Conversation with an Atheist — Michael Harrington on Religion and Socialism

by James R. Gorman

Mr. Gorman is a pastor of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 21-28, 1978, pp. 641-644. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The radical incarnation of the power of God in “the halt and the maimed” — the powerless — is such a compelling irony as to have revolutionary potential for atheist and Christian alike. The “question of God,” for Harrington, is really a question about God’s guilt.

I am a pious apostate, an atheist shocked by the faithlessness of the believers, a fellow traveler of moderate Catholicism who has been out of the church for 20 years. [Michael Harrington].

A conversation with democratic socialist Michael Harrington is like an encounter with an atheist Karl Rahner. Harrington was nurtured in pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism; after attending a Jesuit high school in St. Louis and later Holy Cross College in the east, he joined the Catholic Worker Movement, that odd combination of anarchy and radical obedience. When Michael Harrington left the church, his was not the rebellion of an adolescent rejecting his history. His history, jesuitical Catholicism, remains an operating piece of his life’s energy, an "organizing principle," as he would call it.

But if faith in God is gone, there is a sense in which religion, taken in its broadest Jamesian sense, remains in Harrington’s life and thought. The "question of God" is for him a serious issue, "and one of the things that bothers me about many Christians and many atheists is that they treat it very casually." The base realities of poverty and starvation have driven Harrington again and again to the question of God’s whereabouts. That question, a deep and profound searching out of the ultimate in every proximate joy and suffering of brothers and sisters, appears in virtually every one of Harrington’s eight books. Indeed, it was his latest book, The Vast Majority: A Journey to the World’s Poor (Simon & Schuster, 1977), that occasioned our conversation about religion.

Part of The Vast Majority is made up of journals Harrington kept while on his journeys in the Third World. In India, he walks what he calls the Via Dolorosa of Calcutta. In that city he encounters a "vast wheedling, suppurating army of the halt and the maimed. They finally led me to think blasphemies about Christ." Not only is he confronted by the ultimate in the most agonizing of proximates; Harrington often couches his confrontations, his "epiphanies," in self-consciously christological language. The blasphemy that follows is mild to the ears of postconciliar Catholicism and approaches orthodoxy for those Protestants nurtured these last years on the neo-heretical thought of Jürgen Moltmann. "If he were half the God he claims to be," Harrington blasphemes, "he would leave his heaven and come here to do penance in the presence of a suffering that he as God obscenely permits." And then, as if his rage had almost confirmed the presence of the Holy One, Harrington quickly adds: "But he does not exist."

Harrington’s rage can only be the rage of one raised on the mythology of Christianity -- a mythology that tells of a God who has accepted responsibility for creation and world history. The question of God’s historical culpability can be asked only by one whose nurture and education have suggested that God is historically responsible in the first place. The "question of God," for Harrington, is really a question about God’s guilt.

The resolution of that question in the direction of atheism notwithstanding, the incarnation of ultimate power which the cross of Christ represents is still "an organizing concept" for Harrington. It has power, he says, "because it is God who is subjecting himself to [crucifixion]." The radical incarnation of the power of God in "the halt and the maimed" -- the powerless -- is such a compelling irony as to have revolutionary potential for atheist and Christian alike.

Opiate of the Masses

A pervasive theme of Marxists vis-à-vis religion is the identification of the church with that bourgeois society which will wither away; more to the point, the church is identified as that, opiate which robs people of the revolutionary fervor that causes the withering. If the capitalist epoch is in its twilight, as Harrington argues, then it follows that so must religion be also. Harrington does assert that, but not for the orthodox Marxist reasons. That is, the decline of the power of religion (Or even the significance of the God question) is not a sign of the rise of the human agenda.

The decline of the power of the religious order is, for Harrington, a sign of pervasive decadence in the culture which has nothing to do with a triumph for working men or women. "I think that Marx was wrong when he said that a society of material satisfaction for everyone would do away with religion. I believe that such a society, by stripping away the historical and accidental from human finitude, could give rise to a great religious yearning." Socialism is not causing the death of religion in America, and the death of religion will not necessarily pave the way to a rational human order in which all human necessities are met. Socialism and religion are not mutually exclusive. Here Harrington sounds the note struck by Milan Machovc, Roger Garaudy and others in the continental discussion between Christians and Marxists. There may in fact be a sense in which religion and socialism are complementary.

