Anglophone readers are most likely to come across the name of Alain in connection with Simone Weil, who was one of his pupils between the wars. She has, of course, acquired a reputation as an important Christian thinker. This is a testament, not to Alain’s own religious beliefs but to his inspiration as a teacher and success in getting his pupils to think for themselves. (Yet there are interesting connections between their analyses of religion). Alain often wrote about religion, culminating in a late work, Les Dieux, published in 1934, and translated into English in 1973 as The Gods. I aim to show, in this article, that he marks out and explores a middle ground between believers and non-believers. Very briefly, he is a hard-headed humanist who became sympathetic to religion.
Alain was a child of the secular Third Republic, but like nearly everyone of his generation in France, he was brought up as a Catholic, and then lost his faith around the age of fourteen. The propos before 1914 are frequently anti-clerical and as an ordinary soldier during the First World War he loathed the army chaplains, who were on the side of the officers, which was to be on the side of power.
There is an anecdote that comes up a few times in his writing, which marks its importance for Alain, and which he presents as the starting-point for his reflections. During the war, a fellow-soldier, who was religious, seeing that Alain was not a believer, asked him what he thought of religion. Alain responded promptly: « Religion is a story, which, like all stories, is full of meaning. And no one asks whether a story is true. » (the French term conte has an implication here of stories for children, like the Arabian Nights). Alain takes it as his task to bring out the meanings of these stories, and also of the practices that are associated with religions. Note the use of the plural. In one place, he wrote that all religions are true — which is not the same as saying that all the assertions made by a religion are true. More precisely, he looked for the human meaning in religious stories and practices: « they are not facts, they are thoughts. »
Stories and myths can express truths more vividly than dogmatic statements; their force does not come from being reasonable, and they would have no audience if they didn’t express something about human feelings, hopes and fears. Even the errors we make are still human and can have a positive aspect. The naturalistic claim that religions are human creations seems hardly novel now, but Alain makes the further step of analysing the myths, stories and practices to bring our their underlying meanings. He seeks an understanding of religion as a human activity. Festivals like Easter and Christmas were designed to bring the human mind into harmony with nature. Practices such as prayer can have beneficial effects: « If saying the rosary calms a man, that’s a fact that can’t be denied; or the fact that a man on his knees is less likely to be angry or want revenge. Great churches can give a sense of harmony and peace. »
Similarly, the gods are projections of the human mind. Alain has an original theory of the imagination, which he develops in the first part of Les Dieux and uses to understand religion. The invisible never appears, but is imagined; the mystery is within us, but human beings make something out of this absence or emptiness. « The gods refuse to appear.. .humans invented the gods to account for their emotion in face of the world. » This idea is often explored: « It’s been said that man made idols because he was religious; that’s like saying he made tools because he was intelligent; but, on the contrary, science is just the observation of tools and work with tools. In the same way I’d rather say that the object of our first contemplation was an idol and man became religious because he made idols. He had to account for the power of the sign… ». Or, more succinctly: « the gods are our metaphors and our metaphors are our thoughts ». There’s not a trace of the transcendent here. There is nothing behind the signs and metaphors. Any mystery is man-made. But if myths awaken the human mind, then they are beneficial; they work on us like great works of art.
Another implication of this view of religion is that Alain rejects factual and historical questions. To think that the ideas expressed in religion can only be true if the circumstances in which they were revealed actually took place is to miss the point. Worse, it’s an act of impiety. What matters is the truth of what the story means. When Jesus attacks the Pharisees (Matthew 23), what matters is whether what he says of them applies to some human beings, which might even include oneself. To ask whether Jesus actually said those words is to postpone that self-examination. In short, it is the morality taught by religion, explicitly and implicitly, that is important. « It is never the dogma that proves the morality; morality, as far as I understand it, supports itself; God adds nothing; paradise, hell, purgatory add nothing. »
Alain also has a classification of religions, which owes something to both Hegel and Comte, and even Plato. This is developed most extensively in Les Dieux, where he provides, with insights on every page, analyses of the symbols, metaphors, myths and deities employed in religion. Following Hegel, he identifies three kinds: a religion of nature, an urban religion, and a religion of the mind (or spirit – esprit is a key word in Alain’s thought, and can be translated by both terms). The first is rustic religion, where it is nature that is adored, the sun, the fire, harvests, animals. It uses totems and fetishes. It is pagan religion and Alain points out that pagan and peasant probably derive from the same Latin word ‘paganus’, for someone living in the country.
