: The Frick Collection, Luma Arles, The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Steinway HAll and one our favorites (see featured image) The Mwabwindow School in Southern Zambia, a project to increase education in rural Africa.
Firms like Selldorf Architects are helping to make humanism an exciting feature of contemporary society. Definitely a company that ought to make a humanist say, “Wow!” If you know an architect who happens to be a humanist – maybe the July 6 job postings we found are something they will want to hear about!
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published in other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was published on February 22, 2021 on:
Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism
Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson
The novel coronavirus had not yet been recognized when Yasmin Mohammed (2019) published her memoire blaming “Western Liberalism” for failing to protect her from forcible confinement and beatings she suffered as a child. Following an intervention by child welfare authorities, a Canadian judge acknowledged her suffering but refused to intervene in her parent’s “cultural (Muslim) ways.” Early the following year journalist Margaret Wente was removed from an honorary position with a Canadian university following a social media mobbing in which she was accused of being a racist and anti-feminist (Wente, 2020). “Due process” which would have allowed her to defend herself from the allegations was not given. In March, 2020, demonstrations spread throughout North America and into other continents following the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis, USA. Systemic racism was assumed to be the cause. During the same year many schools and colleges in the United States ended achievement testing as a requirement for admittance, and employers paid for employee re-education sessions.
Pluckrose and Lindsay (2020b) named the movement behind these interconnected events “Critical Social Justice,” but this paper develops an argument that these events were influenced by an underlying social contagion that can be better understood as a mind virus. In developing this argument, it is first necessary to describe the “body” that may be infected by such a virus. The self is proposed as that body in the next section along with an evolutionary account of its development. In the second section of this paper I apply a model that allows us to recognize a mind virus to the modern cultural phenomenon of “wokeness.”
The self as a mental analogue to the body
The self is core to such psychological concepts as self-esteem, self-concept and self-empowerment. In this section, I describe how this evolved cultural construct became the paradigm of practice within the profession and how cultural units may attach themselves to this self. I discuss the historic tension between collectivism that gives definition to ourselves as a social species and the individualism inherent in a self capable of volitional planning and consciousness. I conclude this section by reviewing how we might determine this self has become infected by other units of culture that serve to appropriate the self’s resources.
Most current schools of psychotherapy emphasize individual choice with respect to personal development with the implication that selved individuals are making these choices. Classical behaviourists (Skinner, 1974) presented an alternative view that consciousness and the self that has it are unnecessary distractions preventing a scientific examination of behaviour. In keeping with this deterministic view, behaviourism focused on helping patients using classical and operant conditioning as opposed to cognitive processing. Behaviourism delivered impressive results in treating such conditions as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, trauma and conduct disorder, and in so doing, providing concrete evidence that we are a species whose behaviours are determined by genetic and environmental factors. Despite these successes, behaviourism failed to become dominant in the profession. As we shall see, this failure was grounded in a species-wide consensus on the mental attributes of humanness. Its successes, however, suggest a way that mind viruses could operate to undermine those attributes.
Thomas Kuhn (1970) described psychology as a “proto-science” for failing to develop a unifying paradigm that would take it out of the domain of philosophy and into the domain of science. Hutcheon (1996) identified three “formations” that potentially could have become such a paradigm: Psychoanalysis, genetic developmentalism, and behaviourism. She identified behaviourism as the most fruitful of the three; however, she concluded it failed “because it attacks the very roots of our cultural assumptions” (p. 261). These cultural assumptions include: 1) human beings have minds, 2) minds presuppose the presence of beliefs, and 3) beliefs are only possible if there is the notion of objective evidence by which we can determine truth.
Many academics have endorsed the determinist alternative to these cultural assumptions, that consciousness, free will and the self are illusions (Blackmore, 1999; Coyne, 2012; Cronin, 2003; DiCarlo, 2010), but the practice of psychotherapy has proceeded in the opposite direction. By the twenty-first century, even those who still called themselves behaviourists were talking about personal choices and cognitive distortions, thus sounding very much like the therapists who now called themselves cognitive-behaviourists. Classical behaviourism had encountered an already-established paradigm that humans are thinking animals with minds capable of logical consistency and rational evidence-based assessment. While a profession that is united by these notions could assimilate deterministic methods, it could not capitulate to a determinist ontology because to do so would undermine the foundational assumption of that we are thinking, rational beings.
A mind capable of having beliefs necessarily posits evidence for those beliefs–evidence that, in turn, presupposes a reality that the mind can understand. Moreover, a mind with the ability to assess evidence, independently and temporally, could not exist without self-awareness. But the self, defined by these capabilities, represents a relatively recent cultural adaptation (Robertson, 2020) that embodies a tension between individualism (with its sense of volition, uniqueness, constancy and reflectivity) and collectivism (with its sense of community, social interest, attachment and productivity). The two case studies that follow illustrate the self in map form, and how that self may change.
Therapeutic change to the self of two clients
“Suzie” (Robertson, 2011) had attempted suicide five times before I saw her. When established methods of treating suicide ideation failed to bring necessary results (cognitive behavioural therapy, Adlerian psychotherapy, narrative therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I suggested that we map her self to find out what was blocking treatment. We began by identifying units of culture that represented who she was. Each referent word, or meme, included connotative meaning, affect and associated behaviours. Using the idea that connotative, affective or behavioural similarities between memes could be represented as links, we produced the map in figure 1.
Few memes in figure 1 suggest individual volition or social interest. A meme labeled “depressed person” is central and attempts to remove it prematurely had destabilized the entire structure. We began to move or remove memes supporting the placement of “depressed person” as central while building a new core with a focus on social interest and volition. Suzie could now visualize a better self and accept evidence that it was true. Her suicide risk receded. She found achievement and recognition when she relocated to a new community.
When I presented this case study to a doctoral class, one participant declared that I was simply doing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). From that point of view, the map suggested cognitive re-framing, supplemented by behavioural “homework assignments.” These challenged negative memes such as “ugly” and supported a new “human rights” core. A narrative therapist in class disagreed, suggesting that memes provided the outline of a story, and I had helped my client write a better one. Actually, I began my career as an Adlerian psychotherapist. This anecdote illustrates that the self, as pictured here, is fundamental across psychotherapeutic schools of practice.
Figure 1: Initial self-map of a youth with suicide ideation, showing memes in relation to each other
About a decade after I worked with Suzie, another client, “Olivia” came to me with symptoms of PTSD after being raped by a friend during a night of heavy drinking (Robertson, 2016). After a month of CBT-informed treatment, she was able to return to work. Nonetheless, she acknowledged a personal history that included failed relationships, alcohol abuse and the loss of child custody. She asked for further psychotherapy, focused to become a better decision-maker. We began by developing the self-map represented in figure 2.
Figure 2: A self map of a woman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
The bottom bar represents the biological forces that sometimes triggered various clusters of memes labeled “imperfect,” “spiritual / fitness” and “social self.” Thick arrows represent the influence of her family, spouse and work on her self-definition. To the extent that biological and environmental forces control the structure of the self, we can say that it is “determined.” During the course of treatment, we were able to add or modify several memes in Olivia’s “imperfect self” giving her a more balanced identity. She developed a sense of empowerment and volitional control, both of which she used to maintain her commitment to behavioural change. She no longer defined herself as a depressed person, although she acknowledged that everyone experiences sadness and depression on occasion. She developed new associations between clusters that gave her the ability to choose to not ruminate on her deficiencies. We added a second bar, below the menu of emotions, to recognize her “psychological characteristics” such as intelligence, introversion and self-assurance.
Significantly, Olivia now found restrictive the very relationships that she had found to be supportive during her bout with PTSD. Her spouse now accused her of wanting to be better than him, possibly when she refused to join him on his drinking binges. Her employer refused to allow her enough latitude to make decisions on the job. Her mother would unexpectedly enter her house searching for the drugs that she assumed were stashed there. Olivia came to the insight that her spouse, employer and parents had not changed—but that she had changed. If she wanted to keep her newly minted self, therefore, she would have to move to another community. With the help of distance-counselling and some new friends, she re-established herself elsewhere and even negotiated new boundaries with her family.
A determined species unchained and re-chained
As can see from the examples of these two clients, the social environment is a powerful determinant of who we are. Determinists would say that psychotherapists, directed by their programming, overpower the other determinants that keep their clients’ old selves in place. Determinists would have more difficulty, however, in explaining why both clients chose to move to other communities without the advice of their therapist. To argue that therapists unconsciously push their clients in such directions requires the assumption of unseen forces. A simpler explanation would be that most of our decisions are determined but that, with hard work and mental resources, we can make decisions at variance from our memetic and genetic programming (Robertson, 2017a).
In The Evolved Self (Robertson, 2020), I argue that volition and temporal constancy combined with a more primal self as recently as the beginning of the first century BCE. Our sense of constancy, that we are in some important sense the same person over time, allows us to think about our selves in remembered events while considering how we might have influenced alternative outcomes. Using a similar mechanism, we can imagine our selves in the future and predict outcomes on the basis of available evidence. What constitutes evidence will necessarily, at least in the first instance, be learned. If having a better grasp of reality ultimately favours better outcomes then cultures will evolve in that direction. For example, the scientific method, which originated in post-Enlightenment Europe, has brought about a revolution in new knowledge. The method itself has been appropriated by most non-European cultures where “culture” is defined as current practices, values and artifacts.
Beliefs are possible only in the mind of someone who accepts that there is some way to differentiate truth from falsehood; and that implies an objective reality. To change a belief about oneself, one must first take oneself as an object that can be examined. Unfortunately clients cannot change who they are at will. Like Suzie, they often resist changing even dysfunctional selves. They need evidence to support desired changes; otherwise it feels as though they are merely play-acting.
The rejection of classical behaviourism by psychotherapists, despite its demonstrated efficacy, flowed from deeply held cultural assumptions about what it means to be human. The combination of behaviourism with cognitivism suggests a form of compatibilism, that the concepts of free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive. The ideal of free will became part of our self-definition flowing from culturally evolved changes to the self (Robertson, 2020). While assumptions of personal volition, continuity, and reason became the benchmark of what it means to be human, we do not always attain this ideal. Psychologists are in the business of teaching clients the skills that they need to approximate this self. To Sagan (1996) that ideal involved doing science: “Every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our idea against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes with facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition” (p. 27).
Taking the objective view, as is necessary in science, does not come naturally to the human species. Jaynes (1976) said pre-Homeric Greeks relied on pre-programmed cultural responses to triggering events and when an event occurred that had not been prepared for in their cultural programming they reacted in a random, sometimes schizophrenic way. After a study of early Egyptian hieroglyphics, Johnson (2003) concluded that the early Egyptians did not have minds, as we would now define the term. A simpler explanation is that they did not have the kind of self that we take for granted today.
The individualism that forms a part of what I call “the modern self” (Robertson, 2020) was a potential threat to the stability of pre-modern societies made up primarily of people with a different kind of self. Since the self is a culturally mediated construct, by controlling available memes, collectivist societies can limit the possibilities available for self-construction. Acceptance of such constraints can be supported by appeals to authority, particularly religious authority. The Axial Age of the first century BCE (Jaspers, 1951; Mahoney, 1991) produced major world religions that were concerned with regulating the self in some ways. Early Confucian thought dealt with the moral development of the self in relation to the collectivity infusing it with a sense of duty to ancestors (Wu, 2017). Hindu thought divided society into a series of castes with a full education available only to the Brahmin caste. The Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” required initiates to place themselves under the direction of masters who represent the Buddha himself. Like Judaism, Christianity, has held that people must renounce the self, because human reasoning is faulty and true knowledge is divinely inspired. These teachings are consistent with a hypothesis that while the presence of people who could engage in individual volition and planning were valued, their abilities needed to be regulated.
Although the medieval Roman Catholic Church encouraged the practice of science that was consistent with its theology, the Protestant Reformation coupled with the re-learning of classical Greek philosophy in the scientific Renaissance of the sixteenth century led to the Enlightenment that began with Descartes, Bacon and Newton in the seventeenth. This Enlightenment did not invent individualism; it proclaimed that the individualism already inherent in the self that allowed for the determination of objective reality was good. Since a healthy self also requires relationships with others in the form of social interest, collective identity and intimacy, this development did not spell the end of collectivism, and each “individualist” society has retained or created ways of expressing communal or group identification.
In The Evolved Self, I argue that the struggle between collectivism and individualism occurs, in the first instance, within each person’s self. I argue also that, for the most part, we remain the determined beings that we have been throughout most of our history as a species; but also beings with the capacity to reflectively reprogram ourselves by acting on reasons that matter to us as individuals. If we view this conscious self that is capable of such reflective thought as analogous to the body, then we need to consider that memes and meme complexes (which are not part of the self but nonetheless exist in culture) can be deleterious to it. These meme complexes would be analogous to viruses that can enter the body.
The emancipation of the self was not welcomed by everyone. People with functional selves face responsibility, after all, for their own well-being. They must realistically assess their circumstances, selecting those that would provide meaning and purpose, but also implement plans to assure their own happiness. My private practice is beset with clients who would rather place the responsibility for their own well-being on others. In his examination of totalitarian movements following World War II, Eric Hoffer (1966/1951) noted, “The frustrated follow a leader less because of their faith that he is leading them to a promised land than because of their immediate feeling that he is leading them away from their unwanted selves” (p. 110).
Building on the religious trope that our selves are inadequate, Martin Heidegger (1962) deconstructed science and reason by claiming that only one who is “Dasein” could know ultimate truth. “Dasein,” in Heidegger’s idiosyncratic usage, includes being present simultaneously in the past, present and future which only a few can achieve. He named himself and the fuehrer as Dasein. German psychologist Eric Fromm (1969) described the relationship between the totalitarian dynamic and the self:
There is the wish to submit to an overwhelmingly strong power, to annihilate the self, besides the wish to have power over helpless beings. This masochistic side of the Nazi ideology and practices is most obvious with the respect to the masses. They are told again and again: the individual is nothing and does not count. The individual should accept this personal insignificance, dissolve himself to a higher power, and then feel proud in participating in the strength and glory of this higher power. (pp. 257, 256)
It is frightening to consider that if Suzie had lived in pre-war Germany, a Nazi sympathizer could have suggested not only that she needed to accept her sense of personal insignificance but also that she could do so most effectively by identifying her self with glory of the Aryan race. Incorporating a new ideological or religious meme into one’s self, moreover, includes incorporating whatever attaches to that meme. In this example, Suzie would have felt Nazi militarism, anti-Semitism, and fuehrer worship as essential to her self. If both the Nazi and Suzie were caught in the same contagion, then we could say that one passed a mind virus to the other. In an earlier article (Robertson, 2017b), I listed four conditions necessary for diagnosing such a virus:
A mind virus will result in an observable change or transition in self-definition, one that is neither planned nor related to self-betterment;
The change must involve a diminution or negation of the modern self or its component parts;
The change must involve an appropriation of personal resources for the purpose of spreading the meme cluster in question; and,
The change is likely marked by considerable and uncharacteristic emotional valence.
Is wokism a mind-virus contagion?
The first section of this paper examined the structure of the self. I then proposed an evolutionary understanding of that structure and concluded with four conditions that are needed to satisfy a diagnosis of a mind virus that could be said to infect this self. Before applying those conditions to wokism in this second section, I define the term and explain why it is preferred to other labels sometimes used. Each of these labels are examined in turn: (1) postmodernism; (2) identity politics; (3) neo-Marxism; and (4) social justice (as a movement).
Postmodernism, the view that all knowledge is “socially constructed” and a product of power relationships, provides a method for the woke to attack and discredit competing beliefs. Objective evidence cannot be used to counter these woke beliefs since it is assumed that even science and reason amount to nothing other than a “white, male way of knowing” (Strong, 2002) and is, therefore, a conspiracy to oppress others. Tellingly, however, since they never deconstruct wokism itself, it cannot be said that it is completely postmodern. It is more like a religious faith, something postmodernists considered to be a grand meta-narrative.
Identity politics incorporates the tenet that that people are defined by the oppression that they have endured as members of their own races or other identity groups. Advocates do not apply this analysis to all groups. They describe Jews as white oppressors despite 2,000 years of anti-Semitic oppression. They describe East Asians as “honorary whites,” moreover, because in the United States these U.S. Americans are statistically ahead of actual whites on measures of academic achievement and income. Since identity politics is selectively applied, wokism cannot contribute to a general understanding of racism or oppression.
