“That his heels may kick at heaven”

Some time ago, Hemant Mehta asked “Where are the atheist fiction books?” and I was kind of baffled by the question.  There may not be many books where the atheism of the characters is a major plot point, but when I was growing up, most books I read had no reference to religion at all, so I tended to assume the characters were all atheists like me.  Even in books where characters go to church, there were seldom theological influences on the plot — the church was just a public square where characters met and clashed.

There are exceptions, of course, but I haven’t read very many, and few of the ones I can think of are modern.  But the greatest counter-example I can think of occurs in Act III of Hamlet, when Hamlet comes upon his uncle Claudius at prayer and, over the course of a soliloquy, decides not to kill him yet (Brannagh version here).  Hamlet says:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
‘Tis heavy with him. And am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At game, a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Hamlet’s speech and subsequent action is predicated on a Christian metaphysics, but I struggle to think of anything less Christ-like.  The depths of Claudius’s sin makes him more pitiable and more in need of Hamlet’s help and love.  Hamlet certainly isn’t required to condone his uncle’s crimes, but he ought to try, to the extent that he can, to help his uncle repent.

Claudius fell through lust and jealousy, a sickly echo of love and honor.  He  wants good things (love, responsibilities) is the wrong way.  But Hamlet’s desire for the damnation of another person isn’t a twisted image of any good thing, there is nothing about this desire that could be rightly directed.  When Hamlet finally kills Claudius, he takes down his uncle in despair — Gertrude is dead, Laertes is poisoned, Hamlet is poisoned, and Claudius is complicit in all these deaths.  But, because he rejoices in the damnation of another soul, it seems like Hamlet must be the most distant from God in that moment.

And this is a big part of my concern in offering lethal resistance to someone engaged in wrongdoing.  Setting yourself in opposition to evil is good for you (not being complicit) and good for your nemesis (makes it clear that you find the action objectionable).  But a bullet to the brain doesn’t have much instructive content.  Even if you manage to avoid Hamlet’s failure of charity, what good do you want death to do for your enemy?

Protecting someone else from the consequences of the acts of your enemy is one thing, but I’m still not sure what kind of heuristic you should use to choose between martyrdom (which doesn’t preclude resistance) and cutting someone down when s/he is “about some act that has no relish of salvation in’t.”  On the other hand, this whole schema seems to place too much power over people’s souls in our own hands.  Hamlet might be called to be his uncle’s keeper, but it seems unlikely that Claudius’s salvation is wholly predicated on Hamlet’s antic disposition.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Hamlet is the one play of Shakespeare’s that I read every year or so, always gleaning new fruit.

  • http://catholichousehold.com James Hosler

    Great post. I love thinking about literature like this. Some thoughts:
    -Hamlet is one of the most powerful characters literature has to offer, but not necessarily holy.
    -Even if someone is killed in the act of doing something terrible, I don’t think we need say the person is condemned. Hamlet’s belief is more a hope, I think, that Claudius suffer the most possible pain. Hamlet isn’t recalling some dogma.
    -”this whole schema seems to place too much power over people’s souls in our own hands.” I agree, but the schema, like I said, isn’t a part of my Catholic beliefs, at least. In my view, God is all powerful; a soul’s fate isn’t determined by the mere time when a madman decides to murder, or, dare I say, the mere time when a good man’s hand is forced to kill in defense of himself or others.
    Anyways, you got a new subscriber. Keep it up. :-)

  • Paul

    I’m always amazed at the extent to which I (and others) expect “good behavior” from Hamlet. He does very little throughout the play to construct or justify this expectation. The closet scene with Gertrude is my favorite example of this – there is no conceivable excuse for it, antic disposition or no. (The Ophelia scenes you can explain away in that way.) His behavior is repellent.

    Hamlet is not a good guy. (Cassio and Cordelia spring to mind as Shakespeare’s “good guys”, fwiw.) At best Hamlet is sort of a Steve Jobs-ian, iconoclastic, paranoid genius type. And yet it’s hard not to be fond of him. It took me many readings of the play to really interrogate Hamlet as a person, and, in spite of myself, I still like the guy!

    I think it’s a testament both to the simple narrative power of making someone who’s been wronged the center of attention – that is, it evokes sympathy and activates our own desire for retributive justice – and a testament to how much we’re willing to forgive when someone’s just really, really, really clever. Which Hamlet clearly is.

    So what I’m trying to say is that I’m not at all surprised that Hamlet shows some pretty questionable moral thinking here.

    That said, I wonder whether we should interpret Hamlet’s reasoning in this scene as a sincere expression of his thoughts, or as as a pretext to himself. Is he ready to kill Claudius now? After all he hasn’t gone to England yet. He kills Polonius in the next scene, but it happens in a moment of fear and surprise and threat, which he responds to with (misdirected) deadly force. Plus this is substantially more Christian (if confusedly so) than almost anything else he says throughout the play, certainly more so than in his other soliloquies. To me that strengthens the case that Hamlet is talking himself down with whatever heuristic’s handy. To that end I’d play it (unlike Branagh, though I love that clip anyway) with a beat between “now I’ll do it” and “And so he goes to heaven”.

    None of this is to disagree with your thoughts on lethal resistance more broadly, but I couldn’t resist picking apart that scene a bit. (:

  • Doragoon

    “But a bullet to the brain doesn’t have much instructive content.”
    What is the instructive content of the lack of such a punishment?

    When one becomes an adult, it is assumed they know right from wrong and they start taking responsibility for their actions. By assuming that you can talk reason into someone to which deadly force might be warranted, you’re in essence saying they have the mind of a child. You are not addressing them as an equal, but taking responsibility for them as one would adopt child.

    To bring it back to Hamlet, there has been much said about the idea that hamlet was childlike or womanly. At the time women were seen as more emotional and mentally unstable.

    • Jubal DiGriz

      You’re omitting the other options besides inaction and killing. It almost sounds like you’re advocating law enforcement should be “shoot first, talk them down later” out of some kind of respect for the criminal.

      And if someone is doing something obviously immoral, aren’t they impaired in some way? I’m not saying they’re not responsible for their actions, just that it seems heinous to try to destroy someone before trying to fix them. And so what if that can be seen as talking down to them? The moral have a natural responsibility towards the immoral.

    • Ted Seeber

      Knowing right from wrong in adults, given the way the United States has gone the last 40 years, is an extremely bad assumption.

      But I (and St. Augustine) agree with Leah- it is better to die yourself than to respond to an attack with lethal force, except in the defense of a third party. This has been the constant teaching of the Magisterium since the days of Christ- and it was the reason for BOTH the desertion from the army of Rome in the 200s and 300s, and a thousand years later, the reason for the Crusades. Defense of the innocent is the only reason to ever fight.

  • colorao

    I wonder if it’s right to say you’re ever called to choose, strictly speaking, between martyrdom and cutting someone down. You can certainly be called to accept martyrdom, but that is a different act than choosing it. Accepting martyrdom is something like accepting God’s will to allow others to take violence against you. God, and his people, are the object, not the martyrdom itself. Likewise, it is difficult to say whether licit deployment of lethal force is ever intended as a “cutting someone down.” I haven’t sifted through the cases, but it seems to me that in a substantial set of them the intended action will be repelling an unjust aggressor while knowing, but in no way seeking, that the force is (likely/certain to be) lethal, and having no other practical recourse. I’m trying to imagine a counter-example. It’s easier to wiggle out of describing the intended act as a killing when you imagine shooting an unjust aggressor, but what if all you can do to stop them is try to chop off their head? Say all you have at hand is a single-edged sword, and they are armed and have body armor on, and all that is exposed is their neck, etc., and they are bent on killing a child behind you. It would seem you intend to kill them. Does it prove anything that, if your blow did stop them but did not kill them you would not still seek lethal action, and may even try to help them as far as you can (unless, say, you have to run from others)? I’m not sure. But, I’ll say that I am uncomfortable with how you framed the choice. Seems unnecessarily constrained.

  • Ray

    “But Hamlet’s desire for the damnation of another person isn’t a twisted image of any good thing, there is nothing about this desire that could be rightly directed. ”

    This is surely an overstatement. The idea of rewarding the good and punishing the bad is unquestionably necessary for a functioning society (The criminal justice system, performance based pay, grades, pretty much any system of discipline for children etc.) Even lethal punishment is an effective warning to others — and I must point out that if you believe in an afterlife, lethal vs nonlethal isn’t really all that significant a distinction in the first place, especially considering the fact that Hamlet has spoken to his own dead father.