The loss of order -- decadence -- Harrington argues in his early book The Accidental Century (Macmillan, 1962), is not the result of a planned socialist revolution. It is the result of an unplanned and chaotic revolution in America which is serving the interests of a few while destroying the mediating structures of neighborhood, family, religion and economy of the many. The destruction of what Durkheim called the "little aggregations" has subverted the social infrastructure of which the church is an integral part. The passing of religious faith is not applauded by this atheist -- though, as he notes, he is convinced that there is no turning back. "There is no alternative to the task of creating the first truly godless culture humanity has ever known," he writes in a recent review of Peter Berger’s Facing Up to Modernity for the New Republic.

And yet, Harrington the humanist is the first to note the enormous difficulties to which a "godless culture" would give rise. He has been "immersed in Hegel recently." In Hegel, Harrington notes an important role of the church in the culture, what Hegel called the "liturgy of community." Where there is no form or outward expression of the spirit that the community holds in common, the possibility of the community’s disintegration is real. This destruction of a moral system -- or, more grandly, the decay of a culture -- is a matter of concern for those of antifaith as well as those of faith. "In this crisis of belief and disbelief, the antagonism between faith and antifaith is less important than their common challenge: the construction of a. world in which man chooses between God or himself -- and chooses freely," he writes in The Accidental Century. Harrington is less concerned that a culture should settle the question of God than he is that the culture should ask the question again.

Revealed Religion

God’s terminal illness -- which Harrington believes is not being stayed by the so-called evangelical movement or other manifestations of a renewed religiosity -- has given rise to other liturgies which are not as well developed as that of what Hegel called revealed religion. Civil religion -- or, stated from one perspective, that liturgy which gives form to the parochial gods of nationalism and capitalism -- is a profound threat to the human personality, Harrington believes. There is a moral decay, a social emptiness, a "homelessness," to borrow Berger’s phrase, that is rushing into the space which the church has left -- all of which is leading in the direction of the decay of the social fabric and not the advent of a socialist order. "I believe in my beliefs," Harrington says, "but as against the indifference that I see in this society, the void, the emptiness, I think religion is infinitely preferable."

In the absence of mature liturgies of community come temptations to deify "political party gods," marking a clear trend toward totalitarianism. It is heterodox Marxist Ernst Bloch who points out that the best of atheism begins with a refusal to accept political deities. Prophetic Christianity shares in that refusal and, Harrington affirms, must contribute that refusal to "the Movement." The theme, often struck by Reinhold Niebuhr, that a proximate cause becomes demonic when it claims ultimate significance, is one which Harrington picks up with enthusiasm. "Those who believe in God should join the movement and, while not being sectarian about it, should not deny their faith in God. . . . What I would like religious people to do is to insist on the relevance of God." To insist on the relevance of God may lead a religious socialist to deny the ultimate relevance of socialism as ideology. The temptation for liberal Christianity, as he notes, is to substitute the picket line for the church.

Here the religious person is amazed at the orthodoxy of this atheist who is amazed by the faithlessness of the believers. "The church is not simply the people of God," Harrington says, criticizing his postconciliar Catholic friends. "The church is the people of God who believe in something." The atheist encourages the religious of the left to be faithful to what their tradition must hold dear. To turn the power of the transcendent over to a particular movement -- including democratic socialism -- is to invite a turn toward totalitarianism.


Harrington is the national chairman of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC, pronounced Dee-Sock), the strategy of which has been to build a socialist presence on the left wing of the Democratic Party. DSOC member Ronald Dellums has become the first member of Congress in 50 years openly to declare himself as a socialist. William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists, is an active member of the four-year-old organization, as are critic and historian Irving Howe, economists Robert Lekachman and Lester Thurow, and theologians Harvey Cox, James Luther Adams and Rosemary Ruether.

