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10 Atheists Who Engage Religion Charitably


David Bentley Hart is one of our foremost theologian-philosophers, an American intellectual treasure who has ransacked the thesaurus while writing books such as The Beauty of the Infinite, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, and the recent The Experience of God.

One of the things I enjoy about his writing is how he rightfully gives credit to Nietzsche for recovering the scandalous nature of Christianity. In The Beauty of the Infinite he goes as far as saying:

"Nietzsche has bequeathed Christian thought a most beautiful gift, a needed anamnesis of itself—of its strangeness. His critique is a great camera obscura that brings into vivid and concentrated focus the aesthetic scandal of Christianity’s origins, the great offense this new faith gave the gods of antiquity, and everything about it that pagan wisdom could neither comprehend nor abide: a God who goes about in the dust of exodus for love of a race intransigent in its particularity; who apparels himself in common human nature, in the form of a servant; who brings good news to those who suffer and victory those who are as nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates to the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves; and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them an offering them the solace of his wounds. In recalling theology to the ungainliness of the gospel, Nietzsche retrieved the gospel from the soporific complacency of modernity (and at a time when modernity had gained a commanding advantage over it) …"

Singing the praises of Nietzsche is one thing. And it is a good thing. Rene Girard does the same in his I See Satan Fall Like Lightening. But there is no need to hearken back to a Golden Age of intellectually respectable atheism as David Bentley Hart does in his latest piece in First Things entitled “Gods and Gopniks.” Here’s what he said:

Which brings me to Adam Gopnik, and specifically his New Yorker article of February 17, ‘Bigger Than Phil’—the immediate occasion of all the rude remarks that went coursing through my mind and spilling out onto the page overhead. Ostensibly a survey of recently published books on (vaguely speaking) theism and atheism, it is actually an almost perfect distillation of everything most depressingly vapid about the cogitatively indolent secularism of late modern society. This is no particular reflection on Gopnik’s intelligence—he is bright enough, surely—but only on that atmosphere of complacent ignorance that seems to be the native element of so many of today’s cultured unbelievers. The article is intellectually trivial, but perhaps culturally portentous.

Stephen Bullivant’s Faith and Unbelief offers a better strategy for Christians who want to engage atheists. He proposes that Christians should seek out the best among them, those who are most open to dialogue. It makes sense to engage the Nietzsches of our age without forgetting that the 19th century had its fair share of Feuerbachs, Renans, and Thomas Huxleys.

To this end, I came up with a list of ten books by ten living atheists who engage religion (mostly) charitably.

It didn’t take me very long. I’m sure you can think of some prominent figures that I’ve omitted. They are listed below along with representative books, and their publisher blurbs.


1. Julia Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe

“Unlike Freud, I do not claim that religion is just an illusion and a source of neurosis. The time has come to recognize, without being afraid of ‘frightening’ either the faithful or the agnostics, that the history of Christianity prepared the world for humanism.”

So writes Julia Kristeva in this provocative work, which skillfully upends our entrenched ideas about religion, belief, and the thought and work of a renowned psychoanalyst and critic. With dialogue and essay, Kristeva analyzes our “incredible need to believe”—the inexorable push toward faith that, for Kristeva, lies at the heart of the psyche and the history of society. Examining the lives, theories, and convictions of Saint Teresa of Avila, Sigmund Freud, Donald Winnicott, Hannah Arendt, John Paul II, and other individuals, she investigates the intersection between the desire for God and the shadowy zone in which belief resides.

2. Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf

The Puppet and the Dwarf offers a close reading of today’s religious constellation from the viewpoint of Lacanian psychoanalysis. He critically confronts both predominant versions of today’s spirituality—New Age gnosticism and deconstructionist-Levinasian Judaism—and then tries to redeem the “materialist” kernel of Christianity. His reading of Christianity is explicitly political, discerning in the Pauline community of believers the first version of a revolutionary collective. Since today even advocates of Enlightenment like Jurgen Habermas acknowledge that a religious vision is needed to ground our ethical and political stance in a “postsecular” age, this book—with a stance that is clearly materialist and at the same time indebted to the core of the Christian legacy—is certain to stir controversy.

