How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
August 20 marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of one of American literary horror fiction’s towering figures. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890, and his heart never strayed far from New England. Most of his life was spent in Providence, and from there, he penned a series of short stories and novellas in the 1920s and ’30s that would cement his reputation in the decades following his death from cancer in 1937.What Lovecraft does well, better than almost everyone else, is to create an ambience of fear.
In 1926, Weird Tales — the pulp magazine that printed many of Lovecraft’s works — published “The Call of Cthulhu.” This one story famously introduced the title monster, a tentacled god-like alien being seeking to emerge from captivity into the contemporary world. Cthulhu emerged as one of a “pantheon” of such creatures in Lovecraft’s fiction, bizarre cosmic monsters for whom humans are playthings or irrelevancies. In the years following Lovecraft’s death, his correspondent and fellow Weird Tales contributor August Derleth would go on to found a publishing company called Arkham House (named for one of Lovecraft’s fictional New England towns). This led to the development of the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos,” an attempt to systematize (and add to) the various fictional people, places, and monsters in Lovecraft’s fiction.
Many scholars now find the Mythos a disingenuous coopting of Lovecraft’s material, but it certainly helped keep his work on the radar of the horror fiction field. He’s a household name among aficionados and authors of the weird tale, and his work has been alluded to in everything from Batman to G. I. Joe to DuckTales. Even more “literary” writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Joyce Carol Oates are counted among his admirers. Indeed, Oates has edited a collection of his stories. Other major literary publishers, including Penguin Classics and the Library of America, have also released compilations. Today, H. P. Lovecraft’s reputation as a master of the genre would seem to be alive and well.
And yet, for all his undoubted significance, Lovecraft remains a polarizing figure, as demonstrated by a recent controversy regarding the World Fantasy Award. The statue presented to the winners is a caricature of Lovecraft’s face, but in 2014, author Daniel José Older made news by initiating a petition to replace the old trophy with one modeled after the late African-American novelist Octavia Butler. In the petition, Older provides two rationales for his petition, contending that Lovecraft was “an avowed racist and a terrible wordsmith.” Since Older is hardly alone in his assessment, any serious examination of Lovecraft’s posthumous reputation must carefully examine the twin charges he makes.
There can be little denying that Lovecraft was racist. He imbibed quite heavily the noxious attitudes toward non-European (and especially non-English) ethnic groups that was so rampant in the early twentieth century. The literary artifact most frequently produced as evidence is a revolting poem written early in his career, but the prejudices evidenced in his later fiction — like “The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and even “The Call of Cthulhu” itself — demonstrate that he retained some form of these views beyond his youth. Since Older’s petition, the debates about Lovecraft’s value have raged on, with Salon’s Laura Miller following suit in critiquing him and S. T. Joshi, the Indian-born scholar who has written and edited more than anyone else on Lovecraft, defending him with commensurate vehemence.
The charge that Lovecraft is “a terrible wordsmith” is more complex. Older, interestingly, contends elsewhere that Lovecraft was a bad writer in many ways because of his racism. Contrasting Lovecraft with Butler, Older asserts that the former lacks any meaningful character development, that his “stories often weren’t even stories, just ideas floating glumly along through paragraph after paragraph of wordiness.” Butler, on the other hand, crafts characters with whom we can empathize, and does so with an “economy of prose [that is] precise, confident, sharp.” Older claims he was surprised that anyone would defend Lovecraft as a good writer: “I was surprised… because I’ve never seen anyone praise Lovecraft for his prose. Even his fans admit he’s a pretty wretched wordsmith, an overwriter.”
I suspect many, if not most, Lovecraft fans would be surprised at Older’s surprise. I doubt I am alone in being drawn to Lovecraft’s work in part because of his writing style. Anyone who has read the least bit of his extensive correspondence or essays can at least acknowledge that Lovecraft was a very careful writer who was very intentional about the way he crafted his sentences to achieve his desired effects and that he regarded his work as occupying a place within at least one strand of literary tradition. This was true of many contributors to Weird Tales, including writers like Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, and even Tennessee Williams! Daniel McCarthy has shown some ways in which “The Call of Cthulhu” employs various literary techniques to convey an overall atmosphere of “existential terror and awe,” an effect Lovecraft is better at than virtually any other writer.
And herein lies the crux of the matter regarding both Older’s criticisms. Far beyond Lovecraft’s prejudices against people of other ethnic backgrounds lies what might be called a deeper racism: a racism against the human race. This certainly does not mean that Lovecraft was a misanthrope in personal interactions. Indeed, far from the picture sometimes painted of him as a Providence-haunting recluse, he was apparently on the whole a good friend, in person and especially via correspondence, where he wrote thousands of thoughtful, encouraging, and constructive pieces to fellow and aspiring writers. On the philosophical level, however, Lovecraft held the fundamental conviction that human life is quite insignificant in the face of a vast and uncaring (if not downright hostile) cosmos.No ghastly abysm of lurking eldritch horror is too low for my deserving; only a truly cosmic love could lift me.
