[In the following excerpt from Atheism in our Time: A Psychoanalyst’s Dissection of the Modern Varieties of Unbelief, 1963, the author, Fr. Ignace Lepp, presents the opposite of Bryan Magee’s existential response to the fact of mortality. It is his own response that Lepp describes, an attitude he had as a young French Marxist and that survived not only his conversion to Christianity, but his ordination to the priesthood. The explanation for such extreme and diametrically opposed responses to the prospect of death is probably not to be found in temperament alone, but in some complex and mysterious interaction between temperament and early, formative experience, experience which is typically unrecoverable for purposes of analysis.]
A religious person finds it very difficult to understand why atheists fail to ask certain metaphysical questions which he holds to be of the first order of importance. A Dominican friend of mine, a man of superior education and of remarkable broad-mindedness, told me recently: “It is conceivable that one not be interested in the first cause of things and that one feel no obligation to admit the existence of a supernatural Creator. But how can any normal man not ask himself about his own destiny, about the lot that is reserved for his soul after death? For the desire for survival is so spontaneous to the human psyche!” For my friend the existence of a “soul” is a basic certitude; therefore nothing is more natural than to inquire about its destiny.
In conversations, and perhaps also in my writings [as a Marxist], I frequently used the word “soul.” But I did not see in this “soul” and “substance.” It was merely a convenient term to designate the totality of man’s psychic faculties. I adopted the position of all materialists: the soul and what we call the spiritual are not essentially different from the biological or physical; they merely represent a superior level of the evolution of matter. It is true that I had a very simplistic notion of the “idealistic” (a label we gave to any non-materialistic philosophy) conception of the soul.
If I had been old or sick, it is possible that I would have experienced some intimate anguish before the prospect of an immediate death. Nevertheless, I would have seen in death nothing more than one of the many disagreeable natural fatalities, including storms and plagues, the fall of leaves in autumn, traffic accidents, and the sickness of old age. None of this convinced me of the necessity of supposing the existence of God, of a providence, or of a heaven. I even na´vely hoped that the progress of science, after the Communist revolution, would abolish all or most of these miseries. I do not think I ever inquired about the destiny of my soul. I was young and healthy, and life was a passionate affair: why bring up so odious a problem as the form the small bundle of matter that I was would take on after death? Even when I awaited death in a Nazi concentration camp, the problem of life after death did not bother me at all. I had no fear of death; and in a sense I found deep satisfaction in the thought of dying at the age of twenty-five for what appeared to me a noble cause, before the maladies of age should have time to make my life less agreeable. At rare intervals, however, I experienced a slight regret to have lived such a short time, to have left so slight a mark on the world.
Some dozen years ago, in an autobiographical work, I analyzed my state of soul as a young man condemned to death in the following way: “It was difficult for me to imagine my immediate death. Rationally, I expected nothing but a definite term of an existence which had been, to be sure, very brief, but also very intense. But it was almost impossible to admit that it had no purpose, that all would be reduced to nothingness. A voice of questionable Marxist orthodoxy whispered that my death itself would serve the cause for which I had lived, that the blood I was about to pour out would in some way bear fruit.” Several Christians saw in this a kind of profession of implicit faith in an afterlife. I do not want to exclude this hypothesis a priori. But it is possible that, since I wrote these lines when I had already become a believer, I could not find the exact words to translate my state of soul as a young Marxist. Insofar as an understanding of a past psychic state is possible, I think I can resolutely affirm that the hope of a personal immortality did not enter into my revolutionary optimism. The role of the irrational was certainly strong in the conviction that an ineffable solidarity linked all men regardless of time and space, that the actions of some people, even when they took place in secret, had some repercussions on the actions of others. I was able to observe similar sentiments in several other Marxist atheists. If it were necessary to give an interpretation of this in religious terms, I would say that, rather than believing in a personal God and personal immortality, I adhered to a vague naturalistic pantheism. I insist upon the modifier “naturalistic,” for the divine seemed to have no place in this pantheism, which should perhaps be called a pancosmism.
Nietzsche, and many others before and after him, have criticized religions like Christianity for appealing, through promises of eternal life, to the most repugnant and egotistical instincts of man. Since I have become a Christian, I obviously believe in eternal life in general, and I hope for it personally. I do not see how such a hope implies anything repugnant or egotistical. But for the ten long years that I believed with all my soul in communism, I thought Nietzsche was right. I expected nothing for myself as a reward for my efforts. Not for a moment did I ever expect to live in a society free from all material and spiritual alienation and perfectly fraternal, but for this society, nevertheless, I fought. It therefore seemed to me that we Communists were more disinterested than Christians. It was only long afterwards that I realized that Nietzsche and I had badly interpreted the Christian hope of eternal life. After twenty years as a Christian, I see no instance where my behavior has been motivated by considerations concerning the future lot of my soul. It is true that when I endeavour, in terms of my limited means, to contribute to the creative work of God and the Incarnation of the Word in the history of the world, faith and hope of an eternal life are implicit in my actions. But I do not act to merit such a life, nor am I motivated by fear of losing it. This might be explained psychologically by the fact that my past has been different from that of other Christians, and also by the fact that the salvation of my soul concerns me existentially less than it does them. Nevertheless, I know many people who were not converts from Marxism, and yet they think and act exactly as I do.
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