The "New Atheists" and the Gulag

Without God, the foundations of the moral order cannot be upheld. This is something fundamental that the “new atheists” of our time have to confront.

The old atheists knew the moral abyss that was a consequence of the denial of God. Ivan Karamazov knew it 150 years ago: "If there is no God, then everything is permitted." Lenin knew it too; hence his ethic of expediency in the advancement of “scientific materialism,” which was the foundation for Stalin and Mao and the whole bloody 20th century.

Some think that if they deny God, they can escape from the transcendent consequences of moral actions, and avoid dealing with the reality of punishment for sin. But if atheists are trying to avoid the authority of God and the reality of sin, then they should read (or read again) one of the most important literary works of the twentieth century.

They should really grapple with what could in a certain respect be called the modern version of Dante's "Inferno," namely, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's epoch-defining masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago. Here is a world without God: human persons are degraded and reduced to animals–on a huge scale–because Stalin needs to carry out the massive industrialization of the Soviet Union, and therefore requires a steady supply of cheap, expendable labor.

Who is to tell him he is wrong? He has the power and he determines what is necessary. To whom can the atheist appeal against him? The atheist has no rational grounds to invoke any law beyond the criteria that serve the aims of those in power. If all that exists is the material world that we see, hear, touch, and measure, then there is no basis for affirming the dignity of the human person in the face of power.

In the material world, power is supreme: the strongest forces prevail, and the only morality is survival of the fittest. It’s not surprising that the communists condemned themselves in Stalin’s show trials. They knew and submitted to the logic of the moral abyss.

The “new atheists” and those tempted by them should confront seriously the witness of Solzhenitsyn and others like him, all of which has been vindicated by the cold hard facts–now publicly available to everyone–of the atheist totalitarian state and its massive slave labor program. By reading about the horrors of the labor camps, people may discover that their guts know there is a God even if their minds deny it.

Solzhenitsyn’s titanic literary achievement, The Gulag Archepelago, has not lost its relevance for the 21st century. It is important for many reasons but here we are focusing on this particular point: Solzhenitsyn's portrayal of the brutalization of the human being, presented in such relentless and concrete detail, can shock a person out of the sleep of moral relativism, and awaken him or her once again to the “mystery of iniquity” and the transcendent need of the human heart for “justice”–and also, for mercy.

The atheist has no explanation for these needs, or for the conscience of the human person that always speaks of the transcendence of the origin and fulfillment of reality.