The Atheist’s Mass (Penguin Little Black Classics)

‘This is as much a mystery as the Immaculate Conception, which of itself must make a doctor an unbeliever.’ A stunning pair of short stories about faith and sacrificial love.

The short story of the master surgeon Desplein and how his disciple Bianchon caught the avowed atheist heading to mass four times a year. Desplein relates how although being a naturalist, he still attends mass. I think the central conflict in this short story is what atheist feel and the naturally human desire to please either yourself or others. When is a lie evil? Is it wrong to tell someone it’s going to be okay, when you know they are going to die? Desplein is driven by compassion, and many of those touched by the divine are as well. The question, then, do you need to be religious to be compassionate? And if you are not religious, should God (if you believe) be compassionate of those who are not? Very interesting short story, one of which, I can easily relate to and that does not have easy answers for the believers or nonbelievers.

My first bit of Balzac. I enjoyed his writing style and apparent depth of character, creating a detailed picture of the story’s characters, with only a few words. I’m intrigued, and plan to read more.  The first a discovery of why an atheist might attend a solemn mass for twenty years, the second a seemingly sentimental tale about the strange performances of normality enacted during the French revolution. Telling of their times, they were saccharine didacticism on the one hand, and screaming revelations of political and social inequalities on the other. The art of misdirection embodied. Clever stuff.

When I first started reading the Atheist’s Mass I got about half-way through and was thinking “Oh great, another book written to tell us how all atheists secretly want / revert to religion” and then I finished it, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was in fact about an atheist who, in spite of their own personal beliefs, gave the only thing the could to honor the memory of someone who helped them.
It was in fact a story about an atheist being a normal, rational and honorable human being.


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