Urban religion is the religion of man, when human beings no longer see themselves on the same level as animals. This corresponds to the polytheism of Greece and Rome. It begins with a cult of the ancestors and later adds a cult of heroes. It’s urban in that the forces of nature are given less prominence, and it has political implications with its division and hierarchy of powers, as on Olympus with Zeus on the throne. The world is governed like a kingdom.
The highest religion, however, is religion of the mind, represented in Europe by Christianity: « …Christianity, which works towards the same ends as wisdom, but through images, worship and an immediate feeling. Among the highest values, the highest human value is the free mind and this is the meaning of this third religion, through legends, images, symbols, models, which declare forcefully its disdain for powers, dominations, tyrannies. The free mind is not taken in by brilliant appearances. It resists the temptations of power. It honours good sense, courage, justice, wherever it finds them. It assumes that they are present in every human form, and makes no difference between the emperor Marcus Aurelius and the slave Epictetus. All philosophers agree on that; but the religion of the mind has spoken louder than philosophy, through the scandalous image of the crucified god. It’s still man who is god, but a man in his true greatness, independent of power and wealth. And this religion of the mind worships what philosophers have rarely dared; it dares to signify that all kinds of power corrupt the mind. This rich heritage is not pure; it’s up to us to keep it clean and make it shine. »
Hegel describes these three religions as stages in humanity’s development, marking progress to a higher form of religion. Alain, however, considers them not as stages, but as layers that remain within us all. He then neatly fits these three layers to Plato’s tripartite division of the human being. He or she has a stomach, which is the source of desire and fear, the site of our animality; a chest, which stands for anger and courage; the head, which is prudence and self-government.
What Christianity brought was, first, an improvement upon ancient religion, which could sacrifice Iphigenia and take political advice from the oracle at Delphi. Second, it makes everyone, slaves included, brothers and sisters. Christ comes as a new god who is human, who has lived the life of human beings, who was ‘weak, crucified, humiliated’. He represents the mind (or spirit) which is the final judge of all power, though the church, unfortunately, has always tended to associate itself with power.
« The meaning of the cross is that the highest model of man lived poor and scorned by the great and that he died, punished for his virtues which denied ambition, desire, evil. It was a miserable fate, ennobled by thought, ended by an executioner. »
This interpretation of Christianity leaves out the unrelenting god of the Old Testament. There is no belief in life after death, or in divinely revealed truth or in miracles, in original sin or redemption through sacrifice. There’s also a perhaps refreshing avoidance of arguments about the existence or non-existence of god. In fact, Alain has an argument that existence is not susceptible of proof. Essentially his argument is that Christianity is a humanist religion and that the Gospels are like a great work of art that continue to speak to us. Theology deadens the beauty and power of these stories. And Christ is the model of a way of life, a celebration of the life of the mind.
There is no doubt that Alain was a lifelong atheist. Yet he presents a double-edged challenge. First, to the non-believer: can you really condemn all of religion? Can you dismiss the truths that are conveyed in these myths and stories? « To claim an immense chain of errors that have no foundation is real misanthropy ». Second, to the Christian: what is most important? Can you follow Christ’s way of life in rejecting all the seductions of this world and affirm the freedom of your mind? Is belief in the miracles like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection needed to support this way of life? To be fair, questions like these are raised within Christianity and have been for many years. Several scholars or religion have moved to describing Jesus as wholly human, ‘God-filled’ as one writer put it, but around whom a vast mythology has since been built, of God descending to earth in the person of his son, etc. etc. Christian scholars now also talk of the mythical character of the Biblical narratives. How far ordinary believers are following them is another matter, of course. So Alain’s provocative question remains, to both sides, and in its briefest form: what is true religion?