The ‘Atheistic’ Character of Christianity and the Question of Christ

Perhaps one of the most basic assumptions that underlie much debate between Christians and atheists is that the two positions represent polar opposites, between which no common ground exists. Not only are the two positions ultimately irreconcilable, they are also in total and complete opposition to each other. There is no way in which disagreements can be knocked down to size, and the debate honed and focused, as the antithesis is absolute. There is no scope for appreciative dialogue, or to learn from each other. One of the most immediate effects of this assumption is to raise the temperature of our conversations significantly.

Ben Myers of Faith and Theology, wrote a very thoughtful piece a year or so ago, in which he remarked upon the complex relationship that Christian thought and atheism bear to each other, a relationship that is far less obviously one of diametrical opposition than is commonly supposed:

In the 20th century, the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth would begin his courses not with the Bible but with Feuerbach – that brilliant atheist who argued that “God” is a fantastically large projection of ourselves. Far from trying to refute this argument, Barth insisted that it is the beginning of wisdom, the true point of departure for all Christian thought.

Even more pointedly, a contemporary theologian like Jürgen Moltmann can insist that “only a Christian can be a good atheist!” That may be overstating the matter, but it is nevertheless true that Christians have always had a vested interest in thinking critically and subversively about the very idea of God and the uses to which it is put. This is why in the work of great religious thinkers – Kierkegaard or Milton or Dostoevsky – one can scarcely tell at times whether they are advocating belief in God or the most devastating atheism. The line between the two is often blurred.

At its best, atheism is a questioning tradition that thinks ‘unflinchingly about what it means to be human in a world without God.’ It is a tradition that resolutely challenges the self-delusions that we entertain in order to avoid the pain and shame of the world stripped naked by truth. The facile confusion of atheism with anti-theism represents a shrinking back from the discomforting and unsettling tradition of genuine atheism, a tradition that can leave its adherents disoriented and uncertain of their footing, into a movement that casually dismisses and ridicules others, while priding itself in its intellectual superiority. ‘Enlightenment’ becomes a boast freed from all burden. This is an ‘atheism’ no longer confronting the prospect of an abyss yawning beneath its feet.

Christianity has its own related forms of failure of nerve, as we close off our questions to the icy draft of reality, and lock ourselves into a sterile dogmatism. If the casual confidence of the anti-theist, who will rigorously question everything save the ground he is standing on, is unworthy of being associated with the best of the atheistic tradition, the unquestioning tribalistic opinion that masquerades as ‘faith’ in many Christian circles is no less unworthy of association with the best of our tradition.

The ‘Atheist’ Voice of Christianity

Any serious thinking Christian should be able to recognize some profoundly Christian elements in the atheist tradition, and should be at once heartened and troubled by that fact. Long before the dawn of modern atheism, the early Christians were known as ‘atheists’, on account of their denial of the gods of paganism. While many might regard this as an accident of shared designation, I believe that there are grounds for identifying a deeper affinity between the movements.

A central feature of Christianity is an attack upon idolatry, and the manner in which it holds people hostage. While some might regard biblical attacks upon idolatry as a cynical means by which to secure the allegiance of the faithful, the underlying intention is liberational. The goal of the teaching on idolatry is to exalt mankind above the petty things to which we would otherwise devote our service, ensuring that humanity is oriented towards something greater, which will serve to render us even more deeply human. Belief in falsehood imprisons and impoverishes us. We become like the things that we worship and when something that is less than fully personal and humanizing becomes our focus of concern, we will gradually become dehumanized. False gods will ensnare our entire existence in untruth. Consequently, the interrogation of our beliefs and practices, the honing of our worship, the questioning of our conceptions of God, and an uncompromising rejection of idolatry in all of its forms are characteristic of Christian faith and practice (perhaps most especially in the context of traditional Protestantism).

Atheist thought shares a similar impulse, but believes that Christian faith itself falls under the category of false belief. I do not believe that it is an accident that atheism has found some of its most fertile soil in the context of cultures that have been leavened by Christian – and especially Protestant – thought. It is also interesting to observe how atheists often charge Christians with false (‘idolatrous’) belief in a manner that strikes notes that, despite themselves, can sound almost Christian. Who cannot read Marx or Feuerbach’s descriptions of religion, for instance, without hearing an echo of the sentiments of Old Testament prophets?

