Eliminating Atheism by Force

Several blogs have come up with the tragic story of an Orthodox priest who had to bury his own son. This was Aaron Kimel, the son of Fr Alvin F. Kimel, an American priest who was originally Anglican, became Roman Catholic through the Pastoral Provision, and finally became Russian Orthodox. He is known for his blog Pontifications (which has not been updated since August 2009). Going by the comments on the article Farewell to Pontifications, Fr Kimel may have been unhappy with his decision to become a Roman Catholic priest and to become Russian Orthodox. Here is another posting on this subject – An Eastern Orthodox Priest Delivers Homily For Agnostic Son that Committed Suicide. We can make guesses and conjectures, but we will never know, and it is not for us to know. Tempting as it would be to judge Father Kimel for church-hopping, suspecting that this might have contributed to his son’s unbelief, I will refrain – as I have never met the persons concerned. The sermon itself gives the probable reason for Aaron’s atheism, his philosophical and intellectual outlook.

Frequently, children of the manse react against over-authoritarian parents, and I have met a number of children of priests who are atheists or agnostics. My wife and I have been unable to have children, but I gave the question a lot of thought. Children have consciences, even if they are less formed. Crush the freedom of a child at your peril and his! I have no idea whether that was the case in this particular family, and it is none of my business.

A comment to the posting to which I linked begins:

This is why atheism must be fought, marginalized, and eradicated, and those who espouse it must be corrected, educated, and saved. Atheism kills people, from the millions of people killed by an atheist regime, to the single suicide.

This is the real purpose of this article.

I was deeply shocked by this, especially that word “eradicate” with its sinister associations with twentieth-century ideologies. Corrected and educated, though they are neutral words in themselves, seem to suggest those ominous “re-education” camps and centres in China established in the 1960’s to bring people around to the ideology of the Little Red Book. Some of us must have seen The Last Emperor. I have no sympathy with atheism, and I have my faith, but I can understand why people do lose the Faith. The trouble is knowing what weapons to use against atheism – or more precisely atheists. Laws? Imprisonment? Banishment and exile? Whipping? Drawing & Quartering? Breaking on the wheel or burning at the stake? The possibilities are endless. All of a sudden, it is faith and believers who are doing the evil, and the argument for atheism is all the more fuelled. You can’t legislate against atheism any more than illness or accidents. This is the drama of exaggerating safety rules to the extent that human enterprise is crippled and stunted. Some of us have heard of the absurd story of fire extinguishers being removed from a building because untrained users might hurt themselves.

We are faced with the terrifying mystery of human freedom, liberty to believe or not to believe, to adhere to one religion or another or none at all. I often return to Nicholas Berdyaev’s philosophy. His central idea is that God is present only in freedom and acts only through freedom. No act of faith is possible without freedom, which is the central theme of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Taking away freedom in the name of truth was ultimately an act of atheism, something the Russian author makes clear in his parable. When Marxist Communism arrived on the scene, Berdyaev was intellectually equipped enough to reject it, and emigrated to France. He saw that socialism could develop into different forms. It could bring liberation, but it could also create a totalitarian society.

Some Christians advocate the kind of government in countries like medieval Spain (and as recently as the early nineteenth century) and the various “two-bit” dictatorships of South American countries. At the level of a country as well as the individual person, atheism is often the reaction against absolutism, authoritarian religion, the crushing of freedom in the name of truth. Many children of the manse have been brought up by authoritarian piety, and their only way to seek freedom is to reject faith.

To combat atheism, it would be counter-productive to seek to ride piggy-back on the authority of men like Mussolini or Pinochet. Instead, faith needs to be made credible through the spiritual transformation of believers. We remain humans. Grace does not destroy nature and we remain sinners, but Christianity should make some difference. If it makes no difference, or no discernible difference, what is the point of faith and religion? That is the question our contemporaries ask, and the onus is on Christians to answer that question. It is no good blaming consumerism or people “having it too good” for the defects of religious people and churches. The problem for many atheists is Christians taking credibility away from their faith through incoherence and hypocrisy.

The “hot-house” atmosphere in strict religious families, monasteries, seminaries, religious schools is often extremely destructive. The longer I live, the more I am convinced of the good brought about by what the French call laïcité, the separation of Church and State, the free church in a free state. No country should have to live under the heavy hand of churches or anyone who would make religion compulsory on pain of punishment. How many children educated in convent schools are still Christians? Secularism has its downside, but people who live in secular countries have the opportunity to discover faith and spirituality, which will certainly be lived more authentically. It is a double-edged sword – make or break. Those who are brought up without religion cannot adhere to what they do not know, and those who are raised religiously can react against the authority they felt oppressed them.

