“The Atheist’s Mass” – Book Review

“The Atheist’s Mass” is a short story written by Honoré de Balzac in 1836, that was later included in “The Human Comedy (orig. “La Comédie Humaine”), a comprehensive novel and short story collection.

Although a short text (around 20 pages long), this story contains a variety of powerful messages, ranging from social aspects to morals and religion.

Balzac allies with his two main characters – Doctors Horace Bianchon and Desplain – and delivers a refined insight into the integration of belief and knowledge in the context of humanity.

Using the report of young Dr. H. Bianchon, whose medical practice was supervised by the renowned Dr. Desplain, the story introduces a significant social and philosophical matter, that of atheism, as a result of scientific thinking, and its implications in direct human relationships in 19th Century France. Although the text is not what one may initially expect – a direct view on the atheism-religion relation that may favor one or the other -, “The Atheist’s Mass” manages to provide a complex perspective on the matter through the portrayal of two types of relationships – that between Bianchon and Desplain (both atheists) and the one between Desplain and Bourgeat, a religious water-carrier who helped Desplein start his medical career although he himself was poor and could not even afford to fulfill his own modest dreams.

The oxymoronic construction in the title, a factor that I believe is responsible for many readers deciding to pick up this particular story, refers to the paradox that occurs in Desplein’s life and which triggered both the curiosity and close scrutiny of Bianchon, that of an atheist attempting mass four times a year, with pious regularity.

What initially appears to be a hypocrisy alarm that needs to be verified turns out to be a great example of humanity, respect, understanding of human nature and gratitude.

It is about understanding and accepting individual differences, and at the same time allowing yourself to be who you are and staying true to your own mindset and beliefs. It is about humanity as one of the highest forms of virtue, one that surpasses any limitation of status or creed. It is also about privacy and intimacy. About generosity and propagation of kindness.

“The Atheist’s Mass” is so much more than a short story. It can be considered almost a guide on the integration of opposites at a social and personal scale in an unapologetic, assertive, empowering way.

Although written almost two centuries ago, “The Atheist’s Mass” is highly relevant today, when social tolerance and integration of new scientific information in our everyday lives are significant topics that guide social change. This is one of the reasons why I highly recommend you to read this short story. That, and if you are curious to find out the specific reason that could drive an atheist to attempt mass four times a year.

Enjoy the read!

* You can get a free electronic copy of “The Atheist’s Mass” on Gutenberg.Org.

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