A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists

by David V. Johnson

UnamumoIn “San Manuel Bueno, Martir,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno tells the fictional story of a parish priest in Valverde de Lucerna, a small Spanish town, and his successful conversion of a sophisticated favorite son, Lazaro, who had left to seek his fortunes in America and returned an atheist.

“The main thing,” San Manuel says, in summarizing his ministry, “is for the people to be happy, that everyone be happy with their life. The happiness of life is the main thing of all.”

When Lazaro arrives from the New World, he dismisses the town's medieval backwardness and begins confronting villagers about their superstitions. “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them,” San Manuel tells him. “It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.”

Lazaro confronts San Manuel with a mixture of curiosity and respect, since San Manuel is not only beloved by Lazaro's family for his piety but also because he appears educated. Over time, the two become friends and, eventually, Lazaro rejoins the Church and takes communion, to the tearful delight of all.

The twist: 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.

I think of this story when I hear the arguments against religion of the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If Unamuno's story were updated, I could imagine Lazaro coming home to Valverde de Lucerna with a copy of God Is Not Great under his arm, ready to do battle with San Manuel. And if the story makes sense, we can imagine someone who has imbibed the arguments of Hitchens, yet converts to the faith under the saint's arguments.

The question is why.

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By Maniza Naqvi

Brain_scansJust as the frigid February evening air is stirred by the imams calling out the azan from all over the valley on Monday evening —Hiya al salah—hiya al falah— “come towards worship—come towards salvation”— Rahima pulls a cigarette out from her pack of Drinas; sticks it between her lips; lights it; dials 5555 and calls a Zuti taxi to her apartment—one of the many cab companies in Sarajevo which arrive at the door a minute after being called. She puts on her coat, an oversized olive color, man’s raincoat with a corduroy collar. She double checks the pockets for her pack of Drinas and the 3 convertible marks in loose change for the fare. All set, she leaves her one room apartment. The cab arrives and she gets in to its smoke filled interior. A sevdah’s ululating blues plays on FM 89.9 Radio Zid for the short ride just down the hill to the hospital.

Her 48 hour duty has begun. She has entered her world. All morning long she has cleared her head for this—all Monday morning, after a weekend plunged in a seamless nightmare-filled fitful sleep. The same nightmares always, every off-duty. The same method of recovery. This is her routine.

Outside the emergency room she can see the usual sight: police guards with automatic weapons dressed in tight black uniforms and bullet proof vests barring the way to the ER. Police cars parked in the driveway. She sweeps past them waving them aside, saying she’s the doctor and can’t they see that?

'He’s a bank robber from Olovo! He’s shot himself trying to run away!' A cop shouts after her.

“Thank you doctor” she growls back at him and shrugs her shoulder with a jolt as though repulsed.

As she enters the ER and surveys the newest arrival it’s as though a switch had been turned on inside of her lighting up a thousand bulbs of a thousand watt each. She is on! This is an interesting one. The one last week, the victim of a burglary—the plastic surgery—the reconstruction—was successful. It seems to have worked but it’s still too early to tell, the bandages haven’t come off yet.

This one, they tell her, he has shot himself in the head. Outside, the hospital the walls are still pock marked with bullet holes. Inside for Rahima it has never ended, it goes on.

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