Tolkien the Atheist

Only twice have I had a live discussion with someone about Tolkien’s religion, and in both cases my interlocutor was convinced that Tolkien was an atheist. Each time, he said it with such casual conviction that I am led to believe this must be a common mistake, something in the air.

The first such discussion was with a committed atheist — a dogged atheist. (The very doggedness of his atheism, the way he trudges forward with grim determination to disbelieve God, makes me think he is perhaps on his way to theism… persisting in folly can end in wisdom … but who am I to say such a thing?) This conversation happened before I read much about Tolkien as a man. I had read his three major works, including a few times through the Lord of the Rings, and considered myself very much a fan. But I had not read in-depth, nor studied Tolkien’s own commentaries, nor read about his life and work. I had managed to pick up somewhere that Tolkien was a Christian, but it was just something I had heard vaguely, not something I knew.

In the course of a discussion with the dogged atheist, then, I happened to mention that Tolkien was a Christian. “Yeah, I know he was born Christian,” said he, “but he died an atheist.”

This didn’t sound right, but he said it with such flat finality that I was stymied. All I offered was, “I’m not so sure about that,” and we moved the discussion elsewhere.

I had brought it up in the first place because this man was a huge fan of Tolkien. He loved the Lord of the Rings and had shared my same nervousness that the films would be a betrayal of the books, and my same general relief that the films were actually quite good despite some flaws. I wanted to know what he thought of one of his favorite authors being a Christian. (Perhaps it sounds like I was trying to convert him. Certainly, I was not. I am in no position to convert anyone to anything. But I was fascinated by cognitive dissonance and was wondering how it reflected on my own, often equally-dissonant thoughts and beliefs.) I still never got an answer on that one.

[This discussion prompted me to look up the truth about Tolkien, and learning the truth prompted me to read much more about him, to re-read his books, to read some of his minor works, to pay the Silmarillion the attention it deserves for the first time (my first reading had been very desultory), to listen to Tolkien lectures, etc. I am now much better informed about, and indeed better illuminated by, Tolkien’s life and work.]

The second discussion was one I had more recently with a bartender. I had with me on the bar Tom Shippey’s book about Tolkien and also CS Lewis’s Perelandra. In the course of friendly bar-banter, he asked me what I was reading. He seemed to know that Lewis was a Christian (who does not know this?) and then added, “But Tolkien was an atheist, right?”

I corrected the bartender, who was affable enough to allow himself to be gently corrected. I even told him that Tolkien was instrumental in the conversion of Lewis, which seemed to impress him. He explained that he had known that Tolkien had been “in the bad stuff” in World War I, and that he had just assumed that the latter’s experience of horrible violence and death had made him an atheist. We didn’t talk about it much more — he had other customers to tend to, and a chummy manner to maintain — but what struck me again was the casual conviction he had first shown of Tolkien’s supposed atheism. As if it were a common fact that everybody knew.

(And now that I think about it, how curious that he would know that Tolkien was a combat veteran, but not that he was a Christian. I did not know about Tolkien’s WWI experiences until much later.)

The Lord of the Rings is unique and beautiful. It inspires intense love and devotion in its fans, the kind of devotion that more academically popular 20th Century writers like Joyce or Beckett rarely inspire. People will say, “Oh, I love Joyce!” but they don’t mean it in quite the same way. The don’t love Joyce; they feel edified by Joyce. They don’t curl up at home with Ulysses when no one is watching the way they do curl up with The Hobbit.

If one’s conviction is that all Christians (even just all theists) are silly — or malign — then it’s important to ignore or downplay or outright deny the beliefs of the objects of one’s love. With some artists it is easier to separate out their beliefs from their works, either because their beliefs seem to change and waver (like Bob Dylan), or because their works seem to be created in a religion-less vacuum (like in Shakespeare, where religion is everywhere and yet nowhere).

Other great works are impossible to separate from the convictions of their creators. There can be no non-Christian Bach, nor a non-Christian Mahler, nor a non-Christian Tolkien. My bartender friend and my atheist friend don’t care much for Mahler, but they do love Tolkien. So perhaps the only way out is for them to simply deny reality with unthinking conviction.