The target of much atheist protest is the god that secures all meaning and makes sense of the world, the religion that serves as a crutch and underwrites the social order, the faith that inures one to truth and reality and gives birth to dulling and enslaving illusion. This is the god in whom they don’t believe. They might be surprised to find that Christians stand alongside them in attacking this deity: we don’t believe in that god either.

Christian thought involves a radical challenge to the way that we naturally view and ‘use’ god. It strikes at the idea of the distant and transcendent absolute being, believing that God was revealed in human flesh, with all that that entails. Christians believe that God came in a regular human body and pooped, sweat, and ate, just like the rest of us. Christians overturn the deity that underwrites and secures the pyramidical hierarchy, teaching that God himself became a servant for our sakes.

Christian faith teaches that God gave himself to die a criminal’s death at the hand of man and that he was dead for a few days. We believe that God’s character was most fully revealed, not in the beauty and perfection of nature, or the stillness of the human heart, but in a mangled and bloodied body on a Roman cross. It is in this eclipse of all light, and even the knowledge of God’s presence, that God’s face is most powerfully disclosed: God makes himself known in this moment of hell. It is also ultimately by this means that God achieves his purposes in the world, not by mere detached fiat.

If God himself felt the deep absence of God (‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?’), such an experience is far from alien – indeed, it is completely proper – to Christ-ian faith. Only Christians have a Holy Saturday, the day when God himself lay dead in the tomb, the day when all lights are out. As Tomáš Halík observes in his superb Patience With God, a living with the silence of God is integral to Christian faith and piety, an experience that bears much in common with that of atheists, but that the distinguishing character of the Christian response to this silence is patience.

In other words, Christians believe in an upside-down God, who stands utterly opposed to the deity that human beings naturally believe – or don’t believe – in. In the protests of atheists against this supposed deity, Christians can recognize the voice of the biblical prophets railing against the idols and false gods of the surrounding nations. In the moral protests of atheists against the injustice of the world, and any attempt to palliate us to this by reassuring theodicies, Christians can recognize the voice of the psalmist, who is inspired by God to challenge and question God. In response to the atheists who complain of God’s absence, Christians speak of exactly the same the experience (the ‘dark night of the soul’), the difference being that for Christians this is something to be passed through with struggling patience. In response to those atheists who resist attempts to impose meaning upon suffering and death, Christians can highlight the example of Job’s resistance to his counsellors. In response to the atheists who speak of the opacity of the world, Christians can point to the book of Ecclesiastes.

If atheists question God, believers in YHWH have been doing it for millennia. Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of the Jewish nation, was given the name ‘Israel’ after wrestling with God. The Bible is filled with examples and patterns of wrestling with and questioning God, and demolishing the comforting idolatrous notions that people have about him.

Christ, the Question

Christians often proclaim that Christ is ‘the Answer’. This is true enough, but perhaps the more exciting truth is that Christ is the Question. A question is something with the power to open up your world. A question is something that you can follow into the unknown. One could argue that it is our choice of and relationship to our questions, rather than our answers, that most defines us. Not all questions are helpful, and many questions lead nowhere. However, some questions have proved so fertile that they have continued for millennia.

The most important thinkers in human history are not those who have given the cleverest answers, but those whose work has posed the profoundest questions. It is a question that underlies and drives every quest. It is in this respect that Christ towers over all others, as God’s own Question to man. Christ is the Word of God that opens the conversation and poses a Question that touches to the quick of our entire reality. It is through this Question that we, like Augustine, become questions to ourselves.

In looking at atheism, I am often struck by the manner in which the strongest forms of questioning atheism can seem particularly Christian, and could not grow from another religion in the same manner. It is within Christianity in particular that the idea of God as the guarantor of some tidy cosmic meaning is undermined. The book of Job is a great example of this. All of the attempts to give meaning to Job’s experience collapse. This undermining of the notion of cosmic meaning reaches its completion when God himself dies on a cross. The opacity of meaning and the throwing open of reality to radical questioning is profound.

The Christian distinction between God and creation had much the same effect. The world ceased to be a divine thing, or a prison of determinism, but became simply ‘the world’. Scientific questioning of reality was empowered by the Christian (and especially Protestant) attack upon idolatry and superstition.

