Are Christians atheists?

358966273d9a4ae385d5d66bd7a2100bOne of the delights of the internet is that once you are in the public domain, you can be savaged and mauled (verbally at least) by complete strangers. I have experienced this a little in blogging and on Facebook, but it appears to be a regular pastime of atheists to attack random Christians on Twitter. I don’t know whether it is particular attraction of the medium; I am sure there is a dissertation on internet evangelism to be written on this.

In a recent conversation, I happened to mention to the particular atheist rottweiler of that day’s savaging that I wasn’t religious. After what I take to be a dumbfounded pause, the next question came:

What do you tick on census forms? Non-religious? Or Christian?

My reply was: ‘Both’, which succeeded in ending the exchange. I was, in fact, making a serious point. It seems to me that there is a real problem for a kind of evolutionary atheism to explain the existence of the human religious instinct. What evolutionary advantage could there be in developing a belief in the transcendent? And it is a real question since, although you cannot explain culture by evolutionary theory, all the evidence is that the human religious consciousness developed prior to what we would call culture.

But the next day, I was surfing channels on TV, and came across the teachings of an Indian guru as he chanted and taught a crowd of ecstatic, hand-waving followers. Now I suspect that, since they see me as ‘religious’, most atheists would imagine that I felt I had something in common with these people, as fellow ‘religious.’ But nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout history, religious people have been irrational, gullible, manipulative and self-interested. And I am not clear that all this has much connection with Christian faith.

(Funnily enough, I have just come across Tim Keller’s argument of ‘Nine ways in which the gospel is not like religion’—though it is in the context of whether Mark Driscoll has stolen the idea without giving due credit!)

This connects with serious intellectual reflection about religious belief. I noted in my discussion about the influence of the international missionary movement:

When I was studying phenomenology as part of my theology degree, I came across the influential work of Mircea Eliade and his seminal writing The Sacred and the Profane (think ‘hierophany’ and ‘sacred space.’) What I found fascinating was that his influential description and categorisation of religiosity failed at one point—his attempt to categorise Protestant Christianity! There is a sense in which Reformed Christian faith is actually quite distinct from other forms of religious faith, and we should be cautious about simply pressing the case for ‘faith’ (in general) rather than (Reformed) Christian faith in particular.

This discontinuity between Christianity and other religions goes all the way back to the first century, when the primary accusation against Christians was that they were atheotes, that they were ‘atheists.’ Like their fellow-travellers the Jews, Gentile followers of Jesus found that they needed to refuse the typical Roman deal for new religions: you worship our gods and we will worship yours. This refusal seemed to the Romans like a stubborn and arrogant rejection of normal religious belief.

6_1_justinA key part of this distinctive is the underlying rationality of Christian faith. In John 1.1, the expression of God’s presence in human form is described as ‘the word’, the logos, which to anyone from a Greek background would communicate the sense of ‘the rational principle behind the universe.’ The second generation of Christians, following the death of the generation of those who had known Jesus, tried to offer a rational defence of their belief, an apologia. Justin Martyr is the best-known early example. And the causal link between the Reformation and the Enlightenment has been well rehearsed. The return to the founding documents and principles of Christian faith as a way of undermining the power of institutions very soon leads to the individual as the centre of authority.

This sense of rationality within Christianity, and in particular within Protestant Christianity, sets it apart from other religious traditions. And this means that, to be honest, I do have a lot of sympathy for some atheist arguments against the phenomenon of religiosity as it is often practised. This makes me wonder whether my first response to atheist maulings on Twitter shouldn’t be: ‘Actually, I agree with you.’

This the might leave space to explore the things that really matter in the discussion. Contemporary, ‘aggressive’ atheism does take a highly reductionist approach to human existence, as Mark Steel wittily points out:

In all the debates in which Dawkins has argued with believers, there can’t have been many occasions when someone has said: “Ah NOW I see: we’re organisms composed of a complex series of particles. So that goddess with all the arms must be a load of bollocks.”

This leaves two potentially fruitful areas to explore. The first is how to explain the sense of transcendence in human experience. Sociologist Peter Berger explored this in his lesser known work The Rumour of Angels. One reviewer on Amazon summarises it in this way:

Berger traces these rumors to their source and calls our attention to five “signals of transcendence” embedded into the fabric of society that indicate a transcendent dimension: order, hope, play, humor and damnation…

Without a social order life becomes meaningless, homeless, and loveless, even malevolent. The propensity to hope in the face of suffering and death is another example of the transcendent. Play is a signal of transcendence from the grimness of life’s realities and the “iron cage” of large impersonal bureaucratic organizations. Humor laughs at the discrepancy between what “is” and “ought” to be, and the comic discrepancy between tiny men living in a massive cosmos. A sense that some acts are damnable even though we can’t escape the relativities of the world implies a transcendent moral order.

These five signals are not logical or philosophical proofs for God or angels or religious belief, but Berger tells us they are signposts of transcendence that can only be seen and accepted on the basis of faith. As Berger puts it in one of his later writings, “God plays a game of hide and seek with mankind and leaves more than a few hints where he may be hiding” (A Far Glory, 1992).

Intriguingly, he goes on to comment:

I have found these five arguments for the persistence of the transcendent to be more intriguing and credible than any theological or philosophical arguments for God.

The second area to explore is the paradox of Jesus and his influence. How is it that a man who lived a short life, died as a criminal, left no writings and few followers, never travelled more than a few days’ walk from his birthplace, and lived and died in an obscure corner of a vast empire end up having so much influence in the world? No other religious leader lived a life like this—all others lived lives from which you could explain their influence. And yet few have come close in terms of global and historical impact.

So I think the first thing I might say to the next Rottweiler who mauls me is: ‘I agree with you. Now get we get our teeth into the really meaty issues?’

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1 thought on “Are Christians atheists?”

  1. Meaty post!

    Transcendent beliefs don’t need an evolutionary explanation, as they spring from consciousness. Once the brain is sufficiently evolved to host a conscious mind, all bets are off. Much primitive religion is clearly a projection from human experience (gods “above the sky,” gods who look and act like us), and shouldn’t be mocked, as some new atheists do. They’re a reasonable inference from the info available.

    The spread of Christianity can thank the mother of all lucky breaks: the conversion of Constantine. Previously Christianity spread on its merits — merits that exist independently of its truth-claims, such as the emotional and intellectual appeal of its salvation message — but that image in the sun birthed.

    We all, as Tillich put it, have questions of ultimate concern. Religion (including, in-line with common usage, protestantism) is one possible answer to our angst. By its nature, it’s not something to be proven, but to be experienced and lived. To repeat the Miguel de Unamuno quote that Richard Holloway’s so fond of, “Man is perishing, that may be, but if it is nothingness that awaits us, let us perish resisting and so live that it will be an unjust fate.”

    All very existentialist, but then, so’s the question asked.


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