Well, it’s not the only way out…


8 comments on “Tolkien the Atheist

  1. Carlos R says:

    Very interesting, I was wondering about that myself… There seems to be a tendency for intelligent people to think atheism is an “upgrade” and that seeing tolkiens obvious intelligence and depth they would assume that he is an atheist and probably a humanist as well. Well, that’s clear, and perhaps I would be an atheist had I not used my excellent although possibly overestimated observational skills to perceive that almost all atheists are passionate atheists, arguing stupid points over and over, and more often then not, lacking wisdom and perception of the human condition with true depth. There are exceptions, of course, but that is generally the case. You find believers in two extremes: among the most naive and less intelligent individuals which usually constitute the larger portion of society, and which take their cultural beliefs as dogma and lack wisdom, and a few minority of people(myself humbly included) who understand and see certain patterns and trends, who see beyond the cultural illusions, then past the other sorts of illusions, and get a glimpse at something for which there are no words. God is no longer the man on the sky, but it becomes the source for what we call “everything”. Is it fiction? An overactive imagination perhaps? Why am I posting this here, now? Is there a why? Invariably for the intelligent individual, death is the key. For most intelligent beings, those still caught in more intermediate stages perhaps, death brings depth to life and to “be rembered” as someone of value and contribution, to put action where it is of “greatest value”, as says mr Stephen Hawkins, becomes their purpose and meaning. To them, god is a man in the sky, and the afterlife is a party in heaven, and of course they believe there are no such ridiculous things. Here I would like to point out two things. First, these notions are absurd. But then again, as Camus observed, life is absurd. The world is already absurd. So, you’re put in this crazy place, and you become a skeptic?! Sounds like intermediate intelligence to me. Now, secondly, I do not believe in a man in the sky either. But all these great minds disregarding a higher dimension alltogether because there’s no evidence sounds like shit. How come the intelligent brain regards life and death as absurd? How come? It makes no sense for something that belongs entirely to a reality to question it. To learn about it would be natural, but to question the reality of a reality sounds quite strange. Perhaps it is a strange attribute of the human brain, to question ones own existence. Why is it that the “I don’t know” is so hard to come by? Why is it that everyone falls into a pattern, be it Tolkien, Hawkins(either one), or mother Teresa?If everything is as it seems, then why to invent God? Why would reality be Horrifying in the first place? Or absurd? Why would our brains lead u there? What is our intelligence really worth in this universe? Perhaps we cannot see what is right in front of our eyes. When you look at the eyes of these, for example, individuals called “four horsemen of new atheism”, do you see wisdom? I don’t. I see Daniel dennet spending his precious time trying to write a book to discredit Christianity, like a child who doesn’t understand the value of things. I see Richard dawkins, whose convertion to atheism is quite honestly retarded. Am I the only one who sees these things? Who sees this world is run by children?Perhaps the ring is our illusion of self in a hostile world, and facing death is going to Mordor, destroying the ring once you realize that nothing at all matters, nothing has “value” in a world where all passes away, and losing all hope, but then finding true peace, against all odds, a salvation. Tolkiens world is the art of believing in the unbelievable, facing the darkness in you and letting go so that it is gone forever. It is about fools hope, true compassion and love that go against every instinct of survival one might have and rising above it. And perhaps one day, after we die, we will see each other under the shades of the trees of eternal Valinor, or perhaps become one with Eru Himself

  2. Yahzi says:

    Atheists don’t think Christians are silly or malign. They think Christianity is silly and malign.

    Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner and a racist. That doesn’t invalidate the beauty of the Constitution. This is what is meant by the saying that “heroes have feet of clay.”

    Many people have been good, decent, and valuable human beings despite their prejudices (consider that our view of women would be found almost nowhere in the past, yet Plato and Newton are still rightfully lauded). However, all of those people would have been even better if they hadn’t been saddled with absurd, hateful ideas that have no basis in fact.

    This is what atheists think of Christians: they are good people who would be better if they weren’t saddled with absurd, hateful ideas that have no basis in fact.

    Now there are some Christians who know that their ideas are absurd, hateful, and fact-free, and yet argue for these ideas even to the point of causing other people pain, even to the point of encoding these fact-free ideas into law where lives are torn apart (and sometimes bodies). These people are called “preachers,” and atheists do think they are silly and malign, but only because even when faced with the fact that their ideas are hurting people here and now they just don’t care.

    Anyway, I am one of those atheists who always thought Tolkien had given up the faith by the end of his life – it made a nice symmetry with Lewis’ conversion. I can’t remember where I heard it, nor can I find any supporting documentation (I found your site while researching the proposition). Consequently I will henceforth abandon this position and will in the future respond to such assertions with requests for citation (which is how an atheist says “I don’t believe you.” 😀 )

    This will not, however, change my philosophical position, insomuch as my atheism never depended on Tolkien’s atheism, or character, or any man’s atheism or character or lack thereof. Nor will it in any way affect my affection for Tolkien’s writings, which, freed of messy, entangling circumstance, stand entirely on their own.

