The Atheist’s Handbook: On the Next World

Back at the end of 2019 I wrote a couple articles about Maggie Mae Fish, a Youtuber who created some video essays on those terrible Kirk Cameron films. While Maggie critiqued how the films promote a weird prosperity gospel, I suggested that maybe her critique tipped over into broader attacks on materialism altogether – which just seemed like a bigger target and an unnecessary debate. The prosperity gospel, if you’re not familiar, is the idea that being Christian and loving God will make you rich – as in financially rich, possessing specifically a lot of money. It’s a bogus claim for fraudsters – they run that line, and tell you to send in ‘seed money’, showing your faith by giving what you hope to receive. The fraudsters get rich off donations and use that newfound wealth as proof feeding their original claim that believing in God will make you rich. That’s obviously a scam, and to the extent that Kirk Cameron’s films promote that message, fuck ’em.

However, there’s this one specific line – I think mentioned in the Saving Christmas video – where Cameron says something about how the food on the table is a sign that God loves you. Maggie went after that, connecting it in with the prosperity gospel, and – you know, it’s not entirely unrelated, but it falls into the much broader and more complex area of materialism within Christianity – and that’s just not a conversation you want to get into if you’re trying to zero in on the prosperity gospel. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to think that the food on the table is a sign of God’s blessing. It does raise some other questions (does God hate starving people?), but it’s not one of the prosperity gospel’s core tenets. It’s materialism, which is sort of like the broader umbrella that prosperity gospel is nested within. Materialism maybe isn’t quite the correct word – I’m trying to draw a distinction between two pole of Christian belief, right. One says that things will get better in the next world, and that we should focus on that. The other says that things will get better in this world, and so we should be focused here. Materialism, or this-world-ism, is really just the idea that God cares about the things going on right now. It’s the basis of the belief that God elects politicians and authority figures, or that you can pray for a car park and God will answer by making a car park magically appear in front of you. All of those are relatively normal (that is, relatively mainstream) Christian beliefs, and they all stem from that basic materialist viewpoint.

And as I say, there are obviously critiques of Christian materialism, with all of its obnoxious little manifestations, but there are equally as many critiques of what we might call a hard Christian spiritualism (or ‘next-world-ism’). I stumbled across one of those critiques recently, while I was looking for more 20th century Orthodox writers. I was thumbing through Eastern Orthodox Christianity: The Essential Texts – Bryn Geffert and Theofanis G. Stavrou, seemed like an obvious starting point – and came across this extract from The Atheist’s Handbook, a propaganda text published under Khrushchev. Note how it sets Marxism as the materialist doctrine in opposition to Christianity as a spiritualist or anti-material belief:

“The predominant philosophy in our society is Marxism-Leninism, which is in direct contradiction to religion. While Marxism-Leninism teaches that besides the material world, which develops according to its own inherent inner laws, there is no other world, religion maintains that the world was created by God and is directed by Him. ‘The ways of the Lord are inscrutable,’ maintains religion. The world can be known, proves dialectical materialism, and this is brilliantly confirmed by the achievements of Soviet scientists in the area of science and technology.”

The Soviets here attack Christianity for unnecessarily mystifying the world, for obscuring our understanding of the material rules that govern reality. In a sense, the impulse towards next-world-ism only cares about this world as a prelude to the next – it’s not treated as interesting or valuable in itself. We might find a case study in the Catholics during Covid who said that people should be allowed to risk exposure for communion. You can see the distinction – it’s fine to die and move on to the next world, as long as you’ve had communion, because communion at least gets you into heaven. Our time in this world is only interesting or valuable to the extent that it primes us for the next. For the Atheist’s Handbook, scientific inquiry is therefore the solution to what it sees as religious myth. It grounds us in this physical material reality, in direct opposition to the mystical next-world-ism of the more spiritual approach. It’s also worth noting that the Soviets connected the spiritual impulse with a perceived failure to improve our material conditions. The Atheist’s Handbook states:

“The clergy of all religions maintain that man’s happiness is only possible ‘in heaven’. The Marxist-Leninist philosophy proves and the practice of social evolution in socialist countries confirms that man himself is capable of creating on earth a just social system where everything is created for human happiness.”

That critique probably holds true today for the communion Catholics, but it doesn’t really apply to the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel, for all of its faults, is still built around the core idea that we ought to be happy in this world. It’s built around the idea that our material conditions matter, that we can be well-fed and live in a thriving system where everything works. The principle has been dragged backwards through a capitalist hellscape, but its roots are clear and identifiable. Both Kirk Cameron and the Soviets represent a shift away from spiritual next-world-ism and towards the material nature of this one.

None of this is intended to say that one focal point is better than the other. I’m not advocating for either this-world-ism or next-world-ism. I just think there’s value in identifying these two poles within Christian thought, and recognising the tension between them. You can say that the prosperity gospel is for assholes – and it is – but the other extreme, the wispy spiritualism that’s in favour of killing people over communion – that’s bad too. It’s not as simple as saying materialist religion is bad and spiritualist religion is good. Both of them can suck. And maybe versions of both of them can be fine.

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