Most woke people identify with “the Left” and are sometimes referred to as “Neo-Marxists,” but postmodernism classified Marxism as a modernist “grand narrative” (Lyotard, 1984). Wokism appropriated Marx’s theory of class conflict where the “white race” is assigned the place of the capitalist or ruling class. By replacing Marx’s idea of class conflict with cultural warfare they ascribe class solidarity to one’s racial, gender or other assigned oppressed group. Thus, a black person who identifies with non-black workers might be accused of “false consciousness” which is, of course, a reversal of actual Marxism. Instead of striving to eradicate the capitalist class the logic of woke-Marxism would be to eradicate “whiteness” or “maleness.”
The social-justice movements that began in the 1960s aimed at eliminating barriers faced by members of disadvantaged groups. The goal of equal opportunity would permit people, irrespective of sex or racial background to advance on the basis of their motivation and ability. Wokism appropriated the rhetoric of social justice. But by insisting on equal outcomes, instead of equal opportunities, they have devalued merit and work thus reversing the original goals of the social justice movements.
Wokism represents an inconsistent application of various historical, and sometimes conflicting, conceptual paradigms. I now examine this movement for the four conditions outlined in the previous section for determining the presence of a mind-virus.
Condition One: Change in Individual Self-Definition
The form of identity politics, on which wokism relies heavily, gives high status to recognized victim groups—which is to say non-whites, non-heterosexuals and non-males. Moreover, it gives even higher status to people who are simultaneously members of several victim groups under the rubric “intersectionality.” Competition between victim groups for greater recognition rewards people for identifying and fixating on perceived grievances (Noor, Shnabel, Halabi, & Nadler, 2012). One study of university students (Gabay, Hameiri, Rubel-Lifschitz, & Nadler, 2020) identified an emergent interpersonal-victimhood personality type characterized by a pathological need for recognition, difficulty empathizing with others, feelings of moral superiority, and a thirst for vengeance. The study noted that those who have this personality type “lash out” when others question their victimhood or challenge their self-image of moral superiority. Increasing numbers of these self-identified victims create a culture of victimhood in which “the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression” (Campbell & Manning, 2014 p. 692). This culture of group victimhood is gradually supplanting a culture based on individual dignity.
Woke identity politics holds that members of the “white race” are collectively and innately oppressors, which makes them analogous to the capitalist or bourgeois class in Marxism (Campbell & Manning, 2014; Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002; Pluckrose & Lindsay, 2020b). Because it is assumed, in wokism, that white males have benefitted from “privilege” both racially and sexually, they are not allowed to claim victim status even though they may be victims in many ways. Yet, white males are visibly active in the woke movement. I would expect their personalities and self-definitions to vary from those of other woke people. Here is a case study of woke white male personality based on my personal “lived experience” as a moderator of two humanist discussion groups in 2020.
The first discussion group was “open” in that any member of the group was allowed to post any article or topic providing they had not been previously banned from doing so. Although membership in the group varied between 1,500 and 1,600, active participants on any given post rarely numbered more than 20 except for the most controversial ones. Wokists were active on most controversial posts, and most of these activists were, judging from their profile pictures, white males.
When I actively began to moderate this group, I found woke members swearing at people who disagreed with them, calling them racists, “alt-righters,” and “white supremacists.” The woke members frequently suggested that the moderators should ban such people for not being true humanists. I scrolled through the relevant conversations and found that no one had posted anything that advocated racism or white supremacy. I developed a set of rules to encourage civil discourse and announced that I would delete posts that expressed hatred toward any person or any group. I announced that name-calling would be considered a form of expressed hatred.
“Bill” was probably already angry with me for deleting a post in which he called someone “a racist piece of shit” for suggesting that the authorities should not remove statues of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Macdonald, who gave Amerindian people in Ontario the vote and provided food to ward off starvation, also contracted with four Christian denominations to provide education. Malnutrition, physical and sexual abuses were subsequently found in many of these Indian Residential Schools. I suggested to Bill that Macdonald should not be judged for events that occurred without his knowledge well after his death. His reply was that I was “completely without conscience” and that I favoured “raping and torturing children.”
In a second humanist discussion group, a Humanist Canada board member posted an article about a woke mobbing of a retired professor who had suggested there should be limits to abortion. The woke demanded that this professor lose his emeritus status at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but the board member suggested that humanists need to fight for the freedom of speech of those even with whom we may disagree. “Jason” replied:
I don’t want anti-choice misogynists to have a platform. Voltaire’s quote you used is nice when you have the privilege to utter it, but it doesn’t mean much to oppressed and marginalized voices to know that their oppressors will continue to get a seat at the table because of some bizarre equivocation around free speech.
Within wokism, Bill and Jason are powerful white males who are assumed to have “voice” and a duty to speak for recognized victim groups whose “voices” are “oppressed and marginalized.” Disagreement with some aspect of a woke narrative identifies oppressors who are to be confronted by the special-status white males. At any point, however, a member of a victim group could find their voice and accuse those who have adopted a saviour role of patronizing them. I observed this in the open humanist discussion group. A board member had created a post with the theme “trans rights are human rights.” A transperson accused the board member of using trans issues to further a political agenda. The member both apologized deferentially and explained, without evidence, that humanists had been posting many transphobic statements which is why his post was needed.
Members of the woke movement who are also members of victim groups and who adopt a personality type consistent with woke narratives will assume a posture of moral superiority. Woke advocates who are white males can forestall negative intervention by these morally superior people by vigorously pursuing attacks on the non-woke coupled uncomplicated by nuance or compromise. We also need to consider the psychological benefits whites may obtain from a process Rene Girard described as “scapegoating” (Girard, 1989). Wokism has labeled whites to be an “oppressor race” with all members presumably guilty of benefiting from this oppressor status. White woke can temporarily transfer this guilt to a named scapegoat who then takes on the sins ascribed to this race. We have seen this process in the example of John A. Macdonald in Canada, attacks on Winston Churchill in Britain and on the founding fathers in the United States. As we will see in the subsequent discussion of woke mobbing, the process of scapegoating can be applied to anyone but in all cases it can only provide temporary psychological relief. While white males are more likely to be selected as a sacrificial scapegoat, as the sacrificial crisis becomes more severe categories start to break down and the actual victim selected by mimetic violence could be anyone. During the height of the sacrifice, it will seem that the victim is to blame for everything.
As can be seen from the foregoing, wokism has the effect of assigning specific personality characteristics to identity groups. While it may be that some people enter the woke movement with such personalities already expressed, the internal logic of wokism pressures individuals to conform to the personality assigned to their particular status.
Condition Two: Diminution of the Modern Self
The first section of this paper outlined how a healthy modern self includes the capacity for relationships with others in the form of social interest, collective identity and intimacy as well as more individualist aspects such as volition, uniqueness, continuity and reason. Combined, this self allows for the objective investigation of external reality. A negation of either our collectivist or individualist qualities would diminish this capacity.
In the humanist discussion groups that I monitored, woke members dismissed as racism or “transphobia” scientific research into the heritability of intelligence and rapid onset gender dysphoria. In doing so, they rely on the critical-social-justice trope that all knowledge is a function of power and is perpetrated by oppressive “discourses.” There is, of course, a contradiction in this argument in that if there is no objective reality, as has to be the case where what is taken as knowledge is a function of power, then there can be no basis to believe that critical social justice is true. In this, the woke are similar to Heidegger who also put limits on science and reason but advocated a “higher authority” to inform the masses as to ultimate truth. The woke present themselves as that higher authority.
A functioning society is impossible if everyone were to uniquely determine their own subjectively held individual realties. If objective knowledge is impossible, then an alternative reality acting in the place of a Dasien must be imposed on non-believers. Free speech is irrelevant in arriving at truth if truth is determined by that higher authority. Indeed, free speech, in such circumstances, is potentially dangerous for allowing other understandings of reality to compete for the minds of those who are to be led. Therefore, the woke have journalists fired, have books and articles withdrawn from publication, “de-platform” speakers, and have professors fired for replacing ideological orthodoxy with heresy. The woke accuse those who fail to conform to their “reality,” of racism, sexism or a host of new “phobias” that no psychologist would ever diagnose. All this is done in the name of those who allegedly lack “voices.”
The voice of former Sacramento Kings broadcaster Grant Napeer was also silenced. Asked his opinion of Black Lives Matter, he said that “All lives matter, every single one.” In an apology, he stated that he had never imagined how the phrase could be offensive to anyone. He was fired on June 2, 2020. Anyone who believes that all lives matter, of course, cannot be racist, but people to whom the woke had given this label had chanted the phrase at counter-demonstrations. As a sports broadcaster, Napeer could be forgiven for not knowing this history. Entertainers, writers and politicians have also been forced to apologize for uttering this anti-racist sentiment. On October 8, 2020 an aboriginal Inuit cabinet minister, Patterk Netser, was removed as housing minister in the territory of Nunavut after posting “all lives matter” on his Facebook page.
The woke list of proscribed phrases includes “sexual preference,” “colour blind” (when referencing racism), “not racist,” and “sex change.” New words such as “intersectionality,” “heteronormativity,” “cisgender,” “microaggression” and “LGBTQ+” are de rigueur. Old words and phrases, moreover, take on new meanings. During the 1970s, for example, “systemic racism” was used in connection with organizational policies and practices that resulted in discrimination. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) during that era had a policy that police officers had to wear a standard issue hat. The effect of that policy was that devout Sikhs, who wear a turban, could not become police officers. That policy was changed. A policy of racially profiling people to be stopped to be searched would also be an example of systemic racism.
In June 2020 RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said she had looked at her organization’s policies and procedures and could not find any examples of systemic racism. The prime minister’s office, using a different definition, forced her to recant her views. This more recent woke definition of systemic racism is that if there are differential outcomes, for example in arrest rates, then systemic racism must be the cause.Such a simplistic analysis ignores the need to research complex socio-economic factors that could lead to a higher crime rate over which the police have no control.
The picture that emerges is wokism as a kind of filter, an overlay on actual events. Because we think primarily in words when interpreting events, the woke emphasis on language and language policing is an attempt to force the general public to accept the interpretations this filter produces. Thus, wokism is not merely about restricting freedom of speech, it is about restricting freedom of thought. In trying to control, restrict or inhibit our ability to reason, wokism diminishes these very capacities of the self returning us to a form of pre-Enlightenment collectivism. From this perspective, wokism is not revolutionary but reactionary.
Condition Three: Appropriation of Individual Resources
When a woke participant in one of my humanist discussion groups amended his comments after others had already responded, I viewed it as a personal idiosyncrasy. After three participants did the same thing, however, I took notice. These actions pointed to a psychological means by which wokism appropriates time and resources.
The term “woke” originated as a self-referent by adherents of this odd mixture of postmodernism, Hegelianism, Marxism, “social justice” and religion. Appropriated from African American slang, it represented a slur against those who were not sufficiently “awake” to accept their belief system. Like early Calvinists, who believed that they are predestined to join the “elect” and end up in heaven but still needed to continually demonstrate their piety as a way of proving their claim, the woke need to continually demonstrate their superior insight. In this example, they did not need to change the record to help the unwoke, with whom the conversation had already ended, but to demonstrate to other woke who might come across that record that they are indeed one of the elect. In “cancel culture” individual posts and records are examined dating back decades so that enemies of wokism can be eviscerated and publically shamed. This results in an impulse for woke advocates to not leave any record that might imply they are not sufficiently woke.
One can display one’s woke virtue by participating in internet and media mobbing. In November 2019, Don Cherry, a sports broadcaster who had been baiting liberals for decades on his Hockey Night in Canada program, decided to promote Canada’s Remembrance Day tradition of buying poppies to support programs for veterans. He lamented that no one from Toronto was buying poppies anymore and opined, “You people, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that.” Within two days, the Canada Broadcast Standards Council received so many complaints about Cherry’s “racist” comment that their website went down. But this was not a popular public reaction. Only those using the woke mental filter can see racism in a request to buy poppies. Because the woke were not politically predisposed to watching Cherry in the first place, it is unlikely that many of those who complained actually listened to the program. But Cherry lost his job.
Another venue for virtue signalling involves participation in anti-racist demonstrations. Not all members of Black Lives Matter (BLM) are woke, but those who are, given their allegedly superior understanding, try to occupy its leadership positions. Within three days of the killing of George Floyd by police on May 25, 2020, BLM demonstrations occurred in at least 30 U.S. American cities and others around the world. Eight thousand protesters demonstrated in Portland, Oregon, on May 28. Rioting that included breaking store windows, looting, starting fires, and hurling projectiles at the police began the day after. A pattern of peaceful demonstrations by day and riots by night soon solidified. “Riots,” in this instance, were planned in advance. On Facebook and Twitter, the rioters found locations, times and instructions. They were provided food, medical attention, gas masks and shields to protect them from rubber bullets and tear gas. They were armed with modified lasers, fireworks, clubs, hockey sticks, hammers, and in one case, a chain saw.
Portland city council responded to demands to defund the police by cutting $15 million from its police budget in June. On July 2, several federal policing agencies arrived in Portland to protect federal buildings and monuments. On July 15, Mayor Ted Wheeler said that the federal “troops” were responsible for provoking the violence and demanded their withdrawal. On July 18, rioters broke into the Municipal Police Association building, setting it on fire. On July 30, the federal police were withdrawn. Except for serious offences, rioters went free without bail. According to reporter Andy Ngo, some rioters were charged and released as many as five times.
In August, Wheeler stated that President Trump had caused the riots through his policies. On September 10, in keeping with the demands of protestors, Wheeler banned the use to tear gas by police. Trump was defeated in November, but the riots continued. Following a riot on New Year’s Day, 2021, Wheeler stated that his “good faith efforts at de-escalation have been met with ongoing violence and even scorn from radical Antifa and anarchists.”
Real revolutions are led by real revolutionaries who believe there is an objective reality outside of themselves, and they use that reality to plan. Violence in their world is connected to goals. It may be difficult but not impossible to negotiate with these realists. But Wheeler could not deal with people who have rejected the realist approach. A virus does not recognize compromise, only an opportunity to grow. From a viral perspective, that is what Wheeler provided with his various appeasements. Not that they would thank him. A woke group assaulted him in a Portland restaurant on January 6, 2021.
In this section I outlined a psychological mechanism explaining the extreme attention to detail exhibited by woke in making their presentations. I also reviewed part of a massive social upheaval that is only made possible through a substantial time and financial commitment by woke. Those woke who participate in riots are also risking their physical well-being. It is clear from this account that wokism involves the appropriation of considerable personal resources.
Condition Four: Emotional Valence
Wokism is a morality play involving an epic and enduring struggle between the forces of good and evil. In this respect, it resembles a fundamentalist form of religion. As Eric Hoffer (1966/1951) noted following World War II, “A mass movement can get along without a god but not without a devil. An abstract devil won’t do, it must be tangible. This is why Christians must demonize and dehumanize opponents.
In True Believers, Hoffer (1966/1951) described a subset of people in each religion or ideology who cannot accept the idea that others, with very different beliefs, could have an equal claim to goodness. Minions of the devil in wokism are given names such as “alt-righters,” “racists” and “gender traitors.” But few people actually advocate white supremacy, support racism, or see themselves as traitors to their own genders. Wokists try to resolve the resultant cognitive dissonance by declaring statistical evidence itself to be a product of racism and by resorting to what Nathanson and Young (2006) called “linguistic inflation.” We have already discussed how calling on people to buy Remembrance Day poppies was seen as the hate crime of “racism.” The linguistically inflated hate crime of being a gender traitor was illustrated with an article by a transwoman posted on the “open” humanist discussion group previously mentioned. The article describes J.K. Rowling’s view that sharing safe spaces between women and transwomen is threatening for women as “overblown.” The author conceded, however, that some predatory men could potentially use their access (as transwomen) to gain access. She recommended that trans and feminist communities should negotiate a solution. A fellow moderator deleted the article on the grounds of “hate speech.” If suggesting even negotiation makes one a “gender traitor,” then any deviation at all from woke dogma is tantamount to complicity in evil. This cynical mentality creates a problem for woke people, because conventional wisdom necessarily changes over time. With no central organization to define or authorize such change, woke people protect themselves from internal criticism by being hyper-alert and over reactive.
