The Undergraduate Atheists, Unamuno, and Johnson

by Stefany Anne Golberg and Morgan Meis

ScreenHunter_496 Jan. 13 09.47

Golberg and Meis

David V. Johnson recently wrote an essay for 3 Quarks Daily titled “A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists.” In the essay, he accuses the New Atheists of making a simplistic and ultimately unfalsifiable claim—namely, that “humanity would be better off without religion.” It is, as Johnson points out, rather difficult to prove this kind of broad counterfactual. The New Atheists (or the Undergraduate Atheists, as Johnson calls them, including the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) “claim to know something that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith.”

Interestingly, Johnson is himself an atheist. But he wonders whether humanity might actually be better off with religion, even if there is no God and religion has no basis in truth. “Consider,” Johnson writes, “the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence. This mental state is, I submit, so important to human happiness that people are willing to suffer and die for it, and do so gladly.”

Though they disagree about the purpose of religion, as atheists, Johnson and the New Atheists come from roughly the same position. They are non-believers looking out upon the vast sea of believing human beings and trying to figure out whether these false beliefs are detrimental or beneficial. In playing with the idea that false beliefs could be beneficial, Johnson brings up the work of Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), the Spanish writer whose essays and novels made him one of the most important thinkers of his time, though he isn’t read so widely today.

Johnson discusses one story in particular, “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr.” It is a powerful story, beautifully written. It is about a village priest who secretly harbors many doubts about his faith. But he throws himself into his work as a priest. The priest does such good work with the people that a young atheist from the city (Lazaro), who comes back to the village to “enlighten” the villagers, ends up becoming an “unbelieving” Catholic, just like San Manuel. Here’s how Johnson explains the story:

Like Lazaro, San Manuel doesn't believe the articles of faith. (“I believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen …”) What he believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro's “conversion,” then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.

The moral of the story, according to Johnson: Religion is false, but the people need it because it makes them happy. The only problem with this reading of the story is that Unamuno thought no such thing. Unamuno was, in fact, contemptuous of the idea of “blind faith.” But Unamuno was also a practicing Christian when he wrote the story. There’s something funny going on here, you might think. In a sense, you’d be right.

In approaching the works and life of Miguel de Unamuno, there are two important things to remember. The first is that Miguel de Unamuno was a man of profound faith. He was raised a Catholic, became a young man devoted to the truth of scientific rationalism, and was then wracked with an existential crisis in his later years that neither religion nor materialism could assuage.

The second thing to remember is that Miguel de Unamuno’s faith was fundamentally paradoxical. Unamuno’s stories are, thus, never what they appear to be at face value. They are like riddles; you must work to get at their true meaning. Unamuno struggled with what he thought of as the unsolvable contradiction between reason and mystery. Scientific rationalism made the contradictions of life more acute. But religion alone did not make the contradictions go away. Truth was situated right inside that conflict. “Since we only live in and by contradictions, since life is tragedy and the tragedy is perpetual struggle, without victory or the hope of victory, life is contradiction.” Anyone who professed blind certainty in either science or religious institutions was, for Unamuno, dishonest or oblivious.

Thus, the importance of doubt in all of Unamuno’s writings. For Miguel de Unamuno, true doubt is to put yourself at the heart of the contradiction between faith and reason, to be tormented by the questions marks. It is to spend life hovering over the abyss, terrified. Think of ‘doubt’ in terms of the Latin – dubitare‘to hesitate’. To doubt is not to be certain that something is false (religion, God, anything else). It is to be fundamentally uncertain, to embrace the contradictions that lie at the core of human consciousness and of all life.

Here’s something Unamuno wrote in his most famous work, The Tragic Sense of Life:

Methodical or theoretical Cartesian doubt, this philosophical doubt excogitated in a stove, is not the doubt, is not the scepticism, is not the incertitude, that I am talking about here. No! This other doubt is a passionate doubt, it is the eternal conflict between reason and feeling, science and life, logic and biotic. For science destroys the concept of personality by reducing it to a complex in continual flux from moment to moment—that is to say, it destroys the very foundation of the spiritual and emotional life, which ranges itself unyieldingly against reason.

“Life is doubt,” wrote Unamuno in his poem Salmo II, “and faith without doubt is nothing but death.”

In Unamuno’s fiction, he created complex stories that probed the existence of doubt-filled faith in the lives of human beings. This is what the narrator of “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” Angela (Lazaro’s sister), means when she says – in a perfectly contradictory Unamuno statement – “I am of the opinion that…my Don Manuel, and my brother, too, died believing they did not believe, but that, without believing in their belief, they actually believed with resignation and in desolation.” In other words, the priest Don Manuel is faithful precisely because he is tormented by faith. Angela is presented in the story as a believer whose questions do not divert her from true faith. But Angela is no more or less faithful than the other characters in the story. She simply represents a faithful person who accepts the contradictions.

Finally, there is the matter of the blissfully ignorant villagers. “Let us go on…working for the people, and let them dream their life as the lake dreams the heavens,” Don Manuel tells Lazaro. This is the inspiration that keeps Don Manuel committed to his ministry and to the people of the village. But it is not, as he knows in his heart, a very accurate description of the faith of the villagers, which is as doubt-wracked as his own. There is a key moment in the story when Don Manuel reveals his real experiences with the faith of the villagers.

I have helped poor villagers to die well, ignorant illiterate villagers, who had scarcely ever been out of their village, and I have learned from their own lips, or divined it when they were silent, the real cause of their sickness unto death, and there at the head of their deathbed I have been able to see into the black abyss of their life weariness.

Later, Don Manuel tells Angela that, in fact, he has seen the face of God, and that this is what torments him the most. “Do not let our people, so long as they live,” he tells her, look into the face of God.” The face of God that Don Manuel saw, we are led to believe, was just as contradictory, just as bewildering and doubt-producing, as the world we live in. Don Manuel – martyr, saint, afflicted disbelieving believer – gives the people of Valverde de Lucerna everything he has. He comforts them, works with them and for them, and still he denies his villagers something very important: Companionship in their own doubt, their own sickness unto death, and a chance to experience real faith—the kind Don Manuel experienced.


“To 'choose' dogma and faith over doubt and experience,” Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.” Miguel de Unamuno would have agreed. But he would have been confused by the simple opposition between faith and doubt. As if you could have faith without doubt. Or doubt without faith.

Michael Robbins wrote an interesting piece in Slate recently (a review of Molly Worthens’ Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism) in which he discusses the attempt by modern Christian fundamentalists to purify religion from any aspect of doubt. That’s part of the story of what happened to religion in the wake of the Scientific Age. It got scared. And fear makes people do crazy things, like attempt to create a form of faith that has no room for doubt. Robbins also suggests that the New Atheists are really the flipside of this same coin. A fearful form of religion attempts to assert that faith can exist without doubt and then an extreme form of scientific positivism proclaims that said form of fearful religion is completely false. What has been lost in the debate is the living, doubt-infused faith that Miguel de Unamuno was writing about a century ago.

As for the ripening vintage, the doubt and experience that Hitchens speaks of, this is where true faith is found. “Have you ever seen a greater mystery, Lazaro” asks Don Manuel, “than the snow falling, and dying, in the lake, while a hood is laid upon the mountain?”