Atheism/agnosticism 1a: Christian atheism

Before moving on to agnosticism, it strikes me there’s actually some useful common ground between atheism and Christianity…

The God we do (not) believe in

Christian post-modern philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins once addressed a gathering of atheists and was asked “Given the number of other belief systems in the world, how can you be sure that your own is true?” To which he replied, unexpectedly, something like “I can’t answer for all the other belief systems, but I can be fairly confident that my own isn’t true”.

For the full explanation of what he meant you’ll have to read his excellent How (not) to speak of God (review to follow some day), but basically his idea is that our theology – our view or understanding of God – is always partial, and is also always at least partially wrong. That doesn’t mean we give up on it but that we always hold it provisionally. Rollins speaks of ‘a/theism’, a holding-together of our current view of God with the understanding that that view is inevitably hideously flawed, hugely incomplete and wholly inadequate. We therefore both believe in God and disbelieve our view of God.

I’m told that the Romans originally saw the early Christians as ‘atheists’ because they didn’t believe in the Roman pantheon of gods. Richard Dawkins and others are entirely right to point out that Christians and other monotheists are ‘atheist’ towards a huge range of deities (Zeus, Jupiter, Wotan, Shiva, etc) – indeed, towards all gods but one. Dawkins quite reasonably asks why we then do not simply go one god further and become completely, consistently atheist. It’s a fair question, and one to which Rollins’ answer would be that (at least in part) we can and must do that.

However, the reason why we (Christians) must always be at least partially atheist about our own or any other view of God is not because we believe there is no God, but because we know that no human conception or view of God is the real thing. Christians are atheist towards Zeus and Wotan because they recognise that these are massively flawed and inadequate depictions of the One they dimly perceive and half-blindly blunder to approach. (On the other hand, C.S. Lewis for one had a lot of time for the ‘old gods’, the old myths, because he saw in them glimpses and pre-echoes of Christ in whom alone he believed ‘Myth became Fact’.)

God does not exist

In fact, Christians do actually agree with atheists on one major point – God does not exist. Again though, the reason why they can say this (and say it with utter confidence) is rather different from the atheists’ one. But it’s crucial to the above discussion about Zeus and the other gods.

For Christians and other supernatural theists, God does not exist because ‘he’ (please excuse male pronoun) is entirely outside/beyond/before and other-than the whole concept and realm of Existence. God is not a thing, an object, a concept or a creature within the universe/multiverse. To the theist, God IS. He pre-IS. He is (and is not, because all words fall short) the Ultimate Reality, the Ground of All Being, the Source, the One, the Beginning and End, the Universal, the ‘I Am’. He is not simply Top Being in a hierarchy of like beings; the most-evolved or most intelligent creature. God is in an entirely different category from all that exists.

It’s fairly common to hear people say that belief in God is essentially akin to belief in fairies, goblins, unicorns, or Father Christmas. But the whole point of theism is that God is absolutely nothing like any of these things. They are all things – imaginary things, to be sure, but things nonetheless; by contrast the theists’ God is not a thing at all but is rather the inexpressible Reality upon which thing-ness depends.

So I do have a fair amount of fellow-feeling for atheism. It asks some very good questions, and makes some very valid criticisms of religion and theology. I just come in the end to rather different conclusions.


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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16 Responses to Atheism/agnosticism 1a: Christian atheism

  1. People cannot define, postulate or use faith to instantiate Him! Tillichese is just word play. Prof. Irwin Corey makes more sense!
    Adduce evidence for Being Itself and making its attributes coherent and non-contradictory. Google the ignostic-Ockham, the presumption of naturalism and the problem of Heaven to see how absurd the Being Itself notion indeed is!
    We gnu atheists know your word play, and nothing new there!
    Carneades himself eviscerates theism. Thales and Strato point out the deficiency of the God-intent- divine teleology.
    Yes, Being Itself is no more a real concept than the Lord Russell’s celestial teapot, which itself itself is vacuous! Yes, theists cannot fathom that that tea post ranks with the Ground of Being or Being Itself as different from existent things to update Russell.
    People can describe Zeus as Being Itself just people describe that criminal Yahweh as Being Itself. Special pleading and begging questions just cannot instantiate Him.
    Stop with that ridiculous Tillichian wordplay. New Christinsanity is just the old in other vacuous terms!
    Yes, we gnu atheists make such as you think, but faith has you in its grip, that overwhelming taking over of the putative soul and that leap of faith to make for certitude as Haught and McGrath respectively call faith. I call faith, that begged question, the we just say so of credulity. Science is acquired knowledge whilst as Sydney Hooks note, faith begs the question of being knowledge.”
    So, adduce evidence for that aseity!
    ” Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr.Griggs


    • dsholland says:

      Hmm, not sure because the words are big, but it seems to me the difference is that faith claims an answer while you claim no answer exists. Is this accurate?