His vision of this antagonist universe finds its embodiment in the various monstrosities and “deities” that populate his tales. Older asks of Lovecraft’s stories, “Why should we care about the character?” The short answer is that we shouldn’t; indeed, while Lovecraft did make some moves later to nuance his characters a bit, to treat people in his fiction as though they had any lasting importance would have been intellectual dishonesty to him. It has become a truism in many literary circles today that our ability to relate to and empathize with characters is the primary, if not the sole, barometer of literature, leading to such debacles as Ira Glass’s now-infamous tweets castigating Shakespeare for not being “relatable.” By these standards, Octavia Butler (alongside many others) surely beats out Lovecraft. Yet looking at the long history of narrative literature — Western or otherwise — one can find countless examples of undeniable classics that have little interest in creating textured characters.
In another article, Older rightly points to Lovecraft’s emphasis on the primal human experience of fear. Lovecraft notoriously began his Supernatural Horror in Literature by asserting, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.” And what Lovecraft does well, better than almost everyone else, is to create an ambience of fear — not popcorn-y scream-out-loud cheap thrills, but a gnawing dread — the “existential terror and awe” of which McCarthy writes. He marshals his considerable vocabulary toward the overwhelming end of evoking the horror of a metaphysically empty universe, of a world of matter in which people don’t matter.
It is worth asking, then, what benefit the Christian reader might derive from reading Lovecraft, a devout cosmic materialist and virulent racist; surely many will pass by his work glad to have avoided it. Nonetheless, for those who can appreciate a good adjective — or a bunch of them — there is much of value to be found in Lovecraft’s corpus. Among other aspects, he is helpful for his atheism’s purity. Most religious skeptics today hold to some set of moral and ethical standards, and practically speaking, it is good for society’s function that they do. But as Lovecraft’s narrators often discover to their peril, a near-infinite and godless universe has no room for any conventional form of morality. Such principles are provincial and, at best, pragmatic adaptations; they certainly aren’t woven into the fabric of creation. I can agree that the world of Cthulhu and his fellow monsters is a decent allegory of a world without god; if I were an atheist, I’d be a Lovecraftian atheist.
But I’m not an atheist, and so on a philosophical level I must necessarily reject the chaos of Cyclopean horrors that Lovecraft envisions. And yet, I do think his diminishing of human significance can provide some helpful reminders to Christians and non-Christians alike. In 2012, David McCullough made news by delivering the renowned “You are not special” speech to Wellesley High School. This speech went viral, and for the most part approvingly, because many have grown weary of American society’s undue emphasis on individual consequence. And a corresponding coddling of individual autonomy has likewise crept into the Church.
That is why reading a little Lovecraft can be good for the soul (even if he didn’t think such a thing existed) as an antidote to the cloying egocentrism of our current cultural moment. Long before astronomers began to surmise just how immense the universe truly is, Christian philosophers and theologians rightly observed just how small human ambition is in the great schemes of space and time. Piggybacking on Cicero, Boethius beautifully describes this in his sixth-century work The Consolation of Philosophy:
How unsubstantial that [human] glory is, how totally without weight, you may learn in this way. You have learned from astronomical proofs that the whole circle of our earth is but a point in comparison with the extent of the whole heavens; that is, if it is compared in size with the celestial sphere, it is judged to have no size at all… Now is it in this tightly enclosed and tiny point, itself but part of a point, that you think of spreading your reputation, of glorifying your name? What grandeur and magnificence can glory have, contracted within such small and narrow limits?
…But how many men famous in their own time are now completely forgotten, for want of written record? Though what is the value of such records themselves when they and their writers are lost in the obscurity of long ages? Yet you suppose that you provide for your own immortality when you are concerned for your future fame. But if you really consider the infinite space of eternity, have you any reason to rejoice in the long life of your own name? For, one moment compared with ten thousand years, since each is a determinate length of time, is a certain proportion, even if a very small fraction; but even that length of years, or any multiple of it, cannot be compared at all with the infinite length of time. (2.7, trans. S. J. Tester)
Nor was this emphasis on human limitation restricted to the ancient Christian world. It can be found throughout the writings of the American Puritans, a group that Lovecraft the New Englander had a curious affinity for, his atheism notwithstanding. Thus, Increase Mather could insist that in the vast economy of God’s providence, “the Miserable Children of Men, know not their Time” and Urian Oakes could remark on “what a poor dependent, nothing-creature proud man is.” These observations are not tacked-on extrapolations but expressions of profoundly biblical truth. The God who claims “the secret things” as His own is the One who dwarfs the pleading Job in the whirlwind. He is the God for Whom “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”
Christian doctrine asserts that humans have deep significance in the eyes of God. Yet we can never recognize what a truly revolutionary paradox that significance is — how great an act of divine grace and condescension — until we first understand how far it is beyond our deserving. We are not special, except that God deigns us to be so. I appreciate Lovecraft because he reminds me of just how small and loathsome I truly am apart from Christ; and he does so with carefully wrought and vivid imagination. No ghastly abysm of lurking eldritch horror is too low for my deserving; only a truly cosmic love could lift me.
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