3. Jurgen Habermas, An Awareness of What is Missing

In his recent writings on religion and secularization, Habermas has challenged reason to clarify its relation to religious experience and to engage religions in a constructive dialogue. Given the global challenges facing humanity, nothing is more dangerous than the refusal to communicate that we encounter today in different forms of religious and ideological fundamentalism.

In 2007 Habermas conducted a debate, under the title ‘An Awareness of What Is Missing’, with philosophers from the Jesuit School for Philosophy in Munich. This volume includes Habermas’s essay, the contributions of his interlocutors and Habermas’s reply to them. It will be indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand one of the most urgent and intractable issues of our time.

4. Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos

The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such.

5. John N. Gray, Heresies Against Progress and Other Illusions

By the author of the best-selling Straw Dogs, this book is a characteristically trenchant and unflinchingly clear-sighted collection of reflections on our contemporary lot. Whether writing about the future of our species on this planet, the folly of our faith in technological progress, or the self-deceptions of the liberal establishment, John Gray dares to be heretical like few other thinkers today.

6. Alain Badiou, St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism

In this bold and provocative work, French philosopher Alain Badiou proposes a startling reinterpretation of St. Paul. For Badiou, Paul is neither the venerable saint embalmed by Christian tradition, nor the venomous priest execrated by philosophers like Nietzsche. He is instead a profoundly original and still revolutionary thinker whose invention of Christianity weaves truth and subjectivity together in a way that continues to be relevant for us today.

In this work, Badiou argues that Paul delineates a new figure of the subject: The bearer of a universal truth that simultaneously shatters the strictures of Judaic Law and the conventions of the Greek Logos. Badiou shows that the Pauline figure of the subject still harbors a genuinely revolutionary potential today: The subject is that which refuses to submit to the order of the world as we know it and struggles for a new one instead.

7. Mary Midgley, Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning

Mary Midgley in this book discusses the high spiritual ambitions which tend to gather around the notion of science, and, in particular, some very odd recent expressions of them. When everyone viewed the world as God’s creation, there was no problem about the element of worship involved in studying it, nor about science’s function in mapping people’s lives. But now these things have grown puzzling. Officially, science claims only the modest function of establishing facts. Yet people still hope for something much vaster and grander from it—the myths by which to shape and support life in an increasingly confusing age.

8. Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless

The return to religion has arguably become the dominant theme of contemporary culture. Somehow, the secular age seems to have been replaced by a new era where political action flows directly from theological, indeed cosmic, conflict. The Faith of the Faithless lays out the philosophical and political framework of this idea and seeks to find a way beyond it. Should we defend a version of secularism or quietly accept the slide into theism? Or is there another way?

9. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory

Why has power in the West assumed the form of an “economy,” that is, of a government of men and things? If power is essentially government, why does it need glory, that is, the ceremonial and liturgical apparatus that has always accompanied it?

The greatest novelty to emerge from The Kingdom and the Glory is that modern power is not only government but also glory, and that the ceremonial, liturgical, and acclamatory aspects that we have regarded as vestiges of the past actually constitute the basis of Western power. Through a fascinating analysis of liturgical acclamations and ceremonial symbols of power—the throne, the crown, purple cloth, the Fasces, and more—Agamben develops an original genealogy that illuminates the startling function of consent and of the media in modern democracies. With this book, the work begun with Homo Sacer reaches a decisive point, profoundly challenging and renewing our vision of politics.