    I would also point out that one of those old Pagan philosophers you Catholics love so much goes even further. Plato goes so far as to say, in Republic, that the least happy man is the one who misbehaves and is NOT punished — saying the punishment is the unpleasant medicine needed to repair the soul. Now perhaps the Christian might say that the soul can be fixed painlessly by grace — it is occasionally implied that this might even work on Earth as well as in Heaven. But stripping away the rewards and punishments inherent in society has been tried — it’s called Communism, and it hasn’t worked (at least not at any significant scale.)

  • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

    Man, I was totally with you up to the last paragraph.

    Protecting someone else from the consequences of the acts of your enemy is one thing, but I’m still not sure what kind of heuristic you should use to choose between martyrdom (which doesn’t preclude resistance) and cutting someone down when s/he is “about some act that has no relish of salvation in’s.”

    There’s a pretty fundamental difference here that I don’t see you addressing- if you choose martyrdom, the bad guy gets to go on doing bad things. Lethal force rarely, if ever, seems like a good thing for the person getting killed- rather, it’s a good thing for all the innocent future victims this person would harm if allowed to continue. I’m on board with the general sentiment that we should avoid killing whenever possible, but not at the expense of future victims (not to mention justice, and creating a consistent disincentive for other potential perpetrators)

    I agree with you that we need to think hard about what heuristic we’re using to decide who deserves lethal resistance and who doesn’t. Applying lethal force to a pickpocket seems inappropriate, since the damage caused by the crime is orders of magnitude lower than killing somebody. But applying lethal force to stop a rapist seems like an entirely reasonable thing to do. There are certainly edge cases where it’s difficult to discern whether lethal force is appropriate or not, but that’s true of every ethical norm. It won’t do to throw up our hands and say we can never apply lethal force because there are certain cases where we’re not sure, unless we’re prepared to never hold anyone accountable for anything ever.

    On the other hand, this whole schema seems to place too much power over people’s souls in our own hands. Hamlet might be called to be his uncle’s keeper, but it seems unlikely that Claudius’s salvation is wholly predicated on Hamlet’s antic disposition.

    I’m not sure if this is an argument against Hamlet’s specific theology (which I think most people would agree is a swing and a miss) or against the schema of we as individual moral agents making a decision of this magnitude- whether or not lethal resistance is appropriate. If the former, I’m with you. If the latter, why not? Certainly we need some awfully good checks and balances in place (like a well functioning justice system) to prevent over-application of too-severe punishments, but it seems like this is an action we ought to be taking as individuals only when it’s the least objectionable option. That is, if we see someone committing a heinous crime, and we decide it’s less objectionable for us to lethally resist than it is to allow the crime to continue, it strikes me that we would be morally obligated to resist. It’s not a question of “should we use lethal force?”, but rather “if lethal force and allowing this crime to continue are our only options, which is preferable?”

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      There are certainly edge cases where it’s difficult to discern whether lethal force is appropriate or not, but that’s true of every ethical norm. It won’t do to throw up our hands and say we can never apply lethal force because there are certain cases where we’re not sure, unless we’re prepared to never hold anyone accountable for anything ever.

      This is really well said…

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

      There’s also a question of “will the crime continue?”

    • Brandon

      You objected that, when the good guy chooses martyrdom, “The bad guy gets to go on doing bad things.” This is important, but it’s not quite enough to justify everything else you said. In particular, it only applies to murder, and it doesn’t justify lethal force against rape. True, if the rapist survives he might attack other people, but since you are still also alive, you can do something like call the police.

      Since we’re discussing Christian morality, “turn the other cheek” provides a clear answer when the only thing at stake is evil being done to you: let the evil be done to you.

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        Yes, my interpretation of what Leah meant by martyrdom in the OP was that it would lead to the martyr’s death. AFAIK, this is the most commonly used definition of martyr, but it sounds like you’re going with a different definition- anyone willingly accepting the bad consequences of someone elses actions instead of stopping them. Is that a fair characterization of your position? (I’m going to assume it is for the rest of this comment, but please correct me if I’ve misunderstood)

        First, I would point out that, even in the case where you report it to the police later, there’s never a guarantee that it will stop the perpetrator. He could very easily get off on a technicality, a procedural error, or a lack of evidence. It’s always a possibility that your voluntary suffering will not stop the perpetrator from striking again.

        Second, there’s really two cases here- one where you personally are the victim of a crime, and one where you’re the observer of a crime. In the case where you’re the observer, I’m claiming that there are some crimes other than murder that are on the same order of magnitude of evil as murder. Rape is one of them. If I have to choose between someone else getting raped or killing the rapist before that happens, I will choose killing the rapist every time. In fact, I have a moral duty to do so- protecting the innocent victim takes precedence over protecting the perpetrator. My suspicion is that you’ll agree with me on this point, but I can expand on it if you disagree.

        It’s the second case that I think we disagree on. If someone is committing one of these heinous crimes against you personally, what should you do? Again, if the crime being done to you is something relatively benign- the pickpocket example I used earlier- then clearly lethal force is not reasonable. But if we consider the crime on the same moral level as murder, then I don’t see how lethal force is disallowable. I understand the “turn the other cheek” doctrine, but what exactly are you hoping for? Do you think God is going to strike down the perpetrator before he gets to do whatever dastardly deed he’s about to do? Or do you think that by allowing such an evil action to happen, the perpetrator will somehow be healed? Or do you just value each individual life so much that you can never permit killing in any circumstances, no matter what the consequences? Or do you think this is the proper moral action purely because there’s a verse in the Bible that says so? Understand, from the atheist perspective, how nuts all of those options sound.

        Ultimately, I don’t think I can convince you that this is a bad idea through reason. You don’t believe it because it’s reasonable, you believe it because Christianity claims it to be true (this isn’t meant to be disparaging, as I think most Christians would agree that “turn the other cheek” is counter-intuitive and not something most people arrive at through their reason alone). But I think it’s really dangerous to go around telling other people that they have to sit there and take it whenever someone does something bad to them- particularly when we’re talking about something on the order of magnitude of rape. When you teach people these things, they believe them. And you’re placing the priority of the perpetrator instead of the victim. That’s the kind of thinking that (right or wrong) makes atheists so angry when someone jumps from atheism to Catholicism and cites its moral teachings as a prime factor.

        • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

          turn the other cheek” is also one of the most mis-understood of Biblical phrases (right up there with ‘judge not lest ye be judged’). In context, turn the other cheek has very little to do with the commission of a violent crime. It specifically has to do with how Jesus’ listener (Jews) should interact with Roman soldiers and comes as part of a whole list of things they should do. Turning the other cheek is to say, you’ve slapped me with the back of your hand (as you would a slave) – now strike me on this other cheek and treat me like a man and an equal.

          • Brandon

            Jake, you are correct, we disagree in the scenario where one is the victim of the crime.

            Dan, I think you are focusing too narrowly, and not putting it in the context of the rest of Jesus’s teachings. He announced that Love was the supreme commandment: first love God, and second love everyone else. This famously includes loving our enemies, and this often requires forgoing any thoughts of revenge, postponing justice, and even being generous to someone who hurts us.

            Looking at the passage itself, Matthew 5:38-42, it says, “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. ” It doesn’t make sense for this to be a call to demand respect (as you said, “treat me like a man”). In fact, demanding respect can often be an prideful act (and thus sinful).

            So, to get back to my disagreement with Jake, my stance is founded on the moral requirement to love our enemies. Someone attacking me is certainly my enemy, but I am still not excused if I fail to love him. How do I love someone who is trying to kill me? This brings us full circle, back to the topic of Leah’s post: if you kill someone in the midst of a terrible sin, you are denying him the chance to repent, since you can only repent while you’re alive. We have no guarantee that he will repent, but love demands that we give him the chance.

            Might he harm other people? He might, but it’s even less defensible to kill someone for a crime he hasn’t committed yet.

            P.S. I’m not pretending that nonviolent measures, like calling the police, are perfect. Violent measures aren’t perfect either, and the point is that the nonviolent measures are there.

          • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam G.

            Calling the police isn’t non-violent, its just using someone else as the instrument of violence instead of yourself.

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    Hmm, here we wonder off into woolly hypotheticals, but anyway:

    Setting yourself in opposition to evil is good for you (not being complicit) and good for your nemesis (makes it clear that you find the action objectionable). But a bullet to the brain doesn’t have much instructive content.

    The problem here is a narrow focus on just two souls. The proposition assumes that your nemsis is evil without specifying how. Is he a tryant? A serial murderer? (Hamlet’s nemesis was arguably both, more about that later). If we were talking about punishment and revenge, then there might be no side-consequences on earth. But you ask not about punsihment, but about resistance, presumably you are resisting something; and what you are resisting matters.

    Back to Hamlet, it seems to me that even vengence is morally neutral. Part of Hamlet’s appeal is that he comes so close to walking the path of a hero, his sin is not that he wants revenge, but that he does not even try to control or direct his desire. Perhaps killing Claudius is a great and heroic service to the Danish nation. Shakespeare doesn’t say, because Hamlet doesn’t care.

  • Paul

    Hamlet is a tragedy. Hamlet is a tragic hero: fatally flawed. This is the scene that most brings that out.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    I’m not a intent student of Shakespeare, but my reading of Hamlet was that he was mostly crazy, and this manifested mostly when his sheltered early life started falling apart. He’s a model a-ethical actor (no pun intend), since he fundamentally unable to make rational ethical decisions. Most of the play he’s bouncing from apathy to bloody-minded vengeance to back again. Hamlet ends up being neither good or evil, just broken.

    I completely agree with Leah about lethal force as a tool of justice. The whole point of justice is corrective… a society wouldn’t last very long with a no-tolerance approach to malfeasance. Capital punishment is no different from life imprisonment in any practical matter except that it removes the possibility of the criminal ever rehabilitating themselves.

    That also applies to martyrdom. A person who is dead cannot continue to effect the world… even if one can think of an example where a person’s death was considered inspiring by many, the vast majority of the time we remember those people because of the way the lived. There’s meaningful self-sacrifice, dying so that others may live, but I see no virtue in dying to make a statement. If one believes in an afterlife and some variety of objective judgement however, this becomes very muddled very quickly.

    • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

      A person who is dead cannot continue to effect the world…

      That is, unless the Catholic doctrine of the Communion of Saints really is true. There are many saints who have looked forward to heaven because they could do more good specifically on earth than they could in their earthly lives. (St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Dominic de Guzman come immediately to mind.)

      • Ted Seeber

        St. Jose del Rio is a more modern one that I wish *every* atheist would read about.

        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          I had a look at the Wikipedia page about him. It isn’t obvious from that why you think it would be particularly beneficial for atheists to read about him. Reading it, and a bit of background about the Cristero War, does not incline me to think more favourably of the RCC or its doctrines. I may well be missing something important. Would you care to say more?

          • Ted Seeber

            It isn’t the RCC or it’s doctrines I want you to think about- it is atheism and the doctrines of President Calles in particular I want you to think about. Does that help?

          • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

            (This is a reply to Ted; the Patheos commenting system doesn’t allow very deep nesting.)
            Yes, I now understand, or at least I think I do. But I think you may be failing to distinguish between “sometimes atheists do bad things” and “atheism is bad”. (Also #1: It seems to me that the behaviour of the Cristeros was little better than that of the government, and hard to reconcile with what the New Testament has to say about Christian behaviour in the face of persecution. Also #2: If I were looking for examples of nasty atheistical governments to throw at atheists, I can think of plenty of better — i.e., worse — examples than the Mexican one.)

        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          Further to my previous comment: It occurs to me that I may be confused, because the Jose del Rio that I read some stuff about appears to be beatified but not yet canonized, so referring to him as *St* Jose del Rio is arguably premature. — Is there some other, actually canonized, Jose del Rio of whom I’m unaware?

          (I’m not sure what the official RC position is on using the title “Saint” for people not yet canonized. Canonization is intended to *recognize* rather than *create* saints, after all, so I take it the main difference between beatification and canonization is epistemic rather than ontological — a matter of how sure the RCC is that the person in question really has joined the Church Triumphant. In which case, the worst there is to be said about using the title “Saint” is that it’s overconfident, right? The same error as it would have been to say that the Higgs boson had been “discovered” if the results announced recently had been just slightly less impressive and the significance remained below five standard deviations.)

          • Ted Seeber

            There are TWO methods of Sainthood in the Catholic Church:
            - Popular demand, under which some already call St. Pope John Paul The Great a Saint
            - Official recognition by Rome (which started out just as the Roman Calendar of Feast Days, and has gotten more rigorous over time)

            There are a few Saints who cross the line- they’re on the calendar, but have NOT been officially canonized- Patrick and Mary are two examples of that.

  • Iota

    A few thoughts:

    1) As Jake points out, there is such a thing as responsibility towards future victims. The way I see it, (viz. the Catechism) today there rarely is a reason to kill-to-protect, but it might happen.
    2) Aside: I’m not a fan for praying for visible martyrdom, by the way, because this seems to imply that someone else should sin.
    3) Accepting martyrdom makes sense, but with reservation 1) and possibly 2)
    4) The whole problem of lethal justice is a little more complicated, I think. We tend to assume that there are only three entities – the State, the victim and the perpetrator. That is usually not true – both the victim and the perpetrator may have even large families. And then it starts getting messy because I honestly have no idea what you should tell the child of a murderer when we kill his or her father (we all know people may commit heinous crimes, and then go home and spend time with their family).
    5) So the reason I oppose the death penalty, for example, is this: keeping the perpetrator alive is costly but we spend boatloads of money on stupider things and this lets the people involved sort out stuff in their own time (possibly though not necessarily this might include the perpetrator “converting”). Plus, I don’t actually think the death penalty does much as a warning (as Ray suggests). For a punishment-as-warning to work, the potential criminal has to actually be able to visualize (believe?) that they will be punished in this way (,a a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3oIiH7BLmg”>this talk might be interesting, from 7 mins onwards). I might be overstating (I don’t have any actual data on this) but I’d hazard a guess that most people who commit crimes that their societies consider punishable by death, simply believe that they are so special they won’t get caught. Or even don’t think about the future at all. And if so, no punishment will work effectively as a deterrent.

    • Ray

      Re, the death penalty: The question is not whether it is a deterrent — it surely is to some extent — but whether it is a greater deterrent than life in prison. (And, for the record, in modern society, the death penalty is actually MORE expensive than life in prison due to legal fees iirc.) But the situation in Hamlet is very different from modern society in a number of respects:

      1) The murderer and the state are the same entity. Imprisoning Claudius for life is not really an option for Hamlet. This is complicated somewhat by the fact that Hamlet is treating God as an agent of punishment external to the situation (so maybe you could say that God is playing the role of the state in this thought experiment.) What is perhaps taboo, from the Christian perspective, is that Hamlet is questioning God’s judgement, treating as unjust the possibility that Claudius escape his just punishment in the afterlife. (Interestingly, the next scene makes it clear that Claudius cannot repent until he gives up his crown — which would imply that Hamlet’s mistake was not his desire that Claudius suffer in hell, but his expectation that Claudius would be sent to heaven if killed immediately.)

      Oh, and if you doubt that state actors are motivated by fear of death, ask yourself why such bloody tyrants as Stalin and Mao never used nuclear weapons in combat or invaded a NATO country.

      2) Dead men do tell tales: In a world where every dead usurper throughout history can personally report their punishments to the living in detail, hellfire would be a very effective deterrent to the next would-be tyrant.

      3) This is the middle ages we’re talking about, a much more violent time (Actually the expectations for violence are most likely set by Elizabethan England, which was, if anything, even bloodier.) I suspect part of the reason the death penalty isn’t an effective deterrent in modern society is that it’s extremely rare, even in places like Texas (Only something like 1% of murderers in Texas are executed.)

      • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Es9XrKTTc_4 Zack

        ……..And then the Death Penalty is not a deterrent to the extent that the people crazy enough to merit it are too crazy to care about consequences.