    • I love the idea of a gnu atheist – is it a non-believing wildebeeste or someone who doesn’t accept the divinity of water buffaloes?


    • Seriously, I did get the slight impression there that you were trying to bombard me with philosophical jargon. 😉 What I’m interested in is dialogue, not point-scoring. We’re unlikely to agree on the fundamental issues; I doubt either of us will change the other’s mind by arguing on a comments thread.

      I’m not trying to engage in word-play when I describe God as ‘the inexpressible Reality on which thing-ness depends’. I’m trying to express what is intrinsically inexpressible and ineffable; ideas which are literally beyond the limits of language and logic. Similarly, when physicists try to explain fundamental physical reality they are forced into bizarre ‘word-play’ of superstrings, multiple dimensions folded in on themselves etc. Language has to become highly metaphorical to even attempt to describe these ideas, and it cannot help falling far short of the reality.

      So I don’t actually accept the term ‘Being Itself’ as a description of the theist’s God. But even if I did, you can’t describe the classical Zeus, nor Russell’s celestial teapot, as Being Itself, or as the Ultimate Reality, or the pre-existent fact, or whatever. A teapot is a teapot is a thing, however magical or powerful – there’s no meaningful or logical sense in which it can be seen as the ‘Reality on which thing-ness depends’. The classical Zeus is simply the offspring of Cronus, offspring of primordial earth-deity Gaia, ultimately derived from Chaos or the elements of nature. These are still parts of the universe of things. If you don’t see the difference, I’m not sure we can continue to discuss this meaningfully.

      I’ve looked at ignosticism, the problem of heaven etc and they’re all very interesting. But if Tillich-ese is mere wordplay, it seems to me that these are in danger of being mere logic-play. Like solipsism, they make for clever philosophical puzzles, and they are logically unassailable; but the perfect circle of their logic is just too small. Logic is a highly useful tool, and philosophy is a fascinating discipline, but neither of them can make me even a half-decent cup of tea, let alone a half-decent universe. Logic is not the bane of theists; it simply isn’t adequate to the task of explaining God, or life, or relationships, or personality, anything of genuine importance to our actual life experience. Life and God are not mere logic puzzles to be proved or solved. You see me as blinded by faith; to me it seems rather that you are in danger of being blinded by philosophy.

      I have no problem at all with science; I readily accept biological evolution, the old universe, etc. But I genuinely see no conflict between the discipline of science and my own theism. ‘Faith’ is not really a helpful word here as atheists seem to use it in a very different sense to how I understand it. But (for want of a better word) my ‘faith’ does not require me to switch off reason or logic; rather it provides me with a wider, deeper framework in which to carry out the operations of reason, logic and science. My ‘faith’ encompasses the whole of my experience; science only covers a small sub-section.


  2. Oh go on, comment someone, please. After the mini-storm of protest provoked by my last post, no response at all seems dreadfully anti-climactic. Before you know it I really will be writing deliberate untruths just to get a reaction. 😉


  3. dsholland says:

    If we assume a theist worldview then I think “the God we do (not) believe in” makes the glass darker /a> that it really is. God is being (and therefore exists even if He is not A thing). My knowledge of Him may be incomplete and imperfect, but I can know. My knowledge of Him must be dependent on what He chooses to reveal about Himself, but if He does not choose to reveal Himself then I can know nothing of Him.

    If we are theists we must believe He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. If we are atheists we must believe there is no being to be revealed. Lewis says this in his book Miracles when he says “seeing is not believing”. If we believe He has revealed Himself and this revelation is consistent we can communicate meaningfully about who He is. If we do not believe this revelation and its consistency we are reduced to the equivalent of everyone as his own god.

    For me this is the problem with atheism. It leads to, as Lewis defined them, “Men without Chests”.


    • Yes, I was perhaps overstating to make the point. As a Christian theist, I do of course believe that we can know a fair amount about God as revealed in various ways – through nature, through conscience, through the Bible, through people, ultimately and most importantly through Christ. But – apart from Christ – all of these revelations are partial and in some way flawed (you might disagree about the Bible!). And even in Christ, while we may have a clear revelation of God we can still fail to understand it (as most of the people Jesus met did, including his own followers).

      Christian revelation is primarily mediated through relationship – we only really find out about God as we seek him and (falteringly) follow him. The ‘truth’ in Christian thought is not an abstract principle, it is the person of Christ (‘I am the way, the truth and the life’). Knowing the truth is about knowing him (not knowing about him).

      By the way, when Lewis referred to Men without Chests in ‘The Abolition of Man’, he wasn’t talking about atheists specifically, but a type of education he saw springing up which taught that age-old human virtues and values were nothing more than subjective feelings with no imperative force. It may be true that this view fits with some strands of atheist thought (I’m cautious about saying anything more definite!), but it wasn’t meant as an attack on atheism per se.