We will never have a perfect system of politics or institutional religion. Man is fickle and sinful. I am an anarchist at heart, but with enough experience of life to know that it cannot be the basis of a political system. Government, politics and authority are necessary evils, but the freedom of the spirit is higher. As described by men like Berdyaev and many more who emigrated from Russia from 1917, freedom is interior and spiritual.

Atheism cannot be eradicated without destroying the credibility of Christian faith, and the onus is on Christians to give faith and hope through love and beauty. Perhaps, then, there will be fewer suicides!

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15 Responses to Eliminating Atheism by Force

  1. ed pacht says:

    It’s often said that Christians have a mission to oppose evil. I think that is a thorough misconception. Jesus came to endure evil, to meet its onslaughts with love, with grace, with mercy, with forgiveness. He as the friend of sinners, a friend to those who would be His enemies, a lover of those who hated Him. Evil is conquered not by opposing it, but by seeking the good and turning the back to evil — even at a fearsome cost. Only one kind of evil raised up Jesus’ ire: the hypocrisy of loveless religious people, of “whitewashed sepluchres full of dead men’s bones”. I will be bold enough to declare that the author of that article, if he has not repented of it, will have to answer for it at the Throne of judgment. Pray for him.

    • Stephen K says:

      Dear ed pacht, I think you express something very insightful when you say that Jesus came to endure evil with grace, mercy and forgiveness, rather than opposing it. I think at so many levels this formula addresses many problems: the problem of our own universal spiritual imperfection and frailty and incapacity; the problem of understanding the meaning of incarnation; the problem of the yin and yang of good and evil in everything. It does not relieve any of us from having courage to do acts in the interest of conscience of right and wrong, our concepts of justice and injustice etc, but it seems to me that it can help us avoid slipping into a conviction that we represent God or Rightness etc or are separate from all around us. In one sense, Jesus might be thought to have taught the elimination from our vocabulary of “otherness”, NOT the “elimination of others”! Thank you, ed.

      • Evagrius says:

        Is there not a balance to be struck here? After all, such a position could easily spill over into quietism. Christ did not just endure evil, after all – he also opposed it on occasion, and always preached against it.

  2. It simply must be understood that contemporary atheism is largely (not entirely, but largely) a reaction to distorted Christianity and any attempt to eliminate atheism by force is a product of that same distortion which rationalizes a societal structure, held together by violence, which emerges as a result of the fall.


    Now, Fr. Alvin himself gives no hint of desiring or seeking to implement any such elimination. His is the message of hope. CHRISTIAN hope, grounded in the Divine Love binding Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in eternal Community. In ending the homily, Fr. .Alvin quotes two of the greatest “mere Christians” in the history of the faith, C.S. Lewis and St. Isaac of Nineveh.

    St. Issac says: “In love did God bring the world into existence; in lovedoes he guide it during its temporal existence; in love is hegoing to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and inlove will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of him who has performed all these things.”

    And yes, like C.S. Lewis, even if there is no Narnia, I too wish to live as a Narnian.

    Pray for Aaron, Fr. Alvin’s late son. Pray for Fr. Alvin, his wife, and the rest of the family. I can hardly imagine what they are going through at this time. My heart breaks for them.

    • Fr. Alvin himself gives no hint of desiring or seeking to implement any such elimination.

      I should have been clearer about this. The little “Nazi” in the closet was a traditionalist / conservative Roman Catholic sending a comment. I found the message of Fr Alvin deeply moving and a testimony of Christian hope.

  3. And the above, I must add, in response to Fr. Anthony’s last paragraph:

    “Acquire the Holy Spirit, and you will save thousands of those around you.” – St. Seraphim of Sarnov.

    St. Seraphim, pray for us!

  4. edmond says:

    If church-hopping caused atheism, my family would be full of them, from eastern european Anglicans to Blue Lodge Byzantine Catholics, we have all sorts of catholic strains. Speculating as to what ’caused’ that lack of belief probably is not doing the good priest any good. He may be reading this, something I am trying to keep in mind. Father Robert had a good reflection on this matter on Fr Smut’s site. One thing to keep in mind about some modern unbelief is some parts it really isn’t new. Parts of New England have large numbers who profess no religion. The problem is that Christianity really had been gutted of its content there long before people stopped professing it. CS Lewis complained about people who believed in Christianity not because its true but because of good results it brings about. I remember Kristoff of the New York Times speaking of his great grand father’s views of the Bible. He used the expression pious myths. That is not a faith that will be passed on, and it wasnt. If that is the Christianity you know sooner or later you will be convinced it is all nonsense and not believe at all. Some of the non-belief in this country is simply peoples’ professions getting more in line with reality.

