Where Have All the Good Atheists Gone? — On the Loss of Important Conversations.

Richard Dawkins
Prosthesis links to this post by Thomas Adams at Without Authority:

The intellectual laziness of modern atheism is a shame because, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Christianity needs smart atheists to keep it honest. In my estimation, the best example of a “purifying atheist” is Friedrich Nietzsche (for a wonderful synopsis of Nietzsche’s contributions to Christian thought, please check out Byron Smith’s post here). The son of a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche had a deeper understanding of Christianity than the vast majority of theologians, past and present. And unlike modern atheists, he took the idea of God very seriously. He may have reached some of the same conclusions about religion as modern atheists, but he took a very different route. His writings bear witness, not to a simple-minded dismissal of God, but to a profound confrontation with his religious heritage. In the end, his struggle may have yielded a purer and more faithful account of the Christian faith. Thus, Eberhard Jungel could say that “[Nietzsche’s] thoughts come very close to the Christian truth which he was opposing. They merit special attention.” A hundred years from now, I doubt that anyone will be saying the same thing about Harris’ recent book.

A few days I picked up Theology After Wittgenstein and skim-read some sections of it, as I hadn’t done so for some time. Fergus Kerr comments somewhere that Wittgenstein was one of the last of the great philosophers to have his work so permeated by theological questions. Wittgenstein may not have agreed with the Christian tradition, but he believed that it was deserving of intellectual respect and serious engagement. With the lack of such engagement in the thought of most non-Christian intellectuals today and the gradual abandonment of a conversation between non-Christians with a genuine and sympathetic appreciation of the riches of the Christian tradition and thoughtful churchmen we are all poorer off.

Sometimes I wonder why Christians get distinctly second-rate critics like Richard Dawkins. Sometimes I wonder whether such critics are all that we deserve. Perhaps the world has lost interest in serious intellectual engagement with us because we are no longer prepared to listen; we are too interested in ourselves and how we are right to think that we might be able to learn from others, whether within the world or within different theological or ecclesiastical traditions. We want the world to listen to our voices, to read our books and to watch our films, because we think that we are right and the world is wrong (yet another manifestation of the narcissism that so often afflicts us). I am not so convinced that our voices are the ones that are most worth listening to, nor do I believe that Christians are always right and the world always wrong where we disagree.

In my recent post on theology and the life of prayer, I concluded by pointing out the important role that theology can play within the context of the academy, sustaining a conversation between the world and the Church, through which the Church can arrive at a deeper knowledge of the truth, and be delivered from certain errors. Lesslie Newbigin has a wonderful statement on this, which I find exceedingly helpful:

The church, therefore, as it is in via, does not face the world as the exclusive possessor of salvation, nor as the fullness of what others have in part, the answer to the questions they ask, or the open revelation of what they are anonymously. The church faces the world, rather, as arrabon of that salvation — as sign, firstfruit, token, witness of that salvation which God purposes for the whole. It can do so only because it lives by the Word and sacraments of the gospel by which it is again and again brought to judgment at the foot of the cross. And the bearer of that judgment may well be and often is a man or woman of another faith (cf. Luke 11:31-32). The church is in the world as the place where Jesus, in whom the fullness of the godhead dwells, is present, but it is not itself that fullness. It is the place where the filling is taking place (Eph. 1:23). It must therefore live always in dialogue with the world, bearing its witness to Christ but always in such a way that it is open to receive the riches of God that belong properly to Christ but have to be brought to him. This dialogue, this life of continuous exchange with the world, means that the church itself is changing. It must change if “all that the Father has” is to be given to it as Christ’s own possession (John 16:14-15). It does change. Very obviously the church of the Hellenic world in the fourth century was different from the church that met in the upper room in Jerusalem. It will continue to change as it meets ever new cultures and lives in faithful dialogue with them. — The Open Secret, p.180

If there is one thing that I have come to appreciate over the last few years, it is critics. We all need them. When there is a lack of genuine criticism, a lack of a party of considered dissent, we can become complacent and be content to live with half-truths. I have learnt more from interacting with people who disagree with me than I have from those who agree with me. One of the things that most distresses me in the current Church climate is the loss of genuine conversations about issues that we disagree over to the extent that all sides begin to preach only to the converted. The debates surrounding the work of N.T. Wright and the ‘FV movement’ are good examples here. With few exceptions, real critical engagement with the thought of Wright and the FV has been non-existent. For example, Wright has been dismissed by many without a serious attempt to understand him. The current Reformed climate is not able to support serious conversation between differing viewpoints, without an attempt to impose groupthink.

On this blog I have often been critical of certain tendencies of modern Reformed and evangelical churches. I write as someone who, if pushed, will admit to having a lot of ‘evangelical’ in him and as one who feels a deep affinity with and appreciation of many aspects of the Reformed tradition. My criticisms have often been harsh (often far too harsh), but these criticisms have been given, not as a means of dismissing evangelicalism and the Reformed faith, but as a means of calling people to greater intellectual honesty. I like to believe that the best movements are able to continue the tradition that we see in the Scriptures of prophetic critique from within and engagement with the thought of those without. I have been saddened to see that many are unhappy with the existence of such conversations, or are not prepared to take the effort that is involved in engaging with them. I have also been encouraged to find a number of exceptions to the rule.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Quotations, The Blogosphere, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Where Have All the Good Atheists Gone? — On the Loss of Important Conversations.

  1. Paul Baxter says:

    Have you ever read H L Mencken? He was another atheist who felt that christian doctrines were worth knowing/interacting with/referring to. He was NOT, by any means, a philosopher, but he was one of the more prominent intellectuals of the 20’s-40’s in America. Also, he was just unbelievably funny.

  2. Al says:

    Just odd bits and pieces. And, yes, I did find what I read very funny.

  3. Byron says:

    This is such an important post (and not just cause you linked to me, well, sort of). Two thoughts:

    Fergus Kerr comments somewhere that Wittgenstein was one of the last of the great philosophers to have his work so permeated by theological questions

    What about Derrida?

    On this topic, I found Merold Westphal’s very accessible book Suspicion and Faith a very useful reflection upon some of the great critics of Christianity who are more suspicious than sceptical: Nietzsche, Marx, Freud.

  4. Al says:


    I wondered much the same thing. One finds theological questions and engagement with the Christian tradition in a number of the postmoderns.

  5. Mike L says:

    I am reminded of Churchill’s quip: “I have always benefited from criticism and have never suffered from the lack thereof.”

  6. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

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