      • dsholland says:

        Point taken on knowing God. In fact we probably tend to think the glass is clearer than it is (you don’t know what you don’t know 😉 )

        I also concede the refinement about the Abolition of Man and appreciate your caution. That said even the bum concedes his choices are self driven (I will not bother to quote). From flux […]


  4. I’m not impressed.

    Atheism isn’t about being certain that no God exists. We cannot be 100% certain about *anything*. (We can’t even be certain about maths; any deduction might be flawed.) Atheism just isn’t distinct from “agnosticism” in the sense you present here of not being certain.

    Now there are conceptions about God about which we cannot know anything, ever, under any circumstances. Some of those are because of some ontological weirdness (God being fundamentally outside of that which could be perceived or understood), some can just be purely epistemic. (God might just be really good at hiding behind my couch.) But those conceptions are basically fundamentally meaningless and silly; their only use is to keep theologians and philosophers off the street and out of trouble.

    Fundamentally, atheism is about looking at the claims of god believers such as yourself and deciding they are at best meaningless, usually infantile, and often dangerous. If you want to spin ever more rococo literary metaphors for the ordinary experience of life, more power to you. Some of us, those who are actually concerned with truth, have better things to do than engage in metaphysical masturbation.


    • Well to be honest, Larry, I wasn’t really trying to impress or convince you.

      I don’t think I said anywhere in this post that atheism is about being 100% certain that no God exists, and in my next post I use the phrase ‘on balance of probabilities’. But I have to say that from your own comments, your position does appear surprisingly close to certainty. “The claims of god believers are at best meaningless… God is a fantasy of the mind”. That sounds strangely certain to me.

      I’m not trying to spin rococo metaphors for ordinary experiences of life or engage in metaphysical masturbation – it seems to me that those who engage in involved philosophical debates about ‘the problem of heaven’ or whatever are far more guilty of this charge. All I’m trying to do is make sense of my own experience of the world in which, for reasons which I’ll have to save for another post, belief in God has become for me not only reasonable but almost inevitable. I’m not expecting you to share my belief or to take my experiences as evidence. I’m just saying that I find myself in a position where I do very strongly believe, for reasons which to me at least are compelling, and so I need to make sense of this.

      I disagree about maths by the way, or at least arithmetic. I don’t see any meaningful sense in which we can’t be certain that 1+1=2.

      To me, the Dick quotation is just a question-begging soundbite. Of course reality doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. But so what? I see what you’re getting at, but it really just restates that you think God is a figment of our imaginations, whereas I think we’re a figment of his.


  5. As Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” When you stop believing in God, God goes away. It is a fantasy of the mind, having nothing to do with the reality outside our minds. Nothing more, and nothing less. Theology its best is nothing more than an especially banal form of literary criticism, pursued only by those unfit and unwilling to do real work.


  6. David Holland says:

    One is left to wonder why you bother to cast your pearls here.


  7. David Holland says:

    More to the point the argument between theism and atheism has everything to do with how and why we make everyday choices about life. To out of hand dismiss the very real implications of the possibility that one or the other view is in error does not seem like rational argument, but like a childish even infantile tantrum. I submit you are acting the part of the strawman in EL’s first post. Kudos!


  8. Tim Rayner says:

    All I can say is that, after looking up ignosticism, I find myself wondering how far back you can push this thing? I mean we possibly need a 100% proof of our own existence, a nailed-down definition of the word ‘definition’ and verification of the sanity, existence and comprehensibility of all taking part of the discussion before we can even approach the concept of having a concept of the Divine reality or lack thereof.

    In the end analysis when I put my feet on the floor I trust it to bear my weight even though a 100% verifiable Empirical proof of the existence of floorboards, or anything else, is beyond human grasp. We are finite. This is true whatever your concept of God (barring those who actually believe in the ‘we are gods but don’t know it’ argument). It seems that understanding more of the natural world is thought within our grasp even as Science admits that we, in our current form (whether you believe it is our final form or not) could never understand the whole of it. Yet try and suggest that you can come to know more of an infinite God and you are often met with disbelief. The argument of God not being knowable or the concept of God not being knowable because if there is a God he is so much above us and wouldn’t be interested in us is actually based on ourselves. How can it be that we can believe in a greater daily knowledge in a vast but finite Universe which is impersonal and yet so many cannot believe in a greater daily knowledge in a being who by very definition is the bedrock of personality on which all other personality is based. This is a flawed definition in the same way that Newton was flawed compared to Einstein and Einstein compared to more modern Quantum Physicists. However Newton still holds some core truths and in the same way the core truth that God exists and is beyond everything else is still knowable even if another definition might say it better.


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