Lovecraft & Atheism

As most Lovecraftians know, H.P. Lovecraft was an atheist.  Though he did not believe in gods of any sort, in his fiction he created a universe which held quite a variety of them.  The difference, of course, is that almost all of these “gods” care not a whit for mankind, and view humans (when they think of them at all) pretty much the same way that we view ants.  (With the exception of Nyarlathotep, who seems to delight in pulling off our legs and wings, as Kevin Ross wrote in the introduction to Dead But Dreaming.)

In Lovecraft’s universe — and, all evidence suggests, the real one as well — mankind means nothing to the cosmos.  Humans have been around for about 200,000 years in a universe that is almost 14 billion years old, and all we can hope for from that universe is indifference.  In fact, in the “Cthulhu mythos”, indifference is quite preferable to the alternative.

So I have a theory: Most serious Lovecraftians are also atheists.  True?  False?  Comment below, and give us your take on this topic!

24 responses to “Lovecraft & Atheism

  1. I was an atheist before I started reading Lovecraft, but I certainly think his bleak cosmic outlook appealed to me because I was an atheist.

  2. I am not an atheist but I recognize I may be in the minority among Lovecraft enthusiasts and writers. But Lovecraft’s fictional universe is powerful enough to be a potent one for a variety of metaphysical orientations. Additionally, I have felt that for one who does believe in God, considering a cold, godless, empty universe peopled by unsympathetic entities may be the ultimate horror story. But HPL’s mythos is so powerful than with a little suspension of disbelief even a non-atheist can be affected and moved by Lovecraft’s materialistic universe, whether or not we are persuaded by his belief (or lack thereof).

  3. I am more an agnostic than the an atheist. However, look at some of Yaweh’s actions in the old testament and you start to think he may have had some elder blood mixed in somewhere.

  4. I am quite far from being an atheist. I do see the appeal of Lovecraft’s outlook to similar views, but I don’t feel it’s limited there. No matter who you are or what you believe, the notion that you are insignificant in the universe and that everything you know and love is essentially meaningless is pretty unsettling. Randall Larson, above, said it pretty well, IMHO.

    • Thanks for your comment. Even in an atheist universe or a Lovecraftian one, everything that you are and love is not meaningless, IMHO. Just because something does not last forever does not make it meaningless.

      I’d like to be clear that, although I’m an atheist, I’m not knocking anyone who isn’t. I DON’T feel that believers cannot enjoy Lovecraft, and I would never want to imply that. And I’m not about to turn this cool zine into a religious forum. 🙂 BUT, I do think Lovecraft’s atheism and fictional worldview are worth discussing.

      Of course, I’d prefer to believe in a caring god who loves me and who will reunite me with my loved ones when I die, so that I’m with them forever. But a wish to believe does not equal evidence, and I always follow the evidence.

      Strangely, though, Lovecraft’s worldview comforts me for some reason, and I’m not sure that I can adequately articulate why.

      • Oh, I didn’t mean to imply the fallacy of “atheism = thinking nothing matters.” I was talking more about the themes that Lovecraft often explored, the idea of knocking humankind off of its pedestal with the notion “There’s bigger, more notable stuff going on, it’s been around for a lot longer than homo sapien and it will still be going on long after we’re gone.” That’s all.

        Thanks for starting this discussion!

  5. I started reading Lovecraft soon after I recognized that I’m an atheist. The two things weren’t connected but one of the things I’ve always appreciated about Lovecraft is the lack of a Judeo-Christian god. I’ve spent most of my academic career studying those themes and they come up in a good deal of fiction. The cynic in me loves that when HPL’s characters dig too far or ask too much they get smacked down. The overall message that we can’t comprehend what’s really out there is dark, but it makes sense.

    To me, atheism isn’t about denying an afterlife or loving all knowing figure or being alone in a bleak universe. It’s about accepting life as it is and doing what you can to make it better. Forget about what comes next or who we might answer to. Deal with the here and now and make the changes you want to see. I think that’s somewhat reflected in HPL’s work. Time spent trying to explore the unknowable doesn’t pay off. There’s punishment for trying to do so. Better to focus on what’s here.

    If that comes off as anti-science or anti-curiosity, it’s not meant to. There’s exploring what’s around us and then there’s making the jump into realms that are beyond theoretical. How many brilliant men of science did Lovecraft steer into uselessness because they pursued the wrong things? I think there’s a subtle (or not so subtle) message that great men were lost because of their obsessions and the world suffered for it.