Compassion and social interest are likely the initial factors by which the woke memeplex attaches itself to the selves of most woke people. But the driving force behind their activism flows from a moral panic—which relies on the assertion that evil people, who must be stopped, are bent on oppressing others. A similar moral panic emerged in 1966 as the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
China’s policies had produced economic failure and widespread famine. A cadre around Chairman Mao Zedong concluded this was the fault of “bourgeois elements” in industry, in government circles and even in the Communist Party. Believers conceded that many of these people were unconscious of their revisionism. Mao organized idealistic students, his “Red Guards,” to save the revolution. They began by revolting against their respective schools and cancelling classes. When huge demonstrations failed to produce the desired change, they began rooting out the evil, identifying members of the “bourgeoisie” by their lifestyle, use of language, family backgrounds, and how well they applied Chairman Mao’s “little red book” of quotations. The Red Guards publically humiliated offenders, who typically lost their jobs. Mob violence was common and killed many people. Academics and intellectuals ended up in remote “re-education camps.” Vandals destroyed books, statues, monasteries, museums and anything associated with “old culture.”
Moral panics in the United States and Canada show some affinity with wokism. Even though almost everyone agreed in the 1920s that drunkenness was a problem, the Prohibition movement claimed that even a little alcohol was evil. Despite good intentions, Prohibition was a windfall for criminal gangs. And with the authorities confiscating alcohol, it became logical to quickly drink all one had resulting in an upsurge in binge drinking.
Fear of communism drove the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Associates, friends and relatives reported on each other to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which made sure that suspected communists were publicly humiliated and lost their jobs and that those who refused to cooperate spent time in jail. The Satanic abuse and sexual abuse scares of the 1990s, aided by the dubious science of Repressed Memory Syndrome, resulted in lost jobs, broken families and many innocents in prison. These North American moral panics intended to change culture in some ways, but they did not require a diminution of selves and thus would not satisfy the definition of a mind-virus used here.
Wokism meets the four criteria used for identifying a mind virus. Because those criteria include the diminution of the self, it should not be surprising that wokism is heavily deterministic. By controlling the outer world of the cultural environment, it seeks to control the inner world of thought. As classical behaviourists in psychotherapy discovered, behaviourism works. Psychologist Susan Blackmore (1999) described humans as “meme machines” with illusions of free will. But she is only partially correct. Ordinarily, we modern humans follow patterns that our parents, teachers, religious leaders or other significant others mandated. Or we perform some behaviours habitually. Nonetheless, we have the capacity to re-program ourselves by focusing our attention, examining evidence, selecting alternatives, predicting results, and changing our behaviours (Robertson, 2017a). This is hard work and time consuming. Wokism seeks to become our significant other, replacing the role of such people as parents, teachers and religious leaders in generating our behavioural programming, while limiting our capacity for self-programming. That a mishmash involving the partial application of often competing philosophies could accomplish this in a largely educated population invites discussion as to its origin.
We can speculate about how a group of old Stalinist academics, sufficiently traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union to ignore the postmodernist attack on Marxism as a grand meta-narrative, began experimenting with pieces of various philosophies. Shaped by the reactions of their students, these professors hit on a combination that, though not philosophically consistent, was highly emotive: implanting a feeling of superior knowledge and urgency in their charges along with built-in “attack memes” that prevented them from easily assimilating non-sanctioned points of view. From the perspective of a mind-virus, people become vectors for the purpose of infecting new hosts (Bjarneskans, Gronnevik, & Sandberg, 1997). I doubt that many of the woke have actually read Jacques Derrida let alone Marx, Heidegger, Hegel or the other white males that grandfathered their worldview. Irrespective of its actual origins, this mind-virus has demonstrated a capacity to mutate that defies placement on the political spectrum.
A virus has no ideological loyalty. New mutations can rapidly overtake older ones. While initial varieties of wokism were anti-capitalist, the corporate media and transnational high tech companies (including some of the world’s richest people) have adopted a new strain. Whereas the Left has traditionally challenged the concentration of corporate power, particularly with respect to corporations controlling news, the woke have embraced the rights of private companies to censor viewpoints. We have to consider, therefore, how wokism serves monopoly capitalism. Globalization has lowered the real wages of working class people and reduced the job prospects of anyone with a high school education or less in the United States and Canada. The jobs that these people once held have been largely outsourced to low-wage economies. If the working class is racially divided, which is guaranteed by identity politics, then it cannot be effectively organized by unions or political parties as a class. Wokism provides the capitalists who benefit most from globalization with opportunities to signal their own virtue while cementing in place the very system that created their huge profits in the first place.
Inoculation against a mind-virus is possible through self-education. We need to recognize the code words that woke people use and the contradictions that are inherent in their assertions. This virus normally begins by appealing to our social conscience. If we happen to be members of an identified minority, it appeals to our group loyalty. If that does not work, then the woke typically lash out, as I have shown. We need to recognize the pattern. I recommend a sense of humour to maintain perspective. I do not recommend apologies, because wokists see these as admissions of moral deficiency, and these “admissions” can be used to manipulate others. Instead, we should focus on the deficiencies in wokism and on objectively verifiable facts. Remember that the world has become a much better place in the last 50 years. Poverty, disease, infant mortality, racism, sexism and the murder rate have all declined worldwide. We need to celebrate these advances and protect science and reason that have made them possible. Pluckrose and Lindsay (2020a) said:
We do not believe that bad ideas can be defeated by being repressed, especially when they are as socially powerful as postmodern ideas are right now. Instead, they need to be engaged and defeated within the marketplace of ideas, so that they may die a natural death and be rightly recognized as defunct. (p. 264)
To defeat a mind-virus we must first re-assert the Enlightenment ideal that human beings, through the use of evidence-based processes, can indeed begin to discern objective reality and truth. I hope that I have contributed to this process with this paper.
Paul Nathanson contributed to the sections on linguistic inflation and moral panics in previous discussions with the author. He contributed his extensive editing skills to this project.
Trevor Robertson of Woosong University, South Korea, suggested the use of Rene Girard’s concept of scapegoating. He also assisted in editing this manuscript.
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Appendix I: Footnotes
 Dr. Robertson is Lead Psychologist, Collaborative Centre for Justice and Safety at the University of Regina, Canada. He has published on the structure of the self, the use of prior learning assessment in self-construction, self-mapping in therapy, memetic mutations in religious transmission, and “residential school syndrome” as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. His recent book The Evolved Self: Mapping an Understanding of Who We Are was published by the University of Ottawa Press.
 As used here, reflective thought is a kind of thinking involving situating one’s self in past events.
 In 2017, a founder of Black Lives Matter, Toronto was reported as posting on her Facebook page “Whiteness is not humxness, in fact, white skin is sub-humxn. All phenotypes exist within the black family and white ppl are a genetic defect of blackness” (Curl, 2017).
 This second group is Humanist Canada’s official Facebook page. Only Humanist Canada board members and designated employees could post to this page although all members can respond.
Appendix II: Citation Style Listing
American Medical Association (AMA): Robertson L. Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism [Online]. February 2021; 26(B). Available from: http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism.
American Psychological Association (APA, 6th Edition, 2010): Robertson, L.H. (2021, February 22). Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism. Retrieved from http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism.
Brazilian National Standards (ABNT): ROBERTSON, L. Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism.In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 26.B, February. 2021. <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism>.
Chicago/Turabian, Author-Date (16th Edition): Robertson, Lloyd. 2021. Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 26.B. http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism.
Chicago/Turabian, Humanities (16th Edition): Robertson, Lloyd “Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 26.B (February 2021). http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism.
Harvard: Robertson, L. 2021, ‘Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism’, In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 26.B. Available from: <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism>.
Harvard, Australian: Robertson, L. 2021, ‘Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism’, In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 26.B., http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism.
Modern Language Association (MLA, 7th Edition, 2009): Lloyd H. Robertson. “Year of the Virus: Understanding the contagion effects of wokism.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal 26.B (2021): February. 2021. Web. <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/wokism>.
Humanists UK has called upon all states to make sure the school curriculum is critical, objective, and pluralistic, particularly in its approach to religions and humanism. This is necessary to safeguard the right to freedom of thought. Humanists UK made this call in response to a consultation issued by Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
International human rights law includes the right to ‘freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief’. But, freedom of thought has been little considered in its own right.
Humanists UK said freedom of thought encompasses much more than our private internal experiences. It is a skill set. The skill of being able to seek out, receive, comprehend, and evaluate information. Like any skill, it needs to be taught and developed.
States have a duty to create a culture in which freedom of thought and free enquiry can flourish. In practice, this means having laws that protect people from propaganda and misinformation. It also means schools must teach critical thinking skills. These skills include an understanding of the scientific method. It also means teaching in detail about different religions and humanism, but in a critical, objective, and pluralistic way. All citizens must have access to a wide variety of educational resources, whether that means through books, online, or by other means. And the media also has a strong role to play in informing and educating citizens – particularly public sector media. It must also make sure its content is pluralistic.
Humanists UK also called for the global repeal of blasphemy and apostasy laws. As freedom of thought is an absolute right, no one should be punished because they hold certain thoughts. Laws that criminalise apostatic or blasphemous thoughts are thus incompatible with this right.
Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented,
‘Thought is not only a private experience. It is also a skill. Like any crucial skill, it needs to be taught and given the opportunity to develop. Thus, the state must ensure schools teach in a critical, objective, and pluralistic way. We are concerned that in the UK this is not being achieved. Religious education syllabuses still frequently exclude humanism. All state schools must conduct a daily act of compulsory worship – usually Christian in nature. And we are also aware of an increasing number of illegal religious schools. In these schools, the curriculum is extremely narrow, putting the children at risk of indoctrination. We need a society where all schools, the media, and public access to information is diverse and pluralistic.’
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at email@example.com or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.
In 2021, Humanists UK is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a renewed focus on its history. The new website Humanist Heritage is a rich new web resource that uncovers the untold story of humanism in the UK – a story of people, groups, objects, places, movements, publications, and ideas.
Pennsylvania, USA, May 20, 2021 – Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, UN Messenger of Peace and world-renowned ethologist and conservationist, whose groundbreaking discoveries changed humanity’s understanding of its role in the natural world, was announced today as the winner of the 2021 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize, valued at over $1.5 million, is one of the world’s largest annual individual awards. Established by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, it is given to honor those who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. Unlike Goodall’s past accolades, the Templeton Prize specifically celebrates her scientific and spiritual curiosity. The Prize rewards her unrelenting effort to connect humanity to a greater purpose and is the largest single award that Dr. Goodall has ever received.
“We are delighted and honored to award Dr. Jane Goodall this year, as her achievements go beyond the traditional parameters of scientific research to define our perception of what it means to be human,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation. “Her discoveries have profoundly altered the world’s view of animal intelligence and enriched our understanding of humanity in a way that is both humbling and exalting. Ultimately, her work exemplifies the kind of humility, spiritual curiosity, and discovery that my grandfather, John Templeton, wrote and spoke about during his life.”
Dr. Goodall has caused a revolution in how scientists and the public perceive the mental, emotional, and social complexity of animals, regarding them as extensions of ourselves. She was the first to observe that chimpanzees engaged in activities, such as creating tools, which were previously believed to be exclusive to humans. She also proved that they have individual personality, forethought, and complex societies, much like human beings. Through her observations, Dr. Goodall showed that under certain circumstances they wage war and also, like us, show compassion. Most importantly, throughout her career, Dr. Goodall has championed the value of all life forms on Earth, changing both scientific practice and the culture at large.
“I have learned more about the two sides of human nature, and I am convinced that there are more good than bad people,” said Dr. Jane Goodall, in her acceptance statement for the Templeton Prize. “There are so many tackling seemingly impossible tasks and succeeding. Only when head and heart work in harmony can we attain our true human potential.”
“I can identify closely with the motto that Sir John Templeton chose for his foundation, How little we know, how eager to learn, and I am eternally thankful that my curiosity and desire to learn is as strong as it was when I was a child,” she added. “I understand that the deep mysteries of life are forever beyond scientific knowledge and ‘now we see through a glass darkly; then face to face.’”
As the 2021 Templeton Prize laureate, Dr. Goodall filmed a reflection on her spiritual perspectives and aspirations for the world and an interview with Heather Templeton Dill to announce her award. She will participate in the 2021 Templeton Prize Lectures in the fall.
Dr. Jane Goodall’s legacy extends beyond her research. As a conservationist, humanitarian and advocate for the ethical treatment of animals, she is a global force for compassion, a United Nations Messenger of Peace, and an icon to millions around the world. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) in 1977 to continue her work to study and protect chimpanzees while also improving the lives of local communities through education and training. Since then, JGI has conserved 1.5 million acres of forests, supported 13 communities, and provided safe habitats to more than 5,000 chimpanzees and gorillas. Roots & Shoots, her environmental and humanitarian program, has inspired and empowered young people of all ages to become involved in hands-on projects to benefit the community, animals and the environment in over 65countries. Goodall has devoted her life to educating audiences of all ages about the natural world, traveling an average of 300 days per year over the last three decades.
Despite being grounded by the pandemic, her influence and popularity have grown with her virtual participation in events and lectures around the world. Since March 2020, Dr. Goodall has spoken to thousands of people in more than 150 countries, communicating on the global crisis and the connections between the rise of zoonotic diseases, biodiversity, sustainability, poverty, and humanity’s relationship with nature. At the same time, she launched a podcast, The Hopecast, from her attic studio at her childhood home in Bournemouth, England, and at the age of 87 is reaching millions of people through social media.
Dr. Goodall receives the 2021 Templeton Prize in celebration of her remarkable career, which arose from and was sustained by a keen scientific and spiritual curiosity. Raised Christian, she developed her own sense of spirituality in the forests of Tanzania, and has described her interactions with chimpanzees as reflecting the divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature. In her bestselling memoir, A Reason for Hope, these observations reinforced her personal belief system—that all living things and the natural world they inhabit are connected and that the connective energy is a divine force transcending good and evil.
Goodall is the first ethologist and the fourth woman to receive the Templeton Prize since its inception in 1972. The Templeton Prize winner is selected following an extensive selection process that mobilizes an anonymous group of expert nominators from a diverse cross-section of fields, followed by a rigorous ranking process through a panel of judges, who have included royals, former presidents, scientists, and religious leaders. Judges rank nominees according to a range of criteria before scores are calculated for a winner. This year’s nine judges include Cecilia Z. Conrad, Ph.D., CEO of Lever for Change and Managing Director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Indra Nooyi, Former Chair and CEO of PepsiCo.; Rev. Dr. Serene Jones of Union Theological Seminary; and Anousheh Ansari, CEO of the XPrize Foundation.
Under the leadership of Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, in 2020 the Templeton Prize updated its nomination process to produce a more diverse candidate pool for its award. Such steps included encouraging the nominations of women, increasing the number of female nominators and judges to more than half, and making a priority of recruiting diverse backgrounds and experiences in the nomination and selection process.
Goodall joins a list of 50 Prize recipients including St. Teresa of Kolkata (the inaugural award in 1973), the Dalai Lama (2012), and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2013). Last year’s Templeton Prize went to geneticist and physician Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health and leader of the Human Genome Project, for his demonstration of how religious faith can motivate and inspire rigorous scientific research. Other scientists who have won the Prize include Martin Rees (2011), John Barrow (2006), George Ellis (2004), Freeman Dyson (2000), and Paul Davies (1995).
About the Templeton Prize Established in 1972, the Templeton Prize is one of the world’s largest annual individual awards. It is given to honor individuals whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. Currently valued at 1.1 million British pounds, the award is adjusted periodically so it always exceeds the value of the Nobel Prize. Winners have come from all faiths and geographies, and have included Nobel Prize winners, philosophers, theoretical physicists, and one canonized saint. The Templeton Prize is awarded by the three Templeton philanthropies: the John Templeton Foundation, based in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, and by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and Templeton Religion Trust, based in Nassau, The Bahamas. To learn more, visit TempletonPrize.org
About the Jane Goodall Institute The Jane Goodall Institute is a global community-centered conservation organization that advances the vision and work of Dr. Jane Goodall. By protecting chimpanzees and other great apes through collaboration with local communities, best in class animal welfare standards and the innovative use of science and technology, we improve the lives of people, other animals and the natural world we all share. Founded in 1977 by Dr. Goodall, JGI inspires hope through collective action, and is growing the next generation of compassionate changemakers through our Roots & Shoots youth program, now active in over 50 countries around the world. To learn more, visit JaneGoodall.org
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published in other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was published on Manuel Garcia, Jr.’s personal website on April 11, 2021.