The light of Christ’s advent brings with it the means by which other realities can be exposed. It is through the light that we discern the darkness. In our society’s account of justice, ethics, goodness, beauty, and evil the light of Christ still shines, granting these notions a clarity that they would not otherwise possess in a culture that was not haunted by him. It was through Christ that many of the core concepts of humanism most powerfully impinged upon our consciousness: personhood, the dignity of man, genuine freedom. We should not presume upon this knowledge not retreating with the withdrawing tide. As Christ is denied, the descent to the gloaming begins, and these notions, and the cultural quests they once encouraged grow dim, and our feet begin to stumble on uncertain ground.

Christianity provided one of the greatest challenges to state domination, and one of the greatest sources of questioning of it. As Peter Leithart has argued in his book, Defending Constantine, Christianity desacralized the state, exposing it to a deeper questioning. Many of the questions that underlie Western political thought arise out of a specifically Christian context of thought. Christianity also powerfully relativized the social-symbolic substance, both through its eschatology, and through its practice of the Church. Ultimately a Christian was not a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a male or a female, but a person in Christ, possessing equal dignity with all others. This understanding of the person called the social structure and its settled inequalities into question and gave a face to people who were faceless, sensitizing Western culture to the oppressed and alienated and exalting the person above their place in the social structure. Further examples, such as the scapegoat theory of Réné Girard could be mentioned here, could be brought forward of illustrations of the manner in which Christianity exposed all reality to deep questioning, thereby rendering every aspect of our existence a quest.

The manner in which the ‘Christian revolution’ (as David Bentley Hart terms it) threw the natural world, political authorities, social and economic structures, the complexities of existence, and our very own selves wide open to questioning (to a degree that the Greek philosophical tradition couldn’t quite do by itself) is one of the reasons why I still find it so important in my own thinking. Although many atheists engage in such radical questioning, one wonders whether atheism itself can provide either the sort of enlightenment or the source of questioning that Christianity has and does. The character of much recent atheism provides little encouragement on this front. In certain quarters, the sort of radical and transformative questioning that forged Western society has shrunk to the trickle of the disengaged cynicism and irony of self-assured elites, delighting in the frisson of a sterile novelty. This worries me, precisely because it is the slow progress of the deep questioning started by the Christian faith that has led to much of the freedom that we enjoy in the West. Any atheism or Christianity that neglects this tradition of questioning exposes us to the risk of losing our freedoms and the introduction of a new darkness.

The bold and terrifying metaphysical questions that one finds in the atheists that knew and experienced what Christianity is, and how much Western society, its ethical vision, and their own questioning tradition owes to the Christian legacy are far more profound (often seeking to ask with even greater force the questions that Christianity first threw open). For instance, they recognize the loss of a degree of our ability to question our actions with the abandonment of terms such as sin and evil. Such a form of atheism recognizes that certain questions are not accessible to everyone, and that, with their atheism, they must risk forfeiting certain lines of questioning that once illuminated reality.

Conclusion

In short, I do not believe that Christianity and atheism are as far apart or unrelated as people may think. There are good reasons why atheism found its most fertile soil in the lands of Christendom, and of Protestantism in particular (a movement particularly sensitized to the dangers of idolatry and superstition). Atheists work with the legacy of Christianity a lot more than most Christians and atheists realize.

What does this mean for Christians and atheists? I believe that Christians can often see in atheists disavowed aspects of their own faith, which have been neglected or rejected on account of their troubling character. The questions of the atheists are often Christian questions, questions that we should be asking too. One wonders whether, if Christians had the courage to embark upon the quests that Christ opens for us, atheism would be quite so powerful a movement in Western culture. I suspect that atheism is a ‘question’ from God to us. Perhaps when we don’t faithfully ask God’s questions, God will get others to ask them for us and of us. In our relationship to atheists, I believe that we should recognize a kinship, and should explore the place of ‘atheist’-type voices within Christian faith itself (without obviously denying the existence of God). Unbeknownst to them, atheists are squandering an unacknowledged patrimony in the far country. This is another sense in which atheism can be seen as a ‘question’ to us: can we see ourselves in our atheist friends, and recognize them as our kin?

For atheists, I believe that the challenge is to relate to the explicit character of Christian thought, and not to some supposed natural conception of deity that is exploded in Christ and the upside-down God of the gospel. I believe that atheists should seek to discover the source of their questions, and ask themselves whether these questions will survive the departure of God. Finally, I believe that many atheists have a grasp – and a stronger one than one than many Christians – of certain aspects of the truth. I believe that these can be shown to be fragments of a far deeper account, an account through which, paradoxically and unexpectedly, God is revealed to be all in all. The unresolved note left hanging in atheism rings clear but finds rest in the Christ of the gospel.

