An Atheist Fundamentalist Wrestles with the Catholic Worldview and Imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien

As we have seen, Jonathan Poletti has now realized he is committed to denying, not just the assertions of nameless and fictive “Christians” but the very clear words of Tolkien himself about not only his own Christian and Catholic faith, but about the Catholic nature of his legendarium. To achieve this, he attempts the standard Soviet tactic of putting Tolkien on the analyst’s couch and telling him that because he honored his mother’s faith, therefore his own is imaginary: a mere expression of some sort of Mommy fixation:

Tolkien became a Catholic at age 8 because of his mother.

A widowed mother, Mabel Tolkien had become Catholic, and so a scandal to her Baptist family—who persecuted her for it.

That is a Christian story.

Still reading solely for ammo, Poletti continues his “Heads I win, tails Tolkien loses” strategy. Christians, being nothing but malignant, are permitted to be persecutors by Poletti: “That is a Christian story.”  But Mabel’s faith–and Tolkien’s–is not permitted to be real or life-giving and it most certainly cannot be allowed to ever be an adult faith in the actual teaching of Jesus and his Church, embraced by an adult intellect and expressed by a creative adult imagination.  It must be forever an infantile fixation on Mommy by a damaged little boy.  Likewise, if Tolkien falls in love with a non-Catholic, that proves he never believed his faith; if he sins, that proves he never believed his faith; if he repents his sins, that proves he was repressing his lack of faith; if he makes a willed adult choice to embrace his faith, that somehow proves he does not have faith.

It wasn’t clear that the religion meant much to Tolkien. He married a girl who’d been Anglican—her conversion to Catholicism always a stormy one. She’d stay home as he took the children to church.

Then Tolkien himself had all but apostatized. As he wrote in a later letter:

“Out of wickedness and sloth I almost ceased to practise my religion — especially at Leeds, and at 22 Northmoor Road.”

The references establish the period as having lasted nearly a decade 1920 and 1930. These were the years in which his core Middle-earth storylines were conceived, and The Hobbit was written.

As he began work on The Lord of the Rings, he returned to Catholic practice. He and his wife quarrelled about it. Carpenter wrote that “to Edith he presented only his emotional attachment to religion, of which she had little understanding.”

When you are that committed to maligning people out of hatred of their Faith, you wind up saying things like “It wasn’t clear that the religion meant much to Tolkien”.


“My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.”

Tolkien regarded her as a holy martyr for the Catholic faith all his life, not because he was infantile, but because he believed the Faith for which she suffered. And despite his sins and failures, he regarded the Faith as precious.  This is just not that hard to grasp. Precisely the reason he regretted his sins, struggle in his marriage and consciously revised the The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” is because his Faith meant everything to him. You have to be either a committed propagandist or illiterate to read something like this (written to his son) and conclude “It wasn’t clear that the religion meant much to Tolkien”:

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death.

By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste—or foretaste—of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.

And so Poletti arrives at his inevitable destination: the charge that Tolkien was not merely damaged and deluded, but an active fraud. That, in plain English, is what this means.

Tolkien could come off like a ‘devout Catholic’.

He then begins listening a variety of scattershot data culled from Tolkien’s writing that fail to establish anything like the claim that his faith was unreal.

He preferred it at least to the Anglican faith, which he called a “pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs.”

He had no regard for Protestantism, calling it “ignorant,” as efforts to recover a pre-Catholic Christianity were “mistaken and indeed vain.

That’s because Tolkien believed his Catholic faith and did not believe Protestantism to be true.

He notes in an essay: “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.”

To call the gospels a “fairy-story” isn’t what usually passes for Christian talk.

Christians like a scene in which Tolkien seemed to lead his friend C.S. Lewis into the faith. The details are odd. Tolkien said that Christianity was just like other myth-systems, except for being true — a “true myth,” as he said.

Yet again, the sheer Fundamentalist illiteracy at work here is breathtaking.  Only a Fundamentalist, which neither Tolkien nor Lewis were, finds this problematic.

Catholics have no problem grasping the affinity of the fairy story (or the myth) to the gospel.  Oddly, Poletti is weirdly reluctant to so much as admit that the conversation impacted Lewis’s conversion, despite the fact that Lewis came to faith in Christ eight days after the conversation and made clear its connection to that decision in a letter to Arthur Greeves a month later:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.

Poletti astonishingly continues:

But the idea of Tolkien being Catholic might have to note the weaknesses. He made no effort to study theology.


He never visited Rome.


For all his distain of “mutilated beliefs,” he seems to have deeply loved Santa.


