Victor Hugo on Atheism

I am in the midst of reading Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables—and I will be for some time as it is a massive work. In the midst of the novel, Hugo digresses, as he is wont to do, into a fascinating discussion of atheism. Hugo lived in a time of great upheaval intellectually and morally, a time of revolution. Of course, one of the battle cries of the revolutionaries of his day was, “God is dead.” It is to this he responds. Now, Hugo himself was by no means a traditionalist. He considered himself a free-thinker—one who had progressed beyond the archaisms of traditional religion. Nevertheless, he recognized that atheism was not an answer to anything. Here is what he said.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here is, as we know, a philosophy which denies the infinite. There is also a philosophy, pathologically classified, which denies the sun; this philosophy is also called blindness.

To erect a sense which we lack into a source of truth is a fine blind man’s self-sufficiency.

The curious thing is the haughty, superior, and compassionate airs which this groping philosophy assumes towards the philosophy which belongs to God. One fancies he hears a mole crying, “I pity them with their sun!”

There are, as we know, powerful and illustrious atheists. At bottom, led back to the truth by their very force, they are not absolutely sure that they are atheists; it is with them only a question of definition, and in any case, if they do not believe in God, being great minds, they prove God.

We salute them as philosophers, while inexorably denouncing their philosophy.

The remarkable thing about it is, also, their facility in paying themselves off  with words. A metaphysical school of the North, impregnated to some extent with fog, has fancied that it has worked a revolution in human understanding by replacing the word Force with Will.

To say, “The plant wills,” instead of, “the plant grows,” this would be fertile in results indeed if we were to add, “the universe wills.” Why? Because it would come to this: the plant wills, there for it has an I; the universe will, therefore it has a God.

As for us, who, however, in contradistinction to this school, reject nothing a priori, a will in the plant, accepted by this school, appears to us more difficult to admit than a will in the universe denied by it.

To deny the will of the infinite, that is to say, God, is impossible on any other conditions than a denial of the infinite. We have demonstrated this.

The negation of the infinite leads straight to nihilism. Everything becomes “a mental conception.”

With nihilism, no discussion is possible. For the nihilist logic doubts the existence of its interlocutor , and it is not sure that it exists itself.

From its point of view, it is possible that it may be for itself, only a “mental conception.”

Only, it does not perceive that all which it has denied it admits simply by the utterance of the word “Mind.”

In short, no way is open to the thought by a philosophy which makes all end in the monosyllable, No.

To No, there is only one reply: Yes.

Nihilism has no point.

There is no such thing as nothingness. Zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing. Man lives by affirmation even more than by bread….

For our part…we will confine ourselves to saying that we niether understand man as a point of departure nor progress as an end, without those two forces which are their two motors: faith and love.

Progress is the goal, the ideal is the type.

What is the ideal? It is God.

Ideal, absolute, perfection, infinity: identical words.

— Volume II, Book VII, Chapter VI: “The Absolute Goodness of Prayer”

The Wrong Question

I wrote this essay in 2009, when Dawkins’ book first came out.

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]amed anti-theist and biologist Richard Dawkins has written a new book entitled The Greatest Show on Earth. No, it’s not a history of the Ringling Brothers—it’s his apologetic in defense of evolution. In the first chapter, Dawkins spends considerable time lamenting the large percentage of humanity that still believes in something as fanciful as Intelligent Design. He goes on to declare that evolution is an undeniable fact—something as real and self-evident as the earth itself. That is, except for the fact that you can’t see it. And this leads him to compare evolutionary scientists to forensic investigators piecing together the evidence of a crime scene after the fact.

But in his analogy, Dawkins misses the point. He’s right, of course—scientists are similar to forensic investigators in the sense that they want to answer how something occurred. But there is one major difference: to the forensic investigator, answering How is only a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. It is subordinate to the larger and more significant questions of Who and Why. Those are the ultimate questions, and the questions to which everyone craves answers.

Without answers to the questions of Who and Why, a case remains ultimately unsolved. There may be a full and detailed understanding of How the death occurred, yet without these answers, the victim’s family is left in the agony of unknowing. They want a reason, a motive. They want a perpetrator.

But in Dawkins’ universe, there is no Who or Why. Who made this? No one. Why are we here? No reason. It could be said that Dawkins is being unreasonable. He has gone to great lengths to remove these most human of questions from the arena of thought simply because he does not like where they lead.

Yet, these are the questions everyone is really asking, and they are quite reasonable. Despite great progress in scientific explanations of How things work, Dawkins’ case remains, and will remain, unsolved because he hasn’t yet answered them. Theology remains and will remain because it has.

In short, Dawkins’ atheism is too simple. It is not satisfying. It is no more satisfying than knowing, to continue the analogy, that your child was violently murdered by no one. Deep in the human consciousness, we know there’s more to the story. There’s the Story, and it starts in the beginning.

I predict failure for Mr. Dawkins’ crusade to turn the world zealously after a question it isn’t asking. No, the world is far too wonderful and man too mystical for atheism to flourish. Yet, I suspect Mr. Dawkins will not realize his mistake. He will continue to puzzle over those who will not accept his answer to the question they didnt’ ask. He will go on asking a question which, by his own reasoning, is ultimately irrelevant. So Mr. Dawkins, keep asking How as long as you wish. I will simply ask you in turn a question that has much deeper and profounder implications—a question which strikes at the very heart of human nature: Why do you ask?