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 Atheism, Controversies, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to The ‘Atheistic’ Character of Christianity and the Question of Christ

  1. Francis Fish says:

    I’m a Buddhist – and therefore an atheist. We also have a completely different conception of sin and evil, starting from a different place. I don’t have time or space to talk about it here, but this is a very narrow, Western-centric view.

    There is no unresolved note. Just the constant collision of causes and conditions that makes the world we see and live in, with our own minds being one of the causes and conditions in the mix. There’s no need for god to explain what there is.

    You could argue that the concept of Buddha Nature is the same as the transcendent thing you describe – however it is always there, it has never left nor gone anywhere, and there is no need to be forgiven for anything, just a need to see things as they really are without the encumbrance of ego.

    • Yes, my view above is unapologetically Western-centric. Buddhism tends to a very different belief system from most Western atheism in many respects, with different priorities, concerns, and attendant ideological commitments and values. Besides, it seems to me that Buddhism is probably better characterized as ‘non-theistic’, rather than ‘atheistic’.

      Most importantly, it doesn’t feature in the standard Christian-atheist debates in which context these thoughts arose. If I were trying to dialogue with Buddhism (which I am not about to: I am not familiar enough with it to do so), I would take an entirely different angle of approach.

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  3. Sigh… Not a terrible essay, but not a good one either.

    You appear to be equivocal on how you define “Christians”. On the one hand, you admit there are a lot of people who call themselves “Christian” who do not believe in the abstruse and somewhat vague theology you proffer here. (“The unquestioning tribalistic opinion that masquerades as ‘faith’ in many Christian circles is no less unworthy of association with the best of our tradition.”) On the other hand, you sometimes seem to identify your strain of thought completely with Christianity. (“Christians stand alongside [atheists] in attacking this deity: we don’t believe in that god either.”) An atheist such as myself would argue that there’s no objective way to distinguish which is objectively “better”: the first “tribalistic” form or your own vague, metaphysical form. The former seems to us a considerable social problem, a problem we choose to address by a simple rejection of “tribalistic” faith without recourse to your own theology.

    To some extent, we atheists ignore your kind of theology simply because it’s socially irrelevant. Regardless of its merits and faults, very few people outside of academic theology even know what you’re saying. It’s not a position that illuminates the faith of the evolution and global-warming deniers, the Tea Party, the working class dupes of the 1%, the homophobes, the racists, the misogynists, etc. ad nauseam. The latter — not irrelevant, ivory-tower, hand-waving intellectuals — are the target of the New Atheist struggle. Join that struggle if you please, but don’t censure *us* for attacking a very real problem if you share our opinion about the existence and severity of the problem.

    But there are a number of atheists — notably Jerry Coyne of Why Evolution is True, and, to a lesser extent, myself — who actually have investigated the claims of so-called “sophisticated” theology, much like the theology you allude to in this post. And in its own way it’s just as bad as the more naive, direct, literalist, and often brutal forms of Christianity. Yes, there are very interesting and deep metaphysical, philosophical, and ethical questions, but it’s our view that the introduction of Christian mythology not only fails to illuminate these questions but subtly restricts and diminishes the investigation. Those of us who have taken the time to investigate the claims of “sophisticated” theology have found it unhelpful, unilluminating, a waste of time. It is, to our considered investigation, vague, empty, vacuous: not even wrong. If it suits you, good for you, but to us it’s even more ridiculous than the tribalists.

    Of course, pluralism does have some value. It’s certainly your social privilege to adopt whatever myth you find useful, even if I myself and many other atheists do not share it, as long as you don’t demand social, political, or intellectual privilege. If you want to attack the “tribalistic” Christians for their theological mistakes, I suspect you’d find little active opposition from even the most “militant” of the New Atheists. But that’s not what I see happening. (Of course, I don’t carefully follow intra-Christian debate.) From where I sit, the “sophisticated” theologians have apparently abandoned the struggle against literalism (or are so ineffectual they might as well have abandoned it), and direct their critique primarily against the New Atheists. From where I sit, you seem not to be struggling against tribalism and literalism, but rather providing intellectual cover for the tribalists and literalists, undermining what we see as the best critique against tribalists and literalists: that there just *is no God*.