“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Carl Gustav Jung 
Life is the actualization of potentialities embedded within the biochemical processes that form the mechanisms of genetics and evolution. Does life have a purpose, or is it entirely a statistically random fluke made possible by the astronomical number of possibilities available for the expression of molecular chemistry in the wide array of physical conditions interspersed throughout the vastness of space? To believe that life has a consciously intended purpose is to believe that life is an intentional creation by a conscious supernatural entity or entities. If so, what is that purpose?
We know that the most elementary organisms of proto-life, like the SARS-CoV-2 virus that infects people with the deadly COVID-19 disease, have no purpose beyond the mindless mechanical continuation of their genetic formats, by feeding their metabolisms through parasitism. But, what of more conscious organisms, like: plants, animals, us?
We humans pride ourselves as presumably having the most highly developed conscious minds of all life-forms on Planet Earth (though very deep ecologists and naturalists disagree with this presumptuousness). From this human-centric point of view, the various levels of consciousness of living organisms are all evolutionary adaptations enhancing the survivability of individuals, to thus enhance the likelihood of the propagation and continuation of their species as environmental conditions change.
For believers in the supernatural there is an imposed obligation, or supra-natural goal, or “higher purpose” to human consciousness, which can be most generally characterized as finding union with God. For non-believers, the fully conscious experience of being alive is the totality of that higher purpose. In either case, the realization of that purpose is to be had by the combination of human solidarity and nature conservation.
Homo sapiens are social animals, and their full development as individuals — their realization of purpose — requires social connection and connection with Nature.
TALES BY LIGHT
“Tales by Light”  is an Australian television series (in 3 seasons) about the use of photography and videography to tell stories visually so as to change society for the better: activism. Here, I am only writing about episodes from Season 3. By its very nature this series is visually “beautiful” — in terms of the technical perfection of the image composition, capture and presentation — even when abysmally grim and ugly situations are being shown in order to advance the complete story. This is about emotional punch delivered visually. And of course, incredibly happy bursts of emotion are delivered in the same way by the presentation of images of lushly colorful nature, and joyful and inspiring scenes of human warmth, kindness and sheer exuberance. The three stories (each given in two parts) that affected me were:
1, CHILDREN IN NEED: This story, by Simon Lister, is about the children of Dhaka, Bangladesh, who scrounge through the most disgusting, unsafe and unsanitary heaps of rubbish to find scraps of material that can be recycled locally — like plastic forks and containers — in the abysmal poverty of their society; or who do difficult work in unsafe and toxic conditions to support their families. There are millions of these kids in Bangladesh.
Many Bangladeshi kids work in primitive workshops with zero health and safety codes, procedures and equipment, for example to produce pans and bowls by hands pressing sheet metal against spinning mandrels, again with no protective shields from whirling machinery gears and belts right at hand; nor any proper ventilation and filtration to protect them from toxic metal dust, or fumes in workshops using solvents and chemicals.
The story of such child laborers in the poorest societies on Earth is being documented as part of a UNICEF program to bring world (rich world) attention to the problem of child labor, and to generate financial resources to then provide safe and sanitary spaces for such children to be able to get food, education, rest, shelter for the night off the streets, and the joyful companionship of other children. But, since the money these children gain from their difficult and hazardous work is always the lifeline for the support of their families, often of single mothers, such a labor force is considered “normal” in their societies, and lamentably economically essential for these individuals.
The ultimate “solution” for eliminating this heartbreaking situation would be a worldwide awakening to an actual commitment to species-wide human solidarity. That that idea becomes self-evident through the medium of photography testifies to its power as an art-form.
2, PARADISE IN PERIL: This story, by Shawn Heinrichs, is of the conservation of the ocean biodiversity and habitat of the Raja Ampat Islands. Here, the art of photography is being used to present the story of the value of an amazing tropical coral reef and mangrove forest environment in New Guinea (Indonesia).
That story is told in two directions, first “upscale” to the societies of the wealthy industrialized and developed economies, to generate financial resources needed to establish locally manned, maintained, patrolled, owned — and in selected zones sustainably fished — marine reserves, and to ensure their continued operation and ongoing scientific study.
That story is also told “downscale,” in video presentations in their own language to the actual people living in the environments that are being protected, so that new generations of conservationists grow out of the youth of that indigenous population, now fired up with a greater understanding of the positive impact their healthy local environment has on their own lives as well as on the global environment.
The emotional impetus to these conservation efforts, both locally and remotely, is sparked by the visual impact of the photos and videos of the stunning and vibrant beauty of life moving in that magical submerged translucent habitat. The Raja Ampat Islands is one of the few places on Earth where all measures of biodiversity and ecological health are improving right now, even despite advancing global climate change; and this is entirely because of cooperative human intentionality.
3, PRESERVING INDIGENOUS CULTURE: This story by Dylan River, an Australian filmmaker with an Aboriginal grandmother, is of the recording for posterity of Aboriginal ways and languages slowly being lost with the passing away of elders, of the stories behind some of their ancient rock art, of ways of living off the land and sea while being intimately connected to the natural environment, and of community as the essence of being.
On a visit to Arnhem Land, Dylan is immersed into a welcoming ritual by the Yoingu people, whose spokesman at the event states that though Dylan is from far away he is “part of the family” as is everybody in spirit. The entirety of this brief and simple greeting conveys a fundamental truth that is more clearly and wisely stated, and lived by the Yoingu, than with any of the fatuous self-satisfied pronouncements by our many supposedly powerful and always hypocritical political leaders, who collectively oversee and exacerbate the poisonous fractiousness and sociological cannibalism of our national and world societies.
The basic truth here is that every human being “is something Nature is doing” — as Alan Watts put it — and that Nature is integral, it is a harmoniously self-entangling network of life. And that is what healthy human community should be.
I recommend this series to you because of its many simultaneous dimensions of beauty.
To my mind, the financial investments made by the executives of Canon Incorporated, National Geographic (a subscription television network in Australia and New Zealand that features documentaries, and is owned by The Walt Disney Company), and Netflix, to produce and broadcast this series were very worthy, even as I know there would necessarily also have been a component of profit motive in those investment decisions.
What is needed in our world is ever the same: more human solidarity and nature conservation. The wider broadcast of these three stories from the series Tales By Light could help awaken more people to that realization, or at a minimum give some comfort to those who already know.
Acknowledgment: Gretchen Hennig perceptively brought Tales by Light to my attention.
 “Our age has shifted all emphasis to the here and now, and thus brought about a daemonization of man and his world. The phenomenon of dictators and all the misery they have wrought springs from the fact that man has been robbed of transcendence by the shortsightedness of the super-intellectuals. Like them, he has fallen a victim to unconsciousness. But man’s task is the exact opposite: to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious. Neither should he persist in his unconsciousness, nor remain identical with the unconscious elements of his being, thus evading his destiny, which is to create more and more consciousness. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. It may even be assumed that just as the unconscious affects us, so the increase in our consciousness affects the unconscious.”
Manuel Garcia, Jr. is a retired physicist who blogs at https://manuelgarciajr.com on “energy, nature, society,” like on global warming; plus idiosyncratic poetry. During his working career he designed many experiments in high power, high energy and explosive energy physics. His orientation is rationalist, leftist, Zen and humanist.
What is consciousness? Is this even a sensible question to ask? Join us for a fascinating evening of discovery into scientific inquiry, where neuroscience meets ethical philosophy.
Leonard Maler, Neuroscientist and Distinguished Professor at Ottawa University’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine will introduce us to interesting new concepts in consciousness that open a doorway into new issues, perspectives and approaches. Arising out of recent discoveries on the neural bases of consciousness and on extensive discussions with colleague, University of Ottawa Philosophy Professor, Vincent Bergeron, the limits of “access” consciousness encounter philosophical ideas on “phenomenal” consciousness and their ethical implications.
Humanist Ottawa is a volunteer-run association, serving the Ottawa community since its founding in 1968. Our vision is a world where reason and compassion guide public policy and social values to enable the fulfillment of human potential.
One year after: Authorities must comply with Federal High Court decision to release Mubarak Bala on bail
GENEVA (28 April 2021) – UN experts* today called on Nigerian authorities to comply with the decision of the Federal High Court to release the prominent humanist and rights defender Mubarak Bala on bail.
“Today marks one year since Mr. Bala was arrested and detained in Kano State, without any formal charges, on allegations of blasphemy. His arbitrary detention has continued despite our appeals to the Government in May and July last year,” the human rights experts said.
As president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, Mr. Bala had led human rights education campaigns promoting freedom of religion or belief and worked to raise awareness about religious extremism. His arrest on 28 April 2020 followed a petition filed with Kano police a day earlier alleging that he had insulted the Prophet Muhammad in Facebook posts.
“The arrest and prolonged detention of Mr. Bala is not only a flagrant violation of fundamental rights, but it has also had a chilling effect on the exercise of fundamental freedoms in Nigeria,” the UN experts said. “Through his continued detention, the Government is sending the wrong signal to extremist groups that the silencing and intimidation of human rights defenders and minority non-believers is acceptable.”
On 21 December 2020, the Federal High Court in Abuja ruled that Mr. Bala’s detention, as well as the denial of his ability to choose his own legal representation, constituted gross infringements of his rights to personal liberty, fair hearing, freedom of thought, expression and movement. The Court ordered his release on bail and that he be awarded damages of 250,000 Naira (about 650 US dollars).
“We are disappointed that the respondents failed to comply with the Court’s order and blatantly undermined the competence of the judicial system,” said the experts. “The Government must take action to ensure that the responsible authorities respect the due process and enforce the judicial ruling.”
On 27 January, Mr. Bala’s lawyer filed another petition to the Federal High Court in Abuja to summon for Mr. Bala’s bail pending trial, if any. A hearing was scheduled for 20 April, which has not yet taken place because Courts are on strike.
“As soon as the Courts resume, the hearing of the new petition must proceed promptly and the authorities must end this unjustified prolonged detention of Mr. Bala for good,” the experts said.
“We remain deeply concerned for Mr. Bala’s security due to continuous death threats and his overall well-being in detention. Such prolonged incarceration may also amount to a form of psychological torture that could severely impact on his mental and physical health in consequence.
“International law protects everyone’s freedom of thought, conscience and religion or beliefs and the right to opinion and expression but it does not protect religions or beliefs per se. The use of blasphemy law is against international human rights law and the imposition of death penalty based for blasphemy is doubly egregious,” stressed the experts.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.
Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
Since HumanistFreedoms.com began publication early in 2020, we have witnessed more…and more frequent…signs that humanists around the world are seeking a next wave of humanism. Twentieth century humanism is dead – long live twenty-first century humanism!
What will the next wave of humanism look like?
Is Hardcore Humanism An Answer?
Do an internet search for “Hardcore Humanism” and you will find a website and blog for Dr. Michael Friedman, PhD – a clinical psychologist who promotes ” a life philosophy, therapeutic modality and life coaching program that brings together the compassionate holistic approach of humanistic psychology with the scientific rigor of behavioral therapy. Humanistic psychology promotes unconditional positive regard – a basic belief that all people are good and have value – as they strive to achieve their life’s purpose and best self. With Hardcore Humanism, the Humanistic approach is optimized to include the hardcore work ethic and science-based approach of behavioral therapy. In other words, Hardcore Humanism means not only understanding and accepting yourself but also working in a methodical way to achieve your purpose and find fulfillment.”
Whether Friedman’s clinical approach is particularly novel or not, fundamental to his branding is the marriage of humanism to a commitment so staunch, so unwavering and elemental that it is “hardcore”. Friedman’s podcast and website currently has a wide selection of articles which feature connections between heavy metal and punk subcultures and and music.
Is There Room For A Radical Humanism?
On July 1, 2020 Counterpunch published an article by Julian Vigo calling for a “radical humanism” in response to current social and political events and trends. Despite the bold title, “A Call for Radical Humanism: the Left needs to return to Class Analyses of Power“, Vigo did not directly define “radical humanism”. Nor did Vigo clearly state why or how a proposed return to class analysis of power by The Left would fulfill a radical humanism. Over the course of the article, Vigo jumped instead to a kind of applied radical humanism without providing the reader with the benefit of a defined radical humanism.
Vigo’s article suggests that there are contemporary humanists who crave the presence of a form of humanism that has been absent from contemporary public life and politics.
An exploration of the term radical humanism must begin with definitions of the two root words, humanism and radicalism.
Humanism has a rich, complicated and nuanced history that we’re going to set aside as too vast to explore in a short article. If you’re reading this article, you probably have a reasonably well-informed perspective anyway. For the purposes of this inquiry, the term humanism denotes ethical perspectives which focus exclusively on human (and not supernatural or theistic) actions, interests, values and dignity.
Radicalism on the other hand requires more exploration. Vigo’s article is not clear whether “radical humanism” is intended to suggest an extremist position or whether it is to indicate a form of humanist fundamentalism.
Whether Vigo intended a call for extremism or fundamentalism, or some combination of both, it seems that the call for radical humanism is a call for a stronger and more assertive wave of humanism that prioritizes a search for solutions to the root causes of the problems facing humanity over addressing their symptoms and a focus on substance rather than symbols addressing class.
In recent decades, it has been popular to characterize humanism as an ideology of “old white men”. This characterization has become so widely accepted that Roy Speckhardt, the most recent leader of American Humanist Associate recently resigned from the role stating that, “Being at the helm of such an organization as the AHA, whose mission is so critical to our times and whose influence far outstrips its size, was the greatest honor of my life, but I’ve decided it’s time for me to step down and make room for new leadership. It is my emphatic hope that my seat is filled with a Black or Brown humanist because our movement has gone too long without such diversity at the helm and this would open the door for the AHA to truly achieve its potential as a humanist and anti-racist institution.”
On March 13, 2021 we published “Humanists – Where Are You”by Jay Rene Shakur. The article is signed as “The New Humanist”. The question of who The New Humanist may be is vital to the future of humanism.
Shakur heads-up the website HipHopHumanism.Com. The website explores the connections between Hip Hop music and culture and humanism. There is an important similarity between Friedman’s linking of metal and punk subculture trends to humanism and Shakur’s work to do the same between Hip Hop and humanism. In either case, within the mirrored statements, “I am Hip Hop” and “I am Punk” or “I am Metal” there is also reflected a particular statement of who the New Humanist is and how they may be found. The New Humanist is part of wide-spread cultural identities as well as niche sub-cultures with values and aesthetics that are no longer exclusive to “the old white man” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Another example of the contemporary urge toward an assertively-held contemporary humanism may be found in a new management book by Tom Peters titled “Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism“.
That the term humanism would be used as a primary component of a mainstream business-guru-genre book is evidence of just how widespread and essential humanism has become in mainstream culture. And the current appetite is not for yesterday’s average humanism. The appetite is for Extreme Humanism.
Where some parts of society have social sub-culture identities that form a vital connection to their humanism – others have professional sub-cultures. Business gurus and leaders like Peters are pursuing organizational excellence through humanism. The medical profession pursues better medicine through humanism by including humanism as a key-note speaking engagements or through patient relations initiatives. In January of 2021, PhD candidate Daniel Matthews-Ferrero published an article titled “Towards a Humanist Environmentalism” on Spiked where stating “if we are serious about overcoming the environmental challenges that are facing us, and coming up with social solutions to social problems, then humanism must be our starting point. Meanwhile, the technology industry has the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism with an implicit focus on humanism.
Next Wave Humanism
Next Wave Humanism has already begun. It is an ideological building- block of a wide-variety of sub-cultures, professional perspectives, artistic approaches and adjacent ideological movements.
Earlier waves of humanism were pre-occupied with shifting ideological attention away-from supernaturalism and theology and toward humanity. Thanks to the successfully-waged ideological battles of yesterday, Next Wave Humanism is now far less-concerned with that fight. Contemporary humanists of the twenty-first century are concerned with applied humanism – the many ways that humanism is used for solving problems. The New Humanist says, “I am Extreme; I am Radical; I am Hardcore. I am Humanist.“
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was located on mdpi.com, an open-access publishing source.