  • deiseach

    Interesting interpretation, and not one I’ve seen before. Most traditional parsings of this scene take it as Hamlet once more prevaricating; he had to be prodded into (what his society would have seen as) the duty of revenge by the ghost of his father and now that he has the perfect chance at Claudius, he still passes it up and cobbles together a specious excuse – if I kill him now, he’ll go to Heaven and what kind of revenge is that?

    You’re entirely correct that Hamlet should be seeking the good of his uncle’s soul, but between the culture of his times and his own resentment (and over-compensatory guilt about his ambiguous feelings towards his father in life) he is stuck in inaction either for good or ill, until the end of the play in the hopeless, despairing bloodbath.

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

    The trouble with explicitly atheist fiction is that once you’re in on it it’s spoiled unless you’re also in on the atheism.* Hitchhiker’s Guide, for example, is perfectly cromulent — until you learn about the faith. So much that once seemed whimsical or nonsensical actually and deliberately aimed at lampooning religion, and specifically Judeo-Christian sensibilities. Still, I don’t expect even other Catholics to share my weak stomach for seething hatred, thinly disguised.

    The trouble with implicitly atheist fiction is that we’d just about never notice. Worldbuilding rarely goes deep enough to give us any impression one way or the other. Usually the author pretty much absorbs the prevailing attitudes of his day. His contemporaries assume their own world until forced to believe otherwise, and implicitly atheist fiction does not say often cause us to suppose otherwise. But when it does, there’s something unsatisfying — read: feeling untrue — about worlds without sin or virtue, where there are only the mutterings and putterings of tiny men in a cold cosmos. To wit: Would you rather read The Lord of the Rings or Titus Groan?

    * This applies to C.S. Lewis but not J.R.R. Tolkien, or so says my first instinct. I’d say why but for now my opinion needs more time in the oven.

    • Hibernia86

      Atheists have to put up with characters or the author preaching faith in the stories. You can put up with an author like Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide book that disagree with your faith. It seems like you have been spoiled in this regard.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

        Yes, as admitted in the original comment. But this atheism is at a level which cheapens the story, whereas in Lord of the Rings the inherent Catholicism deepens it.

        • Thomas R

          I have to admit after I read that series I was surprised he was atheist. The scientist types who think they’re right are pretty often wrong too. Or arrogant or silly. I took the series as basically agnostic. And yes I enjoyed it, still do. I don’t feel bad about that either or less Christian. I think Lewis enjoyed some H. G. Wells while being disgusted by the premises he held. You can still admire a person’s intellect or imagination even if you don’t agree with their premises.

          But anyway as to “atheist fiction” as much as I like science-fiction I’d admit much of it is “atheist fiction.” It’s often an attempt to find wonder or even mythos in a Godless, according to the author, Universe. Part of why I liked it as a kid is I found atheists intriguing and wanted to understand them better. There’s a certain value, I think, in trying to understand people very “other” from your own life or values. I generally found it could help you appreciate your own more. Although there are levels. Like there’s this science-fiction author named Greg Egan who was/is something of a proselytizing atheist. The outright revulsion in his works for even romanticism or Jungianism, let alone religion, can be a bit too biting for me. If Hitchhiker’s Guide is too anti-religion for you, and to me he’s pretty mild (for example Adams is mostly more mild than Wells), Egan would probably give you apoplexy.

          Although I should add not all SF is atheist fiction. Orson Scott Card, Jerry Pournelle, Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe, are various kinds of Christian.

    • Hibernia86

      You remind me of the Mormons who often think that anyone who disagrees with them is discrimination. Just because Douglas Adams disagrees with your faith doesn’t mean he hates you. It just means that he wants to point out the flaws in the religious thinking, which he is perfectly justified in doing in a Democracy.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

        Never thought I was so important that he hated me. It’s the faith that is hated.

      • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam G.

        Nice sideswipe at Mormons out of the blue there.

        The problem with fictional atheism (or fictional advocacy of any other viewpoint for that matter) is that it doesn’t present arguments. Arguments are usually found in non-fiction. Instead, fictionalized tracts are usually extended ad hominems. People with viewpoint X are good and people with viewpoint Y are bad because I, the author, force them to be.

    • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

      When you say “this applies to CSL but not JRRT”, do you mean after replacing “atheist” with “Christian”? That is, do you mean that the Christianity in CSL’s books spoils them for non-Christians in the same way as the atheism in DNA’s spoils them for you, but the Christianity in JRRT’s doesn’t have the same effect?

      If so, I think there are two main relevant differences between CSL and JRRT. DNA is like JRRT regarding one of them and like CSL regarding the other. (I take it we’re talking here about fiction that isn’t explicitly and blatantly religious or anti-religious: say Narnia, LOTR, HHGTTG.)

      One: the Christianity in CSL’s fiction is much nearer to being explicit (and didn’t he and JRRT notoriously disagree on the advisability of that?) More precisely: Narnia, for instance, is a world in which (more or less) Christianity is right and this is important to the plot, whereas Middle-Earth is a world in which (more or less) Christianity happens not to be right, but a world (sub)created by a Christian with Christian sensibilities. It can hardly be unexpected if some people who aren’t Christians are uncomfortable with fiction that doesn’t make sense unless one assumes Christianity, but aren’t bothered by a world whose design merely happens to have been informed by Christian thinking.

      Two: here and there, CSL offers thinly veiled arguments for Christianity or something like it — e.g., Puddleglum’s choice to believe in Narnia, Aslan, etc., even if fictitious — whereas JRRT doesn’t. This is liable to come across as preachy to anyone who doesn’t already agree, and even to some who do.

      It seems to me that the atheism in DNA’s books is more like the Christianity in JRRT’s than that in CSL’s in the first respect (the existence or otherwise of a god in HHGTTG is left open and doesn’t particularly matter) and more like CSL’s than JRRT’s in the second (I’m not sure that there are exactly arguments for atheism in HHGTTG, but there are mockeries of bad theistic arguments).

      • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

        Middle-Earth is a world in which (more or less) Christianity happens not to be right — I think it’s more accurate to say that Middle-Earth is a world in which (more or less) Christianity happens not to be relevant.

        • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous
      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

        You pretty much hit the nail on the head, G. Hitchhicker’s Guide is definitely less preachy than Narnia, and Adams should be commended for that.

    • Skittle

      I am genuinely puzzled by what you could mean here, about H2G2. I’m a cradle Catholic, brought up in a devoutly practicing household. Some of the books we used for bedtime stories (a chapter before our nightly prayers) were the Hitchhiker’s books. They were funny, and made us think. The silly stuff about religion was funny, too. The immediate examples that spring to mind are the Babel fish (looking at silly sophist arguments: it’s not like we ever bought into the initial argument that faith requires God to never reveal himself anyway (duh, Jesus himself), and the fictional atheist’s argument is clearly presented as stupid) and the god making his promised second coming seconds before the universe ends (funny).

      But then, we also enjoyed the His Dark Materials books together. Pullman is an atheist I gather, but the books were really more Gnostic than Atheist. We never read them as actually attacking the Church (although they may have intended to) because the Church described in them bears no resemblance to ours. If you set up an evil fictional organisation, and then lay out arguments for why it is evil, that’s not going to convince me that a real organisation with little similarity to your fictional one is evil.

    • Kristen inDallas

      don’t get it…
      Adams makes fun of the way (some people) go about religion rediculously. He also makes fun of plenty of non-religious folks as well. His characters are caricatures that point out absurdities. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t see this as a series of atheist books… I mean the one theme that he keeps coming back to book after book after book, is the juxtaposition between the earth being created purposefully as as an integral part of understanding the universe vs. the Vogons: souless rational-thinking bureacrats who want to destroy the earth (and the possibility of any purposeful/higher meaning of life) at all costs. Unless I missed something, and Dougless intended the Vogons to be the good guys, this is hardly an endorsement of atheism.

    • deiseach

      Yeah, unless the author explicitly makes the atheism one of, or even the major, points of the nov el/play/musical, how can you tell whether or not it’s atheist?

      I mean, unless the author creates an Evil Church of Absolutely Evil Evil, and has his characters stop every ten paragraphs or so to make a point about how evil the Evil Church is, and by extension how evil any kind of religious belief is, and unless the author lines up evil religious characters doing evil things to innocent victims on one side, and brave, noble atheist characters on the other doing brave, noble things, how could you tell whether or not it’s an explicitly atheist novel? Why, you’d nearly need a scene where the heroes not alone confront but kill God!