    A lot of atheists have definitely not investigated your form of sophisticated theology; they don’t reject it so much as they are ignorant of it. In much the same sense, we remain ignorant of sophisticated astrology, sophisticated homeopathy, sophisticated parapsychology. We do *not* need to become deep students of sophisticated forms of what appears to be baloney; it is the sophisticated investigators who need to make at least a prima facie case for the value of their investigation. And, just as the sophisticated astrologers et al. have failed to make their case, the sophisticated theologians have failed to make their own. It’s not our fault that we’ve failed to buy because you’ve failed to sell. But some of us actually have investigated sophisticated theology, and found it lacking any merit that could not be preserved and even enhanced by simply abandoning God and Jesus.

    If you want to join the struggle, join it. Don’t insist that you ought to *lead* it. If you want to lead your own struggle, I have no obligation to follow you, and you’ll have to do a *much* better job of persuading me to abandon my own struggle and join yours.

    • My position is simply that the ‘tribalistic’ Christians of whom you speak are generally heterodox. I am not advocating any ‘vague, metaphysical’ position, but arguing that we need to take the creed and the biblical narrative seriously.

      Christian ideas are part of the DNA of Western culture (and my context is in the UK, not America). Much of my argument above is that this fact has been forgotten. Consequently, Christianity is associated primarily with various aberrant forms, which can seemingly be rejected as completely irrational. The ideas of academic theologians seem irrelevant, as they seem to have little impression upon the popular religious psyche and on the face of society. However, the point being made is that, when we temporarily silence the shrill voices of fundamentalists jockeying for our attention, what we find is that Christian ideas, questions, values, and commitments have entered into the bloodstream of society more generally, and that this is true for atheists as well. We don’t notice that they are Christian, because they have become part of us.

      The New Atheists suppose that they are attacking Christianity, when they almost without fail prove devastatingly (and generally wilfully) ignorant of it. What they attack are bizarre popular forms. However, one does not have to look hard to find real problems arising from popular ignorance of belief systems, of whatever type they may be.

      I would be interested to hear a more detailed description of what theologians and sources you are referring to in speaking of ‘so-called “sophisticated” theology’ (and, frankly, what I am advocating here is not some esoteric form of theology, but that we recognize the resources of the bog-standard orthodox Christian tradition in this area). Your reference to Jerry Coyne makes me wonder whether you are thinking in terms of debates with Christians about evolution. I don’t have a problem asserting evolution. Although I believe that God is the Creator, I would neither identify myself as a creationist, or as a supporter of Intelligent Design. I suggest that you read someone such as Conor Cunningham (Darwin’s Pious Idea) on the subject of the evolution debate. More generally, I would suggest that a narrow focus upon evolution debates is a great way to miss the bigger issues that are at stake for Christians and atheists.

      I suspect that you have a limited exposure to contexts of Christian discourse. Debates about approaches to the Bible and literalism are front and centre in many areas, even though these debates don’t generally occur in contexts in which atheists are likely to be eavesdropping. Attacking ‘tribalists and literalists’ is not my primary concern (I would generally prefer to attack theological liberals). In speaking of Christians standing alongside atheists in attacking a particular deity, I include most ‘tribalists and literalists’ under the term ‘Christian’. My point is that atheists haven’t sufficiently acquainted themselves with the form of God within Christian thought, and consequently are attacking a straw man. Besides, I don’t believe that literalists and tribalists pose the same degree of threat to the health of Western culture and society as atheists do.

      Once again, I would like to see you specify exactly what and who you are referring to in speaking of ‘sophisticated theology’.

      I think that throughout this whole comment, you have completely missed the main point of my post, which was that atheists have to give clear account of the ground that they are standing upon, if they want to be taken seriously. You may not accept the existence of God. Fair enough, but I should have the right to expect you to provide some sort of clear account of the philosophical basis upon which the rest of your positions are founded.

      For instance, don’t expect me just to grant the legitimacy of your attack on misogyny on your own basis: first you have to pay your ontological dues. In attacking misogyny, you have already made a set of far-reaching ontological assumptions about the existence and meaning of persons as entities, about selves, about ethics and our duties to one another, about the meaning and place of sexual difference, etc. Such things don’t come cheaply. While Christians have a belief system in which such concepts are meaningfully grounded, a naturalistic or materialistic atheist has much to demonstrate here. You need to prove that you are not working with borrowed capital.