  5. Stephen K says:

    Edmond, you touch on a very important issue, when you cite C. S. Lewis complaining about people believing in Christianity for utilitarian rather than epistemological reasons. There is a certain attractive simplicity in the proposition that once you reduce Christianity to some degree of wishful thinking, then it loses its compelling force. But I think this needs some qualification. I think there is a distinction between “Christianity” writ-large and its dogmas writ-small and I think this can be demonstrated by the fact that it is meaningful to entertain that transformative theological meaning can be discerned in the life of Jesus even if he was not the incarnate God in the traditional Nicene sense. To be sure, this results in a different meaning and much of the actual traditional Christian liturgical/prayer life becomes inaccessible or ill-fitting, but nonetheless, I suggest, a Christian-like ethos and law of love can still be constructed and embraced. So I think C.S. Lewis framed his complaint a little too closedly.

    Moreover, thinking something is “true” can bear different meanings. One of the possible inferences one might draw from the proposition that you have to embrace Christian life because it’s true is that the only acceptable way to be a Christian is to accept that every particular dogma is historically, chemically, anatomically, reportable or detectable and this view of truth is what I think lies at the heart of every species and generation of the “pure” who would exclude others because of what they think or understand. Did Jesus physically “walk” on water or rise from death or multiply loaves and fishes? It has only become “necessary” to accept these things because for many centuries in the West it was death or exclusion to reject them openly.

    This state of affairs is what I think, to some degree, Father Chadwick is describing. That is, that in one way or another, the law of love and personal example has been – and continues to be – supplanted by the law of ritual and creedal purity of various kinds. One may be entirely wrong about what one thinks Jesus represented or was, but if one thinks he in any way speaks across the millennia, is one really very “less” a Christian or do things like faith, doubt, and the consciousness of a love-rather-than-indifference imperative operate in a mysterious existential mix?

    Yes, a very interesting topic you raise. Thank you, Edmond

  6. Sandra says:

    As long as it’s only atheISM that’s being ‘eradicated’ and not atheISTS, I don’t get too excited at what might appear to be strong language. We are commissioned to fight manfully against sin, the world and the devil, after all. If atheism can be rooted out peacefully, that’s a good thing. I don’t think the commenter was thinking of saddling up a posse for a pogrom.

    • Wonderful rhetoric, but how do you you propose going about eradicating atheISM? In history, any attempt to eradicate any ISM involves eradicating the ISTS. The point I make is that all institutional churches presently have no credible argument against atheism, but perhaps there is the role of witness by those who really believe and lead a spiritual life – monastics and friars truly living poorly among the poor. The self-righteous, whoever they are, are the greatest enemies of faith.

      The point I am making is that you will not win against sin, the world and the devil. You will not root out atheism, but it will root you out.

      We have to live with all these things and live the faith ourselves. That’s all.

    • The only way to defeat atheism, and indeed, all evil, is for each of us to eradicate it within ourselves. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

      We are in fact called to allow our whole selves to die with Christ, not just “a piece of our heart” so that we might rise with him. To the extent that we do this, we neutralize evil in the world. St. Seraphim of Sarnov put it another way: “Acquire the Holy Spirit and you will save thousands of those around you.”

      And there is no more manly warfare than that conducted by the great ascetics, including Seraphim, against their own flesh.

      Or, to quote the Lord himself: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

      In this way, we fight against sin as manifested in our own flesh and therefore, in the world as well. And thereby we “give no place to the devil”. We cannot defeat our flesh, the world, or the devil by fighting them what amount to the weapons they themselves supply. We learn this, if nowhere else, from the temptations of Christ himself.

  7. ed pacht says:

    Every Christian needs to be recalling the great wisdom of Pogo the Possum, pictured in one comic strip panel as saying, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”. It is that way. Our Lord challenges us that we spend too much time fishing specks out of others’ eyes and neglect to tend to the beam in our own eyes. The world (alas, with a great deal of justification) sees Christians as a sour bunch of naysayers, always judging, always condemning, seldom, if ever, affirming; and, equally, as a collection of obvious sinners doing much of what they profess to condemn. Oh that they could see us a a people being transformed, as a people touched by the joy of forgiveness and filled with the very love for sinners that we profess to have received. If we resist the devil he will flee from us. If we pay attention to his whisperings that we are better than others, he will take up residence, and we will become his servants, claiming to serve the Father of Lights, but having (as Our Lord said to the religious leaders of his day) another father, the devil himself. To be frank, I am much more afraid of pharasaic Christians (such as I myself am all too able to become) than I am of armies of atheists.

    • ed pacht says:

      Evagrius says above:
      “Is there not a balance to be struck here? After all, such a position could easily spill over into quietism. Christ did not just endure evil, after all – he also opposed it on occasion, and always preached against it.”

      I agree entirely. Obviously we are to do what we can to oppose evil – but that is not the definition of our mission, nor are we infallible in identifying what is evil. We do our best, fully aware that it is not good enough, and that some (or much) of what we do out of good intent will be precisely the wrong thing. Any success that we do have will be a byproduct of seeking Him: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”

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