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By Diogenes (articles ) | Feb 29, 2008

Some time ago Jimmy Akin brought to our attention a quote from His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman, taking issue with the Catholic League's William Donohue:

"To regard it as this Donohue man has said -- that I'm a militant atheist, and my intention is to convert people -- how the hell does he know that?" he said, in an interview with Newsweek magazine.

What caught my interest in the quote was Pullman's unexpected use of the word "hell."

"Hell," as Pullman employs it here, is a barely recognizable remnant of a curse. We're told that in all languages, ancient and modern, curse and oath formulas tend to be highly elliptical, chopped almost out of all recognition. This is partly due to a general linguistic tendency to abbreviate conventional formulas, but largely a consequence of the fact that the original expressions in their full form were dreadful to say and shocking to hear. For the oath: "May God damn me to hell if I do (or fail to do) such and such ..." For the curse: "May God damn him to hell if he does (or because he has done) such and such ..."

No one with a theologically complete notion of hell can fail to shudder slightly at such expressions, knowing that he who pronounces them is calling down upon himself, or another, everlasting punishment by an all-powerful and immutable God. The natural reluctance to hear such imprecation contributes to the gradual linguistic process of evasion, euphemism, and ellipsis by which we end up with the nearly meaningless hells and damns that punctuate the speech of angry or thoughtless people.

Yet this doesn't explain Pullman's use of the expression "how the hell." Few persons are more fastidious about their atheism or more pedantic about communicating to the rest of us the precise contours of their unbelief. Pullman rejects the notion of hell and of a God who could dispatch someone thereto (in the quote above, he's objecting to Donohue's labeling him as a proselytiser, not as an atheist). Presumably Pullman forgot himself to the extent of speaking in the idiom he (with the rest of us) inherited, but had he been alert enough to avoid the Christian ghost-words, what would he have put in their place?

The problem is: why would an atheist wish to curse? And how would he do so if he wished to? If there's nothing beyond natural causality and human endeavor to invoke, a curse is as pointless as a blessing, and an oath is vacuous as well. After all, the ill-will or good-will communicated by his speech will be perceptible whether the curse is there or not. Aldous Huxley (in Brave New World) has his godless citizens of the future blaspheme "Ford, no!" and Evelyn Waugh (in Love Among the Ruins) has his exclaim "Great State!" But mega-capitalists and mega-governments belong to the same order of being as their blasphemers, and so the oaths invoked in their names aren't really convincing.

And therein, I think, lies the key. For every man there are times when the Self (and its this-worldly sphere of interests) is too trivial to express the momentousness of what he wants to say -- whether that momentous declaration be a promise or a threat. He needs to mortgage the Self, so to speak, in order to purchase greater power of belief. Thus he plugs his salvation (or, in a curse, the wish for another's damnation) into a chain of causality that no human being can tamper with or deflect. That's why oaths, to be meaningful, necessitate belief in a God who can punish their violation. That's why the hollowest of hollow men are the believing perjurer and the unbelieving blasphemer. For the former, having staked his soul and lost it, there's no Self there. For the latter, there's no "there" there.

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  • Posted by: - Feb. 29, 2008 10:31 AM ET USA

    I have an atheist aquiantance who wrote an e-mail to inform those on in is address book that his partners wife had succomb to a long illness. "Keep him and his family in your thoughts" he said. Why would I keep them in my thoughts, What could that possibly do? Did he realy mean to keep them in his prayers? Or maybe, through an unknown pagan belief, that my thoughts are somehow connected to others in a way that I can help or influence. I invited him to Mass to explore his faith.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 29, 2008 10:18 AM ET USA

    Thank you for a wonderful reflection. I'm going to print it out and give it to others, each time with a personal resolution to avoid that word's use in a profane way. It reminds me of why the Holy Name Soc. was formed and how it was effective. Now seemingly disdained by the sophisticates, the HNS remains a worthy idea for the subtle correction of civil society through respectful and refined speech.