(This is the first of a three-part article on the tragic effects of indifference toward religion)
Several years ago I stumbled upon a Catholic classic, Essay on Indifference in Matters of Religion (1817) by the French priest and philosopher Hugues-Felicite Robert de Lammenais (1782-1854). There was a giddy gasp of serendipity when I first discovered in my advanced years a book I can hardly believe I never heard of, written well more than a hundred years before I was born; a book that has surely turned out to be one of the ten most amazing books I have read; a book that lays out a road map for pinpointing precise reasons why religion through all the ages of mankind has gone through alternating periods of rise and decline; a book that explains very well why, for recent centuries, religion has gone into decline and may continue its downward spiral for centuries to come … if there are indeed centuries left to come.
Lamennais was widely hailed as one of the most brilliant and controversial commentators on religion and politics in the Europe of his day. The views expressed in his Essay on Indifference are too vast and complex to do them justice here, so I will limit my comments to only three areas of his thought: the importance of religion (1) to the individual, (2) to God, and (3) to society.
Effects of Indifference among Individuals
There are several categories of people who are indifferent to religion. Some are indifferent because by their bias or upbringing or lack of spiritual nourishment they have no particular reason to think religious thoughts. Others are indifferent because they are are too careless or idle to think such thoughts. There are still others who are so oppressed by their preoccupation with material concerns, pleasures, and distractions that they have not the occasion nor the will to rise above those things and consider more metaphysical questions such as God, good and evil, immortality, etc.
The Origin of Indifference
Lammenais explores the theme of religious indifference in great detail and profound depth. If only Chapter 8 of this remarkable book became required reading for the entire human race, it might be possible that a revolution in values and morals would change the world into a vastly better place than it happens to be at present. Lammenais’ theme, of course, is to advance the cause of Christianity throughout the world, but he begins by showing us that the roots of Christianity go back through Judaism to Adam and Eve, the first humans who repudiated God because they had fallen for the serpent’s lie that they could, by their indifference to God’s command, become gods in their own right.
But ever since the Fall, humans everywhere on earth have been searching for the same God against whose will for their happiness the first parents had learned indifference if not downright hostility. The false ancient gods of Greece and Rome, for example, came to be recognized as immortal beings who could confer rewards or punishments upon humans worshiping or failing to worship them. Socrates himself affirmed this need for humans to be involved with, rather than indifferent to, their gods. The Greeks and Romans had learned from the dawn of history, even as Cain and Abel had learned, that sacrifice to their gods showed they cared to insure their own well being by way of pleasing the false Deities they had discovered in their groping search for the true and holy God of us all. Yes, their false gods were invented; but there was still one God who had yet to be discovered.
Recovering the True God
That one and only true God the Greeks and Romans would later discover had been worshiped for centuries by the Israelites, who in their sacred writings had been inspired to keep the memory of Him alive with revelations yet to unfold. And unfold they did in the person of Jesus Christ, who, as Lammenais puts it, founded an immortal doctrine that was given to save us all, as he puts it:
Nations begin and end, they pass away with their customs, their laws, their opinions, their sciences; one sole doctrine remains, ever believed in, despite the interests the passions have in not believing it; ever unchanging in the midst of this rapid and perpetual movement; always attacked and always justified; always sheltered from the changes of fortune that age brings to the most solid institutions, and to the most respected systems; ever more astonishing and more admired the further it is examined; the consolation of the poor, the most encouraging hope of the rich; the shelter of the the people and the curb of kings, the rule of government which it moderates, and of obedience which it sanctifies; the great charter of humanity, by which eternal justice, not choosing that even crime should remain without hope and without protection, promises mercy for the sake of repentance; a doctrine which subjugates the most powerful intellects by its sublimity, and apportions its splendor to the weakest minds; lastly, an indestructible doctrine which resists everything, triumphs over all, over violence as over contempt, over sophistry and over scaffolds, and strong in its antiquity, in its victorious proofs and benefits, seems to rule over the human mind by right of birth, of conquest, and of love…. Such is the religion which certain men have chosen to make the object of their indifference.
A Root of Indifference
And what is the root of this indifference? All the constant and infinite distractions of the world help to explain it. Indifferent souls immerse themselves completely in those distractions. Indifferent souls do not have time to be concerned about their immortal destiny. They have time for pleasure, for business, for sinful or wasteful activities; yet no time to meditate upon whether there is another world in which they might be happy or miserable for all eternity. They have no time to seriously consider whether there is a God who beckons them toward Him and offers them not only the gift of their own existence, but also the gift of all those graces that magnify the meaning and purpose of their existence far greater than the destiny of all the lower animals that surround them and the whole vast universe itself. For this reason Lammenais complains:
The immortality of the soul is a matter of so great importance to us, and one which moves us so deeply, that a man must have lost all feeling to be indifferent to the knowledge of what it is…. But as for those who pass their lives without thinking of the latter end of life… this negligence in a matter in which they themselves, their eternity, their all is at stake, irritates more than it touches me; it astonishes and awes me; it is monstrous to me. I do not say this from the pious zeal of spiritual devotion; I assert on the contrary that self love, that human interest, that the most simple light of reason ought to give us these sentiments. For that purpose it is necessary only to see what the least enlightened persons see.