He nursed a lot of doubts. Tolkien wrote in the same 1963 letter of advice to his grandson:

“The temptation to ‘unbelief’ (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us.”

Pointing to the fact that Tolkien believed in concupiscence and understood that faith must be fed by the sacraments and prayer and strengthened by obedience to God as evidence of “nursing a lot of doubts” is, again, a spectacular misreading of Tolkien.  It’s like saying the Temptation in the Wilderness is proof that the gospel writers don’t think Jesus is God.

Scratch the surface, and Tolkien doesn’t seem Catholic at all.

He seems to have personally believed in reincarnation and worked it into the plot of all his work, including The Lord of the Rings.

When confronted by a Catholic man, Peter Hastings, about it being improper for a Catholic to write about reincarnation, Tolkien replied:

“…any theologian or philosopher, unless very much better informed about the relation of spirit and body than I believe anyone to be, could deny the possibility of re-incarnation…

He clearly didn’t believe in Heaven and Hell. He denied that Catholicism knew about the afterlife.

Tolkien’s religious situation would seem to have been an agnostic, if one who’d remain socially Catholic.

Charity obliges me to assume that Poletti is just so spectacularly ignorant of both Tolkien and of the looooong tradition of Catholic theological and philosophical speculation that he would make such an absurd argument.

Tolkien is responding to an objection from a reader that reincarnation is proper for elves, not defending the idea that human beings can reincarnate.

As Verlyn Flieger explained in a discussion concerning reincarnation found in The Notion Club Papers:

For a practicing Catholic like Tolkien, the idea of reincarnation would have been theologically problematic, although on a purely intellectual basis he seems to have had no trouble with the concept. In answer to an inquiring reader who asked him about the practicality of the Elven-concept of reincarnation in Half-Elven offspring, he wrote, “I do not see how even in the Primary World any theologian or philosopher, unless very much better informed about the relation of spirit and body than I believe anyone to be, could deny the possibility of re-incarnation as a mode of existence prescribed for certain kinds of rational incarnate creatures” (Letters 189). 

In a similar way, St. Thomas will note that there is no particular reason the universe could not, as Aristotle supposed, have existed from all eternity had God so willed. If Thomas had only sense data to go on, he concedes that could be a legitimate speculation. But since he is privy to revelation and knows that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” ex nihilo, he corrects Aristotle’s supposition of an eternal universe.

Tolkien, being likewise a Catholic, accepts the Church’s teaching that “It is appointed to man once to die and after that the judgment”. He accepts the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. And in his legendarium, he makes much of the fact that Eru gave to Men the strange gift of death. In all this, he is a typical Catholic and, indeed, a typical medieval Catholic. For medievals delighted in speculating on whether there might be other rational creatures such as dog-headed men or monopods or pygmies such as were reported in traveler’s tales. And medieval theologians will play around with questions ranging from the nature of God’s foreknowledge to the question of how angels might assume visible form when they lack bodies.  So far from denying heaven and hell or saying the Faith doesn’t “know about the afterlife” he is indulging precisely the Church’s long tradition of exploring the limits of what is revealed.

So Tolkien is, in fact, perfectly right to note that we simply do not, as humans, know enough about the relationship of spirit and body to rule out the possibility that non-human rational creatures might be specifically designed by God to experience reincarnation.  Revelation only concerns us and our particular predicament.  We are not creatures that undergo reincarnation.  But we are in no position to dictate to God that he cannot fashion other creatures to do so. For all we know, there might be other parts of creation where such a thing is perfectly normal for non-human rational creatures. The Bible is not intended to be the Big Book of Everything but is only to point a fallen humanity to that remedy–the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Son of God–which the Divine Physician has prescribed for our sickness.

Tomorrow, we will look at the last part of the argument.


2 Responses

  1. Unfortunately, he limits his readership to those with Medium accounts, so I can’t read the whole article to which you are responding, but this series of posts is interesting nonetheless.

    Among other reasons, it reminds me that I have been wanting to make time to explore more of the material Tolkien wrote beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to better understand his reasons for and method of creating his English mythology, before going back to read those books again.

    It also is fascinating to see someone so dedicated to such a poorly based and unnecessary line of argumentation – however passionately he may feel that Christianity is a religion to be actively opposed, he seems to add nothing to the arguments against it.

    Rather, his methods of approaching the question of Tolkien’s religious influences seem to discredit him in general, thereby detracting from the countless articles I see he has written against Christianity.

  2. Atheist fundamentalists are as annoying as the other kind. I am a pagan who on my most charitable of days is indifferent to Christianity. Still it’s no skin off my posterior that Tolkien was Christian and probably incorporated some of that worldview into his writing. They’re wonderful and well told stories.

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