10. Michael Ruse, Science and Spirituality

In Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, Michael Ruse offers a new analysis of the often troubled relationship between science and religion. Arguing against both extremes—in one corner, the New Atheists; in the other, the Creationists and their offspring the Intelligent Designers – he asserts that science is undoubtedly the highest and most fruitful source of human inquiry. Yet, by its very nature and its deep reliance on metaphor, science restricts itself and is unable to answer basic, significant, and potent questions about the meaning of the universe and humankind’s place within it: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the ultimate source and foundation of morality? What is the nature of consciousness? What is the meaning of it all? Ruse shows that one can legitimately be a skeptic about all of these questions, and yet why it is open for a Christian, or member of any faith, to offer answers. Scientists, he concludes, should be proud of their achievements but modest about their scope. Christians should be confident of their mission but respectful of the successes of science.
Originally posted at Ethika Politika. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Uroboros)

Artur Rosman

Written by

Artur Rosman is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature rushing a dissertation on the Catholic Imagination of Czeslaw Milosz (to be published as a book by Wipf & Stock). He blogs regularly (when not dissertating) on his blog Cosmos the in Lost and Rabelaisian Catholicism for Ethika Politika.

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  • NicholasBeriah Cotta

    I recently struggled through a copy of "The Dialectics of Secularization" which is a dialogue between Cardinal Ratzinger and Juergen Habermas. I was struck (and impressed) with Habermas' acknolwedgement that the constitutional state's default attitude should not indeed be secular (which isn't even acknowledged by some theists, like Damon Linker); it should be plural in its attitude. I think this starting point is the best. We all get a say in our world, and we should start with accepting the single premise that we are free to argue from our entire person without reservation.
    Acting charitably is simply acknowledging that other people have credibility, have the right to be wherever they may be in their search for the truth, and that each person may add to everyone else's understanding of the world. Too many times, especially even on this site, we argue more about the terms of the debate rather than anything of substance. It is good to see this list Mr. Rosman; I see a current running through all of the selections that regardless of Neil Degrasse Tyson's declaration of the death or uselessness of philosophy, atheists need it just as much.

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      Fortunately, America is a plurality.

      • NicholasBeriah Cotta

        I think our plurality is only as plural as we're willing to make it and right now I think true open philsophical dialogue in the public square is not there (and it never was, admittedly the theists have been the keepers of the status quo). Plurality would imply that anyone with any ideology could seriously become President - what we have now is really an expectation of philosophical mildness, not a plurality. That becomes its own tyranny, and the only thing I see replacing it is an assumption of secular humanism (like in Europe).

        • M. Solange O’Brien

          I don't see any diminution of plurality because elected officials have to conform to lowest common denominators. What I think is that the standards for participation in the public forum are changing. Changing culturally, not structurally.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            Absolutely it is diminutive to the plurality to engage in lowest common denominator. What happens is that only people who are philosophically bland assume power and society becomes chaotic and directionless, almost purposeless like an Ouija board that is guided by 100 million hands. You also get no talented or exceptional people in government (which causes its own problems) – I am reminded of a quote from this piece (http://www.salon.com/2014/05/18/congratulations_class_of_2014_youre_totally_screwed/ in Salon re: the same thing in academia:

            “No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years,” wrote the anthropologist David Graeber in an important 2012 essay about this age of diminishing innovation. “We have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies. . . .” I emailed Graeber and asked him to elaborate. Here’s what he said:
            “If you look at the lives and personalities of almost any of the Great Thinkers currently lionized in the American academy, certainly anyone like Deleuze, or Foucault, Wittgenstein, Freud, Einstein, or even Max Weber, none of them would have lasted ten minutes in our current system. These were some seriously odd people. They probably would never have finished grad school, and if they somehow did discipline themselves to appear sufficiently “professional,” “collegial,” conformist and compliant to make it through adjunct hell or pre-tenure, it would be at the expense of leaving them incapable of producing any of the works for which they have become famous.”

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Absolutely it is diminutive to the plurality to engage in lowest common denominator.

            Absolutely false. Plurality is the law of the land. What use we make of that does not diminish the plurality.