Fear of Death
Those who to their last breath doubt God and heaven as their immortal destination can hardly expect anything other than annihilation. Any such soul in that condition who does not inquire if he might be wrong as to his fate will be both unjust to himself and unhappy at the approach of death. The soul hardened against the will of God and obstinate as to its own perfect grasp of truth, will pretend there is no reason to fear the great darkness it is about to enter. It is, no doubt, no worse than the darkness from which the self arose into the world. But this is all pretense. What really such a soul must say to itself is an echo of Pascal’s famous lament:
I see these dreadful spaces of the universe which enclose me, and I find myself attached to a corner of this vast expanse without knowing why I am placed in this spot rather than in another, nor why this brief time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point, rather than at another; in the whole eternity which has preceded, and the whole of that which follows me, I see nothing but infinities on all sides, which swallow me up like an atom, and like a shadow which lasts but a moment without returning. All that I know is, that I must soon die; but what I am most in ignorance of, is this very death which I cannot avoid. Like as I know not whence I come, so also I do not know whither I am going; and I know only that in going out of this world, I fall for ever either into the void, or into the hands of an angered God, without knowing to which of these two conditions I am to belong to for eternity.
It is a thing unnatural and monstrous to behold, Lammenais complains, that chronic indifference to the matter of whether a soul may contemplate the death of its body without seriously searching for the answer to whether the soul will survive the body’s death. Any normal person arraigned before a judge and jury to determine whether he should live or die would exert himself with tremendous effort to find out whether he might save his body from execution. Yet the death of the body is certain sooner or later, an event that may be delayed, but not forever. And whereas the body is going to die, the question remaining, if one is really concerned about one’s own fate, is whether the soul may live on, and whether a just and merciful God will grant that soul its proper end in eternity. And there is that mad laughter of the indifferent soul at those who would warn it of its pending doom should it persist in facing God with such profound indifference.
Arrogance of Indifference
It seemed to Lammenais that indifferent souls are full of contempt when they mock as mentally defective those who care about their immortal souls and seek God earnestly. Indeed, the indifferent soul boasts that, without having sought God in earnest itself, it might easily condemn as unenlightened and inferior the souls who do. They have no respect for the instinct of hope that drives away indifference in the soul of the believer. The indifferent ones ask, “Why the vanity of hope?” But why is it vain to hope for the greatest good that can come to us? And why is it not the cynicism of despair to prefer that all hope is useless when one has not even tried it? Then Lammenais puts to himself the propositions he might entertain if he had no belief or hope, for there are many possibilities that must be allowed:
It is possible that religion may be true; for this single proposition comprises all the following ones: It is possible that there is a God who rewards and avenges. It is possible that my soul is immortal. It is possible that the Sovereign Being may have revealed truths to men which they cannot here below comprehend perfectly, and may have imposed duties upon them, the reason of which they do not clearly perceive. It is possible that I may be rigorously obliged to believe these truths and to practice these duties. It is possible that if I believe and practice, I may enjoy an infinite and eternal joy as the reward of my obedience. It is possible also, that if I refuse to believe and practice, I may be eternally punished for it by fearful torments.
Unless one is willing to say that all the above possibility propositions are not credible (in itself an arrogant assertion of infallibility) how could one remain indifferent to the possibility that there is a God and an immortal destiny for everyone? Given, then, that one of two contrary propositions must be true (religion is true, or religion is false) the indifferent mind has an intellectual obligation to exert itself to consider which proposition is more likely true or false. Now what evidence exists that religion is false? Try to find it. There is none. There is, of course, the disappointment of cynics that religion has failed to make the world perfect, and they point to the chronic record of corruption within religious institutions (no surprise there since Christian history has multiplied Judas by the millions just as Christ prophesied the wolves would attack his sheep). Moreover, Lammenais insists:
… there is no one who does not feel that if the Christian religion were false its prolonged existence during eighteen centuries, the victory it has obtained over the opinions, customs, laws, passions and habits of so many various and rival nations, the dominion which it has never ceased to exercise over the most acute minds, and the most meditative dispositions, would be the most extraordinary and inexplicable moral phenomenon ever heard of.
God’s Benevolent Plan
There is surely the case to be made, that if God meant to communicate his word to mankind, the collected history of Judaism and Christianity over several thousand years since Abraham would be evidence enough that God’s word is to be found in that tradition and no other. But if it be argued by indifferent people that this conclusion must be an error, how else do we account for the profound impact of Christianity on human civilizations world-wide, where Christianity grows constantly even as it is fiercely resisted and persecuted? Is it possible that God has favored this religion with a divine mission as He has favored no other? If God is benevolent, wishing us well and cautioning us against self harm, what other religion offers that message in so personal a way as the message of the Cross, which affirms the teaching that no god is greater than the God who laid down his life for his friends. It is this religion, to which so many are indifferent, that…
… purifies principles, perfects the modes of reasoning, creates (it is not too much to say) the intellectual and physical sciences, abolishes the prejudices hostile to humanity, sanctifies morals, and softens the laws, unites nations by sacred bonds, puts love where hatred only had existed, protects at the same time the mighty and the feeble, the government and the subjects, tempers domination, strengthens obedience, and by its own especial and necessary effects, produces the perfection of social order.
