Playing at Atheism

The Prince in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is asked about faith and responds:


As to faith… One morning I met a man in the train, and made acquaintance with him at once. I had often heard of him as a very learned man, but an atheist; and I was very glad of the opportunity of conversing with so eminent and clever a person. He doesn’t believe in God, and he talked a good deal about it, but all the while it appeared to me that he was speaking outside the subject. And it has always struck me, both in speaking to such men and in reading their books, that they do not seem really to be touching on that at all, though on the surface they may appear to do so.

The same is true throughout history, for there are many people who play at atheism, but dance around the heart of the matter, or as Dostoyesky says, “speak outside the subject”.

It is easy enough to appeal to science and reason (with the prejudiced but unproven idea that it is opposed to faith) and declare that God does not exist. But it is much harder to address the core issues: free will, self awareness, the mind (and dare we say soul?), existence, the problem of evil and suffering, and love.

The Prince then speaks of the essence of the Christian message:

Well, I went homewards, and near the hotel I came across a poor woman, carrying a child— a baby of some six weeks old. The mother was quite a girl herself. The baby was smiling up at her, for the first time in its life, just at that moment; and while I watched the woman she suddenly crossed herself, oh, so devoutly! ‘What is it, my good woman I asked her. (I was never but asking questions then!) Exactly as is a mother’s joy when her baby smiles for the first time into her eyes, so is God’s joy when one of His children turns and prays to Him for the first time, with all his heart!’ This is what that poor woman said to me, almost word for word; and such a deep, refined, truly religious thought it was— a thought in which the whole essence of Christianity was expressed in one flash— that is, the recognition of God as our Father, and of God’s joy in men as His own children, which is the chief idea of Christ. She was a simple country-woman— a mother, it’s true— and perhaps, who knows, she may have been the wife of the drunken soldier!

Here’s a modern example of “playing at atheism” – creating and attacking a strawman God who acts irrationally, throw about a few emotive words about love, and declare oneself an enlightened atheist:


Doestoevsky has the Prince conclude:

The essence of religious feeling has nothing to do with reason, or atheism, or crime, or acts of any kind— it has nothing to do with these things— and never had. There is something besides all this, something which the arguments of the atheists can never touch.

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