  6. I was actually a devout Roman Catholic when I became a fan of all things Lovecraftian. Though once I was done with university, and had lived life for a while, reality ran over my dogma. I had walled my faith off from the rest of my life, out of defense. Once I looked at those walls, I realized that I was actively suppressing all rationality when ever a subject touched on religion. *Poof* there went my religious delusions.

  7. I’m an atheist in the sense that I believe there are no deities. I am open to strange phenomena being possible, but I think the philosophical and evidential arguments against the existence of a deity as humans conceive of it are pretty convincing, while none of the claims of any religion are convincing at all.

    Philosophically, I am an ontological realist (I believe the external universe actually exists), an epistemological nihilist (I don’t believe knowledge, defined as “justified, true belief” is possible, though I believe we can inhabit “reality-tunnels” or personal narratives that function just as well as truth would), and an ethical existentialist (I believe we invest meaning in our lives through the engagement with projects and activities).

    I, however, do not believe that our lives or anything else has some sort of objective “meaning”. Meaning is a phenomenon of minds, mind is a process engaged in by brains. We make up meaning, it doesn’t exist externally to us.

    Good question…my two useless degrees in philosophy get some use! Woohoo!

  8. Personally, I am an atheist, but I don’t think that really makes any difference in an appreciation of Lovecraft’s body of work. I am also comforted by the idea that the Universe is totally indifferent to our actions, but mainly because it means that our actions are entirely up to us. Do good because you want to do good. Nobody is on high judging you because of it, but maybe you can make things a little better while you’re here.

    Or you can write stories like mine and make everything a little ickier. Either way, have fun!

  9. I don’t wish to get into a philosophical discussion concerning my personal beliefs here, but I do believe that Lovecraft’s thoughts of almost omnipotent and omniprescent beings was something that he could have feared himself. Having an all-powerful entity that had the capability to destroy mankind at their whim was probably a source of his own fear, which he projected in his writing. Interestingly enough, we actually have a theoretical law in physics that could be argued to support his story, as well as every other story created, as being possible. Attempt the application of the “many-worlds” theory of quantum mechanics which states, in a nutshell, that anything that can be imagined exists somewhere, possibly in another universe. Thankfully, I do not exist within the Lovecraftian universe. 😀 Very content to stay where I am, thank you very much!

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  11. Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors but his fictional works don’t make me doubt that there is a God any more than Tolkien’s makes me believe that there were dragons and a middle Earth. His works make mankind look small and insignificant because they were designed to do that not prove that there is no God. Besides, most people find what they are looking for in books… especially after some one else suggests it.

  12. I’m more of an atheist-leaning-agnostic, but I think many Lovecraft followers do tend to share something akin to the author’s worldview. There are likely far more atheists among Lovecraft readers than in the general population.

    I imagine this is because reading Lovecraft makes his work more enjoyable. The wholly indifferent cosmos depicted by HPL acts as chilling confirmation to one’s views of a universe without anyone at the helm. In many ways, Lovecraft explores the sheer nightmarishness of a universe where mankind is spiritually alone.

  13. Grim Blogger, you make some good and insteresting points, but I’m not sure I agree with the “chilling confirmation” part as a general rule. A big part of what Lovecraft was going for, after all, was to *shatter* the notion that humankind is central and important to the cosmos! This is so intrinsic to his themes that even stories like “The Shadow out of Time,” which features a pretty benevolent species of creatures by Lovecraft’s stadards, is supposed to be horrifying simply because of this revelation.

    The general opinion in Lovecraft’s time, after all, was that homo sapien was the only sentient race around; Lovecraft played off of that with the idea that not only was this concept wrong, it was entirely backwards, in that we were an accidental/incidental thing and the other inhabitants of the cosmos not only didn’t care about us, they were often beyond our understanding.

    Just my thoughts.

  14. I was mostly an areligious agnostic when I began reading Lovecraft. I was enthralled by the paranormal and supernatural. Though I’ve evolved into more of a staunch naturalist through my paranormal explorations, I still enjoy the stories. It is that suspension of disbelief that allows me to enjoy these stories along with Tolkien and Rowling, and yes even some religious texts. Lovecraft utilizes scientific time lines and the cosmic perspective to give us horrors from far gone epochs and touches on a sort of nihilism to illustrate the deepest despair. A religious apologist looking for a cheap stab at a naturalistic worldview might call this the ultimate result of atheism, but it is the solitude expressed in many of his stories that emphasizes the despair. From a humanist perspective, we find meaning and inspiration from the people in our lives, our companions and from the artifice of humankind.

    What I find interesting is how many authors and stories I enjoyed that were atheistic long before I realized I was an atheist. I didn’t even realize Lovecraft was an atheist until spotting the link to this article.

