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Atheism as self-murder

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 20 May 2020

I came across this dialogue in Patrick White's Voss.

"But the God they have destroyed is of a mean conception," Voss pursued. "Easily destroyed, because in their own image. Pitiful because such destruction does not prove the destroyer's power. Atheismus is self-murder. Do you not understand…."

"For some reason of intellectual vanity, you decided to do away with God," Voss was saying; she knew he would be smiling. "But the consequences are yours alone. I assure you."

Most people declare they are atheists because atheism solves the intellectual problem of believing in the existence of God as the old man in the sky. Declaring unbelief brings relief from all of the religious nonsense we find in all cultures and in all times. At last, we think, we can stand apart in our intellectual vanity, we are above all that, truly enlightened in our freedom.


The consequences of this move is to cut ourselves off from any journey we might make into the depths of the human that is also the depths of truth and of God. It attenuates our humanity, and Voss is right to describe it as self-murder. Previous to this dialogue, White describes those "few stubborn ones (who) will blunder on, painfully, out of the luxuriant world of their pretensions into the desert of mortification and reward."

The mistake that modern atheism has made is that it takes the objectification of God seriously. Those who have experienced church services have noticed that God is referred to as a person who hears our prayers, speaks to us in the words of the bible and who will bring judgment and the end of the world. Christian fundamentalism may understand God in this blank, literal way, but the rest of us understand that language is limited and that God language in church is but shorthand for a deeper reality. Voss journeys into the unknown and into God. He heads towards that which he does not understand and gives us a metaphor for life.

The God that atheists reject is a mean conception and is easily discarded. Of course, we all need to discard this conception. For what is this God but our own projection of a kindly father figure and Mary the ideal mother (even though a virgin). This is childish stuff. So why do we feel so brave when we reject this God? The freedom we find is an illusion and we have forsaken the only path that would bring us to real freedom. The hole in our lives that could have been filled with spiritual depth haunts us and accounts for the frenetic nature of modern life.

There is a sense in which COVID-19 is the voice of God. I do not mean that God intervened in the complex life of viruses to punish us for our sins. That would be a reversion to the God that we should have abandoned upon reaching adulthood. But the pandemic has pulled many of us up short as if it were a voice from heaven. In our pride some of us have refused the truth uttered by scientists and relied on pure humbug. I am reading more articles that wonder what politics will be like after the pandemic has ended. Many say that life cannot return to the way it was because the pandemic has exposed our weaknesses, our greed, our lies confected for political purposes, and our neglect of community and the poor.

If God is not a supernatural being floating in outer space but the truth of all things, then when we do not follow the scientist's lead about how nature works and instead continue the political war against our foes, then we will find ourselves in deep trouble. Turning away from scientific truth is turning away from God and it results in self murder. Firstly, of the soul when we fail to recognise that truth does exist and that that truth may be unpalatable, and secondly of the body when we behave in ways that place us in physical danger. We have this idea that religion is about what we believe in. It is not. It is about the truth of the world that will wipe us from the face of the earth if we do not swallow our pride and listen.

Walter Brueggemann tells us that there is no place in the public domain where failure can be faced. No matter what happens and what grievous mistakes have been made, our politicians deny failure. Brueggemann calls this the royal consciousness and we are all infected with it. In order to break out of this consciousness we need to acknowledge failure and death. It was the prophet's task to remind Israel that they live in the numbness of death that does not permit them to imagine a new future.


The Australian electorate is stuck in this very same numbness. It will not contemplate essential changes in the economy that would remediate our current economic circumstances, such as a re-established estate tax (death duties), abolition of negative gearing and reduced capital gains tax, the abolition of dividend imputation payments. All of these reforms are rational ways of correcting the economy. Why is it so hard for the electorate to hear them?

The political class are also stuck in this numbness that suffocates the imagination. The right demonises anything that they see as socialist. The left is not brave enough to stand up for refugees, or the increase in the unemployment benefit. Both left and right are stuck by the perceived intransigence of the electorate.

The promise of the pandemic is that death has been released into our community and demands to be acknowledged. This is an opportunity to re-imagine a different future. In theological terms, it is as if we have heard the Word of God and it has set us free. That Word tells us that we are creatures bound to death and failure and that our only hope is to acknowledge that, so that we can once again re-imagine a future and escape the royal consciousness that denies death.

Already the Federal government has thrown away Hayek and have become classical Keynesians, forced to interfere in the economy and increase the deficit beyond anyone's imagining. This is the death of Liberal economic dogma and there can scarcely be a return. Part of our stultification is caused by our clinging to economic theory that was forged at another time and in different circumstances. COVID-19 has swept such theories away and has reminded that we are, in fact a community, not a collection of individuals each out for their own prize.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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