Ronald KnoxThe argument over the European soul had shifted towards the forces of Godlessness by the death of David Hume and had been all but won by that of Bertrand Russell. Such men have been recognised as luminaries, of course, and their opponents have often drifted into the unknown. This need not have been deserved. Winning and losing arguments is not always dependent on the validity of one’s beliefs.

Ronald Knox was an English priest and author – a man of such erudition that he translated a Latin Bible and enough fame, in his time, that Evelyn Waugh remembered him in a biography. Among a respectable generation of Catholic apologists, he failed to build as prominent as Chesterbelloc, in part because so much of his work addressed the faithful rather than society. In Broadcast Minds, however, published in 1932, he aimed a full-throated salvo against atheistic thinkers including Russell, Wells, Mencken and Huxley. It is an intriguing record of the state of religious thought in the pre-war age.

Knox drew his idea of “Broadcastmindedness” from the new forms of media that had emerged in recent times, defining it as the hegemonic promotion of a form of vulgarised agnosticism. Given the debates that have marked the existence of the BBC it was interesting to read him claiming that its establishment “must lead, I think, inevitably, to the setting up of a kind of standard culture, which will be the “official” culture of the nation”. (This was not the first appearance of the word “official”. People who have debated alternative hypotheses will note a reference to the “official story” of the Gunpowder Plot.)

Pre-war nonbelief took different forms: from Mencken’s Nietzschean cynicism to the grand secular dreams of Wells. It is worth remembering these bleak depths and ambitious heights, which both seem odd in our soppily humanist age. As a critical admirer of the Sage of Baltimore I was especially attracted to the chapter on the man. It was condescending to refer to him as a “humourist” on so many occasions, and I had grasped the point after the 316th time, but Knox effectively exposed the manner in which his stylistic force could obscure his argumentative incoherence.

For all that Broadcast Minds is of historical interest, it is also of relevance. To read the book is to appreciate how contemporary arguments about religion have replicated the habits – one might almost say the memes – that marked those of past generations. Unpicking Julian Huxley’s case against theism, Knox observed that the great humanist ignored the scholastic tradition that the Catholic faith had rested on…

The whole traditional theology of Europe presupposes the Five Proofs, or some modification of them, as the basis of belief in God…Which makes it all the more astonishing that Professor Huxley, in demolishing the whole edifice of theism, makes no reference to the Five Proofs, and shows no consciousness that they have ever been urged.

He has heard of Paley, apparently,” Knox observed, before adding in a footnote that the author John Langdon-Davies “also takes his notions of traditional Christianity from this strangely “dated” author”. Edward Feser, in his recent book The Last Superstition, also rails against what he considers to be the ignorance of popular atheists towards Thomas Aquinas and their habit of assailing the argument from design. Less renowned nonbelievers have taken on Thomism but this argument deserves belated prominence.

In reviewing Huxley’s case for “religion without revelation” Knox foreshadowed the emergence of “humanist churches” – and the response to them. He slyly noted that…

…our human make-up includes not only a sense of reverence, but a sense of irreverence; not only an appreciation of the numinous but an appreciation of the humorous. Organised worship, so long as you concede the possibility that a God exists, can never be wholly ridiculous; for, if the suspicion should prove true, that attitude is commensurate to the dignity of that which is worshipped. But – worship without a God? I am afraid even those “moments” would not really survive in the glare of publicity…

I think that Knox underestimated the extent to which the religious instinct could be transferred into the worship of political causes, public figures, lifestyles and products. Still, none of these things can offer hope for enduring life, or cosmic justice, or other of the most grand desires that many human beings have. Nor do they tend to attach us to our cultural heritage, which helps to explain the power of Knox’s vaticination…

Europe, if she must perish, will perish still adoring, or deriding, or regretting the faith that was once hers.

I suspect it is true that even if our last church was empty, Europeans would think – and argue – about the faith. Many people disdain their parents. Few forget them.

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