According to the author’s biography on Dublin City University, Dr. Peter Admirand “has a Ph.D. from Trinity College Dublin; a M.A. in Theology (Ethics) from Boston College; a M.A. in British and American Literature from Georgetown University; and a B.A. in English from The Catholic University of America. Previously he served as an Interim Programme Coordinator for the M.Phil in Ecumenics Programme at the Irish School of Ecumenics and lectured in peace studies, ethics, and interfaith dialogue. He also was an adjunct lecturer in English Departments at Pratt Institute, Queen’s College (CUNY), York College (CUNY), St John’s University, and Lasell College.…his publications and research interests are in the areas of interreligious dialogue (especially Jewish-Christian dialogue); religion and literature (including comic studies); testimonies of mass atrocity; post-Holocaust Jewish thought; liberation theology; forgiveness, justice, and the unforgivable; memory and ethics; theodicy; war and peace; the representation of God and theological themes in literature; and atheism and secular humanism.“
In September of 2020, Dr. Admirand participated in a forum titled
Turning to the novels, Les Misérables, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Plague, this article focuses on theist–atheist encounters within fiction as guides and challenges to contemporary atheist–theist dialogue. It first provides a discussion of definitions pertinent to our topic and a reflection on the value and limitations of turning to fiction for the study and development of theist–atheist dialogue specifically, and interreligious dialogue more broadly. In examining each of the novels, I will first provide a very brief historical context of when each novel was written, the time and place the covered scenes transpire in the novel, and the authors’ positions toward religion(s) when writing their books. I will close the article on some lessons to glean from these fictional dialogues for contemporary theist–atheist dialogue.Keywords: Les Misérables; The Brothers Karamazov; The Plague; atheism; dialogue
Seeking to learn from dialogues between atheists and theists in literature, I first need to state the obvious. Works written by novelists, who may or may not ascribe to a certain faith or ideology, depict an imaginary encounter between fictional characters as conceived from the novelist’s perspective. As such, they are closer to the monologues that have most often dominated (non-violent) interactions between believers and nonbelievers. Think, for example, of Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods or David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion1. Consider also works that seek to address some so-called “other” though really aims to proselytize and to refute the “other”, not mutually learn. In Augustine’s City of God, for example, he argues why Christianity is the true faith—notwithstanding the recent sack of Rome—and claims that such horrors would not have happened if belief and propitiation of the old gods had not been maintained.2For much of Western history, atheists and theists, if they spoke much at all, often did so at cross-purposes. As Charles Taylor has noted, though, it has only been in recent times that the real possibility of atheism in the North Atlantic World has been deemed a viable, potential life-choice option for the majority.3 Or as Alec Ryrie writes in Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt: “In many of the regional, educational, and political subcultures that make up the modern United States, open and unapologetic unbelief is the norm”.4 Many parts of Europe, especially in the Nordic countries, had already anticipated the trend and seemed to cement the intractable inevitability of the secularization thesis.5 Yet, even as zeal for the thesis has cooled, the so-called European exceptions, such as Ireland and Poland, have seen great growth in the number of nones or those unchurched.6 So, too is there an increase in multiple religious belonging in the West, a feature traditionally aligned with the East.7 Regardless, human identity and longing for what are deemed religious or transcendental forms of belief and belonging, whether in traditionally religious or secular leanings, remain universal in scope.8This article is focused on moments of private discussion and dialogue between two characters in novels, one identifying (or describable as) as theist and another as atheist. In doing so, I will first provide a very brief historical context of when each novel was written, the time and place the covered scenes are supposed to transpire in the novel, and the authors’ position toward religion(s) when writing their books. At times, I will connect the discussions to recent or contemporary debates in interfaith dialogue. I will close the article on some lessons to glean from these fictional dialogues for contemporary theist–atheist dialogue. I will focus on three examples from well-known works of fiction: Les Misérables, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Plague.Why these three novels specifically? According to Michael Schmidt in his magisterial, The Novel: A Biography, critics initially “savaged” Les Misérables;9 Saul Bellow rebuked The Plague as an example of a novel formed from ideas and not believable characters: “Camus’ The Plague was an IDEA. Good or bad? Not so hot, in my opinion”10; while disparaging claims of Dostoevsky’s prose as “deliberately repetitious, flat, low key”, are not uncommon.11 My reasons for examining these three otherwise acclaimed novels are mostly personal. While at The Catholic University of America in the mid-nineties, I was introduced to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov through Professor Declan’s honours seminar and in his book, After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom, while Professor Stephen Schneck encouraged close philosophical reading of The Plague for an ethics and politics class. As Camus so closely read Dostoevsky, the theodicy problem was lit in my own burgeoning theological imagination. Les Misérables was a more recent read, initially spurred by filling a gap in a novel I should have read by now, but has since become one of my favourites, along with Ulysses, Moby Dick, and perhaps an outlier to some, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. For our purposes, though, these novels offer fascinating and illuminating moments of theist–atheist encounters.Before examining key scenes in those novels, I will first discuss definitions pertinent to our topic and reflect on the value and limitations of turning to fiction for the study and development of theist–atheist dialogue specifically, and interreligious dialogue more broadly.
2. Naming and Shaming: On Definitions, Identity, and Judgments
Not surprisingly in these discussions, terminology becomes suspect if not convoluted. Consider atheism, a robustly fluid term. Recall how Christians were deemed atheists by the Roman Empire for their refusal to acknowledge and propitiate the Roman gods.12 Those of the Abrahamic faiths, moreover, have not always seen the God of Abraham in the other and so labelled them infidel, heretic, God denier and even god killer.13 Christians have also slandered other Christians who do not belong to their church or sect,14 while despite the proclaimed oneness of Islam, intra-Muslim conflicts and division are facts of the geopolitical world, as in Indonesia where Shi’ia Muslims or those of the Ahmadya Islamic sect are deemed heretics.15Atheism is broadly defined in The Oxford Handbook of Atheism as “an absence of belief in the existence of God or gods”,16 but probing further reveals further distinctions and nuance among many atheists. Philip Kitcher refers to himself as a “soft atheist” because he does not fully foreclose the possibility, even if unlikely, that science may one day prove a theistic framework.17 He thus distinguishes his position from hard (or strong) atheists, especially New Atheists who are adamant that theistic belief is false.18 J.L. Schellenberg has more recently promoted “progressive” atheism, which aims ultimately to be a moral system that improves upon and so transcends forms of theism in which a so-called God of love is still linked with oppressive actions or beliefs. It is also an attempt to move atheism away from what it does not believe towards what it does believe.19For this article, can I, as a theist, define atheism as a position for those whom the existence of any supernatural power or being, whether manifest as one or the many, is nonsense, nonexistent, a chimera, a false proposition, a nonstarter? In my conception of atheism, such a worldview is bereft of any metaphysical understanding or potential, and so strictly material (even as that term is problematic from a scientific perspective).20 Everything can be, or will be, tested, proved or disproved by rational, scientific means.21 There can be no angels or devils inhabiting such worlds, no afterlife, no ultimate purpose to life and the universe, which instead has arisen only by chance and circumstance.22 There is no metaphysical soul. Divisions, and any form of hierarchies based on reasonableness or goodness, though, persist. For example, just as supposed God-lovers can be misanthropes, atheists can be deeply moral, even saintly in their actions and disposition.23 While moral striving is ubiquitous across faith positions, some atheists, or nonbelievers may also still embrace what they label the “spiritual”. Sam Harris, one of the original four New Atheists, highlights the benefits of meditation and his study under Buddhist masters that opened his worldview to a spirituality that did not entail he “believe anything irrational about the universe”.24 Ronald Dworkin, another atheist attuned to the mystery and sublimity of the universe, liked to call himself a “religious atheist”.25 Humanist chaplain Christ Steadman, open to partnering and dialoguing with theists, came to embrace the term “faitheist”, initially a pejorative term hurled at him.26 Does my definition of atheism above still hold? Not for many atheists, some of whom may self-identify by a wide range of terms, such as nonbeliever, nones, antireligious, secular humanist, Christian humanist, and so on.27Consider also nontheistic religious traditions—such as certain forms of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism—where few definitions or lines in the sand will be tidy and impenetrable on the question of spirituality, metaphysics, other realms, and deities. Going further on definitions, there are serious questions on the universality of Western terms and categories, such as “religion” or “religions”. Such terms sometimes have no direct equivalent in many Eastern or indigenous traditions, or only do so after historic encounters (or clashes). What is deemed “religious” is often plural, porous, and interdependent, learning from and responding to other traditions. John Thatamanil, for example, preferring to speak of what is religious, and not of religion or religions, writes: “Religious traditions are not communities of consensus so much as they are sites of internal contestation”.28 Ideally, he would prefer what he calls “comprehensive qualitative orientation”.29Thus, three descriptors that many theists traditionally claim as exclusively theirs; namely, “moral, spiritual, and religious”, are increasingly present in an atheist or nonbelievers’ worldview and quest for secular meaningfulness. Atheist philosopher Martin Hägglund, for example, highlights how accepting that there is only this life and the permanence of mortality is what gives existence heightened meaning and value.30 In a similar vein, while I am a Catholic theologian, my work examining humility and forgiveness has been inspired by atheist positions which seem to demand a more precarious and so profound humility and forgiveness in a world deemed without God.31Even as terms such as “religion” or “atheist” can be difficult to pin down, other terms such as “misotheist” may further complicate the picture. What about a person who believes in some form of a transcendent God but hates and rejects any kind of worship of such a being or beings?32 One of my examples below, the famous conversation between brothers Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, is technically a debate and discussion between a theist and a misotheist; not a theist and atheist.33Such terms, however, ultimately depend upon a stable, constant state of belief or non-belief, when in truth, most living people inhabit fairly fluid, if occasionally sharp, fluctuations. Agnostics, moreover, with various degrees, shades, and nuances, acknowledge the possibility and complexity on both the atheist and theist ledger. They do not feel or assert that a definitive position can be proved or determined either way, even as such individuals may lean strongly to one side or the other.34 Still more of us may be nominal believers or nonbelievers, perhaps living extended periods of our lives without deep reflection or agonistic agony one way or the other—perhaps simply believing in belonging35 or prioritizing other areas of our lives beyond religious identity, whether we tick the box for belief in God or not. Some, moreover, consider themselves apatheists, asserting that the God question has no value or meaning in their lives.36Again, most human beings often inhabit shifting and variously solid or porous positions of belief and unbelief, or simultaneously inhabit elements of these various positions throughout their lifetimes. Faith and doubt are more often bedfellows than engaged in any life-or-death duel.37 When we factor in multiple religious belonging, the picture again becomes multi-layered and somewhat paradoxical, or at least a context that cannot be settled as “black or white”.38In the study of interfaith or interreligious dialogue, we speak of various kinds of dialogues: the dialogue of life, the intra or interfaith dialogues (ecumenical dialogues); academic dialogues, intermonastic dialogues, elite/institutional interfaith dialogue, and so on.39 For the purposes of this article, I examine the atheist–theist dialogue, which is often overlooked.40 Many atheists, for example, are pleasantly surprised when invited to academic or government forums on religious pluralism or interfaith dialogue, almost accustomed to not being included. In the West, as well as in many communist countries around the world, atheist–theist relations have often been hostile and tense.41 In the United States, atheists are often the groups deemed least trusted, according to a number of national and local surveys, as Phil Zuckerman and others have noted.42 They are also deemed to be the least electable. There has not been an outwardly atheist, party-nominated US presidential candidate, for example.43 After the 9/11 attacks and the publishing popularity of the New Atheists, atheist voices were more often heard in public discourse and other cultural mediums in the West (even as some scholars have challenged their long-term contribution to any growth in atheism).44 Nevertheless, we have even seen the rise of what Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate have called “The New Atheist Novel”. Examining the tropes and themes of Richard Dawkins and the other New Atheists, Bradley and Tate show how major contemporary novelists, such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Philip Pullman, promote reason and science over religious superstition and religious fundamentalism in their works.45While anti-New Atheist books have been written by religious believers, there were also exceptions to the rule, from The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, coedited by a Christian theologian, Stephen Bullivant, and an atheist, Michael Ruse, along with a number of works by atheist writers who sought to present religious belief in a fair and balanced way; for example, Timothy Crane’s The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View.46 My ongoing collaboration with atheist philosopher Andrew Fiala, moreover, has sought to find common ground among atheists and theists even while examining core issues of disagreement and dissonance around belief and unbelief in God.47 Such works also share great resonance with the recent focus of The Dalai Lama in advancing secular ethics, especially the notion that all human beings, regardless of religious belief, are drawn and seek to promote compassion.48 For The Dalai Lama, compassion “constitutes a basic aspect of our nature shared by all human beings”.49The key is to seek and encounter one another beyond identity-barriers, whether religious, economic class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or political affiliation. Through our stories and narratives, many bridges can be built or crossed.50 While encountering real living beings is always preferable, fiction also provides a gateway and platform to meet, empathize, and experience the perspectives, fears, and dreams of the unfamiliar and unknown. The great Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, highlights how literature enabled him to overcome lingering or suppressed hatred of Germans after the Shoah. As he writes: “Imagining the other is not only an aesthetic tool. It is, in my view, also a major moral imperative”.51As a personal aside, I grew up in a rich and layered, even if perhaps a twilight-fading Catholic world in Long Island in the 1980s. While the presence of Jewish neighbours and friends no doubt later nurtured my latent interfaith awareness,52 I knew no atheists. Yes, there were people struggling with their faith or perhaps (angrily was the word) renounced faith in God, but such was presented as an anomaly or mere phase. I also recall one or two instances where loss of faith was linked to an experience in war or the Holocaust, but in general, belief in God was taken for granted. I attended a Catholic grammar school and Catholic high school followed by my undergraduate years at The Catholic University of America. After a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I received two postgraduate degrees at two Jesuit Universities (Georgetown and Boston College) before my PhD at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.How deep and lasting were my contacts with atheists before my postgraduate work? Reading the essays of Kai Nielson and his striving for ethics without God in college, stands out, as do other, purely literary or theological encounters. From the writings of Camus to the nature essays of anthropologist and humanist Loren Eiseley,53 I encountered atheists as immersed in the mystery of the world and in seeking to alleviate the pain and suffering of others, as any religious believer or theist. Such reading set a foundation for real, healthy contacts and friendships with nonbelievers today, even as my own Catholic faith (while often battered by doubt from clergy abuse of children)54 still endures. Turning to the novelists, it is not surprising, then, that even as I continue to work in the area of theist–atheist dialogue with fellow flesh-and-blood human beings, I also contend that examining literature can help to hone, challenge, and develop our dialogical, and for me, theological and ethical, language, horizons, and aims. My first example, affectionately called, Les Mis, is, of course, a publishing sensation, whether as epic novel, a perennial East End and Broadway play, or a movie and television favourite.55
Although the origins of Les Misérables begin in 1845, as Adam Gopnik notes, “[Victor] Hugo wrote Les Misérables in the Channel Island of Guernsey in the late 1850s while in exile from the Second Empire of Louis Napoléon, Napoléon’s nephew…”57 The magnum opus was published in 1862. While born Catholic, Hugo pulled away and rebelled against the institutional Church as he grew older, emphasizing instead social justice for the poor and oppressed. As Gordon Leah writes of the role of Providence in Les Misérables:In the final analysis, the novel is an
extended call to drastic social reform, incorporating memorable passages on the sewers, the housing conditions, the lives of street urchins, the treatment of orphans, the exploitation of the poor by criminals and by the social system. Additionally Hugo sees God as the provident Creator and Sustainer whose will it is that these evils should be cured and whose agent in so doing is the man of prayer and action whose soul has, in the words of the Bishop, been bought back from evil and given to God.58(Gordon is referring, of course, to Jean Valjean)For our purposes, we will focus on the story of Monsieur Charles-Francoise-Bienvenu Myriel, who we are told in the novel’s opening, “in 1815…was bishop of Digne” (1).59 The Bishop was 75 years old and had been elevated to the episcopate in 1806. Especially illuminating are his interactions with the character called the Conventionist G—, who is identified and labelled as an atheist. Note that the Bishop was said to be modelled after Charles-Françoise-Melchior-Bienvenue de Miollis, whom James Maddon tells us, also lived simply, cared deeply for the poor, and even offered shelter to a criminal (Pierre Maurin) who was sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread. Conservative Catholics, including the Miollis family, were disgruntled about the Bishop’s portrayal in the book and the critiques of the institutional church (“Notes”, 1195). Others who shared Hugo’s critique of the institutional church feared his message was dulled by such a positive portrayal of a priest. As Lisa Gasbarrone writes: “According to his wife, Hugo defended his choice of the Bishop with the observation that a member of the liberal professions would be anachronistic for 1815, the momentous year in which the novel opens”.60 He also felt the Bishop’s heroic saintliness would accentuate the underwhelming reality of clergy performance in his time. In the longer context of the story, it is the Bishop’s altruistic forgiveness of Jean Valjean that shocks and inspires the ex-convict to overcome his (legitimate) bitterness and strive to take this new chance and live for God and true justice. He had stolen the Bishop’s only real possessions he had clung to from his previous life; “a set of six silver knives and forks and a big soup ladle…and two big solid silver candlesticks” (21). Yet, the Bishop protects and forgives him.The opening of the novel expends 100 pages on the character of the Bishop, who is Christ-like in every way but martyrdom—kind, compassionate, forward thinking, and social-justice oriented. He foreshadows, I would contend, later liberation theologians such as Oscar Romero and Ignacio Ellacuría.61 Unlike Christ, but more like a St Ignatius or St Thomas,62 the Bishop was born into a wealthy family. He had also been married, though childless. His wife died while
