The Atheist and the Martyr

An unexpected development in book publishing recently has been the popularity of a group of authors dubbed the “New Atheists,” unabashed nonbelievers taking passionate aim at religious faith. Sam Harris got the ball rolling with his bestseller The End of Faith, and since then other bestsellers have followed: Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’s recent God Is Not Great, to name a few.

These authors’ reasons for not believing in God are many and varied, but one reason for their zeal has been the post-9/11 fear of a group who might be called the “New Martyrs”: Islamic suicide terrorists. (This is certainly true of Harris, whose book is subtitled “Religion, Terror, and the End of Reason” and includes a withering chapter on Islam.) Indeed, the two groups seem like natural opponents: atheists who reject belief in God, and martyrs who are willing to die (and in this case kill) for God. Yet surprisingly, according to A Course in Miracles, beneath the surface the atheist and the martyr are not really so different.

This striking conclusion is based on a fascinating discussion from Chapter 9 of the Course’s Text (here I will quote the longer version from the Urtext, the original typescript of the Course):

Your will is your salvation because it is the same as God’s. The separation is nothing more than the belief that it is different. No mind can believe that its will is stronger than God’s. If, then, a mind believes that its will is different from His, it can only decide either that there is no God, or that God’s Will is fearful. The former accounts for the atheist, and the latter for the martyr. Martyrdom takes many forms, the category including all doctrines which hold that God demands sacrifices of any kind.

Either basic type of insane decision will induce panic, because the atheist believes he is alone and the martyr believes that God is crucifying him. Both really fear both abandonment and retaliation, but the former is more reactive against abandonment and the latter against retaliation. The atheist maintains that God has left him, but he [the atheist] does not care. He will, however, become very fearful, and hence very angry, if anyone suggests that God has not left him. The martyr, on the other hand, is more aware of guilt, and believing that punishment is inevitable, attempts to teach himself to like it. (Urtext version of T-9.I.7:8-8:4)

These are difficult paragraphs to sort out, but here is my take on them. Our true will is the same as God’s, but our belief that our will is different from His can lead to two responses that look quite different. First, we have the atheist. On the surface, she says there is no God-her own will is the only game in town. Beneath the surface, though, the atheist does believe in God, but believes that God has abandoned her. She claims not to care about this-she may even exultantly proclaim that “God is dead”-but she is really terrified of being all alone. Beneath this terror, though, lies yet another terror: the fear that God has not abandoned her and is poised to retaliate against her for her “sins.” This is why the militant atheist gets angry at anyone who suggests that God actually exists. Methinks she doth protest too much.

Second, we have the martyr. On the surface, he says he loves God and gladly sacrifices himself for the sake of doing God’s Will. Beneath the surface, though (or perhaps on the surface, next to his seemingly joyful sacrifice), the martyr is terrified of God’s retaliation for the sins he’s sure he has committed. Beneath this terror, though, lies yet another terror: the fear that God will abandon him. He’d rather have a punishing God than no God at all. This is why he convinces himself to like God’s punishment. He says with Job, “Though [God] slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). Like an abused spouse, he fears being left all alone and clings to the abuser. Like the fraternity pledges being paddled in Animal House, he says, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”

What an intriguing perspective! Normally, we regard the atheist and the martyr as polar opposites, yet here they are just two sides of the same coin: the coin of separation from God. Both the atheist and the martyr actually believe in God (for the atheist, of course, this belief is buried below the surface), but both are determined to assert independence from God. Each simply does so in a different way: the atheist by throwing God out entirely, and the martyr by deciding that God’s Will is fearful and antithetical to his own (even as he “joyfully” does what he thinks God’s Will tells him to do). Thus, as different as they seem to be on the surface, the atheist and the martyr are really very much the same. The same basic dynamics are at work in both of them; the apparent differences are really only differences in form.

Now, lest anyone think I’m suggesting that both the New Atheists and Islamic terrorists are strange extremists who are a lot more deluded than the rest of us, let me make clear that I believe these dynamics exist in all of us. Certainly that is the Course’s implication. What’s being described here is the human condition. We all know deep down that God exists, and in our insane identification with the ego, we believe that our will is separate from His. We all wrestle with the fear of God’s abandonment and the fear of His retaliation, fears that slow us down on the spiritual path. We are “atheists” any time we “insist that the Holy Spirit does not answer [us]” (T-9.I.7:1); we are “martyrs” any time we think He is demanding that we “sacrifice [our] own best interests on behalf of truth” (M-4.I(A).5:5).

This situation can be depressing to contemplate, but fortunately there is good news. In the end, the Course promises, we will all set aside our mad belief in separate wills and accept the liberating truth that our real will is the same as God’s. All we need do is set aside the groundless fear of God that pushes the memory of our Beloved away from us. All we need do is give up our mad desire for independence and ask only for what we really want:

In the presence of Truth, there are no unbelievers [atheists] and no sacrifices [martyrs]….God is Love, and you do want Him. This is your will. Ask for this and you will be answered, because you will be asking only for what belongs to you. (Urtext version of T-9.I.9:3, 7-9)

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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