  3. PrivateSi says:

    All LOTR shows to me is how confused and contradictory Christianity is in the minds of believers…. They actively using a thing of great addictive power to destroy an all seeing entity by destroying the thing of great addictive power… Sounds like a typical biblical self-destruction / god-destruction / paradox / oxymoron…. Like Jesus Christ had to die (so many believe he believed) for the God to live, Sacrificial Lambs…… But it’s an epic YARN… The LOTR, that is… and the old testament.

  4. D.M. says:

    I really get sick of atheists bringing up, just because Tolkien was smart, that he was an Atheist.. He wasn’t. He didn’t die an atheist. I don’t care what fucking point you fucking have, he didn’t FUCKING die an atheist. He died a Roman Catholic! He’s going to heaven, not to hell (UNLIKE YOU!).

    The note that you thought he was pointing to atheism was this (like right before he died):
    “‘Trends’ in the Church are…serious, especially to those accustomed to find in it a solace and a ‘pax’ in times of temporal trouble, and not just another arena of strife and change. But imagine the experience of those born (as I) between the Golden and Diamond Jubilee of Victoria. Both senses of imaginations of security have been stripped away from us. Now we find ourselves nakedly confronting the will of God, as concerns ourselves and our position in Time. ‘Back to normal’ – political and Christian predicaments – as a Catholic professor once said to me when I bemoaned the collapse of all my world that began just after I achieved 21. I know quite well that, to you as to me, the Church which once felt like a refuge, now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go! (I wonder if this desperate feeling, the last state of loyalty hanging on, was not, even more often than is actually recorded in the Gospels, felt by Our Lord’s followers in His earthly life-time?) I think there is nothing to do but pray, for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves; and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.

    There are, of course, various elements in the present situation, which are confused, though in fact distinct…The ‘protestant’ search backwards for ‘simplicity’ and directedness-which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because ‘primitive Christianity’ is now and in spite of all ‘research’ will ever remain largely unknown; because ‘primitiveness’ is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance. Grave abuses were as much an element in Christian ‘liturgical’ behavior from the beginning as now. (St. Paul’s strictures on eucharistic behavior are sufficient to show this!) Still more because ‘my church’ was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history – the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. There is no resemblance between the ‘mustard seed’ and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is part of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up., for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree. Very good: but in husbandry the authorities, the keepers of the Tree, must look after it, according to such wisdom as they possess, prune it, remove cankers, get rid of parasites, and so forth (with trepidation, knowing how little their knowledge of growth is!). But they will certainly do harm, if they are obsessed with the desire of going back to the seed or even to the first youth of the plant when it was (as they imagine) pretty and unaffected by evils.

    The other motive (now so confused with the primitivist one, even in the mind of any one of the reformers)” aggiornamento: bringing up to date: that has its own grave dangers, as has been apparent throughout history. With this ‘ecumenicalness’ has also become confused. I find myself in sympathy with those elements that are strictly ‘ecumenical,’ that is concerned with other groups or churches that call themselves (and often truly are) ‘Christian.’ We have prayed endlessly for Christian reunion, but it is difficult to see, if one reflects, how that could possibly begin to come about except as it has, with all its inevitable minor absurdities. An increase in ‘charity’ is an enormous gain.”

    He never said he was leaving Christianity. HE SAID he HATED THE VATICAN II (AS WE ALL SHOULD). Ignorant fucking fools.


  5. dm says:

    Lol jk.. Tolkien was just simply a Christian, no harm done.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I’ll just be flatly honest here: people only assume that Tolkien was an atheist because he was intelligent. That’s it. I think that’s just awful, regardless of beliefs. Assuming that one’s beliefs determine one’s intelligence is a fantastic way to lead to intellectual exclusivity. You know, like what the Catholic Church did during the Middle Ages, or like what atheists do today with macro-evolution. But that’s a rant there.

    What I’ve heard said here (and other places) is that atheists only find the belief, not the believer, absurd. They believe (mostly) that Christians are good people simply held back by their beliefs. While it is nice to see some civility (a luxury on the internet), that hardly makes it less insulting. It’s no different from theists assuming atheists have no morality (just let me add this: when people say things about atheist morality, we’re not saying you lack it, we’re asking you where you base it, so stop flipping out and just answer the question).

    And, as a side note, Christianity has done my intellect good. It has taught me to check sources for charlatans (look up the Bible verse), avoid going into debt (that’s half the book of Proverbs), given me a wonder for learning (learn more about God’s creation), taught me to be unbiased (if God created the universe, then a “neutral” source of information will confirm or at least affirm this), and even given me a little of an anarchist streak.