      And surely no author would be so clunky in his or her message as that – oh, hi, Philip Pullman!

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

    There are also some wise words relevant to this.

    Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise can not see all ends.

    Feel free to emphasize that “do not be too eager” is not “do not,” but do not do so eagerly.

    • Jubal DiGriz

      Also, in the tale Golum’s wickedness ended up saving both Frodo and the world. Maybe that’s about fate, perhaps something about never knowing the consequences of our actions. In the novels the villains almost always ended up being slain by the results of their own villainy.

  • Hibernia86

    Leah, you are asking for a situation in which a person isn’t hurting anyone else but is doing something immoral and would be bad enough that someone might consider killing them for it. While I have heard of some religious people killing gays for their “sin”, I don’t see how any real morality could lead to such a result. For an Atheist, I don’t think a situation like that could exist. The only thing I could possibly think of was if a person was hurting themselves and the only way to make them stop was to kill them. I don’t know how such an extreme situation could arise though.

  • David

    Interesting comments here. I’m in agreement with those who say that Hamlet is showing himself to be a tragically flawed character. Retributive justice could be a corrective in certain circumstances, but I’m certain that it is immoral to wish damnation on anyone.

  • Kewois

    Ok Leah (the so famous so influential ex atheist) you seem to know very little about atheism and theism as well so here some hints.

    Just a few examples:
    -The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
    -Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert A. Heinlein
    -Cain by José Saramago
    -Sagan’s “Contact”
    - Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Addams
    Also the television series ‘Bones’, starring Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz, depicts the main character as an Atheist, and very positively, also Dr. House i an atheist

    Here a list of:



    Also composer musician Tim Minchin…. look for him in youtube.

    (Any answers to my previous questions??)


    • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

      I don’t think the mocking tone does you (or anyone) any favours. It’s hardly Leah’s fault if she’s being presented by others as “the so famous so influential ex atheist”. And in any case being unfamiliar with your favourite examples of atheist fiction is hardly the same thing as knowing very little about atheism and theism.

      Despite “The Ubiquitous”‘s comments above, I don’t think the Hitchhiker’s Guide series is really “atheist fiction”; it was written by an atheist, sure, and it has occasional little bits of atheist thinking in it, but it isn’t sustainedly and inyourfacedly atheist in the way that, say, C S Lewis’s Narnia books are Christian once you notice who Aslan is supposed to be, still less in the way that, say, the Left Behind books are. Likewise for “Contact”, though it comes closer. Pullman’s trilogy is antireligious but not exactly atheist (God is a *character* in it, though hardly an impressive one). I haven’t read Heinlein’s Job or Saramago’s Cain so can’t comment on those.

      • Kewois

        >Leah’s fault if she’s being presented by others as “the so famous so influential ex atheist”.
        Leah´s fault is to accept that and not to clarify that she took a personal decision. In the CNN interview she said two lies. First: that her conversion was something “scientific” but it was a personal choice for personal reasons.
        She said that Catholicism gives a better understanding of morality. But she does not know most catholic dogmas about morality not even explain nor answer any question regarding to Bible morality, Leah says that she is studying the issue in their religion class. For example she has not even has an opinion about a fundamental dogma like hell.
        You may say, and most believers also don’t and that’s fine but most believers say that their conversion was through faith or God´s grace not that have solid moral reasons. And Leah has none.
        Second she said that she was a fully Catholic and she is not even baptized yet.
        What´s next that because she put a video about the Higgs Boson she can be entitled as a mayor high energy physics theoretician and influential blogger????
        Just tell the truth. That she is just a woman who has a blog with some followers that decided for personal reasons to become Catholic.

        >And in any case being unfamiliar with your favorite examples of atheist fiction is hardly >the same thing as knowing very little about atheism and theism.
        Those books were written by atheist and contain atheist arguments. I wonder if Leah is looking for the atheist version of Narnia.

        • deiseach

          Kewois, I am somewhat unsure about the point you are making; is it that Leah was never a ‘real’ atheist, or that she is not a ‘real’ believer?

          Or that Catholicism is not Christian, only a Biblically-based non-denominational ‘Sinners’ Prayer’ type conversion experience is a true experience?

          Or that she was some kind of secret Third Columnist theist lurking amongst the atheists until the moment for the unfolding of the Cunning Plan?

        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          I think you are saying “lies” when you mean “errors”. Do you *really* think Leah was deliberately saying things she knew not to be true? In any case, I repeat that the hostile tone does no one any favours.

          I listened to the interview.

          Leah doesn’t claim that her conversion was scientific. She says that she changed her opinion about God because theism provided the best explanation of some things she was very sure of, and that this is similar to embracing a scientific theory because it provides the best explanation of something that was puzzling before. Do you think she’s flatly lying about this? I don’t see any reason to. (I don’t agree with her, and for sure it’s possible that there are “personal reasons” underlying her change of opinion; but what you’re saying goes beyond that and I’d be interested to know what makes you so confident.)

          I didn’t hear her say anything like “that she was a fully Catholic”. (The interviewer calls her a “practising Catholic”; I don’t see that Leah can be blamed for that, and in any case I don’t see that that’s inconsistent with not being baptized yet.)

          • Kewois

            >Is it that Leah was never a ‘real’ atheist, or that she is not a ‘real’ believer?
            I am not saying that. She was a real atheist and a real believer.
            What I say is that she has no solid scientific o logic reasons either to be an atheist or a believer. And that she lacks a lot of knowledge about Catholicism.
            >Or that Catholicism is not Christian, only a Biblically-based non-denominational >‘Sinners’ Prayer’ type conversion experience is a true experience?
            Catholicism is Christian.
            A conversion can be a true experience as a any personal experience can be.
            I can believe in the real existence of Santa Claus because I like, because I have the personal experience of talking to him or because believing makes more sense to ME.
            Another matter is if I have solid reasons and/or solid evidence about the real existence of Santa Claus.
            >Or that she was some kind of secret Third Columnist theist lurking amongst the >atheists until the moment for the unfolding of the Cunning Plan?
            As I said that if she has made her conversion not a big deal I would be fine, but appearing as THE PROMINENT ATHEIST WHO HAS SERIOUS REASON FOR CONVERT upsets me.

            >I think you are saying “lies” when you mean “errors”.
            She had plenty of time to correct those errors.
            >She says that she changed her opinion about God because theism provided the best >explanation of some things she was very sure of, and that this is similar to embracing a >scientific theory because it provides the best explanation of something that was >puzzling before.
            Precisely. A very misleading phrase. You do not embrace a scientific theory because you like it or because it explains a lot of things better just TO YOU.
            She gave no explanation or reasons or evidence WHY Catholicism EXPLAIN better.
            She did not answer any questions regarding for example the fact that there are MANY immoral things done by God in the Bible.
            >it’s possible that there are “personal reasons” underlying her change of opinion
            If saying: “I believe that plants have souls and are persons in a certain way”
            is very different to say that
            “Plants have souls and are persons in a certain way because this provides the best explanation of some things I am very sure of, and that this is similar to embracing a scientific theory because it provides the best explanation of something that was puzzling before.”
            >her a “practising Catholic”; I don’t see that Leah can be blamed for that, and in any >case I don’t see that that’s inconsistent with not being baptized yet.
            Because if you said that something has a better explanation at least you have to know about what you are talking about. I.e. Catholic dogmas and beliefs.
            It is absurd to claim that something that you really don’t fully know or you don’t agree with have a better power of explanation.

          • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

            (This is actually a reply to Kewois; Patheos’s commenting system doesn’t appear to like very deeply nested comments. I don’t really blame it.)

            I don’t understand your point about having “plenty of time to correct those errors”. It’s absolutely commonplace for people to be wrong about something for “plenty of time”. The fact that Leah has held the opinions in question for some time is absolutely no reason to think that they are lies rather than genuinely held opinions.

            “She gave no explanation or reasons or evidence WHY Catholicism EXPLAIN better.” What, in a television interview a couple of minutes long? Well, no. I wouldn’t expect her to. It’s not an appropriate venue, and if she’d tried then she’d probably have been cut off 10% of the way through her attempt, or had it edited out. (Not because of any sort of anti-religious bias from the TV people — they’re more likely to have a pro-Christian bias — but because any explanation worth bothering with would have been at least a couple of minutes of philosophizing, and a typical TV audience isn’t interested in that.)