Again, the Arrogance of Indifference
If Christianity has done all this and so much more, why are souls indifferent to it? What drives that indifference? We can see what might drive hostility toward the promises made by religion (the foolish reasons for that hostility have been noted for centuries by famous atheists) but how do we see what drives rank indifference? Lammenais hits directly upon the answer to this question. It is in the folly of the human ego ravenous to fill its belly that the answer is found. Persons of great intellect and creativity turn aside from what ought to be the supreme concern with eternity, to immerse themselves in the here-and-now. The mathematician cannot wait to find the next equation that will make him famous; the novelist drools over the writing of his next award winning novel. God and eternity can wait. It is the here-and-now that really matters in the here-and-now. Why distract super achievers in this world with the business of a world that does not applaud his name? How can a genius be expected to be interested in God when he is preoccupied to fill the world with the sound of his name? Lammenais concludes that “… he does not know whether there exists a God, a true religion, a heaven, a hell : but he has long since made up his mind as to all those things ; he gives no heed to them, does not think of them ; they are not clear, he says, and thereupon he acts as if it was clear that they are only fancies.”
Is Indifference Really Indifferent?
In truth, though, Lammenais considers this indifference to be not a merely passive state, but rather a form of enmity consistent with Jesus saying that if you are not with him, you are against him (Matthew 12:30). And this is surely the sin, if not repented, which is justly punished in the end. The indifferent soul dismisses God and eternity from its concern, and finds every reminder of the same to be an uncomfortable twinge of conscience. In truth, the indifferent soul actually wishes that religion is false, and flees from every opportunity to be informed about all the persuasive reasons why religion is good for the soul in particular and society in general. Such a soul in fact rejoices when it comes upon fanciful reasons to reject religion, which tells us more than anything else about the hatred for Christ that animates the fear of religion. And so, Lammenais asks, why should anyone be surprised that Christ will finally reject such a soul, “and what other fate should those unfortunate people expect?”
The Sin of Indifference
The sin of the indifferent soul is at bottom the same sin of Adam and Eve: Pride. The human disposition is to hate restraints, and the single restraint put upon Adam and Eve, not to eat from a certain tree, is like the restraint put upon the indifferent soul: which is to set aside its indulgence in ephemeral pleasures and learn an intimate, loving, and obedient relationship with the Creator. This elevating friendship is not for the independent, arrogant, and indifferent soul who deplores it, preferring instead to be drunk with all the distractions of the world, the flesh, and the devil that will result finally in “a veritable moral suicide” of both body and soul.
Indifference Is Subhuman
The indifferent soul, to be truly indifferent in matters of religion, whether religion be true or false (neither matters to him) must in effect descend to the level of the animals, who also have no care of whether there is a God or whether they need to be in a loving relationship with Him. Lammenais states his point in the strongest terms possible:
If an animal, deprived of reflection, lives and dies without disquieting itself about the future, this carelessness is its natural and necessary condition. But when man, endowed with incomparably nobler faculties, capable of raising himself to the idea of God, and of embracing the infinite in his thoughts, desires, and hopes, precipitates himself from that height into the vile condition of the beasts, and desires only to know, like them, wants and inclinations, and disgusted with the immortal lot which the Creator has assigned to him, envies them even annihilation; such a thing confounds and terrifies, and no words remain to express the horror inspired by so profound a degradation. Blind indifference is then the most degrading state into which a reasonable creature can fall.
A Signal Stupidity
The person who is indifferent to religion as a rule would never be so indifferent to any other field of thought. Even the audience of an opera will have a strong opinion on whether the opera is “true or false,” and opera critics will never sit quietly and patiently through three hours of bellowing voices that are not true to the art without getting even in the following day’s reviews. So it is that some religions get rave reviews by the people they inspire while others, like those of ancient Greece and Rome, sooner or later get panned and wither on the vine. People bring reason and passion to all their life experience, and a chronic indifference to the most important things in life is, Lammenais claims, “the most signal characteristic of stupidity.”
There remains but one thing to consider: is there a religion above all other religions regarding which it is least logical to be indifferent? And is that religion the Christian one? Lammenais reasons that there must be one true religion to which it would not be possible to be indifferent, for it is never right to be indifferent to truth, and especially the truths that matter most. One always has an obligation to search for truth, and when found, affirm it. Lammenais promises in the next chapter, nine of his book, to provide proof of the Judaeo-Christian religion as the one God would have chosen by which to undo the spiritual absence of light brought upon the world by the sin of Adam and Eve. Fear of finding that singular and exceptional religion, fear of refusing even to search for it, means “fear to confront the truth, and raise up against it a sorry rampart of darkness.”
(Part-two of this article on indifference to religion is forthcoming.)