            What happens is that only people who are philosophically bland assume power and society becomes chaotic and directionless, almost purposeless like an Ouija board that is guided by 100 million hands. You also get no talented or exceptional people in government (which causes its own problems)

            On this point, I can agree: the American system of electing administrators is hopelessly stupid.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            How we act toward each other does indeed matter regardless of the law, so if in practice we don't live in a plurality, it also goes that in reality we don't live in a plurality. Your argument would have pitted you against civil rights (which produced many positive legal actions to combat de facto segregation.) If there is pervasive injustice, then what does the law matter? And, who said I was arguing for our system to change the laws anyway? I was making a point about how this country actually functions.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            No group in America is silenced save by social pressure - and that's exactly how a plurality behaves. Plurality doesn't mean every group gets to be represented, it means that every group had a right to be heard. Whether they ARE heard is a matter of strength. I'm not sure yet why you think we are not a plurality. We have freedom of religion and freedom if speech - in fact as well as law. If the people you like don't get elected then it's your fault for not electing them, yes?

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            Social pressure is good although it can go awry- I do not accept that it is the ultimate arbiter of morality nor do I accept that it is strength. Metaphysical ideas like equality built modernity and to declare it law but not practice it robs us of its benefits. The "law" does not contain all of moral action; it is not sufficient to simply say that given a law that ensures a free marketplace of ideas, the ones that come out are the right ones. We still have to argue for morality within that free marketplace - the law just tries to guarantee a civil arena for discussion.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I don't think I claimed - nor has anyone - that social pressure alone should be the ultimate arbiter of morality. But you claimed plurality as strength.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            So I'm not entirely sure what you think is wrong with the current system. I agree that using popularity contests to select administrators for a polity tends to produce mediocrity - since the qualities which make someone popular are not necessarily those which make someone a good administrator.

            The advantage of the popularity contest method is that it's emotionally satisfying to the general populace - they feel they have a voice.

            Me, I'm an unreconstructed monarchist: heredity occasionally throws up a competent ruler; democracy produces uniform mediocrity.

  • Loreen Lee

    Thank you so much for this. I am familiar with Nagel, Kristeva and Zizek and have red Habermas' An Awareness of What is Missing. indeed it was Habermas' Between Naturalism and Religion that I got my idea to be both a Theist and an 'A-Theist- or Naturalist, now that I've come to my senses!!!! Except for Nagel, who I think is in the Analytic Philosophy tradition, I am surprised at the direction that the Continental Philosophers seem to be taking. It is Kristeva, for instance, who I spoke of in an earlier post, as exploring erotica, etc. and I compared her at that time with Nietzsche, of whom I have already 'confessed' that I always come to his defense when necessary. Please, can we explore this subject more fully in following posts. It is right where things are at the moment. I have all those books on my shelf that I bought in bulk in order to prepare for my retirement, (before I found this site). This is some kind of turning point for me, I hope, where there is the possibility that my interests will converge, in a subject philosophy, which has been a mainstay of my life. I would love the opportunity to combine such a study of post-modernism, with my current interest in Philosophy of Religion. (As a lay person only! Please can we learn from each other, as Nicholas Cotta suggests, and have less argument and more 'information'.!!!!! Thank you.(Let's get to know one another as 'persons', and not merely 'opinions'.

  • Loreen Lee

    I'm back. Have checked out the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy and found an Ernest Nagel as well as dear old Thomas. Will you have enough patience with me to quote from the article on him. I would do this in order to encourage the thought that perhaps there is more to the 'argument/dialogue' ongoing between religion and science within the philosophical community in which the substantiation of evidence is but one of the criteria of assessment. The following outlines the distinction between subjective (religion) and objective (scientific) perspectives. I just feel that it is most fruitful to deal with these issues through the use of such vocabulary. The argument necessarily has more detail, as I believe that the term 'evidence' is most general, and to counter this various kinds of subjectivity and objectivity, for instance can be examined. (Not to say that there are not different kinds of evidence, but I don't think that we have broached the distinctions there very well, either). Thank you. Here's the quote.

