It can be easy to assume that old books don’t say much. The books themselves often serve as rustic decorations. I’ve definitely been guilty of buying old books with the primary intent of showing them in my collection and a secondary intent of actually reading them. But when I bought The Causes and Cure of Unbelief last fall, I knew I wanted to eventually read the whole thing. After doing so, I learned why some ideas best remain forgotten.
If you look carefully at the cover, you’ll see that someone specified that it was not written by Cardinal Gibbons, but only revised by him. As a matter of fact, tracking down where this book first originated was about as difficult as finding the sources that Tim Keller uses for his arguments for God. Let the rabbit trail commence!
I found out that the original author, Nicolas Joseph Laforêt, first published the work in 1864 in Belgium under the title Pourquoi l’on ne Croit Pas, or Why Men Do Not Believe. That book was translated into English in 1869, and you can even read a digitized version here. (It’s really cool!) In 1909, a Catholic bishop from Massachusetts named James Gibbons published a revised, enlarged, edited, and renamed edition: The Causes and Cure of Unbelief. (That’s the book I have.) The publisher Roman Catholic Books decided to not only reprint the book in 1980 but to re-rename it as well, this time titled Curing Atheism. Finally, the second part of the book was most recently reproduced in 2016 by John L. Barger under the title Unbelief: Its Causes and Cures. For over 150 years, men have been trying their hardest to get Laforêt’s words in front of as many people as they could, and I couldn’t begin to tell you why.
Although the evolving titles seem straightforward enough, the book takes quite a winding path to make its point. Part One follows the conversion stories of Justin Martyr, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas before absolutely railing on Martin Luther and Protestantism. Laforêt leads into Part Two with some of his twisted definitions of worldviews like materialism, pantheism, sophistry, skepticism, and spiritual rationalism. He spends Part Two turning around in circles as he tries to define what unbelief is and whether it is really caused by the will or only by the understanding.
I have never read anyone so self-righteous as Laforêt. Maybe his language is just a product of his time, but throughout the book, he described non-Catholics of all colors using words like “unhappy victims of error,” “darkened intelligence,” and “weakness of the will and of the understanding.” His ad-hominem attacks carry an even richer irony when he quotes on page 121, “We attack books, not men,” before quoting thus of his ideological nemesis Voltaire not three pages later:
“Voltaire behaved here like a consummate scoundrel and cheat, and I paid him off as he deserves. He is a wretch, and for the honor of genius I am sorry that a man who has so much should be so full of mischief. Voltaire is the most wicked fool I have ever known: is only good to read. You cannot imagine what duplicity, cheating and villainy he practiced here.”
Laforêt’s inability to make up his mind is a theme throughout the book. Possibly his greatest point of confusion is whether or not the will or the understanding is the driving force of unbelief; in other words, he is grappling with whether atheism is ultimately a choice. He begins this deliberation with a characteristically winding definition of the word faith and how it relates to the will and the understanding. Laforêt says, in no shortage of words, that to believe is “an act of the understanding, because the object of Faith is Divine Truth, and truth in itself is the object of the understanding, and not of the will.” But, he says, the will can move the understanding to accept “truth” or not; therefore, faith is a choice.
I thought that this was enough going back and forth on this, but it comes back up until the very end of the book when he blames unbelief ultimately on an “evil-disposed will” and essentially on a rotten soul. There are some clues, however, that show me why he is so tortured over this twisting of processes that lead to unbelief. If we back up two pages to page 149, we find the following on why Laforêt is so immovably sure that his Catholic belief is correct, and I think it is worth quoting in full. (Laforêt often allows quotes to extend for pages, so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me doing the same.)
“The Divine Word, which the Church does but repeat and explain to men, cannot deceive. God is Truth, and the Truth does not lie. When it is once thoroughly established that a doctrine comes from God, it would be absurd to demand other proofs of the truth of this doctrine. People do not ask Truth if it speaks the truth. Our Faith, resting on the authority of the Divine Word, is therefore sheltered of all error; the foundation on which it rests is immovable. It is supremely reasonable, for it depends on the veracity of God himself, who is infinite reason.
“We are certain that the doctrines to which we adhere by Divine Catholic Faith really come from God. We do not admit lightly or without cause the fact of Divine Revelation; we believe it on the authority of truths whose evidence in our eyes is absolutely incontestable, and twenty times more striking than that which surrounds the best authenticated historical facts.”
So… Laforêt’s belief in God is correct because it is because God exists because he says he exists, and God says that whatever he says is true. Fool-proof. It would be funny if Laforêt didn’t actually believe that this is fool-proof logic.
According to Laforêt, the prime cause of unbelief is ignorance of religion. But he acknowledges on page 197 that there are some “infidels who are not ignorant of Catholic belief.” He gives the example of original sin, saying that it shocks the reason of unbelievers. These unbelievers tend to draw the conclusion from original sin that “infants who die unbaptized are punished eternally in hell like the greatest criminals[.]” Laforêt says that nowhere does the Catholic church claim this, and it is a monstrous travesty. But is that not the natural conclusion anyone would reach when thoroughly following the logic of original sin? If this doesn’t follow, then what does?
Laforêt does the same thing with the idea that there is no salvation outside the Catholic church. He says that saying so would be “as absurd as it is odious,” and that no Catholic theologian has ever said this. But isn’t eternal suffering for unbelievers the logical conclusion if you follow Christian reasoning in regards to how to get to heaven? Laforêt blames these doubts on prejudice alone, saying that if unbelievers do not suffer from ignorance, then they at least suffer from prejudice. It seems that at bottom, Laforêt makes these excuses to bury his own despair that the entire doctrine of hell actually is “as absurd as it is odious.”
This brings me to a little conspiracy theory that I gathered throughout reading The Causes and Cure of Unbelief. I think that Laforêt is a closet atheist. He might not even know it. But the whole book makes much more sense in that light, from the title to the last page, in which he (finally) prescribes the cure for unbelief in just praying harder.
I think that the unbeliever here is the author himself. The doubts are his doubts. His wandering question of whether faith comes from the will or the understanding is his way of trying to decide whether he is guilty or not in his unbelief. He reminds himself that he must believe, because if he doesn’t, he’s both a villain and a bumbling idiot. His long-winded sermon on Catholicism being Divine Truth justifies his belief in his religion. At least, that’s what he tells himself when he wonders if God really exists, and if God does exist, then it justifies how he can allow so many horrible demises.
But hey, that’s just a theory. I want to know if you agree!