The Atheist’s Mass

I read this story again today. It’s in a little book I have with three stories by Honoré de Balzac, a book I’ve had for years and somehow felt like looking at again now. I didn’t realise how closely it would connect with stuff I’ve had on my mind lately.

The story is of a man who was known for his very strong atheistic views, but a colleague spotted him going into a church and… the long and the short of it was: this guy attended Mass there regularly once a quarter, and looked like he was doing it seriously. His colleague was curious, and eventually got the explanation as to why.

It turned out that he was doing it for a friend, for someone who had done a lot for him and this was his way of showing gratitude – his deceased friend had believed in this stuff, but being poor and without family there’d be no one else to do it for him, so our atheist character actually paid the church to do this once a quarter for his friend. (edit to clarify: his friend hadn’t asked him to. he wasn’t fulfilling a promise. he decided to do it of his own free will after his friend died.)

Here’s how he puts it:

As the only thing I can give to Bourgeat is the satisfaction of his religious wishes, the day when this Mass is said at the beginning of each season, I say with the good faith of a doubter, “Oh God, if there is a sphere where, after their death, you place all those who have been perfect, think of good Bourgeat. And if there is anything for him to suffer, give me his sufferings so that he may enter more quickly into what is called Paradise.”

This makes me think of what happens in my country – of the way so many Israeli atheists and agnostics take part in the religious rites when someone dies, standing around a person’s grave and saying Amen to prayers which are recited with a very similar intention. When we were preparing recently for my mum’s memorial service, I said I wouldn’t stand in the way of the traditional prayers being said but I wouldn’t say Amen to stuff I don’t believe in. My niece felt maybe we should say those prayers not because she believes in them but because my mum did, so we’d be doing it for her.

So when I read this story and got to this bit at the end, it felt like: whoa, this is so very much like this stuff that bugs me in my own culture, people observing religious rituals just because it’s what the deceased would have wanted/it’s the done thing/just in case maybe there is something in it after all. (That, and these unbiblical beliefs about how you can allegedly affect the fate of someone who is already dead by saying prayers for them.)

It’s kind of weird to me because when I was an agnostic I was very careful not to say stuff I didn’t believe in. But I can see that for someone who doesn’t believe in any kind of deity, it could make sense to just say the stuff anyway, just in case – because if there’s nothing behind it then, from their point of view, there might be no harm done. It just makes me sad because I’m looking at someone paying money to have something done which would benefit no one (the deceased being too dead to know about it anyway), and a religious organisation taking money for something that would benefit no one, though obviously they believe it does benefit the deceased – but then I feel kind of ill at the thought that they charge for it… but then I feel kind of ill at the thought of all sorts of stuff the Catholic church does/teaches, so no great surprises there…

Not sure where I was going with this rambling. Maybe nowhere. Nothing wrong with rambling aimlessly on occasion – just for the exercise and the fresh air :)

One thought on “The Atheist’s Mass

  1. Death is an unholy business so to say, and I also find it revolting when people are profiting on the grief of their next.
    I can’t tell exactly why I somehow/sometimes feel religious rituals soothing, but I can’t help thinking maybe your nieces reaction was the same; we don’t do it for the deceased, but more for ourselves. Being able to frame the void we feel makes it easier, even if we know the gold on the frame is just for decorations.


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