    So, sorry for the rant there. I tend to get a little evangelical on the internet. I do enjoy Tolkien, and I am hoping against hope for some kind of silver-screen tribute to the Silmarillion. As a writer myself, I have something of an admiration for the man, thought I myself am Protestant. I also admire his views (Tolkien himself was a self-professed anarchist), and find good value represented in his works. But remember this: Tolkien was the person he was because of his beliefs, not despite them. He could no less have written Lord of the Rings without Christianity than Michelangelo could’ve painted the Sistine Chapel without the same. Bear in mind that, if nothing else, Christianity has a long history of renowned literature and art, to which Tolkien has greatly contributed. Which makes the following statements look like the words of a charlatan…

    “Religions are not imaginative, not poetic, not soulful. On the contrary, they are parochial, small-minded, niggardly with the human imagination, precisely where science is generous.”
    -Richard Dawkins

    “The scientific worldview is so much more exciting, more poetic, more filled with sheer wonder, than anything in the poverty-stricken arsenals of the religious imagination.”
    -Also Richard Dawkins (groan)

    I have nothing against science, but these are the words of a man with little understanding of either religion, science, literature, art, or history. At the very least, it is infectiously xenophobic. Science is not an ‘imaginative’ process; it is a strict methodology of reasoning based on observation and mathematics, two very unimaginative things. We have a word in the business for imaginative science: science fiction. Then again, this is coming from the guy who gave the world memetics, or as I like to call it, well poison. Dismissing argument based on a pseudo-scientific cancer we have no reason to believe exists? Fail.

    And to DM, let me just say one thing: the Gospel is simple. Accept Christ, and you shall be saved. Catholicism, if you will pardon me, is a melting-pot of paganism and decorations of Christianity. While I understand there is no Mary/Saint worship (just using them for prayer), it is still insulting to God. There is no implication that Mary’s blessings were some kind of divinity. I think giving birth to the savior of humanity (not to mention the perfect child) would be blessing enough. Additionally, why would God be unable to take our prayers Himself? I should think He is offended as a father that we think we can’t come straight to Him for request (but we can come to flawed human beings?). But, what else could result of someone who calls an earthly man a heavenly title (“Pope” meaning “father”)?

    Okay, rant over now. Back to life.

  7. Mik73 says:

    As a ‘devout’ atheist myself, I think my surprise at learning about Tolkien’s devotion to his religion was due to my simplistic notion that, “A religious person would never want to commit an act of sacrilege by transposing his religion whole-cloth into a magic-driven fantasy world with just the names changed”. I figured it would be a burning offense or something. So I figured he was just a smart dude, probably with a religious upbringing (who didn’t have a religious upbringing back then?), simply drawing on his experiences and using it to aid the creative process. I didn’t know at the time just how deeply his religiosity went, and how deeply embedded his spiritual convictions were baked into his mythology (or at least the heroic journey and motifs in LOTR specifically).

    But I educated myself more into his personal life, upbringing, thoughts on Creation and sub-creation, and so forth. And could see how he thought of his sub-creation as an imperfect homage, or re-interpretation of a Divine Spirit. Trying to capture it’s essence without trying to supplant it in any way. I gather some of the genesis of the work was in trying to ‘fill in’ perceived gaps in English Anglo-Saxon history and mythology he felt the culture deserved.

    Basically Tolkien was much more like Aule in his attempts at creation then Melkor – who perverted and tried to ‘create’ monstrosities to establish a firmament of his own (even when expressly told by The One that he, Melkor, could create nothing that wasn’t already part of Eru’s plan). Aule simply wanted to create a species that could help him better realize the Music that Eru had gifted them back in the Time Before Time.

    Anyway, one must take a mature stance on this. Tolkien’s mythology and depth of creative output required the unique mix of his personal upbringing, his devotion and understanding of his religion, along with his innate genius with languages, European mythology, history and creative storytelling ability. Motivated in no small part by the love he had for his children (and wanting to put food on the table).

    Hi religion formed a big part of his creative well, no question. But as he said himself, we wasn’t trying for a 1:1 allegory for his life and experiences. I can take his work at face value, the work of a tale-teller trying to tell a good long story. With some good universal concepts like pity and mercy thrown in as further cause for thought and reflection. Tolkien just wasn’t the ‘bash you over the head’ kind of devoutly religious person, and I think that helps make his works more approachable to a wide base of believers and non-believers.

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