    Quote: Nagel gives a diagnosis of philosophical trouble spots by locating them in an irreducible duality between a subjective and an objective standpoint. Human beings are part of nature, and yet an account from that perspective omits the subjective elements: experience, thought, decision, action. To insist that only one of these two standpoints is valid results in theoretical distortions and practical perplexity; as a natural object I (or rather this person) neither think nor act - merely, certain things happen to this person, who is a link in a chain of causes. End Quote:

    This I understand would be the 'scientific perspective'. But I'm a bit at a loss as to what the 'religious' Perspective, might be. Perhaps I could benefit from a general discussion. Thank you.

  • David Nickol

    Many early Christians actually sought out martyrdom. Christians in the United States today act like martyrs if anyone says something impolite about them. Meanwhile, Christians in other parts of the world such as North Korea and Pakistan are being persecuted and killed, and few Americans are paying attention. They are much too concerned with fighting same-sex marriage and opposing the Obama administration over rules about insurance for contraception.

  • AugustineThomas

    Hart is overrated. I realized what a joke he is when he tried to set himself up as a critic of Thomas Aquinas. This nonsense about Nietzsche doesn't surprise me. It does betray the problem though, when Christians think they need to pretend that bitter, militant atheists have done us great favors in order to be hip, cutting edge and with the times. (I would suggest Hart spend more time reading and humbly considering the work of a true orthodox genius like Aquinas.)

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      Aquinas may have been a genuis, but he wrote an awful lot of dreck.

      • AugustineThomas

        Quotes please. I want to hear your criticism of one of the greatest theologians in history. (I hear a lot of people talk down on St. TA because they hate the fact that he's right and they're embarrassed of their sinful lives. That's why I hated orthodox Christians when I was an atheist.)

        • Ben Posin

          "I hear a lot of people talk down on St. TA because they hate the fact that he's right and they're embarrassed of their sinful lives. That's why I hated orthodox Christians when I was an atheist."

          If atheists thought Aquinas was right, they wouldn't be atheists. See how that works? Statements like yours don't do a lot to suggest that further discussion is going to be fruitful.

          But to give you the benefit of the doubt: basically,there are a couple common criticisms of Aquinas' Five Ways: they are based on a medieval understanding of physics and the nature of the world that has no actual basis in reality, and has been completely left behind in modern physics; they are also filled with special pleading, with liberal doses of unevidence and unproven premises.

          The Five Ways are not an Everest of thought that atheists are battering themselves against in dismay--they are just the musings of a very smart man who had bad information. I sincerely believe that if Aquinas lived today, he'd reject them out of hand, and delight in the discoveries of modern science.

          • AugustineThomas

            Aquinas' thought is most certainly an Everest that no atheist I know of has climbed.
            You betray modern arrogance and hypocrisy. You pretend you would have somehow known everything we know now and you disregard the fact that we know everything that we do know now precisely because of Christians, especially great Christian thinkers like St. TA.
            His thought, along with that of other great Christian thinkers, built modernity. And now secularist pretenders like yourself claim to have moved passed it without comprehending a drop of the ocean that is Christian scholarship.
            Christians built modernity and made your fat and easy modern life possible. Don't be an ignorant ingrate.

          • Ben Posin

            You wanted to know the problems with Aquinas' arguments. I obliged, and let you know what some of them were--not my private, personal opinions, but pretty widespread, common criticisms from modern "secularists". In response you have called me a secularist pretender and suggested I am being an ignorant ingrate. That's not exactly how to be a fisher of men, nor are you coming off as the salt of the Earth.

            We're lucky to live when we do now. Isaac Newton may have accomplished as much as any man in history when it comes to breakthroughs in human knowledge about the universe...but at his best he knew only a tiny fraction of what a physics student in an average state university knows, and indeed much less than what a studious high school student knows these days. A regular schmo like me who did not excel in science knows things about how the universe works that Aquinas never dreamed of--which isn't a knock on Aquinas, them's just the breaks.

          • AugustineThomas

            By the way, I agree that he would rejoice in the positive aspects of modern science, more than you or I, as he had a greater hand in the coming around of modern science.