they were emigrants, having left the country after the 1789 revolution. He returned to France as a priest. He lived simply. “He didn’t preach so much as chat” (10), speaking with “the same eloquence as Jesus Christ himself, sincere and persuasive” (11). He stood with, and comforted, the criminal on the scaffold and happily met supposed robbers, saying: “Prejudices are the real thieves, vices are the murderers” (25). He was a Bishop to all—or nearly all, as he had eschewed the atheist.The bishop’s dialogue with the atheist occurs in the subtitle: “The Bishop Before an Unknown Light”. The scene reveals both men in human illumination, warts and all. Their scene together is brief, and I can only imagine a deeper and longer-lasting connection if they had more time to converse, learn from one another, and correct false presumptions.G—lived alone and was a member of the National Convention. The narrator says the Bishop’s actions towards the Coventionist were even more “risky than the trip through the mountains held by bandits”. Conventionists, and especially atheists, were often feared and detested by many at that time. “The man was more or less a monster”, it was said—as he had rejected rule by kings. For this position, he was isolated in a “godforsaken hole of a place in an extremely wild valley” (32). He had neither neighbour nor visitor, and so the Bishop would say: “There is a soul there who is all alone” (32). Yet, even the Bishop’s initial thrust for kindness was tempered by cultural and societal “aversion” to what the man represented. A few times he headed in the man’s direction, but then turned away. Word spread that G—was dying and death was imminent. The Bishop, after a few false starts, headed off to that “unholy spot” (32).When he steps into G—’s dilapidated hut, G—asks the Bishop who he is, as no one from the town had ever visited him. G—, discovering the man is his bishop, reaches out his hand. The Bishop does not take it (33). He notes that the man does not look as sick as he had been told.The atheist says he only has a few hours left but is glad the Bishop came and is happy to see the sun one last time. He tells a shepherd boy, who was serving him, to go to bed as he must be tired. G—also thought this way he can die while the boy is sleeping. It was a kind act, but the saintly bishop was unmoved. He was perturbed, though, as G—addressed the Bishop like any other man, even as he “gazed at him with a congeniality in which one might have discerned, perhaps, the humility that is appropriate when a person is so close to returning to dust” (34).As noted, the Bishop was hoping for a deathbed conversion, but G—, emotionally and mentally strong and alert, exuded fervour and perseverance even as his body was moving toward death. In this regard, G—foreshadows Hugo years later on his deathbed in 1885, where a priest also sought (but failed in) his return conversion to the Catholic Church.63Regardless, the Bishop sits down and begins to speak with a tone of “reprimand” (34). When G—says that man should be governed by science”, and the Bishop adds conscience too, G—replies: “It’s the same thing. Conscience is the quota of innate science we each have inside us” (34).Already the Bishop is “amazed” by his words, more so when G—clarifies that he protested and called for the death of ignorance, not the death of the king as he believed no man had such a right, guided by a call for social justice and the end of slavery.They then discuss and clearly disagree on the value of the 1789 Revolution, which pains the Bishop, but which G—sees as “mankind’s crowning achievement” (35). As they further discuss the violence of the revolution, the “bishop almost regretted having come, and yet he felt obscurely and strangely shaken” (36).The atheist mentions the example of Christ, who spoke what we would call truth to power and that innocence cannot only be claimed by one group. The Bishop quietly agrees. The atheist then argues that we must cry over all the victims of state violence and oppression, whether the child king or the common people. Again, the Bishop agrees. G—pushes further and says the suffering of the people has lasted longer and there we must focus. Another silence unfolds. The atheist’s tone shifts. He accosts the Bishop for coming into his home and questioning his motives, so again asking the bishop who he really is, presuming he is just a toadied member of the Church elite, far from the plight of the people. Readers know that is not the case with this Bishop. When G—calls the Bishop “a worm in a carriage!”, the narrator justly remarks: “It was the Conventionist’s turn to show human weakness and the bishop’s turn to show humility” (37).Gently, the Bishop asks—despite all the supposed riches he had and has—how all the destruction from the revolution “prove[d] that pity is not a virtue, clemency is not a duty, and that ‘93 was not hideously ruthless” (37).G—then apologizes to the Bishop for not treating the other and his ideas with courtesy. He also apologizes for using all the Bishop’s material wealth against him in his argument, and that he will not make such references again. The Bishop simply thanks him but does not correct him by saying he renounced such luxuries years ago.As the Conventionist adds and links mistakes on different sides of the political spectrum before and during the revolution, the Bishop, shocked by the comparison, then replies: “Progress should believe in God. Good cannot be served by impiety. An atheist is a bad leader of the human race” (37). Note how the bishop’s bias is still active today. G—, initially silent, experiences a shiver, and with tears exclaims, seemingly in a defensive or sarcastic tone: “O you! O ideal! You alone exist!”In response, the Bishop “experienced an inexpressible commotion” (37). David Bellos contends the scene above and G’s response (which I will note in a moment) are meant to convey the existence of God, “boiled down in Les Misérables to a bafflingly dense paragraph put in the mind of the outcast revolutionary, G”.64 G—’s “bafflingly dense” words, uttered after pointing to the sky, are: “Infinity is. It is there. If infinity had no self, the self would be its limit; it would not be infinite. In other words, it would not be. However it is. So it has a self. This self of infinity is God” (38–39). He dramatically shudders. G—’s words almost resemble something of the spirit of the great 14th century Dominican scholar and mystic, Meister Eckhart,65 or contemporary new age spiritualism. It is not a typical statement of an atheist, and here again may be closer to Hugo’s evolving beliefs towards something Divine but free of any human, religious institution.Returning to the scene, the Bishop looks more kindly on the man, especially sensing death was very near. He reaches towards him and asks if he wants to express belief in God. “This hour is the hour of God. Don’t you think it would be a shame if we met in vain?” (39).The atheist recounts his life, mostly the good deeds he has done and the suffering he has endured, even acknowledging how he protected a convent and “my own enemies—you lot” (39). He concludes: “What have you come to ask of me?”Here, finally, is the key to the whole arc, and it is the Bishop who is changed. As Kathryn Grossman comments, “References to knees and kneeling recur at a number of critical, interlocking junctions”66 and serve to unite the novel’s narrative strands and structure. Just as Jean Valjean later kneels before Myriel, here the bishop kneels before G—and asks for his “blessing” (40). Though G—has already died, the narrator comments that the Bishop then became even more gentle and caring of the poor and of the children, clearly touched and changed by his encounter with the atheist (40). Perhaps Jean Valjean was thus also a beneficiary.
4. Brothers in Dialogue
Fyodor Dostoevsky, like all great theists, was also drawn to atheism.67 Ultimately, though, he firmly believed that religion and God were needed to maintain some moral order in our world, and that without such a foundation, as Ivan Karamazov intoned, “everything would be permitted” (69).68 Dostoevsky was a profoundly angst-ridden man who could also breathe life into holy, optimistic characters such as Zosima, Alyosha, or of Sonya’s unconditional and forgiving love in Crime and Punishment.69Dostoevsky’s gamboling and debts, his early political activism, his sentence by execution under a firing squad in 1849, and his last-minute reprieve, followed by imprisonment in the Omsk stockade
from 1850 to 1854 in Siberia, are well-documented in his fiction, letters, and in scholarly biographies and journal articles. Especially relevant is his autobiographical prison novel”,70The House of the Dead. As Joseph Frank has noted, these prison years “were of decisive importance in [Dostoevsky’s] life and resulted in what he called the “transformation of his convictions”. The experiences garnered in these years changed Dostoevsky from an opponent into a supporter of Tsarism, and finally consolidated the foundations of his faith in Christ and in a Christian God who transcended the bounds of reason”.71 In The House of the Dead, the narrator even blesses the prison for saving his life.72The Brothers Karamazov was published in 1881, so almost three decades after his release, and one year before his death in 1882. In the novel, Fyodor Karamazov, the father, is described as a landowner who is “not only worthless and depraved but muddleheaded as well” (7). He only thought of himself. He was an “old fool” (74). As the opening of the novel reveals, the father had died 13 years previously. As the story unfolds, the question is which of his sons killed him, for any one of them had motive. Fyodor Karamazov, it is worth noting, was said to be modelled after Dostoevsky’s own troubled father, who (among three competing versions) supposedly was murdered by his serfs, whom he treated terribly. Dostoevsky was away at school during the death. Speculation (famously by Freud) on his father’s demise and its impact on the son is ongoing.73In the novel, the father had three sons through two wives. Alexei (Alyosha) is the young novice who often is seen to represent the spiritual side of man. Ivan is the brother who, we will see, has rebelled against belief in God, and represents the intellectual side of man. Dmitri, the eldest, represents the passionate or sensualist side of man. Their father was also rumoured to have a so-called illegitimate son, Smerdyakov. He had raped a vulnerable, mute, and homeless “holy fool” named “Reeking Lizaveta”. The boy’s name means “son of the ‘reeking one’”. She died while in childbirth. According to Sharon Cohen, the rape of Lizaveta not only proved the wantonness of Fyodor Karamazov but the guilt of the town in not trying to care and protect her earlier. Thus, Smerdyakov “is a composite of the devil’s son and a “holy innocent”, for he assimilates both the best and worst of humanity”.74 Smerdyakov was said to have skinned and hung cats as a child, later becomes a servant in his father’s household, and shares Ivan’s anti-God (or atheist) beliefs. He is also the one, perhaps driven on by Ivan’s words, who murders their father (though Dmitri is blamed).For our purposes, we will examine (though briefly) the well-known debate/dialogues about God and theodicy between Alyosha and Ivan, again focusing on challenges and lessons depicted in this believer–nonbeliever dialogue. It should be stressed that, much like Hugo, Dostoevsky was also a theist, but more so than Hugo, deeply feared what he saw as a nihilistic surge through Europe rooted in a turning away from God and traditional religious belief. Alyosha, deemed by Dostoevsky as the hero of the novel precisely for his stance and hope for God, was named after one of Dostoevsky’s sons who tragically died three years into his life from epilepsy in 1878. Note also that Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy (as did Smerdyakov).The Brothers Karamazov is the most important, profound and damning literary text to examine the problem of theodicy: why an all-loving, omnipotent God could create and sustain a world in which the innocent suffer because, it is said, free will is needed for humanity’s striving and fulfilment.75 Ivan, who as Bernard Schweitzer argues, is really a misotheist—a hater of God as opposed to an atheist strictly speaking—presents the young Alyosha with lyrical, emotionally and rationally potent arguments on why he rejects the world as God has apparently constructed it, and so returns his “ticket” to him (245). As Rowan Williams comments, Ivan “is speaking for the Dostoevsky of
decades earlier”76. On the one hand, as with all the Karamazovs, Ivan is attracted to signs of life and verdure—even hope—but is despondent and crushed by the useless suffering and horror also imbued in our world.Even if Ivan was only to experience life’s dregs, “still I would want to live—”, he tells Alyosha, to taste all of life until at least 30. “Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me” (230). So, too, he loves “some people” and great deeds. Alyosha says Ivan is halfway there, as he needs to love and believe that all this beauty and life that will die can be reborn and redeemed.Ivan then tells Alyosha that, when he previously had blurted out there was no God, it was to tease him—but similar to the Buddha, now says there is no way of knowing if God invented man or man invented God, and Alyosha is best not to think about it (235). Ivan again admits he can believe in the idea of God as the infinite Good, but not “this world of God’s” (235). He even admits that all the evil and destruction of this world, as Marilyn McCord Adams later argues in her book, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, can and will be redeemed77—though Ivan stresses: “but I do not accept it, and do not want to accept it!” (236). Here Ivan is the opposite of the biblical Job, who bore the majority of his sufferings in silence, refused his wife’s advice “to curse God and die”, and who seemed happy enough when his riches were restored, even if his children, smitten by the satan, were not themselves reborn (he is granted new ones). The Book of Job, an exasperating and (I would argue) immoral biblical book, haunted Dostoevsky, and plays a key role in the novel, especially in Zozima’s preaching upon it.78 Note also that spurring Ivan’s anger at God is the unjust suffering of others. According to Gustavo Gutiérrez’s reading of Job, it was Job’s plight and subsequent solidarity with the poor and forsaken of the world that gave to him the ability to speak a prophetic and contemplative language about God.79 As a theist, I am grateful and humbled by challenges to belief in God because of suffering, whether from an Ivan Karamazov or Primo Levi.80Alyosha thus wants to know why Ivan rejects this world, and Ivan is torn. He wants to tell his brother. He also fears persuading him to his position, and so admits: “Perhaps I want to be healed by you” (236). Is Ivan open, struggling and willing to cross back to the other side?Ivan doubts, though, that Christ-like love is possible for human beings. It is plausible from a distance, but close up and daily love? No. He turns to the suffering of the innocent, of children, especially, at the hands of so-called “‘animal’ cruelty”. He then rightly notes such a term insults other animals, as “no animal could ever be as cruel as a man, so artfully, artistically cruel” (238). Ivan cites “atrocities” committed by Turks and Circassians in Bulgaria (238), a specific claim needing to be contextualized,81 but we can mention any past and present atrocity, with any group of people, to witness such abysmal and creative destruction and terror.82 This leads to Ivan’s deliciously true and wicked statement (after speaking of a game Turkish soldiers played with a baby before they “shatter its little head”, when he remarks: “I think that if the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness” (239). Contra Genesis 1:27, we are not holy beings created to be good by a holy God, Ivan is saying, but devilish beings who inflict misery on others. Ivan delights in his shatteringly agnostic comment about the Devil.83Ivan then describes how the torturing of children is universal: “There is, of course, a beast hidden in every man, a beast of rage, a beast of sensual inflammability” (241–42). Of a 5-year-old girl, tortured by her parents, forced to eat excrement, Ivan says her prayers to God show the world should be rejected, especially when we claim we need to know the existence of good and evil, and so of cases like that girl’s suffering. However, he rejects such cases and reasoning and so rejects the world (242). Similarly, Anne Applebaum, in her majestic historical account of the Russian Gulag, retells the crushing story of “Little Eleanora” who is born and dies in the camps, despite the desperate pleas and prayers of her mother to God. Ivan, too, has cut to the heart of the impossible challenge brought to theists, impossible to justify or to ignore if theistic faith can somehow be maintained.84Knowing he has struck a chord, Ivan apologizes for upsetting Alyosha, but his younger brother tells him to proceed. So, Ivan presents the story of a “house-serf” who accidentally hurt the favourite hound of his master, a general from an aristocratic family. The boy had thrown a stone which hit the dog’s paw. Because of the affront, the boy, eight, is stripped naked, and with all the servants watching, especially his mother, is told to run. Mercilessly, the Master sends all his many hounds after the boy. They rip him to shreds. Ivan asks what to do with this general (243).85Alyosha says he should be shot. Ivan approves. However, this returns Ivan to the why question: why must innocent children, especially, suffer for some future harmony? On account of the innocent victims, Ivan refuses to sing, “Just art thou, O Lord”—even if some harmony, some peace could be possible in the future. Ivan will stay here with the victims and their screams and so is incapable of singing such praise. For how can there be any atonement for such suffering? And hell is of no value: “what do I care if the tormentors are in hell, what can hell set right, if these ones have already been tormented?” (245). No one, moreover, can forgive the torturer of the children but the children—and how can we expect hope or justify such an embrace? Ivan thus returns his ticket to God, rejecting this world. He then challenges Alyosha if he would create a world like ours if only one child had to suffer, such as that poor girl whose parents made her eat excrement, to “found your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears?” (245). Alyosha says he cannot. Such a world cannot be justified upon the existence of one case of innocent, useless, anguished suffering (let alone genocides and mass atrocities).Alyosha, does, though, bring up Jesus, and his sacrifice and atonement. Ivan tells him he was building towards Jesus and so tells the story of “The Grand Inquisitor”. As Frank Armstrong comments, through Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor story, “Dostoyevsky is voicing his deep animosity to Catholicism, the Jesuit order in particular and the conflation of religious with temporal power generally”.86 According to Gary Adelman, Dostoevsky also “poured his extreme life-hatred of Jews…into the Grand Inquisitor, quite consciously attacking in him the Jew in his own imagination”.87 Antonio Malo, meanwhile, contends that through the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, “Dostoevsky demonstrates the origin of nihilism, or that is, the system of thought by which one leads his or her life as if God were dead”.88 As Malo, argues, though, “for Dostoevsky, evil can only be defeated by love”, and this claim and hope is embodied in Jesus.89 The tale has garnered a plethora of views. The Brothers Karamazov is what David Tracy would call a classic work, which jars and surprises the generations that encounter it, transforming and challenging them.90 Bridging the persuasive accusation of Adelman with the hope of Malo, I follow here Harold Bloom who writes: “And yet the greatness of…The Brothers Karamazov is unquestionable. Dostoevsky the novelist transcends the idolizer of the Tzar, the anti-Semite, the enemy of human freedom”.91 In Ivan’s tale, a story within a story, Jesus is said to have returned during the Great Inquisition in Spain in the 16th century. Such, too, it is worth noting, was a time of great violence committed in the name of God. Supposed converts from Islam and Judaism were particularly distrusted (recall that Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and surviving Muslims forced to convert after the Reconquista against the Moors). Violence in the name of religious belief is pervasive.Thus, in this charged setting, Jesus is arrested by the Grand Inquisitor because he fears that Jesus’ trust in human beings is