    • First, I myself am mostly interested in apologetics rather than theology. I’ve studied a bit of Haught, Plantinga, Spong, Swinburne, and a couple of others I can’t recall off the top of my head. But I’m really not interested in establishing my academic credentials; I’m strictly an amateur. Your theology go-to guy in the atheist crowd is Jerry Coyne.

      More importantly, though, I want to reiterate the point that most atheists are probably ignorant of your kind of theology, because we consider it irrelevant. We are well aware that “Christianity”, like cancer, is too broad a term to ever have a single rebuttal. You can join any struggle you please, but we — especially the atheists are in the United States — are primarily struggling against — for lack of better labels — the fundamentalists and the literalists. Your brand of theology is simply not a factor in either our narrative or the narratives we’re struggling against. When we critique fundamentalism, that’s all we’re critiquing. We might have — if we cared to investigate the matter — a different critique against your kind of theology than we do against fundamentalism, but it is a mistake to read our critique of fundamentalism as a critique of your brand of theology. If you want atheists to struggle against *your* kind of theology, you’ll have to become more socially, politically, and culturally relevant. Until then, we are not attacking a straw man; we are attacking real people with real beliefs that we believe cause real harm.

      In general, you are missing the point of atheism in general: it is primarily a social, political, and cultural movement struggling with fundamentalism. But specifically, I myself am very interested in philosophy. So I want to focus in on the “borrowed capital” idea you raise in your reply.

      I would place a slightly higher burden on you than you might be willing to admit. Obviously, Christianity has been a central component of Western Civilization for about fifteen centuries. That’s both a blessing and a curse. Christianity cannot, I think, take credit for every idea that has been retrojected on it, especially from the rather vast body of intellectual thought in the last five centuries since the Enlightenment. The burden I would like to see met is the burden that many of these ideas could not be coherent without the Christ myth. I don’t think that’s a burden you can actually meet.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “grounding”. Naturalism is fundamentally epistemically prior, rather than ontologically prior. Under naturalism, our ontological “narrative” is just this: what is the simplest narrative of the world that will account for experience? We don’t seek to say what reality is like independent of our empirical knowledge; we say only what reality must be “like” to account for our knowledge. To take your example, I see that, except for superficial morphological traits, I cannot discern any substantive, morally relevant difference between women and men. Therefore it seems to me that there is no objective basis to afford different social rights and responsibilities to women and men. And because of my biology, a result of evolution, and my socialization, a result of a global, historical culture of which Christianity is only one influence among many, I am concerned with the well-being of all sapient beings. What more “ontological grounding” do I need, then, to be concerned with the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of women?

      Christianity cannot stand on merely its historical roots. What have you done for us *lately*?

    • Also, it should be noted that theology, while giving a dandy ontological account of rights, seems to suffer from a lack of epistemic grounding. It’s all well and good to imagine some sort of God, whether a transcendent deity or one who “pooped, sweat, and ate, just like the rest of us,” who is the ontological foundation of our rights. But how do we *know* such a god actually exists? It’s not enough — or at least not enough for a naturalist — to say, “We want these rights, God is an ontological foundation for these rights, therefore God exists.” I think we do have an adequate ontological foundation (in the naturally knowable character of human beings), but even without any ontological foundation, we can, I think, still say, “We want these rights, and that by itself is a good enough reason to assert them.” Why add a God to justify what we can observe? What work does a God do in figuring out how we should manage all the complexities of competing and disagreeing notions of justice that we cannot do by directly negotiating the rights each person knows directly he or she wants?

  4. Justin says:

    Thanks for the article Alastair. One thing I would like to see you address though is Scripture’s strong words about the foolish nature of the one who says in his heart there is no God, as well as what Scripture says about keeping company with/bonding with/feeling solidarity with fools, especially when such solidarity is built precisely on that which has gained them the title fool in God’s eyes, namely their atheism.

    • Thanks for the comment, Justin. In my reading of the text – and I suspect that you also read it this way – the ‘foolishness’ of the atheist is not a matter of dull-mindedness, so much as a matter of a misdirected sharp mind (like a buzz-saw cutting in the wrong direction). I also think that we have biblical precedent for isolating and highlighting the salient truths that are are present within an erroneous position. The solidarity that I speak of is of a particular kind. It is a solidarity controlled by the sort of biblical allusions that I made. It is the solidarity of the brother who remains at home with the brother who squanders the patrimony in the far country. The solidarity is not in the state of alienation, degradation, or destitution, but in the kinship and shared patrimony, a solidarity that will only truly be achieved through restoration and renewal.

