There have been many arguments made against atheism. The medieval philosophers divined a variety of proofs of God's existence. Aquinas had five. But the argument from Motion or the argument from Contingency is not the kind of thing we moderns talk about anymore. So for the definitive modern case against atheism, I suggest a radically modern experience: watch a Soviet funeral.
I do it all the time. As Soviet state funerals have become regular events -- Chernenko's was the third revival in 28 months of Death of a Helmsman -- I have become a regular viewer. They mesmerize me, in a horrible sort of way. It is not just the music, the numbing repetition of Chopin's funeral march, but the massive, stone- cold setting. The Lenin Mausoleum, the focus of the ceremonie, is a model of socialist brutalist architecture. Cathedrals also remind us of the smallness of man, but poignantly, by comparing him to God. The Lenin Mausoleum has nothing to compare man to but its own squat vastness. The comparison is mocking.
Then there are the speeches, a jangle of empty phrases. Chernenko was eulogized for his "links to the masses," his "party principledness," his achievements in the fields of "ideology and propaganda." Was there a man behind -- underneath -- all this socialist realism? If so, not a word about him. The utter effacement of the person by the party reminded me of a response spokesman Vladimir Posner gave a few weeks ago to an American's question about Chernenko's health. "In this country," he said, annoyed, "the private lives of the leadership . . . are not subject to discussion." It was as if he had been asked to confirm Chernenko's sexual preferences, not his existence.
Finally, and to me most chilling, was the open casket displaying Chernenko's (and Andropov's and Brezhnev's) powdered body drowning in a sea of fresh flowers. The open bier is a mere variation on a communist theme: the mummification of the great leader. In believing cultures, where there is some sense of a surviving soul, this pathetic attachment to the body is unnecessary. In fact, it is discouraged. In the great monotheistic religions, the redeemer -- Moses, Jesus, Mohammed -- has no earthly resting place at all. In the great materialist religions, Soviet and Chinese communism, the resting place of the redeemer, indeed his frozen body, becomes a shrine. The result is the ultimate grotesquerie: after death, a fantastic assertion of the final primacy of man, even after he has become nothing more than embalmer's clay.
It turns out I'm not the only one to have been chilled by the barrenness of the Soviet way of death. Shortly after his return from Brezhnev's funeral, George Bush talked about what had struck him the most. He mentined the austere pageantry, the goose-stepping soldiers, the music, "the body being drawn through Red Square -- not, incidentally, by horses, but behind an armored personnel carrier. But what struck me most . . . was the fact that from start to finish there was not one mention of -- God."
Why should that matter? you ask. After all, many of us are as tepid in our belief as the proverbial Unitarian who believes that there is, at most, one God. What is wrong with a society that believes in none? The usual answer follows the lines of an observation by Arthur Schlesinger (and many others) that "the declining faith in the supernatural has been accompanied by the rise of the monstrous totalitarian creeds of the 20th century." Or as Chesterton put it, "The trouble when people stop believing in God is not that they thereafter believe in nothing; it is that they thereafter believe in anything." In this century, "anything" has included Hitler, Stalin and Mao, authors of the great genocidal madnesses of our time.
However, as the robotic orderliness of Chernenko's funeral demonstrates, the Soviet system is now anything but mad. The "monstrous creeds" have changed. Totalitarianism was once a truly crusading faith: messianic, hopeful, mobilized and marching. Now it is dead, burnt out. Classical totalitarianism has been replaced by what philosopher Michael Walzer calls "failed totalitarianism," the cold empty shell of the old madness: the zeal, the energy, the purpose are gone; only bureaucracy and cynicism remain. Today the Soviet system, the greatest of all the failed totalitarianisms, no longer believes in "anything." It now believes in nothing. A nothing on eerie display at Wednesday's funeral.
Chesterton's case against atheism is that even if it is (God forbid) true, it is dangerous. Three hours of watching Chernenko placed in the Kremlin wall convinces me otherwise. The case against a public life bereft of all spirituality rests less on its danger than on its utter desolation.