            Leah’s said a bit here on her blog about this, and has indicated that she’ll say more. I hope she will. This is a sensible place for it. A short TV interview is not.

            You haven’t substantiated your charge that Leah doesn’t know enough about “Catholic dogmas and beliefs” to hold an opinion about whether Catholicism is a better explanation of the world than atheism. The fact that she hasn’t (so far) been baptized is clearly irrelevant to this.

            (I’ll state my own position on some of this stuff, just in case it makes a difference. I am an atheist; I think there are excellent reasons for being very skeptical about the argument Leah is making, and I think it is almost certainly nowhere near as good an argument as Leah evidently thinks; I don’t know enough about what Leah knows about RC doctrine to have a strong opinion about whether (given that she finds the argument she’s sketched convincing) it’s unreasonable for her to be at least tentatively RC rather than some sort of vague deist; I am quite sure I agree more with you than with Leah about most religious questions; and I think you’re being needlessly obnoxious and I wish you’d stop.)

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      Bones is a good example. I really enjoy the occasional clashes between Bones’ atheism and Booth’s Catholicism. The writers do a good job making each character’s beliefs credible and sympathetic; neither one gets held up as better or worse than the other. It’s unusual enough that the positions are even written into the show, let alone presented as equally plausible and acceptable.

      • deiseach

        This may be derailing the thread into the very off-topic tangent of “Fictional Characters I Would Dearly Love To Give A Good Smack” but I’ve never watched the tv version of “Bones” because I couldn’t read the books; Temperance Brennan struck me as the kind of self-satisfied author-insert that Kay Scarpetta was (good Lord, I regret reading those few books in the series that I did read).

        Perhaps I was overly-prejudiced by the bad experience with Dr. Scarpetta and that meant I did not give Dr. Brennan a fair chance, but I really didn’t need another character pluming themselves on how wonderful they were (while demonstrating to the contrary with how they behaved).

        I can’t forgive Laurell Hamilton for what she did with the Anita Blake books, either; they started out good urban fantasay (a genre that leaves me jaded because it is too closely allied to paranormal romance chick-lit novels) but then went off the rails when Anita succumbed to her raging Mary Sueness and startding bonking everything in sight, regardless of whether it had a pulse or not.

        Also, other fictional characters I would love to give a good smack: just to prove that it’s not my own gender I am prejudiced against, the three male leads of the “Wheel of Time”. I ploughed through that production up to about the sixth volume, but the sheer idiocy necessary for the purposes of plot made me throw my hands up in the air and give up.

        • http://theroundearthsimaginedcorners.blogspot.com Rosemary Z.


          If you like urban fantasy without the sex (I got really annoyed with the Anita Blake books for the same reason—More slaying zombies! Less bonking!), check out Charles DeLint. Jilly is a little Mary-Sueish, but there are plenty of other characters to keep it going.

          End tangent.

        • Skittle

          You’d actually probably really enjoy the TV series of “Bones”. Yes, Bones completely lacks modesty when it comes to her abilities, but it’s actually interestingly played and other characters interact with that in realistic ways.

    • leahlibresco

      Golden Compass is kind of a funny example, because there emphatically is a God in that world, it’s just not a God that’s deserving of worship. Lord Asriel and others aren’t atheists, they’re a lot more like Lucifer, in that they have an adversarial relationship with God, not none. I can think of a couple other things in this category (Good Omens, “The Star“) but that’s not quite the same thing as a story about an atheist living as an atheist, with plot and/or character developments are as dependent on zer’s disbelief in God as Hamlet’s monologue is on Christianity.

      Arguably, Atlas Shrugged does fit this criteria, because the plot couldn’t exist if the characters were not atheists and objectivists. Maybe Wolf Hall fits the category?

      • deiseach

        The Golden Compass really is more Gnostic than anything, given that ‘God’ is not really the creator as He asserts Himself to be, but only the oldest of the angels – more the Demiurge, or Yaldabaoth who usurped the place of Sophia.

        A far better example of the genre would be David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus.

    • Skittle

      “Job: a comedy of justice” is another example that’s Gnostic or perhaps Satanist rather than atheist. I mean, come on: in the universe of the story, God, the devil, angels, saints, Heaven and Hell all exist, and all follow roughly the rules of American tent revival evangelical theology. It’s just that, in that universe, the devil is good and Hell is fine, while God is evil, angels are pricks, and Heaven is stuffy. Also, the afterlife is pretty materialistic either way, rather than being something completely different, but that goes hand in hand with the specific popular theology being lampooned.

    • deiseach

      Funnily enough, when I read “Contact” lo, these many years ago, I thought Sagan was more charitable to his religious characters than I would have expected.

      I like some of Heinlein’s juvenile SF, but when in much later life he started off with his own ‘philosophy in a can’ books, he left me behind. I will always be grateful to the author of “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” for the enjoyment he gave to my twelve-year old self, and I will always consider Lazarus Long to be a twit with his head so firmly up his own fundament that – but come, mere Billingsgate is not rational argument.

    • Ted Seeber

      Those are works of fiction *by atheists*, not works of fiction *about atheism*. Case in point is the philosophical argument of the Babel Fish in HHGTG- In some ways, God actually wins that argument- because the philosopher is so stupid that he convinces himself that black is white and gets hit by a car at the next Zebra Crossing.

    • Rachel K

      I would classify H.P. Lovecraft as atheist fiction, despite the fact that his work has gobs and gobs of deities, because said deities are pretty much a metaphor for how humanity is alone in an incomprehensible and uncaring universe.

      • deiseach

        Definitely. He is fairly open about that, too; the ‘Elder Gods’ and ‘Old Ones’ are not gods and demons, but extra-dimensional entities of such enormous power that we, to them, are as bacteria are to us.

        There is no heaven, no hell, no hope in a saviour, no devil to tempt us; just life in happy ignorance of the real truth of how the universe is constituted or – for the truly unfortunate – a tearing aside of the thin veil between our surface understanding and the deeper truth and the destruction of sanity and life that follows.

  • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    Where are all the atheist fiction books? Atlas Shrugged, maybe. Rand said that originally she had included a priest who was both a genuine believer and a “good guy” as one of the main characters, but she couldn’t figure out a way to make such a person credible.

  • http://elizabethk-fthnfort.blogspot.com/ Elizabeth K.

    Great post, Leah! A few of things you may find interesting re: Hamlet:
    1. This moment in the play is precisely the moment when a Renaissance audience would see Hamlet’s resemblance to a stage-devil. He crosses a crucial line, here–he no longer just wants to repay his father’s death, he wants to capture Claudius’ soul, and his language would be very familiar to the audience as that of the devil in other plays of the period. So yes, he’s become terribly distant from God from this point on.
    2. Because Shakespeare was at least culturally Catholic, if not actually a recusant (and there’s more and more evidence that this may have been the case), the play is working out a lot of issues surrounding the Reformation. Basically, Hamlet has been in Wittenberg–home of Luther–and returns home to a world denuded of ritual, full of “maimed rites,”–just like, say England was after Henry VIII. His descent into evil in this scene comes as a direct result of the maimed rites. The ghost’s command is to “remember,” but Hamlet can’t do that in his world, so his only means of remembrance is revenge.
    3. The Elizabethans saw revenge as “wild justice,” and the undoing of any vestige of civilization. SO the loss of post-death ritual leads to the collapse of the entire kingdom. IOW, life without Catholic ritual is bad.
    Re: JRRT and Middle Earth: Christianity is neither irrelevant nor wrong, Christianity hasn’t happened yet. Like Lewis, Tolkein conjectured that the stuff of myth (trolls, elves) had some basis in history. He’s conjecturing about the rise of the pagan west (for him, of “man”) that would lay the groundwork for Christianity. Don’t forget that the evil comes from the East (and those folks are riding elephants!); don’t forget how much he loved Beowulf, seeing in the heroic culture the necessary complement for the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. Frodo is a pre-Christian Christ figure; Tolkein, like Lewis, believed that all the old myths pointed to Christianity, which was the fulfillment of them.

  • Mitchell Porter

    It’s not atheist fiction, but David Lindsay’s *A Voyage to Arcturus* is gnostic fiction.

