We call that man Atheist who, thinking or unthinking, walking or sleeping, knows not God; and when it is brought to him that either God is not or is, would act as though the question mattered nothing. Such an Atheist makes nothing of God’s judgments nor of his commands. He does not despise them but will have them absent, as he will have God absent also. Nor is he a rebel but rather an absconder.
Of Atheism you may say that it is proper to a society and not to a man, so that Atheists are proper to an Atheist Commonwealth, and this because we find God in mankind or lose him there.
Rousseau would have no Atheist in the Republic. All other opinion he thought tolerable, but this intolerable because through it was loosened every civil bond. But if a commonwealth be not Atheist no Atheist will be within it, since it is through men and their society that one man admits God. No one quite lonely could understand or judge whether of God’s existence or of much lesser things. A man quite lonely could not but die long before he was a man grown. Also a man Atheist in a Commonwealth truly worshipping would be abhorrent as a traitor with us and would stand silent. How, then, would Rousseau not tolerate the Atheist in his Republic, seeing that if his Republic were not Atheist no Atheist could be therein? Of this contradiction the solution is that false doctrine of any kind is partially hidden and striving in the minds of men before one man shall become its spokesman. Now of false doctrine when it is thus blind and under water nothing can be either tolerated or proscribed. The ill-ease of it is felt but no magistrate can seize it anywhere. But when one man brings it up to reason and arms it with words, then has it been born (as it were) into the world, and can be tried and judged, accepted or expelled.
No Commonwealth has long stood that was Atheist, yet many have been Atheist a little before they died: as some men lose the savour of meats, and the colours and sounds of things also a little before they die.
A Commonwealth fallen into this palsy sees no merit in God’s effect of Justice, but makes a game of law. In peril, as in battle or shipwreck, each man will save himself. In commerce man will cozen man. The Commonwealth grown Atheist lets the larger prey upon the less, until all are eaten up.
They say that a man not having seen salt or knowing that such a thing as salt might be and even denying that salt could be (since he had not seen it), might very livelily taste the saltness of the sea. So it is with men who still love Justice, though they have lost Religion. For these men are angered by evil-doing, and will risk their bodies in pity and in indignation. They therefore truly serve God in whose essence Justice resides, and of whom the Effect in Society is Justice. But what shall we say of a man who speaks of salt as a thing well known, and yet finds no division between his well and the water of the sea? And that is the Atheist case. When men of a mean sinfulness purchase a seat of judgment, and therein, while using the word “God,” care nothing for right but consider the advantage of their aged limbs and bellies, or of the fellow rich they drink with, then they are Atheist indeed.
That Commonwealth also is Atheist in while the rulers will use the fear of God for a cheat, hoping thereby to make foolish men work for them, or give up their goods, or accept insult and tyranny. It is so ordered that this trick most powerfully slings back upon its authors, and that the populace are now moved at last not by empty sentences which have God’s name in them, but by lively devils. In the end of such cheats the rich men who so lied are murdered and by a side wind God comes to his own.
One came to a Courtier who had risen high in the State by flattery and cowardice, but who had been a keen wit. To this courtier he propounded a certain scheme which would betray the Commonwealth, and this Courtier agreed to. But when he had done so he said: “Either God is or is not. If he is not, why then we have chosen well.”
This instance is a mark and Atheism is judged by it. For if God is not, then all falsehoods, though each prove the rest false, are each true, and there is confusion everywhere. But if God is, then the world can stand. Now that the world does stand all men know and live by, even those who, not in a form of words but in the heart, deny its Grand Principle.
~Hilaire Belloc: This and That and the Other. (1912)