Item: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. For the utterly confused atheist in your life, here’s another testament to the fact that atheism can’t stand to be in the same room with itself for too long. Here, the author tries to crib a little bit of consolation from the theistic tradition while hoping nobody will notice there’s no point in talking about “spirituality” when your whole system is predicated on the denial of spirits.

Item: Lent 2008 in the Netherlands found itself re-branded as “Christian Ramadan.” It seems the thoroughly de-Christianized young people there are more likely to know about Islam than Christianity. So the vacuum is filled by the Prophet Mohammed’s teachings.
Item: Chattering classes go for shamanism. What’s not to like? It’s not as nihilistic as atheism, but not as demanding as Christ with all that “take up your cross” stuff. Kira Salak, the scion of parents she describes as “fundamentalist atheists,” regales her readers with her ayahuasca-brew adventures in the spirit world:
To prepare the brew, apprentices spend years under the tutelage of an elder shaman getting to know the different plant ingredients, passing weeks or months at a time learning their individual healing properties and governing spirits. These beings, they claim, teach them icaros, or spirit songs, which, when sung or whistled, call forth the plants’ unique assistance during ceremonies. 
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Shamans will tell you that during an ayahuasca cleansing they’re not working with the contents of a person’s hallucination but are actually visiting that person in whatever plane of reality his or her spirit happens to be. We are not, they insist, confined to the reality of our five senses, but can transcend it and enter a multidimensional universe.

As you read Salak’s curiously mixed-up language attempting to cling to Western materialist rationalism while simultaneously giving a sympathetic and quasi-believing ear to talk about “spirit beings,” it’s hard to avoid hearing one spirit being in particular, C. S. Lewis’s Uncle Screwtape, who told Wormwood 60 years ago:
I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us (though not under that name), will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The “Life Force,” the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work — the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” — then the end of the war will be in sight.

Thanks to the double whammy of radical Islam and the priest scandals, we have been in the middle of an atheist fashion among our elites for the past few years. The Blue State secularists have been enthusiastically publishing and reading the New Atheists, whose pop trash is for atheists sort of what theology drivel like Joel Osteen or Benny Hinn is for Christians: not great, but easily available.
Their trendiness leads to fifth-tier knockoffs trying to cash in. So, for example, you get twaddle like some mathematician claiming special competence to disprove the existence of God, but quickly showing himself to only be familiar with Ann Coulter, dog farts, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Such fads very quickly become an endless recycling of the same old sermons to the choir, since the only thing that keeps atheism on life support once the frisson of blasphemy wears off is lingering anger over 9/11 and the now-fading notion that “religion in general,” not “radical Islam,” is what piloted those planes.
But at the end of the day, the New Atheists have little to say beyond “I won’t believe!” So our culture starts to look at its watch and eye the exit. Endless sermons from a parade of atheists start to feel uncomfortably reminiscent of Reverend Polyester Sport Coat’s Hallelujah Bible Church of NASCAR. Only the subject matter has (slightly) changed. The utterly inhuman triumph of zeal for The System over the human person has not. 


So people subjected to rigorously godless fashions migrate back toward “spirituality,” thereby proving my long-held contention that a fad for atheism is the brief pause between exhaling biblical faith and inhaling Something Else. Atheism can’t hold the attention of fashion long, because most people don’t have sufficient resources of naked pride to keep up the fiction that they enjoy their nihilism. A few souls can revel in shaking their fists at heaven in some sort of Byronic egoism, but Thoreau is right: The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation, and when life gets tough they want to grab on to something bigger than their sneering sense of superiority over the weak. 

Thus, atheistic fads tend to wane and latch on to some form of “spirituality.” Sometimes that can mean reversion to the Faith. Sometimes it means the embrace of the occult or some form of paganism. Sometime it means embracing one of the Great Religions, such as Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism. But the only way a society remains “atheist” once the fad is past is by force of arms, as in the Soviet Union. And the moment the state cannot enforce it, the culture inhales whatever “spirituality” it can find. That’s why Russia has not only seen a big return to the Faith, but a huge growth of fascination in all manner of National Enquirer twaddle about UFOs, New Age twaddle, horoscopes, divination, and all the rest. Atheism tends to achieve not a shiny rationalist society, but a spiritually ignorant (and deeply hungry) population that will latch on to anything in its desperation to fill the God-shaped hole in the heart.

Humans are incorrigibly religious. They are not, however, incorrigibly Christian. So Christians may sigh with relief as the fad for atheism wanes. But we must not give up being wise as serpents nor innocent as doves, and we especially must not slacken in our duty to bear witness to Christ.
Atheistic societies tend to be extremely bloody ones, it’s true. So a step toward theism is better than nothing, and the waning atheist fad is cause for a small celebration. But do remember that nobody involved in the Crucifixion, the persecution of the apostles, and the ancient pagan persecutions of the Church was an atheist. A culture that turns from being strictly materialistic to being a culture of Materialist Magicians is not a culture that is automatically re-Christianizing. Such a turn may be a first step toward Christ, but it can just as easily be a first step toward Moloch. For a materialist who comes to worship the reality of “spirit” is not necessarily worshipping the Lord our God, and Him only. In the words of Lewis’s Ransom, “There’s nothing specially fine about being a Spirit. The Devil is a Spirit.”


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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