  15. Lovecraft did not necessarily want anyone to know he was an atheist. He was not a modern militant, prosletizing, atheist. Atheistic philosophy did influence his fiction in an ambiguous conflicted way, but not in the sense that his fiction is intended as an atheist manifesto. Certainly, his art cannot be seen as an advertisement for atheism, since it seems to associate atheism with horror, madness, and despair.

    Though he did not himself belief, Lovecraft thought it was a “crime” to attack the church, and was in terror of the consequences of irreligion. Modern Lovecraft experts like Joshi, who raid his private papers for private atheistic statements and publish a book entitled “Against Religion” in Lovecraft’s name, are really pursuing their own agenda: one which Lovecraft would not have approved.

    Incidentally, I am a Believer and love Lovecraft’s fiction.

    • So you use a logical fallacy by saying Joshi’s “agenda” is behind his ample scholarship, rather than, you know, providing any evidence or rebutting any of his actual arguments. Then you show us all your own “agenda”.

      Sorry, I’m going to take the voluminous correspondence and writings of Lovecraft over you wanting someone to retroactively have beliefs you have an easier time facing.

      And the “horror, madness, and despair” was not due to atheism (at no point does any character reference their own atheism; they do put themselves forward as scholars and scientists, but that it not the same thing. The horror, et al, derives from the limitations of humanity to comprehend and ultimately cope with a reality that is far larger, stranger, and simply inhuman in all possible ways. The horror sometimes derives from racists miscegenation fears, or the existence of certain levels of reality, or the machinations of a species from a far planet. By claiming that any of this derives from atheism is putting words into Lovecraft’s pen to suit yourself. It also ignores the Dream Cycle, the Dansanian juvenilia, and so much correspondence it boggles the mind.

      If you want to prove Lovecraft’s position to be less absolute, or prove that atheism is really the cause of–say–the horror that the art club shows at the work of Pickman, or the cause of the decaying transformation of the de la Poer family, then gain access to the source material and engage in your own scholarship. Prove your points, as Joshi and many others have, with actual work. If your arguments align with the data points and prove your argument over Joshi’s, I will switch positions in a moment.

      Until then, however, you just look like a “believer” (a believer in what, exactly? You do know there are a lot of religions in the world, not just Christianity, right?) with a desire that an author you enjoy did not hold the ideas that he himself said that he did. That’s not how real scholarship works…it’s not here to grant you peace of mind and make you feel okay reading such “occult” stuff, it’s here to analyze facts and prove propositions. Try it, sometime…you might not be a “believer” very long after you do.

      • Mr Spurlock: When I said I was a “Believer” I merely offering myself as an example of a Lovecraft fan that was NOT an atheist, in response to the OP’s question “Most serious Lovecraftians are also atheists. True? False?” Specifically (since you ask) I am a Monotheist, a Christian, and a Roman Catholic.

        I do not paint Lovecraft’s views as compatible with my own. I believe that he was (unlike me) an Atheist (or at least an Agnostic tending strongly towards Atheism), because he said so. I also believe that he was NOT “against religion” (at least, not in the sense of being someone who wanted to tear down the Christian religion) for the same reason – because he said so. IIRC (and I can dig up the quote if you are curious) he said letters that it would be a crime to attack the Church, because mankind is inherently religious, and if you tear down Christianity, something worse would take its place. Christianity, as a positive and/or sanity-preserving influence, is mentioned in at least 2 stories that I recall: “Dreams in the Witch House” and “Charles Dexter Ward”. Again, I can dig up the quotes if you ask. I don’t take these references as indicating a literal belief in Christianity, any more than I take it as indicating a literal belief in Cthulhu or Azathoth – but merely as an indication that Lovecraft did not intend his stories as pro-Atheist progaganda.

        I did not launch a wholesale attack on Joshi’s scholarship. I merely accused of giving a Lovecraft book “Against Religion”, a misleading title. I think it is misleading to say that Lovecraft was “against religion” except in the sense that he was (privately) an atheist.

        That Lovecraft is not quite as firmly “against religion” as Joshi is evident from, among other things Joshi’s disappointment with the “conventional supernaturalism” of “Dreams in the Witch House”.

        I am sure that Joshi has done valuable work. But so far, I see no basis for trusting his judgment overmuch. When I can check him, I often find he is wrong. A minor example: Joshi writes “Lovecraft though he had found the name Sarnath in a work by Dunsany this is not the case.” Well, it took me 15 minutes on a computer to find what Lovecraft was referring to – – the lost marble city of Sardathrion in “Time and the Gods.”