  • James

    I think Catch-22 qualifies as atheist literature. An argument could be made that the whole book is about the impossibility of a (good) God presiding over mankind’s affairs.

    “And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued. … “There’s nothing mysterious about it, He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about, a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of Creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?” P.179

    • Ted Seeber

      While I categorically reject people who are superficial enough to believe that the problem of evil IS a problem, I would certainly agree that this is the point of view that turns many American Fundamentalists and Evangelicals into Atheists. So good catch James!

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        I categorically reject people who are superficial enough to believe that the problem of evil IS a problem

        Really? Cause there have been lots of smart people, including many Christians, who disagree with you.

        You may think Christianity has the chops to deal with the problem of evil, but it’s not a problem to be brushed aside lightly. In particular, it seems (to me) quite difficult to reconcile old-earth theistic evolution with the Christian claim of a good God and a pre-fallen world before Adam’s original sin.

        • Joe
        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          Categorically rejecting people is easier than engaging with what they say. The smarter they are, the truer that is.

        • Ted Seeber

          I know there have been, but to me, the problem of evil was solved with the example of the Crucifixion- a massive evil that was used, in the long run, for good.

          It isn’t Christianity that has the chops to deal with evil at all- it is GOD who has the chops to deal with evil. EVIL HAS A PURPOSE. SUFFERING HAS A PURPOSE. You and I, with our little finite brains living in a single direction on the T axis of four dimensional space, can’t know what that purpose is ahead of time, but for the faithful, good comes out of evil all the time.

          A good example is a Project Rachel survivor I recently heard talk. 20 years ago she killed her son Bill. Bill was her ONLY chance to be a parent. But with forgiveness and coming back into the fold, she’s now doing abstinence talks about her life to teenagers.

          THAT forgiveness from God- that’s REAL power to deal with evil. In contrast, those who get hung up on evil without seeing forgiveness, just end up with sin with no possibility of forgiveness.

        • Ted Seeber

          I missed the second part of your question. But it might be related.

          Since I find good and evil to be compatible (because you simply can’t have any good without having an evil to compare it to), I see even the creation of evil as being proof that God is Good. Old Earth Theistic Evolution is just an expansion of that and of the beliefs that even St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas found in the Bible, LONG before Darwin:

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  • Steven

    Well Shakespeare was a Catholic, and although Hamlet deals with some of his most primal doubts about the faith since its composition immediately follows the death of his son for whom he could not practice his ‘last rites’ in order to assure his entry to heaven or risk detection of his faith by the protestant legal majority, it is most definitely a work of faith in the ultimate sense.

    I was particularly intrigued by the question which begins this particular post, “Where are the atheist fiction books?” and more intrigued that the obvious answers were not given since examples of such things are bountiful and constitute some of the greatest literature in the history of mankind. Not simply books and plays that lack the mention of religion, but whose primary focus and thematic have to do with reconciling the existence of a Godless universe. There is an entire genre which deals specifically with this theme and many plays which are written in its own style, the style being called Theatre of the Absurd. Included in this genre is Waiting for Godot which is the finest English-language play of the 20th century. For books the most famous one would be ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus, but there are numerous such books, all of which are damned good reads.

  • http://orthosphere.org/author/alanroebuck/ Alan Roebuck

    Dear Miss Libresco,

    Since I can’t find your email address, I’m posting this message here. Please forgive my threadjacking!

    As a Calvinistic Protestant Christian who is also a community-college mathematics professor, I can’t help but be interested in your story. Like you, I found the intuitive nature of morality to be a big sign that God exists.

    I want to appeal to you to consider becoming not Roman Catholic, but confessional Protestant. Confessional Protestantism, unlike garden-variety lowbrow Protestantism, has almost all of the advantages of Catholicism, but without (capital C) Catholicism’s two big defects: that it does not have the God-ordained authority that it thinks it does, and that it distorts the crucial Gospel message of how man is saved from the wrath of God.

    Regarding Rome’s claim that only it has the authority to say and do Christianity right: There is no evidence (other than Rome’s special pleading) that the Lord Jesus Christ deliberately conferred some of His authority on a human organization headed by the Apostle Peter. And there is no need for an organization that will speak authoritatively for God. For the Bible is understandable by ordinary men, if they will pay attention to the (lower case t) traditions of Christianity. And even if Rome were the Authority it says it is, this does not solve the problem of people not knowing what Christianity really is: One would still have to decide for one’s self whether or not the authority claim is to be believed (that is, the authority cannot help you know whether it has authority), and Rome’s Tradition does not speak clearly. One has the choice between the Bible which is relatively compact, and Roman teaching, which is vast and confusing.

    The second problem with Rome is that it does not accurately teach the Gospel message delivered by Christ and the Apostles. The sine qua non of Christianity is individuals being saved from the wrath of God by repentance from their sins and faith in Jesus Christ. And “faith in Jesus Christ” means knowing about Him and His words, believing what you know, and trusting Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Any Church, whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, that distorts this message is putting souls at risk. Rome does this when it adds other unnecessary conditions for salvation.

    This is not to say that there is no need for an institutional church, pastors, theologians, creeds and catechisms, liturgy, a deep intellectual tradition, and so on. All of these are needed to nourish the Christian in the faith. But there is no substitute for repentance and faith in Christ, and this message is taught most clearly in a confessional Protestant church.

    This message is already too long. So I’ll just say that there are other resources I can show you if you wish.

    God’s blessings to you!

    • Edward

      You are completely wrong. You are putting souls at risk. It’s the serpent in the garden of eden all over again.
      “Who said you were going to die?” Sound familier? We hear this daily everywhere. Allow Leah to follow the Holy Spirit where it leads her. By the way, The Holy Bible is a Catholic book. Resources? Research that.

      • deiseach

        Edward. Leah will become a Calvinist if it is foreordained that she do so ;-)

        • Edward

          Leah also has free will and did not seem to be weak or wishy washy when she chose catholicism from atheism. Calvinist have also converted to catholicism as well as many others from different beliefs. That says a lot about how The Holy Spirit works. Foreordained? Maybe.

    • Ted Seeber

      Alan- here’s the sad thing about what you write. Your two defects are the only reason I’m still Christian AT ALL. By eliminating Apostolic Authority (which I would point out was believed by ALL Christians up until the Great Schism, and even after the Great Schism, Rome *still* officially held the place of “First Among Equals” up until the Reformation. No Christian ever doubted, in the first 950 years after Christ, that Peter had a special place- even the Gnostics believed it), and the Sacrament of Reconciliation (which you should really look into because it *includes* Jesus Christ, it’s just one other way Christ gives us forgiveness), Protestantism opens the door to modernism- and thus, heresy.

  • manuella

    “Setting yourself in opposition to evil is good for you (not being complicit) and good for your nemesis (makes it clear that you find the action objectionable). But a bullet to the brain doesn’t have much instructive content. Even if you manage to avoid Hamlet’s failure of charity, what good do you want death to do for your enemy?”

    reminded me of a blogpost i recently read, on a sort of connected theme:

    “Another example: a friend put up razor wire all around her back yard wall to discourage robbers. Months later, she adopted a litter of stray kittens. She mothered them, fed them, cooed over them, and one morning she went out and found one of them impaled on the razor wire. Frantic to save it, she tried to jump over the rail and got slashed herself. The very violence you plan on using on another comes back to do violence to you and those or what you love. Violence cannot be confined to a specific target. Like love, violence radiates out in all directions. Violence is completely impersonal. It will hurt the robber and it will hurt the kitten.”

    Not my blog. Taken from: http://shirtofflame.blogspot.com/2012/02/poor-baby-child-of-60s-looks-back-on.html

  • A Philosopher

    I’m not sure what “atheist fiction” is supposed to mean. “Christian fiction” seems, to do a bit of ordinary language philosophy, to be a label for already-bad fiction further marred by its tendency to allow ideology to over-ride aesthetics (the real problem with the Narnia books, despite their minor pleasures, is Lewis’ inability to resist cramming an ideological message into every other sentence (including, of course, the fun anti-Catholic jabs of Prince Caspian)). I suppose we can construct a meaning for “atheist fiction” off of that — I’m not going to be too sad if the category turns out to be empty, but I suspect a depressingly large percentage of science fiction in fact inhabits it.