dangerous; that humankind needs to be ordered what to do, not presented with more trust. Excessive freedom will only lead to further suffering. The Grand Inquisitor contends that Jesus gave the Church the means to make men happy through obedience. The Church gives the masses the basic sustenance they desire, and in return they relinquish their freedom, which they cannot morally and properly execute. Man cannot have bread and freedom, the Grand Inquisitor argues, and man really needs and prefers bread. Is this assessment of the human condition correct, as DH Lawrence and others have asked?92The Inquisitor’s claims are not new. They echo Juvenal’s phrase of “bread and circuses” given to Roman citizens to appease them. They also resonate with similar phrases in later Maoist China and with a China economically strong today but still hiding past failures like the Great Chinese Famine.93 Just as Jesus would be a threat in such 20th century totalitarian regimes, he is arrested in 16th century theocratic Spain. Throughout the Grand Inquisitor’s narrative, Jesus says nothing. His only reply is to “gently” kiss the Grand Inquisitor on the lips, resembling Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (Mark 14: 44–45). While the betrayed is the same, here the kissed and kisser are reversed. Though the Church betrays Jesus, he kisses the Grand Inquisitor out of kindness and forgiveness, not from Judas’ malice or disappointment. Gorman Beauchamp writes: “The implication of Christ’s remaining silent is clear: there is nothing more to be added to what he had said of old. His message has not changed, will not change, remains forever what it was, admits of no clarification or amendment. One accepts it, suggests Dostoevsky, as it is—a great and profound mystery, apprehensible only by faith—or accepts it not at all”.94 Additionally, it is worth highlighting that Wil van den Bercken notes:Seen from Orthodox iconography, the portrait of Jesus that emerges from ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is unconventional. It is the opposite of Christ Pantocrator or the throned Christ of the Day of Judgement. Instead, we have here a compassionate Jesus among the people and then a submissive, silent prisoner in front of a human judge.95To me, Dostoevsky’s Jesus echoes my own Catholic theological vision, rooted in my mature following of liberation theology and in the kind, gentle Jesus taught to me as a child.Serving as a Christ figure, Alyosha then also kisses Ivan (263). The elder brother says he will think upon Alyosha’s actions and when he is on the cusp of ending it all at age thirty, he will return to Alyosha for one more talk. Sadly, instead, Ivan suffers the onset of brain fever, a Victorian condition that was said to bring on madness from “emotional shock or excessive intellectual activity”.96 Was he tormented by the “demons” of his anti-God beliefs, as someone like Dostoevsky might think? Examining Aquinas’ account of wisdom, Alina Beary alleges Ivan’s picture of a godless world really showed his “infatuation with his own intellectual brilliance” and not wisdom.97 This failure was especially evident in Ivan’s pride-filled dealings with Smerdyakov. Easily influenced,98 Smerdyakov takes Ivan’s views that all is permitted and that there is no God to then murder their father. It also results in Dmitri’s (false) arrest. While Ivan hopes Smerdyakov will testify to exonerate Dmitri, Smerdyakov instead kills himself. Traditionally, suicide was a symbol of rejection and despair at the possibility of God’s grace and forgiveness, again commonly linked with Judas as betrayer, who died from hanging (Matt 25: 27, though from a fall with his intestines spilling out; Acts 1: 18). The father, though, was no Christ figure as a victim.99Nevertheless, while Alyosha’s religious belief is humbled and challenged and Ivan’s misotheism seems to leave him in madness, few theists would allege that Ivan’s challenges have been satisfactorily answered, especially in regard to growing dissatisfaction with atonement theories.100In our third and final example, it is the theist who is again challenged and ultimately most distraught from these theodicy discussions.
5. A Doctor and a Priest (and Two Journalists)
Albert Camus’ The Plague was begun before WWII, but mostly written shortly after its end, and published in 1947. As Tony Judt notes:He started gathering material for it in January 1941, when he arrived in Oran, the Algerian coastal city where the story is set. He continued working on the manuscript in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a mountain village in central France where he went to recuperate from one of his periodic bouts of tuberculosis in the summer of 1942. However Camus was soon swept into the Resistance and it was not until the liberation of
France that he was able to return his attention to the book.101While perhaps historically rooted in a choleric epidemic that descended upon Oran after French colonial occupation in 1870, the novel takes place in the 1940s. Both a literal and allegorical reading of the plague is common. Its setting in the 1940s with a Nazi and Communist threat and war resonate. The novel is rooted in a search for meaning and purpose in the context of loss and plague, with the hovering sense that all of life, sooner or later, will succumb to such tragedies. How we respond is of the utmost importance. Both now and then, this eternal question lingers: Is it absurd to care about a human response when there are no gods, no ultimate justice? It is not surprising that Camus’ novel has seen deep rereading in our time of COVID-19.For our purposes here, I will mostly focus on the interactions between Dr Bernard Rieux, who is an atheist, and the Catholic priest, Father Paneloux. We will also include some key discussions with Rieux and two journalists, Tarrou and Rambert, who also do not believe in God.Camus is usually identified by others as atheist, even as he could be coy about the label. Some theists have sought to find in Camus a sign or movement towards theism before his tragic death, but at most, I agree with Robert Royle:He’s questing and enigmatic, something like Ivan Karamazov, his favorite character in his favorite novel by his favorite author. He’s more indignant over suffering and injustice than hardened in a stance against God. In this, Camus was somewhat in the Samuel Beckett mode: ‘God doesn’t exist, the bastard.’ He still might exist and be a bastard for all he seems to allow.102It is worth noting that, as Vivienne Blackburn comments, Camus’ desire is “for genuine dialogue” and cooperation with religious believers.103In the novel, as dead rats start to appear throughout the city, foreboding ill, Dr Rieux is contacted by a journalist, Raymond Rambert (as noted, a fellow atheist, 205),104 who is supposed to write about the conditions of the Arab populations, ill-treated then (and now) in France. When Rieux admits he will not share his thoughts if the full truth of their condition is not uncovered, the journalist says he speaks “in the language of Saint Just”, referring to the French revolutionary (who remains a controversial figure). Tellingly, the narrator remarks that Rieux knew nothing of such a claim, but “the language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow man—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth” (12). This is much like Camus’ humanist creed—no belief in God, but deep
love for his fellow man and woman, a commitment to the unvarnished truth and no allegiance or dealings with injustice. Instead, Rieux tells the journalist about the rats (13), whose corpses pile up, soon to be matched by human beings. As the horrid truth slowly dawns on Rieux—that this was plague—he tells himself not to waste time on worry and reflection: “The thing was to do your job as it should be done” (41).Father Paneloux was a Jesuit priest. As an aside, in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha had tried to distance himself from that Catholic order after Ivan narrated his Grand Inquisitor story.105 In Camus’ novel, after the plague had been raging in Oran for a month, the narrator focuses on a particular homily of Fr Paneloux.106 We are told he was scholarly and reached nonspecialists on previous sermons on individualism. “In these he had shown himself a stalwart champion of Christian doctrine at its most precise and purest” (92). He had earned some “local celebrity” for his unvarnished truths.To combat the plague, the religious authorities organize a week of Prayer, culminating in Father Paneloux’s Sunday sermon “under the auspices of St. Roch, the plague-stricken saint” (92). In his sermon, the Jesuit claims plague has fallen on the people because of their moral laxity and lack of faith—that “they deserved” this present calamity (94). He intones that these are the end times, and we need to focus on God and our salvation—but that “God is unfailingly transforming evil into good”—the classic theodicy statement and justification (99). Words of his sermon—especially as the town is mostly shut down—reach many.Another journalist, Tarrou, asks Dr Rieux what he thought of the sermon. Rieux had heard about the sermon from others. He generously replies that his work in hospitals prevents any belief in collective punishment, but kindly says Christians sometimes say such things but do not really mean it and are “better than they seem” (125). When Rieux confirms to Tarrou that he does not believe in God (126) but emphasizes that the main difference between him and Paneloux is that the scholar has not seen death up close so can speak more confidently of truth “with a capitol T”, he also clarifies that a country priest may know of death.107 Tarrou then wants to know about Rieux’s devotion (to alleviate suffering) while being an atheist.Rieux tells him it is simple: there are sick people “and they need curing” (127)—even as the struggle is a “never-ending defeat” (128). Rieux’s teachers are, in fact, “suffering” (129) and “the moral code” of comprehension (130). He later tells the journalist Rambert the only way to face the plague is with “common decency” (163), doing his job as a doctor, and through healing. His example later inspires Rambert (again, a fellow atheist) to stay in Oran and not run off with his love and to seek happiness because, similar to Rieux, he is driven to work on a cure (210).Plague continues to spread, though. Hope for a cure in a child was instead met with the innocent’s slow, agonizing demise. Surrounded by a sense of helplessness and impotence (216), Father Paneloux sank to his knees imploring: “My God, spare this child!” (217). However, the cries and moans of others only smother the prayer. Rieux, meanwhile, “tightly gripp[ed] the rail of the bed shut his eyes, dazed with exhaustion and disgust” (217).The child, finally, dies.When the priest motions to speak with Rieux, who is utterly spent after months of twenty-hour days, helplessly seeking to heal, Rieux “swung round on him fiercely. “Ah! That child, anyhow, was innocent, and you know it as well as I do!” (218).After Rieux breaks away, they then continue the discussion, Rieux apologizing for his tone, feeling sometimes all one has is a feeling of “mad revolt”. While resonant with much of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus,108 the phrase also resembles the passion of Ivan.Paneloux, ever dutiful, invokes a theodicy comment, saying, “we can love what we cannot understand”. However, Rieux “shook his head. ‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. Additionally until my dying day, I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (218).The priest then mentions the gift of grace. The doctor acknowledges he has no such gift, but says the more important thing, despite their differences, is that they are “working side by side for something that unites us—beyond blasphemy and prayers” (219).Paneloux then says Rieux is also working for “man’s salvation”, an extraordinary statement for its time. Remember, this is before Vatican II, and especially Nostra Aetate.As the priest gets up to leave, and Rieux again apologizes for his tone, the Jesuit, unlike the Bishop in Les Mis, cannot conceal his disappointment in not convincing Rieux of God. Rieux again stresses they are both together fighting disease. Paneloux now knows “the smell of the sheep”, as Pope Francis, a Jesuit, likes to say.Paneloux invites Rieux to a sermon he will give touching on their discussions and experiences together. Rieux goes to the Church, which is much more sparely attended than the last main sermon. So, too, the Jesuit’s tone is generally gentler, and as the narrator notes, the priest speaks of we and not you. He does not deny the message of his first sermon but emphasizes that we must have total belief or none. Those are the stakes—and the death of innocent children make the stakes even higher—so he has to fully trust all will be ok. There is a desperation in his voice that other clergy notice and distrust.Physical suffering follows the priest—though, as Rieux surmises, it is not plague symptoms. He still treats him with care. Father Paneloux soon dies, in what is labelled a “doubtful case”. As always, answers are not clear. Why did he die? Was it a statement about his faith?109We again come back to the issue posed by the Bishop and G–– in Les Misérables. As Tarrou asks Rieux: “Can one be a saint without God?” (255; Tarrou is also an atheist).For the narrator, and for Rieux (and Camus), the answer is to be healers (308), with or without faith in God. Of that, there is little doubt.
6. When Fiction Instructs Life: Lessons for Atheist–Theist Dialogue
The three well-known examples above are rich and varied in the types and level of lessons gleaned for contemporary atheist–theist dialogue in the North Atlantic World. Note that I again return to Taylor’s phrasing because, in general, the discussion would shift drastically in, for example, India, where religious pluralism or the historical validity of atheism is more accepted (at least before the rise of Hinduva ideology). In Hinduism, even as perhaps the majority strand emphasizes one God through many approaches and manifestations of deities, there is a healthy atheist path also possible.110In traditional Muslim countries, and for much of Africa, atheism is deeply marginalized if nonexistent. Consider, for example, the ravages of horrors after the Rwandan genocide, and yet, unlike much Jewish writing after the Shoah,111 there was little doubt and questioning about God (though there was questioning of the failures of its institutional churches).112 In Jean Hatzfeld’s most recent publication, Blood Papa, predominantly focusing on the children in the next generation (but born in or after the 1994 genocide), faith in God is deep and engaging.113While there are pockets (especially in the United States) where Christian identification and belief are expressed in more rigid and fundamentalist tones, and despite the reality that atheists are continually viewed with distrust in many polls and case studies, the spread of those affiliating as atheist, none, or agnostic remains robust, if not growing consistently.114 As noted, in Europe attachment to the major institutional Christian churches continues to decline, including the countries often deemed as exceptions, namely Ireland and Poland. Atheism, or at least those identifying as a none (especially among the youth) is also rising. Of course, Muslim immigrants and those of other non-Christian faiths continue to bulk up and nuance overall theistic faith in Europe, but the atheist–theist dialogue has become especially important. There is little or no evidence that those born after the late 1990s will return to the Church in the way of my parents’ generation, for example—and they are more likely to be religiously and spiritually fluid even as they are driven by social justice and especially environmental concerns.Overall, the most important lesson in these novels is the power of face-to-face interactions; the back-and-forth process of listening, responding and questioning, sustained, ideally, over time or by a succession of encounters. Unfortunately, in our novels, the discussions were more often one-off events, as in the case of the Bishop and the Conventionist, where everything was a bit more dramatic and existential. So, too in The Plague as Father Paneloux dies soon after his humbling, while Ivan’s intellectual and spiritual fate in The Brothers Karamazov is left unknown.Crucially—almost despite themselves—we see the way the other’s words move and challenge. This is especially true as there were (and remain) so many preconceptions and biases against atheists in the context of these works. Today, one may also acknowledge contexts where God believers are marginalized. The Conventionist, for example, just assumes that the Bishop is as economically corrupt as all the others (which the Bishop humbly and graciously does not try to refute). The Bishop, however, is steadfast in his belief that salvation and moral good are not possible for atheists and cannot fathom an atheist’s ethics, even as the Conventionist exudes a deep moral life that came with consequences for his ethical ideals and values. When the Bishop asks for the atheist’s blessing—there is no more dramatic and telling sign of the change—we witness the catharsis of an already good and holy man. As noted, the Bishop ends up becoming even more radically attuned to the needs of the poor. While the Conventionalist remains faithful to his atheistic vows (though I am a little confused by his use of the infinite, God language, and the self), he dies in the presence of a bishop (though outside the Sacramental life of the Catholic Church). There is a kindness that both show the other after some testy moments and presumptions. Both, in different ways, are healed and gift one another with their fidelity to their distinctive creeds. The dialogue of the brothers in Dostoevsky’s novel, as noted, is the greatest discussion of the problem of evil in any medium, literary or theological—especially from an atheist or misotheist’s perspective. Ivan’s arguments are concise, careful, and full of vexation. Alyosha was no intellectual equal to Ivan—though a lengthy discussion between Father Zosima and Ivan would have been interesting. Again, the key issue—as it was in The Plague—is the suffering of innocent children. Why do they have to needlessly and unjustly suffer? Ivan is adamant that there is no answer of justification for such loss. Alyosha tries to emphasize Christ—and similar to Father Paneloux’s sermons in The Plague—promotes a total fidelity and trust in God. Neither Ivan nor Rieux (nor Tarrou nor Rambert) is impressed in the end. Again, troubling from a theist’s perspective, the illness of Paneloux is dubbed a “doubtful case” (234), literally in terms of whether it is plague that had killed him, but metaphorically could also purport his movement from extreme fideism to doubt. The dialogues in all three of these novels reveal nuance, integrity, and complexity among its conversation partners, even if there is no full conversion either way. More importantly, we are reminded how labels like “the atheist” or “the Jesuit” can be distracting and restrictive. Human beings are works-in-progress, steeped in contradictions and paradoxes. Faith and doubt can often seem interchangeable words at various periods or moments in our lives. As noted above, Ivan does not deny the existence of God; even Alyosha experiences doubt regarding his faith, echoing some of Ivan’s claims (341).115 The Conventionist G—, while termed an atheist, seems to acknowledge something transcendent, though he rejects any institutional religious belonging. Father Paneloux, dying with the label of a “doubtful case”, best exemplifies the ambiguity and the ebbing and flowing of faith and doubt in our lives. This realization is deeply relevant to the believer-non-believer dialogue, which is usually structured in an oppositional manner. Forced divisions, though, overlook ample overlap and blending. Such is not simply because underneath labels, we are all human beings who love and are loved, though this truth should not be cursorily dismissed. As importantly, the distinctive aims, perturbations, and desires of atheists and theists share sufficient space and similarity for understanding, and hopefully, compassion. Can we recognize one another as parts of ourselves and see ourselves in one another? Such is when dialogue and partnership can flourish. It is unfortunate that Ivan (like Nietzsche) suffers madness so that some theists can posit his doubt of God spurred such a state, but in Dr Rieux we have only reasonable and kind responses to a world of suffering without God. Note also the moral changes and conversions of Tarrou, Paneloux, and Rambert—a conversion of social justice—to choose to be close to death and suffering and to become, as the end of The Plague notes, healers. In all the New Atheism rebukes against religion, and theistic counterclaims,116 what is lost and forgotten are the beauty and value of the people on both sides of the divide, of those in between, and the far greater need beyond, or perhaps deeply intertwined with, some belief in the Transcendent. There was little call in their debates to join together to be healers in this world—for all who are broken, plague-sick, alone, and all those suffering in jails, refugee camps, ghettos, plague-quarantine, anonymity, and general indifference. The God question and labels, such as atheist or theist, become secondary to social justice concerns in two of these novels, and virtually unanswerable outside of faith in The Brothers Karamazov. However, the encounters humble and challenge all who take the time to listen and truly try to learn from the other, whether in real life or as seen in the fictional encounters examined in these three classic novels.
