Several blogs have come up with the tragic story of an Orthodox priest who had to bury his own son. This was Aaron Kimel, the son of Fr Alvin F. Kimel, an American priest who was originally Anglican, became Roman Catholic through the Pastoral Provision, and finally became Russian Orthodox. He is known for his blog Pontifications (which has not been updated since August 2009). Going by the comments on the article Farewell to Pontifications, Fr Kimel may have been unhappy with his decision to become a Roman Catholic priest and to become Russian Orthodox. Here is another posting on this subject – An Eastern Orthodox Priest Delivers Homily For Agnostic Son that Committed Suicide. We can make guesses and conjectures, but we will never know, and it is not for us to know. Tempting as it would be to judge Father Kimel for church-hopping, suspecting that this might have contributed to his son’s unbelief, I will refrain – as I have never met the persons concerned. The sermon itself gives the probable reason for Aaron’s atheism, his philosophical and intellectual outlook.
Frequently, children of the manse react against over-authoritarian parents, and I have met a number of children of priests who are atheists or agnostics. My wife and I have been unable to have children, but I gave the question a lot of thought. Children have consciences, even if they are less formed. Crush the freedom of a child at your peril and his! I have no idea whether that was the case in this particular family, and it is none of my business.
A comment to the posting to which I linked begins:
This is why atheism must be fought, marginalized, and eradicated, and those who espouse it must be corrected, educated, and saved. Atheism kills people, from the millions of people killed by an atheist regime, to the single suicide.
This is the real purpose of this article.
I was deeply shocked by this, especially that word “eradicate” with its sinister associations with twentieth-century ideologies. Corrected and educated, though they are neutral words in themselves, seem to suggest those ominous “re-education” camps and centres in China established in the 1960’s to bring people around to the ideology of the Little Red Book. Some of us must have seen The Last Emperor. I have no sympathy with atheism, and I have my faith, but I can understand why people do lose the Faith. The trouble is knowing what weapons to use against atheism – or more precisely atheists. Laws? Imprisonment? Banishment and exile? Whipping? Drawing & Quartering? Breaking on the wheel or burning at the stake? The possibilities are endless. All of a sudden, it is faith and believers who are doing the evil, and the argument for atheism is all the more fuelled. You can’t legislate against atheism any more than illness or accidents. This is the drama of exaggerating safety rules to the extent that human enterprise is crippled and stunted. Some of us have heard of the absurd story of fire extinguishers being removed from a building because untrained users might hurt themselves.
We are faced with the terrifying mystery of human freedom, liberty to believe or not to believe, to adhere to one religion or another or none at all. I often return to Nicholas Berdyaev’s philosophy. His central idea is that God is present only in freedom and acts only through freedom. No act of faith is possible without freedom, which is the central theme of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Taking away freedom in the name of truth was ultimately an act of atheism, something the Russian author makes clear in his parable. When Marxist Communism arrived on the scene, Berdyaev was intellectually equipped enough to reject it, and emigrated to France. He saw that socialism could develop into different forms. It could bring liberation, but it could also create a totalitarian society.
Some Christians advocate the kind of government in countries like medieval Spain (and as recently as the early nineteenth century) and the various “two-bit” dictatorships of South American countries. At the level of a country as well as the individual person, atheism is often the reaction against absolutism, authoritarian religion, the crushing of freedom in the name of truth. Many children of the manse have been brought up by authoritarian piety, and their only way to seek freedom is to reject faith.
To combat atheism, it would be counter-productive to seek to ride piggy-back on the authority of men like Mussolini or Pinochet. Instead, faith needs to be made credible through the spiritual transformation of believers. We remain humans. Grace does not destroy nature and we remain sinners, but Christianity should make some difference. If it makes no difference, or no discernible difference, what is the point of faith and religion? That is the question our contemporaries ask, and the onus is on Christians to answer that question. It is no good blaming consumerism or people “having it too good” for the defects of religious people and churches. The problem for many atheists is Christians taking credibility away from their faith through incoherence and hypocrisy.
The “hot-house” atmosphere in strict religious families, monasteries, seminaries, religious schools is often extremely destructive. The longer I live, the more I am convinced of the good brought about by what the French call laïcité, the separation of Church and State, the free church in a free state. No country should have to live under the heavy hand of churches or anyone who would make religion compulsory on pain of punishment. How many children educated in convent schools are still Christians? Secularism has its downside, but people who live in secular countries have the opportunity to discover faith and spirituality, which will certainly be lived more authentically. It is a double-edged sword – make or break. Those who are brought up without religion cannot adhere to what they do not know, and those who are raised religiously can react against the authority they felt oppressed them.
We will never have a perfect system of politics or institutional religion. Man is fickle and sinful. I am an anarchist at heart, but with enough experience of life to know that it cannot be the basis of a political system. Government, politics and authority are necessary evils, but the freedom of the spirit is higher. As described by men like Berdyaev and many more who emigrated from Russia from 1917, freedom is interior and spiritual.
Atheism cannot be eradicated without destroying the credibility of Christian faith, and the onus is on Christians to give faith and hope through love and beauty. Perhaps, then, there will be fewer suicides!