Atheism as a Protestantism

Consider Predestination, which states that individual merit does not ensure salvation and that man has no free will. This has been the most widely held Protestant dogma. When an idea possesses so many minds and such good ones, it is foolish to write it off as fantasy; one must look for the experience on which it rests. Luther supplies it: his seven years of helplessness till lifted up by grace. It was said earlier that predestination was still maintained by many non-believers; they might be surprised to hear it; they do not, indeed, believe that eternal damnation is decreed for the many, including unbaptized infants. But they do believe in scientific determinism — the unbreakable sequence of cause and effect, and that is predestination. It is the assumption all laboratory workers make and it rules out free will. Any present state of fact, any action taken, is the inevitable outcome of a series of events going back to the Big Bang that produced the universe.

Social scientists and common folk who babble about genes or the Unconscious or “man a chemical machine” similarly account for others’ actions and their own as did Luther and Calvin. The road taken was set from all eternity, with no choice at any moment: will is an illusion. The sense of being driven by a power not ourselves is not uncommon, especially among great doers and creators. Some temperaments seem born worshippers of Necessity — Frederick the Great for instance, who outgrew his Calvinist upbringing but remained a fierce determinist. Modern criminology is rooted in this conviction and public opinion in the main agrees: the criminal is not responsible for his acts; he is “conditioned.” Grace (the right heredity or environment) has been denied him.

Other root beliefs of the [16th Century] also have their present counterparts. Luther’s agonizing about sin is matched by the Existentialist preoccuption with Angst, or despair at “the human condition.” Unaccountable “guilt” may be said to be popular today, notably among the many sufferers of depression. It is sometimes cured, as Luther’s was, by introspection, on the analyst’s couch and by acceptance of what is thus revealed. Catholic confession was a summary form of the therapy.

Nor has the word sin disappeared from the vocabulary of the enlightened. More than one modern novelist, poet, or social theorist has attributed the horrors of our time to original sin, although its definition is left vague. It presupposes that human nature is fatally flawed. This is a more ruthless belief than the theologian’s, since it does not include a Redeemer from sin or the efficacy of baptism. In the [16th Century] both together lifted that terrible burden. For some in our day what redeems “scientifically” is political revolution, after which history will stop and society will know happiness without laws — in other words, the Kingdom of the Saints fought for by the Anabaptists and others for 100 years.

The point of drawing parallels between [16th Century] conceptions and the latter-day naturalism, which has obscured but not abolished them, is to show the persistence of meanings without alters expressions of life’s mysteries. It is an abstract continuity, for likeness is not sameness. In history everything observed wears its own dress and raises images peculiar to itself. Protestants and Catholics 500 years ago were not “for all practical purposes” our doubles who happened to talk poetically instead of scientifically. The Socinian’s God was not “the principle of unity”; he was Christ the Lord saving sinners. The likeness in these similars is in the human motive: the idea of worshipping one God is akin to the scientific hope of bringing all phenomena under one law.

Jacques, Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present, pp. 29-31

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