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WAS TALKING TO SOME PEOPLE IN MY NOVEL CLASS THE OTHER day, and the motifs winning by losing and losing by winning came up. ‘Give us an example,’ said a fella called Paraguay, and out leaped the words, ‘One way or the other, isn’t it the story of the soul?’ Now if I’d mentioned A Tale of Two Cities and Doctor Faustus as examples, fair enough, but the students were not pleased to hear the word soul, and Nick Paraguay declared he hadn’t come along for religious instruction. On the way home, I heard a couple of young women discussing religion. Neither of them believed in anything, right? That much they promised each other.

In younger people, atheism may have a positive value. The history of Western atheism in the nineteenth century is one of moral integrity, and intensity. If you think scientific progress is its only cause, you are missing the stimulus to discover truth for oneself that comes from within Christianity. This is why Bishop Tikhon in Dostoevsky’s The Devils tells Stavrogin that the atheist is on the next rung of the ladder below the believer he may become (and also a rung above the believer he may have been). Atheism is better than indifference, or belief that is weak. And it’s why the mystic Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov warns the monks, ‘Do not hate atheists… for many of them are good, especially in our time.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, who sometimes gets taken as the skipper of atheism, actually thought it was Christianity’s love of truth that caused the crisis of faith, so that the conscientious Christian had to become atheistic.


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