In this recent post, I proposed that those who defend and those who attack religion often share a belief in the harmony between truth, goodness, and beauty. While apologists for religion claim that the truth of God is both beautiful and good for humanity, champions of atheism tend to argue that human beings would be better off if they accepted the beautiful truth of godlessness. Frustrated by the Pollyannas on the atheistic side of the argument, I proposed Friedrich Nietzsche's tragic pessimism, which insists on the ugliness of the atheistic truth, as an alternative.
But there are other, less radical options for those seeking the spiritual depth so sorely lacking in the writings of contemporary atheists. Take Philip Larkin, for example. In a handful of haunting poems, Larkin explored the many tensions between atheism and happiness. From the wistful pointillism of "Church Going" (1955) to the mortal terror so startlingly expressed in "Aubade" (1977), Larkin made it clear that he thoroughly rejected faith in God and the afterlife. And yet, these same poems also movingly and unforgettably describe the immense psychological struggles that often accompany atheism -- an outlook he considered to be both "true" and "terrible." Religion -- "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die" -- used to dispel the terror of annihilation, or at least try to. But Larkin will have none of it, just as he dismisses the delusional equanimity before death that he finds in the writings of the ancient Epicureans. And that leaves him -- and us -- with no solace or reassurance, confronting the horrifying prospect of a lonely plunge into infinite nothingness: "this is what we fear: no sight, no sound / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anesthetic from which none come round."
But to reject religion does not merely entail facing our finitude without comforting illusions. It also involves the denial of something noble. It is perfectly fitting, Larkin seems to say, for an atheist to lament his lack of belief in a providential God who bestows metaphysical meaning on the full range of human desires and experiences. As he puts it in the unforgettable closing stanza of "Church Going," in which the poet ponders the prospect of a world without religion, the empty shell of the church he inspects with "awkward reverence" is, finally, "a serious house on serious earth." And its seriousness flows from its capacity to serve as a place -- perhaps the only place on earth -- where "all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies." It is a striking image, capturing at once the dignified beauty of religious ritual and its capacity to conceal the truth under a layer of intricate artifice: the whole point of the liturgy performed on the church altar, Larkin implies, is to seduce us with the beautiful and supremely fulfilling illusion that our worldly compulsions have cosmological meaning and significance. And for Larkin, this longing for our most precious hopes to link up with the order that governs the universe "never can be obsolete." Which means that this aspect of religion, at least, may very well be too deeply rooted in the human soul ever to be completely purged.
The compassionate generosity of Larkin's atheism reaches its peak in a third poem, "Faith Healing" from 1964. While the poem's first two stanzas rather cynically describe an American faith healer at a revival meeting devoting a few seconds of attention to each person's ailment ("Now, dear child, / What's wrong") before a sending him away with a perfunctory prayer that elicits joyful tears, the third and final stanza strikes a very different tone. In the middle of the stanza's second line, Larkin abruptly halts his brutally mocking narrative in order to begin reflecting on the deepest sources of humanity's religious impulses. "In everyone there sleeps / A sense of life lived according to love," he proposes, and then immediately distinguishes between, first, those relative few who long to make a difference to others by loving them more fully and, second, the greater number who live lives of regret for "all they might have done had they been loved" more fully, or at all, by someone else.
Larkin suggests, in other words, that human beings are creatures governed by love -- by the longing to love and, even more so, by the longing to be loved. And in the curt sentence that follows these lines -- "That nothing cures" -- he also indicates that this hunger can never be permanently satiated. But religion tries, understanding and responding to this crucially important aspect of humanity perhaps more fully than any other institution or practice. When the preacher looks into the eyes of the suffering parishioner, cradles her head in his hands, and utters "Dear child," Larkin writes, "an immense slackening ache / . . . Spreads slowly through" her, "As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps." The preacher's love may be a charade, the loving God that appears to act through him may be a fantasy conjured out of a combination of imagination and spiritual yearning, but in that moment faith has demonstrated its unique capacity to heal the human heart.