Declaring God “Mountain Dead”

This piece by Joe Carter at First Things prompted me to think about hillbillies.

It cites some studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which found “that atheists and agnostics report anger toward God either in the past or anger focused on a hypothetical image of what they imagine God must be like.”

Now my former Baptist pastor in North Carolina was originally from rural Kentucky. He once told me that in the Appalachian mountains, in the backwoods regions, it has long been the practice among folk who were feuding with one another to declare one another “mountain dead.”

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In this context, declaring a person “mountain dead” essentially means that you’re so fundamentally fed up with that person that you just aren’t going to acknowledge their existence any more. As far as you’re concerned, that person died. (One sees a similar, albeit more formalized, practice among some traditional religious communities when a member of their community joins another faith.)

I think there’s a useful analogy to be drawn between a hillbilly who declares his cousin “mountain dead” and the atheist who, being angry at God, says “there is no God.”

This analogy is not intended to be a slight against atheists, by the way. Firstly, I don’t think badly of the mountain-folk I know, have known and befriended some self-described “hillbillies,” and in most ways would rather live in the mountains (even in a lowly fashion) than the city (even in an upscale fashion) any day of the week. (So if a given atheist doesn’t care for the comparison, let him look to his own prejudices!)

But secondly, and more pertinently, the hillbillies in this instance aren’t, as a rule, acting like yokels. They’re acting like humans, and perhaps like fairly admirable humans. Their relations with the other person are so fundamentally snarled, so tangled and barbed, that it’s either pretend the other guy isn’t there, or go get a shotgun, blow the other fellow’s brains out, and either get arrested or murdered by the other guy’s family in retaliation. Now if you have a family who needs you and some degree of attachment to the Ten Commandments, you’ll forgo the shotgun and opt to ignore the other person right out of existence.  It’s not the perfect solution, but it may be the best available solution at a given time (assuming that attempts at mutual forgiveness and reconciliation don’t seem to be getting anywhere).

Likewise, though there are economic hardships and land-rights violations associated with the “security barrier” wall erected between Israel and the Palestinian territories, I have often thought that there was a fundamentally sound instinct behind it; namely, the desire for the two parties to separate, to go to their different corners and have nothing to do with one another until enough of the hurt feelings have dissipated to allow attempts at peacemaking to be more fruitful. (Those of you who have strong feelings on that topic, please note I’m describing the instinct as sound; I here make no argument as to whether it’s a morally permissible solution, or will work in practice, or at what cost.)

Anyway, it wouldn’t at all surprise me to hear that many (certainly not all, but many) self-described atheists feel angry at God. There is much pain and much confusion in this fallen world; much that is incomprehensible. A man who screams “why?” at the sky may thus be among the most honest of those who are just beginning to pray: He is taking God seriously enough to hold Him accountable for execrable state of things.

But after some time not having an adequate answer, or feeling rebuked instead of comforted, what must he do? Even the words of Job, eventually, were “ended.” One cannot scream upward all day, every day, forever.

So what must he do, the man who says to God “this universe isn’t big enough for the both of us?” I suspect he must either go get the shotgun, in whatever form that could possibly take — vilifying Christians or taking up the Dawkins/Harris crusdade or becoming a regular follower of P.Z. Myers or a devoted fan of Bill Maher — or…,

Or he can just simply say “there is no God, and if there is, I want nothing to do with Him,” and put the whole conflict behind him as much as possible. Indeed the more violent reaction cannot be pursued constantly, though some Roman emperors made a pretty good try of it. One cannot live one’s whole life expressing outrage, it takes too much energy. So the quieter form of protest must predominate in most of the actual hours and minutes of life. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche missed a modifier: For these folk, God is not “dead,” but merely “mountain dead.”

And you know, there is something I can respect about that: It comes from thinking the pain of human life important enough to get riled about. Too important, really, to cover over with the more diplomatic mild agnosticism which plays rather better in social situations.

The hillbilly scores high marks for honesty if not for subtlety: Rather than insincerely smile in the face of the person he can’t abide, he turns a cold shoulder and pretends to take no notice. So too the man who feuds with the Almighty.


  • Cord Hamrick

    Cord Hamrick is a husband and father of three, raised an evangelical Christian in Southern Baptist churches. After years of lurking, questioning, and eventually opining in the Catholic blogosphere, he was received into the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil, 2010. Cord is a sometime church musician, former praise-and-worship bandleader, frequent songwriter and arranger, occasional guitar teacher, and — because one really must somehow pay the bills — a developer of web-based software applications. He lives in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife and three kids.

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