Harrington insists on seeing the broad movements of cultural history in every particular experience, majestic and mundane. His work in the vastly confused politics of the Democratic Party began somewhat abruptly with the smuggling of his widely read The Other America into the Oval Office of the Kennedy administration. When Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, Harrington was whisked off to Washington to write memos with his friend and fellow traveler, the late Paul Jacobs. His memos were passed on to the president through Sargent Shriver. How can a socialist get that close to the center of capitalist power in this country without losing his soul?

"Saint Michael Harrington," as neoconservative apologist Michael Novak has called him, has some of the qualities of saintliness. There is a spirit of the Roman Catholic notions of charity in him that some would call naïve. For him the New Left dualism that spelled America with a "k" was and is appalling. The ambiguities in the struggles for bread and justice call him away from such simplistic dualism to work on what he calls "the left wing of the possible."

"Carter is better than Ford," he is often heard to say. "Anytime you get furious and say it didn’t matter who won, bite your tongue. It makes a difference. If Carter has an inadequate full-employment policy, as I think he does, at least we’re discussing what kind of full-employment policy and not the idiotic question of whether there should be one." The DSOC strategy of working with liberal capitalists and progressive "Reutherite" trade unionists sends chills up the spines of more orthodox leftists.

Harrington calls his act "walking a tightrope between the sectarian irrelevance of the visionary whose vision is not connected with anything that’s going on in this society, and the pragmatic irrelevance of those who so perfectly adapt to the daily struggle that they lose sight of the larger struggle." That balance, and DSOC’s strategy, is centered on the left wing of the Democratic Party. On tight-ropes, first steps are of enormous significance. DSOC support of the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill is such a first step, one that is not without controversy even in DSOC itself.

But controversy has a different style in DSOC than in other left-wing organizations. Harrington is proud that his organization is not afflicted with that sectarian disease common on the left "where you don’t simply disagree with a political opponent but denounce him or her as an agent of the bourgeoisie, imperialist and racist." .Harrington went to Washington back in the early ‘60s and continues to work with Democratic Party liberals out of a humane belief that the people who run this country are, like the other inhabitants of the country, decent and honest. They share his commitment to something called democracy. For example, World Bank President Robert McNamara, Harrington suggests in Vast Majority, "is a man of enormous sincerity, decent values and genuine moral passion. So his participation in our international wrongdoing, like that of the nation itself, is unwitting and even dedicated to effecting results that are nearly the exact opposite of those that are in fact achieved." The word for it is "tragedy," but the common American commitment to the principle that all human beings are entitled to a franchise makes walking the tightrope -- and continuing to have hope -- possible for an atheist,

The religious socialist who has joined Harrington’s "constituency of hope" has his or her own tightrope to walk. It takes integrity to walk a tightrope, a surefootedness. Differences must be taken seriously. Disagreements between atheist and religious socialist are profound indeed. They have to do with the most basic elements of identity. To deny identity is to deny the gift of complementarity. Faithful and antifaithful will disagree about the meaning of history, especially the place and function of the future. The faithful will see the future and hence the solution to the problem of bread as God’s gift to a faithful people. Those of antifaith will understand a humane future as a goal toward which humanity strives. The agreement is that the question of the future is a question about God and humanity.

Atheist and believer will disagree too about the definition of the human person, about the sources and character of power, about definitions of success and materialism, the power and place of reason in the struggle for bread. But it is Harrington, the atheist, who demands integrity of the religious socialist. It is the atheist Harrington who demands that the "question of God" be taken seriously by atheist and Christian alike. Harrington, who understands better than many Christians the meaning of a culture’s decay, actively seeks the aid of the faithful, whose ultimate loyalty cannot be to the movement or even to the world which that movement seeks to transform. The ultimate loyalty of the religious socialist will be to God, who alone brings peace and justice and bread to the "halt and the maimed" by becoming one with them -- which is the ultimate blasphemy.

Rosemary Ruether put it nicely in The Radical Kingdom (Harper & Row, 1970): "What matters is that human faith not mutilate any of the dimensions of [humanity] that have been won through faith in God, and that faith in the transcendent God not mutilate faith in the human task."