This research received no external funding.
Conflicts of Interest
The author declares no conflict of interest.
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(Augustine 1980). On the question of the ubiquitous clashes between an author’s personal or moral lifestyle and the art he or she produces, specifically the question of whether to still teach an inspiring and moral novel written by an author with a racist and muddled biography, see (Admirand 2018). Care must be taken, of course, to ascribe ideas in a novel with the author’s own, though it is also not surprising that biographical elements are often present, consciously or unconsciously in creators’ works.
Decline in the Church’s lost power and role in Ireland has been especially evident in the referendums allowing gay marriage (2015) and abortion (2018). While Ireland did see great financial gains in the so-called Celtic Tiger, causes of Church decline have been rooted in Church scandals, from sexual child abuse and cover-up by clergy to the Magdalene Laundries, among other travesties. See, for example, (Ganiel 2016). On religion in Poland since the fall of Communism, see (Ramet and Borowik 2017; Luxmoore 2019).
Name-calling (and much worse) has been far too common among the so-called Abrahamic faiths (for an account challenging the term “Abrahamic”, see (Levenson 2012)). Christians calling Jews “God killers” in the Middle Ages or “vermin” during the Shoah, and slandering Muslims as “heathens”, while Jews and Muslims deemed Christians polytheistic on account of misunderstood Trinitarian belief, was once commonplace. Fortunately, the growth of interreligious dialogue and a deeper understanding of religious pluralism, especially after the 1965 Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, has been encouraging. See, for example, (Grob and Roth 2012; Berger 2012). On the legacy of Nostra Aetate and interreligious dialogue, see for example, (Cohen et al. 2017).
Intra-Christian violence, a hallmark especially of postreformation Europe, momentarily stalled after the Treaty of Westphalia, then was masked under various national or racist ideologies and imperial aims, not to mention the horrors of WWI and WWII, but has since seen a great decline, even as some lament the stagnant state of ecumenical progress after the great hope of the 1910 World Missionary Conference. For a concise history and proposal for ecumenical growth, see, for example, (Rusch 2019); on the role of women and the ecumenical movement, see (Gnanadason 2020).
Soft, weak, hard, strong, implicit, and explicit: these adjectives placed before “atheism” can mean different things to different atheists. Sometime “weak” or “soft” implies a lack of corresponding belief or any robust conviction in either the existence or nonexistence of deities. While this latter description would normally point to agnosticism, Shoaib Ahmed Malik contends some contemporary atheists have “conflated” agnosticism with atheism. See (Malik 2018). Consider also the issue of global or local atheisms. See, for example, (Diller 2016).
One place to look are atheist or humanist manifestos in which a call to heal the earth or save the poorest of the poor from economic exploitation and death seem little different from moral imperatives from religious institutions. Steven Pinker, for example, contends that reason and science embodied in humanism, and not religion, are what has most improved the quality of life most profoundly in contemporary times and which should be our focus in the future (Pinker 2018). See also (Roberts and Copson 2020).
(Thatamanil 2020, p 156). Contending that American capitalism is also a “comprehensive qualitative orientation”, Thatamanil contends many Christians who practise capitalism are engaged in multiple religious belonging, especially when such economic practises are supported or allowed to hurt the most vulnerable in society (Thatamanil 2020, pp. 187–90).
Stephen Bullivant contends that through their “dreams, visions, and gratuitous actions”, Ivan, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Kirillov in The Possessed, imply “that at a deeper level (that of their inner double) they possess a profound and insuperable faith in Christ.” He thus describes them closer to pseudo-atheists or anonymous Christians. See (Bullivant 2008).
Coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869, such a position of learned, but humble unknowing on whether a Divine Being does or does not exist can be of great appeal, even as the position is chided by some atheists and theists for refraining from taking a clear stance. See, for example, (Le Poidevin 2010). A grade between agnostics and theists are deists who believe the universe was created by God who then “withdrew” from the world and so rules out any divine interventions, prayers, or grace. As Charles Taylor and others have argued, the step towards deism heralded the advance of exclusive humanism (Taylor 2007, p. 318). For a history of atheism and its key figures, see (Watson 2014).
On the pervasive need to belong to groups even if doubting the religious or metaphysical tenets, see (Day 2011).
See, for example, (Kosicki 2016). In China, see the amazing book by atheist dissident Liao Yiwu and his interviews and accounts with many religious people persecuted in Communist China, in (Yiwu 2011); for an account of the growth of religions in China despite sporadic (or increasingly, sustained) persecution, see (Johnson 2017). Writing in 2020, evidence for China’s persecution of the Uyghurs (predominately Muslim) in re-education camps is irrefutable. See, for example, (Roberts 2020).
(Bradley and Tate 2010). For an account contending that “various Anglo-American writers have gravitated to religious themes in trying to represent what happened on 9/11 and afterwards”, see (Eaton 2020, p. 69).
As will be seen below, calling G—an atheist again raises problems of terminology. Additionally worth noting is the Bishop’s earlier dinner with a senator who spouts an atheistic creed. As Bellos argues, through the Bishop’s witty banter, Hugo “slams the door on the fingers of his unbelieving left-wing friends” (Bellos 2018, p. 96).
For a good introduction to the writings of Oscar Romero, see, (Romero 2004). For Ellacuría’s impact on Latin American Liberation Theology, see especially his edited collection (Ellacuría and Sobrino 1993; Drexler-Dreis 2019, pp. 136–43). For an accurate, novelistic account of the murder of Ellacuría, along with five fellow Jesuits, their housekeeper and the housekeeper’s daughter, see (Galán 2020).
Debates on the socio-economic standing of Jesus’ family are ongoing. Luke’s Gospel and the well-known nativity tell of “no room in the inn” can be examined in various ways (for a helpful analysis, see (Bailey 2008)). Confer also that Mary and Joseph offer to pay for the sacrifice of turtledoves at their visit to the Temple (Luke 2:24)—such offerings were usually meant for the poor (Leviticus 12:8). Having to flee to Egypt, according to the Gospel of Matthew, would certainly have negatively impacted their economic situation. On the other hand, some may refer to the gifts of the magi at Jesus’ birth and the tradition of Joseph and Jesus as carpenters (Mark 6:3 and Matt 13:55) to contend the term artisan, not peasant, may be more applicable, though the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan argues that would still position Jesus below peasant farmers. See (Crossan 2009, pp. 28–29). Recent archaeological findings challenge the image of Jesus as a peasant preaching in a pastoral backwater. Of note is the recent archeological discoveries in Nazareth and Sephorris, a sophisticated urban city, only four miles away from where Jesus grew up (see, for example, (Dark 2020)). In regard to Ignatius, after convalescing at Manressa from his battle wounds and determined to spend the rest of his life for Christ, Ignatius famously tried to give all of his possessions away and even exchanged his sumptuous clothes for a beggar—though the beggar was later arrested on suspicion of stealing and so Ignatius had to announce his good deed to clear the beggar’s name. St Thomas Aquinas, as St Francis of Assisi, also came from wealth and sought to give everything to the poor—both against their family’s wishes.
Meister Eckhart’s theology is richly robed in apophatic statements of God, and a contemplative yearning to become one with God, seemingly dissolving and perfecting our self though becoming divine. He had some of his tenets condemned for heresy in 1329 by Pope John XXII in the bull “In agro dominico”, though recent attempts to rehabilitate him during the Papacy of John Paul II were met with claims that such rehabilitation of his overall stature in the Church was not needed. More recently, he is seen as a bridge to Christian–Buddhist dialogue; for example, with his call for detachment and denial of the self. See (Radler 2006).
(Dostoyevsky 2004). All subsequent citations from The Brothers Karamazov will be in the text.
For an illuminating account of Sonya’s radical hospitality through her reading of the raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov, see (Izmirlieva 2020).
See (Dwyer 2012). Dwyer examines the multi-ethnic and religious depictions of the characters in the novel, showcasing Dostoevsky’s growing awareness of the diversity of people within the Russian Empire. She also highlights what he came to see as his own new awareness of the narod, the Russian people. Interestingly, Gary Rosenshield, referring to the novel as semi-autobiographical, notes “it contains remarkable descriptions of the religious character, behaviour, and practice of Jews, Christians, and Muslims [and] can be counted as one of the few major works of nineteenth-century fiction that portray the religious practices of all the Abrahamic faiths”. See (Rosenshield 2006, p. 581). He contends its openness to other means of salvation besides the Russian Orthodox Church is rejected by the time Dostoevsky writes The Brothers Karamazov.
(Frank 1966, p. 779). As Frank adds, Dostoevsky, in a beautiful letter in February 1854 to “Natalya Fonvizina, “the cultivated and deeply religious wife of an exiled Decembrist”, acknowledged his deep periods of doubt and unbelief, but having had moments of connection with God, contends that even if shown belief in Christ was a lie, he would still “remain with Christ rather than the truth” (ibid., p. 803). See also (Williams 2009, pp. 14–17).
(Dostoyevsky 1985, p. 340). As Joseph Frank reminds us, though, it was really Dostoevsky’s new insights in how Christianity’s moral grounding and life pervaded the camps and “helped to mitigate some of its inhumanity” that it convinced him Christianity could not be replaced without great harm to Russian society. See (Frank 2010, pp. 211–12).
Surprisingly, Primo Levi wrote he profited little from his reading of Dostoevsky.
See, for example, (Sahni 1986). Sahni writes: “Russia in the war against Turkey in 1877 is seen as a saviour of the Slav people still under the yoke of Turkey. The war assumes the proportions of a crusade. Dostoevsky becomes more and more intolerant of non-Christian peoples and nations. The decision by the Russian Government to forcibly evict the Crimean Tartars is fully approved by the writer, who fears that if the Russians do not move in it will be the Jews”, with Sahni adding that Dostoevsky’s “anti-Semitic leanings are well known” (Sahni 1986, p. 42). Regarding Circassians as victims of genocide committed by the Russians in the 19th century, see (Richmond 2013). Finally, Alexis Heraclides and Ada Dialla highlight crimes committed by “irregular” Bashibazouks (mercenary soldiers of the Ottoman Empire) and Circassians (“refugees from Russia”) sent to Bulgaria to “terrorize the population into submission” on account of a recent uprising in 1876. Estimates of the Bulgarian dead vary widely among the Ottoman and Bulgarian sources, from up to 3000 victims according to the former, and 100,000 by the latter. See (Heraclides and Dialla 2015, pp. 150–51).
The question of the inherent goodness of human nature is a standard belief in Christianity—even if various churches demure on how or to what extent original sin has corrupted human beings. For an atheist’s account of our inherent compassion and solidarity (also echoing here the Dalai Lama), see (Bregman 2020, p. 314).
(Lawrence 1955, p. 239). Lawrence notes he initially dismissed The Brothers Karamazov and especially the Grand Inquisitor section as “a piece of showing off”, but had since reread the novel two times, and “each time found it more depressing because, alas, more drearily true to life” (ibid., p. 233).
(Jisheng 2013). On human beings fleeing from freedom and so aligning with dictators who provide basic needs, see (Fromm 1994).
(Beauchamp 2007, p. 137). The main thrust of the article is to show the parallels of the story with Plato’s Republic, both of which reveal sadistic atrocities abutted by attempts to create utopias.
(van den Bercken 2011, p. 86). Den Bercken also writes: “Although the picture of Jesus, sketched here by Dostoevsky, does not fit into Orthodox iconography, it does fit into nineteenth century representation of Jesus, manifested in popular Catholic and Protestant pictures for religious education and in Russian romantic painting (A. Ivanov, I. Kramskoy)” (ibid., p. 86).
Contrary to the claim that Smerdyakov is a mere tool of Ivan, Vladimir Kantor warns that “If we endorse the point of view on Smerdyakov that he is a passive murderer…in someone else’s hand, a person merely carrying out Ivan’s plan, then we will enter naturally into a contradiction with the poetic and worldview-shaping concepts that govern Dostoevsky’s cosmos, a cosmos resting on the fact that each person bears full responsibility for his or her own acts, regardless of the social level from which he comes and no matter how undeveloped he may be”. See (Kantor 2009, p. 190). For Kantor, Smerdyakov is Ivan’s tempter. As Caryl Emerson pens Smerdyakov is “an active force for evil at work on a delicate, corruptible, still undecided soul”. See (Emerson 2009, p. 223).
Rowan Williams helpfully shows how the Story of the Grand inquisitor is not unresolved but has its themes addressed in the “life and teaching of Zosima” in the sixth book of the novel and “Ivan’s encounter with the Devil in chapter nine of book 11” (Williams 2009, p. 29).
(Camus 1975). All subsequent citations from The Plague will be in the text.
The Jesuits had been suppressed by Pope Clement XIV and then later restored by Pope Pius VII in August of 1814, shortly before the opening of Les Misérables. Jesuits receive a few passing references in the novel.
While I focus below on a scene (the death of a child from the plague) which Gene Fendt calls one “of the classics of the anti-theistic argument from evil”, I acknowledge his sharper retort that only seeing the antitheistic layer “suffers from an incomplete evaluation of Paneloux’s sermons, and is blind to the Augustinian substructure of the novel, which reveals that something more divine is present and active.” See (Fendt 2020, p. 471).
See, for example, the poems of RS Thomas, many of which show the local, country priest having to confront the daily reality of death in his parish.
(Case and Deaton 2020, p. 176). Case and Deaton note, however, that the lack of a religious community is one factor that the poor whites under their discussion have grown in isolation, and so deaths of despair.