    I’m also not sure why people are focusing so heavily on children’s literature. If we broaden the field to adult literature, and take “atheist fiction” to be “fiction shaped by the atheism of the author”, then surely there are endless examples. Pale Fire, Atonement, The Crying of Lot 49, Giles Goat-Boy, Maldoror, Story of the Eye, Ubu Roi, The Trial, Huis Clos, The Plague, Slaughterhouse Five, Agape Agape, and Doctor Faustus, just to pick a few off the shelves at random.

  • http://crossexaminedblog.com Bob Seidensticker

    Atheist fiction? I actually wrote such a novel just recently. It’s “Cross Examined” by Bob Seidensticker, available on Amazon in print or ebook form.

    It’s the only novel that I know of in which apologetics, both for and against the Christian position, are a major topic of the book.


  • http://crossexaminedblog.com Bob Seidensticker


    This isn’t about this post in particular but about your conversion. I heard your story on the Religion News Godcast.

    To an atheist like me, conversion stories are always interesting. My own hypothesis (expanded on in the blog post below) is that atheist can become Christians and vice versa, but those who are well-educated about the arguments on both sides only change in one direction: from Christian to atheist.

    I’d be interested to know if you have thought about this and if you think that you’re an exception to my rule.

    Best regards,
    Bob Seidensticker
    Cross Examined blog


    • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

      I’m not Leah (and have changed religion only in the direction opposite to hers) but: It seems to me that “well educated” can mean many different things, that it surely could be defined tightly enough to exclude Leah, but that doing so would also exclude all but a tiny minority of people.

      It might be more appropriate to ask: As you raise your bar of well-informed-ness, what happens to the proportion of people converting in both directions? And are there particular arguments on one side or the other for which familiarity makes a big difference to conversion rate?

    • Skittle

      That’s strikes me as being exactly as “No True Scotsman” as the common Catholic argument that only poorly-catechised Catholics, who don’t fully understand the Church, ever convert away. And as exactly “No True Scotsman” as the Southern Baptist thing of saying that if someone falls away from that faith, they cannot have been saved in the first place (even if they thought they were).

      You do get a good chunk of converts who “studied their way in” to Catholicism, but I haven’t seen any decent studies looking at educating-your-way-in vs educating-your-way-out.

      It looks like you have started with some assumptions (“atheism is obviously true, and all honest and well-informed people can see that”, “atheists are smarter than theists”, “everyone would agree with my conclusions if they only understood the arguments properly”) and then created an untestable hypothesis (untestable because of the “No True Scotsman” element) to explain away anything that doesn’t fit.

      Part of the problem is that there is a strongly subjective element that people ignore in these arguments. Having been both Catholic and Atheist (lapsed, then returned to the Church) I can say that when I was a theistic child, I honestly could not imagine how anyone could doubt the existence of God. I didn’t believe or agree with everything my parents told me, so it wasn’t that: I just couldn’t see how other people could not ‘sense’ or ‘grok’ or whatever the essential existingness of God. And when I lost my faith, I couldn’t quite see how anyone could really believe in God: in fact, despite my earlier experiences, I caught myself assuming that people were lying or self-deceiving when it came to their faith. And then I gradually regained my faith, and I can remembe both feelings, but only the “God is real” feeling really feels ‘real’ to me.

      Consider: is there any convincing argument that proves the universe is real and we are not brains in vats imagining it all? Is there any convincing argument that proves anyone other than you is sentient? Is there any convincing argument that proves that the world exists beyond what you are currently directly experiencing? And yet, you do not actually seriously entertain these possibilities, even when you cannot prove that your personal experience reflects an underlying reality. You wouldn’t find any argument convincing, and would simply dismiss it as sophistry. Because your subjective sense of how the universe is cannot be shifted with arguments.

  • Bill

    Hamlet has been bidden to do perform a righteous act (this he confirmed it, his play the thing wherein he caught the conscience of the king), but this proof would not be accessible to Denmark who would see the killing only as regicide. 

    That seems to be the skandalon which stops the Prince, his temporizing and delay rather a desperate hope on his part that he be given means to make his way around it. His crime would not be forgiven by his mother or by the state if its motive seemed only vaulting ambition—or as a work of the same lunacy which cost Polonius his life. 

    Shakespeare put a great deal of himself into this character, but he is not fooled by Hamlet’s apparent concern as to his uncle’s salvation. After the Prince passes by King Claudius rises from his attempt at prayer and remarks, in truth, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:  Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

  • Kewois

    (This is actually a reply to G)
    >I don’t understand your point about having “plenty of time to correct those errors”.
    If a journalist has made wrong claims she had had time to correct every claim about her that she considered wrong. She did not, even she repeated some of those claims so she considers herself as a “very influential atheist” “having solid reasons to convert” etc
    >What, in a television interview a couple of minutes long? Well, no.
    Not on TV, in this blog.
     Leah’s said a bit here on her blog about this, and has indicated that she’ll say more. I >hope she will. This is a sensible place for it. A short TV interview is not.
    Ok lets wait.
    >You haven’t substantiated your charge that Leah doesn’t know enough about “Catholic >dogmas and beliefs” to hold an opinion about whether Catholicism is a better >explanation of the world than atheism. The fact that she hasn’t (so far) been baptized is >clearly irrelevant to this.
    She claims to have moral reasons to convert but she does not understand central dogmas.
    leahlibresco says:
    June 18, 2012 at 11:47 am
    I’m not really sure what to make of the idea of hell, keddaw. It’s the first argument I got into in my RCIA class (I’ll be discussing this in more detail later). The other criticisms are a little too vague for me to reply to.
    The College Application Stratagem or, “Sing out Louise”
    June 27, 2012
    One frequent question I got about my conversion was, “Uh, don’t you disagree with the Catholic Church on a lot of things? Aren’t you bisexual? And a bit of a statist when it come to public health? And various other things? What are you going to do about that?”
    I won’t paper over those inconsistencies and call them insignificant, but I don’t feel like I need to either resolve them instantly or pretend they don’t trouble me. One reason the Catholic Church has adults go through RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) classes is so they can make sure they actually intend to convert to Catholicism, before anyone does anything irrevocable.

    >I don’t know enough about what Leah knows about RC doctrine to have a strong >opinion about whether (given that she finds the argument she’s sketched convincing) >it’s unreasonable for her to be at least tentatively RC rather than some sort of vague >deist; I am quite sure I agree more with you than with Leah about most religious >questions; and I think you’re being needlessly obnoxious and I wish you’d stop.)

    I just say that she could change her claim and not ASSERT that she has solid reasons like scientific theories to convert to Catholicism because she has not.
    She can say that she FEELS Catholicism maybe is right so she is studying it.
    If you are an atheist specially one who has been debating with theist you have some arguments supporting your atheism and against theism.
    Can Leah now respond to all those arguments as a Catholic?
    So far many people have made those questions on comments and none has been answered, just avoided.
    So I don’t know where morality comes form…. I like Christian morality… ok…..so far… and so I began to believe on resurrections, transubstantiations, infallibility, virginal births, ascensions, miracles.
    Read the “perfect moral book”, Killing of Egyptian newborns, commands to rape and kill even women and babies, Bears killing kids because they mocked a “prophet”, eternal punishment for non infinite sins.
    God an all powerful, all knowing, all loving being and all that suffering in the world, just HOPE that that happened for a “good reason”???

    • Ted Seeber

      It’s more than just hope. It is the moral certainty, based on historical research, that suffering DOES happen for a reason, and will not cease to happen for a reason, and that sometimes that reason isn’t immediately known to the people who suffered. It is actually based in empirical research done over centuries. The fact that it also helps those who suffer to believe this, is a side issue.

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  • Christina

    Not read all of these, but I see the case of self defense not as a “I want to punish my enemy”, but as “my body is a temple of the Lord and I have a duty to defend it when possible”. Unfortunately, sometimes that will mean using lethal force, but charity for the enemy means that you only do that if necessary. If you know that there is no way for you to defend yourself (getting attacked by a mob) then using lethal force against your attackers may not be a charity (killing others with no hope for your survival seems more like revenge) and martyrdom may be the route for you to go.

    Of course, this is all arm-chair philosophy. In a real world situation adrenalin, fear, desperation, confusion, and other such factors could cause you to act contrary to how you would choose to act in hindsight.

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