    • If it is what you are suggesting, I am hardly a theological liberal (this is an an impression that any acquaintance with this blog should disabuse you of). While I have little time for theological liberals who speak a lot without saying much, and fail to take a definitive and unambiguous stand on most issues, I am also wary of the tendency of atheists, who seldom have much of a clue about Christian theology to label everyone who doesn’t conform to their fundamentalist strawman as a ‘liberal’.

      • I’m not suggesting anything here. I just thought you might find the article interesting in the context of this article. The net is all about making unusual connections and see what happens, /n’est pas/?

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  7. Tim Webb says:

    Alastair, I used to read your work with great interest, and then you seemed to have stopped blogging for a long time, and then somehow I found your blog again recently.

    While there are all sorts of interesting debates going on the the comments here, I must sincerely thank you for it… this post has been a great encouragement to my heart and mind. Peace in Christ, Tim.

  8. cookiejezz says:

    “Larry, the Barefoot Bum” asks “What has Christianity done for us lately?” and it is in part in answer to this question that I would raise the following points.

    Christian convictions, Christian values and Christian people (by which I mean those who have repented of their sins and strongly adhere to identifiably biblical values, rather than those who just claim to be Christians on the basis of casual church attendance or the vague hope, based on their “good enough” character, that they may go to Heaven when they die) have made huge contributions to the society in which we live: art, music, our laws and freedoms, and huge numbers of good works are the fruit of people whose lives have been changed by a deeply-felt conviction of personal sin and the sense that they are called no longer to live for themselves, but to serve God (in worship) and other people (in love, compassion and self-sacrifice).

    I strongly feel – and I sense too that many philosophers would back me up on this – that if we are to remove a belief, as the militant anti-theists would have us do, then what replaces it should be something better. There is a beauty in truth: its outworkings should conform to what humans instinctively recognise as good.

    The problem with atheism, and particularly anti-theism, is that it is at its heart a belief in a negative: there is no God. It is a statement, not a manifesto. “There is no God” – and you can make of this fact what you will. The God of Christianity is both statement and manifesto: “There is a God” – and the implications of this for humanity are profound. However, the beauty of this truth does not end there. Again, atheism and anti-theism are limited in their scope. Having denied the existence of God, they must search outside themselves for meaning or answers and, in so doing, are limited to whatever mankind can find. The God of the Bible, on the other hand, provides the answers as core components of belief: morality, law, guidance, wisdom, the value of the life of another, definitions of good and evil, answers to the problem posed by man’s fallen state (including forgiveness, redemption, regeneration and salvation).

    History shows that when men are taught that there is no God, they will behave accordingly. The worst manifestations of atheism are found in Communism, with its wholesale slaughter of innocents. Western atheists will naturally argue that they possess more moral restraint, and this is true to a point, but once one throws away the ultimate authority of God and the Bible, on what basis can we call people to morality? The current economic crisis is a result of debts incurred by people led or enabled by those whose creed consisted of greed, materialism, and selfishness – all products of basic human nature combined with a godless worldview. People with a strong sense of Christian values naturally shy away from incurring huge debts, firstly because the Bible forbids it and secondly because they do not place a premium on the possession of material goods in the same way as many people do not believe in God. In the moral universe as well as the physical one, nothing can come from nothing: it is entirely self-defeating to reject an authority as strong as the Bible and then expect people still to have a strong sense of what is right and wrong. A people without values will be led by its desires, and we can see that over and over again in 21st-century Britain.

    It is easy to claim that there is little evidence for the existence of God, but harder to claim that there is little evidence for the rightness or relevance of biblical, transforming Christianity. It is only our desire to remain in our sins that causes us to deny it.

  9. Cristero says:

    Thats very weak.

  10. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2011-2012 | Alastair's Adversaria

  11. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Are Western countries where atheism has found it’s greatest purchase? It actually seems to flourish at least as well in East Asia, which has a very different religious history. The common factor between societies where unbelief of all sorts seems to flourish is that they are all prosperous technological societies.

  12. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Buddhism at a popular level is highly theistic.

  13. Pingback: We don’t believe in that god either | God does not believe in atheists

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