  • Tim Muldoon
  • Guest

    Could David Berlinski be counted? I thought he was pretty famous? His book "the Devil's Delusion" was very interesting. Here's a short quote. -- Here it is, an inconvenient fact: I am a secular Jew. My religious education did not take. I can barely remember a word of Hebrew. I cannot pray. I have spent more years than I care to remember in studying mathematics and writing about the sciences. Yet the book that follows is in some sense a defense of religious thought and sentiment.

  • Max Benser

    NIETZSCHE: "Among Germans I am immediately understood when I say that theological blood is the ruin of philosophy. The Protestant pastor is the
    grandfather of German philosophy; Protestantism itself is its _peccatum
    originale_. Definition of Protestantism: hemiplegic paralysis of
    Christianity--_and_ of reason.... One need only utter the words
    "Tuebingen School" to get an understanding of what German philosophy is
    at bottom--a very artful form of theology.... The Suabians are the best
    liars in Germany; they lie innocently.... Why all the rejoicing over
    the appearance of Kant that went through the learned world of Germany,
    three-fourths of which is made up of the sons of preachers and
    teachers--why the German conviction still echoing, that with Kant came a
    change for the _better_? The theological instinct of German scholars
    made them see clearly just _what_ had become possible again.... A
    backstairs leading to the old ideal stood open; the concept of the "true
    world," the concept of morality as the _essence_ of the world (--the two
    most vicious errors that ever existed!), were once more, thanks to a
    subtle and wily scepticism, if not actually demonstrable, then _at
    least_ no longer _refutable_.... _Reason_, the _prerogative_ of reason,
    does not go so far.... Out of reality there had been made "appearance";
    an absolutely false world, that of being, had been turned into
    reality.... The success of Kant is merely a theological success; he was,
    like Luther and Leibnitz, but one more impediment to German integrity,
    already far from steady.--


    A word now against Kant as a moralist. A virtue must be _our_ invention;
    it must spring out of _our_ personal need and defence. In every other
    case it is a source of danger. That which does not belong to our life
    _menaces_ it; a virtue which has its roots in mere respect for the
    concept of "virtue," as Kant would have it, is pernicious. "Virtue,"
    "duty," "good for its own sake," goodness grounded upon impersonality or
    a notion of universal validity--these are all chimeras, and in them one
    finds only an expression of the decay, the last collapse of life, the
    Chinese spirit of Koenigsberg. Quite the contrary is demanded by the most
    profound laws of self-preservation and of growth: to wit, that every man
    find his _own_ virtue, his _own_ categorical imperative. A nation goes
    to pieces when it confounds _its_ duty with the general concept of duty.
    Nothing works a more complete and penetrating disaster than every
    "impersonal" duty, every sacrifice before the Moloch of abstraction.--To
    think that no one has thought of Kant's categorical imperative as
    _dangerous to life_!... The theological instinct alone took it under
    protection!--An action prompted by the life-instinct proves that it is a
    _right_ action by the amount of pleasure that goes with it: and yet that
    Nihilist, with his bowels of Christian dogmatism, regarded pleasure as
    an _objection_.... What destroys a man more quickly than to work, think
    and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire,
    without pleasure--as a mere automaton of duty? That is the recipe for
    _decadence_, and no less for idiocy.... Kant became an idiot.--And such
    a man was the contemporary of Goethe! This calamitous spinner of cobwebs
    passed for _the_ German philosopher--still passes today!... I forbid
    myself to say what I think of the Germans.... Didn't Kant see in the
    French Revolution the transformation of the state from the inorganic
    form to the _organic_? Didn't he ask himself if there was a single event
    that could be explained save on the assumption of a moral faculty in
    man, so that on the basis of it, "the tendency of mankind toward the
    good" could be _explained_, once and for all time? Kant's answer: "That
    is revolution." Instinct at fault in everything and anything, instinct
    as a revolt against nature, German _decadence_ as a philosophy--_that is