        Joshi, in an introduction to Lovecrafts “Complete Fiction” writes that “It must always be remembered that Lovecraft was, above all else, a scientific rationalist” as well as a “materialist and atheist”. Well, I do not deny that Lovecraft was all these things, but why “above all else” and why must it “always be remembered”? He may have been a scientific rationalist, an atheist, and a materelist, but that is hardly what he is famous for. He is famous as an author of spooky, supernatural, occult fiction. He was a fan of “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, who wrote his own “Supernatural” horror stories, as well as an essay entitled “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. He may not have believed in the “Supernatural”, but he wrote about it, and that’s what he’s famous for. And yes, I agree that a certain tension between his artistic love of the Supernatural, and his materialist philosophy, is part of what gives his fiction its unique flavor.

        Joshi also writes, in his Intro to “Complete Fiction” that Lovecraft “saw nothing but pitiable folly in the delusions of religion”. This might be an acceptable statement if you crossed out the words “nothing but”. As it stands, it is so severe an oversimplification of Lovecraft’s views that it is scarcely distinguishable from a lie. Joshi may see “nothing but” pitiable folly in religion, but he speaks for himself. Lovecraft may indeed have seen “pitiable folly”, but he also saw the Church as one of the pillars upholding our society, without which it was in danger of collapse.

        Joshi and I have different tastes in Lovecraft stories; and perhaps our respective philosophies influence our choices. For me, “Dreams in the Witch House” is a favorite, while Joshi is disappointed with it. But even when we agree, we disagree on the reasons. We both like “At the Mountains of Madness”, which Joshi evidently likes because it shows that Lovecraft’s “gods” are (in his words) “nothing more than aliens from outer space.” To me, this “nothing more” stuff overlooks that sense of supernatural awe that gives the story its power.

        By the way, I don’t deny that Lovecraft was a virulent racist. He was indeed a racist, and this is one of many issues where Lovecraft and I part ways. But I would take issue with someone who said “It must be remembered that Lovecraft was above all else a virulent racist”. Nor would I by happy with the implication that only virulent racists can be true Lovecraft fans, or “serious Lovecraftians”, or enjoy Lovecraft’s work, or whatever.

        You are right that I do not recall Lovecraft’s stories ever referring to “atheism” by that name. But they do refer (for instance) to “materialism” (all materialists are atheists, even if all atheists are not materialists). The context often suggests negative consequences for strident materialism. Herbert West was a materialist; and I seem to recall other references. Also there are passages that suggest Lovecraft did not particularly like most of his fellow atheists. For instance, this from “the Silver Key”: “But when he [Randolph Carter] came to study those who had thrown off the old myths, he found them even more ugly than those he had not.” In Pickman’s Model, the horrors that nearly drive the protagonist mad are identified, not with romanticism or spiritualism, but with “scientific realism”.

        Incidentally, you are coming across as extremely hostile and condescending. Can you tone it down a bit?

      • Here’s the quote from Lovecraft, that I found online:

        BEGIN QUOTE
        “Orthodox Christianity, by playing upon the emotions of man, is able to accomplish wonders toward keeping him in order and relieving his mind. It can frighten or cajole him away from evil more effectively than could reason. Because of its hypnotic and auto-hypnotic power, this faith should be preserved as long as it can be propped up with arguments or diffused through rhetoric.

        “It is a crime publicly to attack the church, since upon that institution rests more than half of the responsibility for maintaining the existing social order. On this account, it is well to refrain from open utterances concerning religion, and at times even to pretend belief. Truth is of no practical value to mankind save as it affects terrestrial phenomena, hence the discoveries of science should be concealed or glossed over wherever they conflict with orthodoxy.

        “It is wisest to invent an artificial sort of ‘truth’ which conforms to the well-being of man. It will never do us any good to know the dimensions of space or the aeons of time, so let us forget all about the universe and the infinity outside the universe. The notion of personal, affectionate Godhead works best with the masses, so let us gently adapt what we know, to what we ought to think. Anything is justifiable in the interests of humanity.”
        END QUOTE

        Perhaps Lovecraft changed his mind about this.

        But if not, the militant atheist crowd is betraying Lovecraft when they waive him around like an flag. Lovecraft has just declared that what militant atheists, like Joshi, do, when they publicly attack the Church, is a “crime”. Moreover, Joshi is betraying Lovecraft, and making him commit a “crime”, when he loudly trumpets Lovecraft’s atheism in every introduction to a Lovecraft book, or when he raids his private letters to publish a book called “Against Atheism” by H.P. Lovecraft.

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