I remember being told by an evangelical Christian “friend,” in high school, that she just didn’t understand how someone with “a genius IQ” (by which she was trying to refer to me) could fail to grasp the obvious Eternal Truth in her religion. This kind of unpleasant encounter is inevitable whenever someone holds rock-solid convictions as to the ultimate nature of the universe and our souls’ fate: she was judging me as wrong and dense on a fundamental issue, just as many might judge her to be the same. The big thing is that she was judging me this way even while being my loyal and respectful friend in all other respects, thereby proving that her love and respect for me were not that great. What happens, though, when feelings for another person who does not share one’s beliefs do grow ardent enough to rival those beliefs? This question is poignantly answered in Honoré de Balzac’s short story “The Atheist’s Mass,” which tells of an atheist surgeon’s encounter with Catholicism.
Desplein does not believe in an eternal soul because he has dissected the entire human body and not found the seat of it. He is as legendary with his surgical craft as he is outspoken about his atheism. One day, however, his protege sees him sneaking into a cathedral, and subsequently discovers that Desplein attends a mass four times a year which he sponsors himself. The mystery is built up and then revealed: as a medical student, Desplein was so impoverished that he nearly starved to death, but for the steadfast love of his neighbor, a poor water-carrier who believed that the future surgeon would do epic and noble deeds and therefore devoted his life savings to supporting him through school. When this neighbor, an ardent Catholic, died without family or friends, Desplein could think of no other way to express the gratitude that burned within him than to honor Bourgeat’s deepest wishes: at mass four times per year to pray for the repose of his soul and his quick release from any purgatory. “This,” he says, “is as much as a man of my opinions can permit himself.”
This is a hopelessly lovely story, one which made me cry more than once, but the ending jars. After revealing his secret, Desplein says that “God must be a good fellow,” referring to his own excellent fortune and fame, and that “I would give my entire fortune if faith such as Bourgeat’s could enter my brain.” Balzac concludes by imagining Desplein not dying an atheist, and Bourgeat appearing to him on his deathbed to open to him the gates of Heaven. The story is marred by this moralization, which resolves the hopeless impasse between believer and atheist by suggesting that the latter can be converted through acts of sacrifice and charity. Without this implausible ending, the story would have been much more profound.
Here is the point that Balzac could have made instead, if only he had ended his tale a few paragraphs sooner: that love can coexist with holding on to one’s belief or lack thereof. As the title illustrates, Desplein could still be called an atheist. Just as there are rituals you perform, or words you speak, because of what you believe about ultimate reality, there are also those that you perform and speak because you love tradition, and those that you perform and speak as a deeply meaningful gesture. Rather than taking a page from my high school friend, Bourgeat showed Desplein the greatest respect by never suggesting he was wrong not to believe in God. In turn, Desplein showed Bourgeat the greatest respect by acting, with respect to Bourgeat, as though Bourgeat’s conviction might be right, while doing it in a way which did not compromise Desplein’s own dignity.