Society

The Atheist Paradox

donkey

A little while ago, I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

I’d missed it on its original release in 1988, although I remembered news reports of the bother it caused, among certain groups of the devout, for its blasphemous portrayal of Christ’s dying dream on the cross — giving up his mission, marrying and having sex with Mary Magdalene, living to old age. Watching it today, the film seems very 1980s, in good and bad ways.

But what struck me most was not its closing scenes. It was the vividness with which Scorsese generates a sense of the startling novelty of Christ’s ministry. This is surely at the heart of Christianity: that the world was one way, for thousands (science now says billions) of years, then a man was born who embodied the message that everything is different now.

It so happened that, the week I watched the film, there was other news of bother among Christians. The BBC reported on plans by the Church of England to ordain female bishops. Some members of the Church are so outraged by this decision that they are planning to leave. Since none of those upset could be coaxed into saying ‘But women are inferior to men!’, at root their outrage was based upon the complaint ‘But this is not what we are used to!’

To say that something violates tradition is always, in the end, to denigrate it, to say it’s just not what we’re used to. And part of me thinks, fair enough: continuity and tradition are important props to help human subjectivity along its torturous path.

It seems to me that newness is one crucial idiom of Christianity that gets short shrift. So, consider this an atheist’s apology for Christianity

Nevertheless, opponents of the ordination of women tend to make me want to buttonhole them to say, friend, have you even read the New Testament? It’s a text open to a number of interpretations, of course, but one thing that comes out of it unambiguously is the message: everything is different now. It is a book that says, in its whole as well as in numerous specific places: give up your attachments to the old ways, however comforting you find them. It’s a book that says: it’s all new. To live according to the logic of the Gospels, surely, is to live — as thoroughly as you can — the everythingness and the difference and the nowness of everything.

Still, who am I to buttonhole anybody? I do not doubt that there are many Christians for whom tradition, continuity and familiarity are the height, length and breadth of their faith. But I prefer the version of Christ I find in that big beast of Christian apologetics, GK Chesterton:

When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross, the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay … but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation: only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

Let’s take Chesterton at his word. I’m an atheist, and I choose a god. I am naturally enough drawn to the god who was, even if only for an instant, an atheist. But I want to make a new argument about this religion, because it seems to me that newness is one crucial idiom of Christianity that gets short shrift. So, consider this an atheist’s apology for Christianity.

I had better start by saying what this essay is not. It is not an exercise in ‘radical atheism’, or a polemic designed to destroy any reader’s faith in God. Proselytising seems to me the least interesting thing an atheist can do, and I do not attempt it here. Nor am I trying, as an atheist, to ‘enter into’ the mindset of a believer in any sort of abstract or thought-experimental way.

This is not an exercise in lost-faith nostalgia, or sepia-tinted affection for the charming architecture and rites of (for instance) the Church of England. As it happens, I am neither nostalgic nor especially affectionate for that institution. My mother’s father was an Anglican vicar, but my mother was herself an atheist from an early age, and my father lost his evangelical faith in his teens. I was raised, non-dogmatically but effectively, in disbelief, which leaves me with nothing (personally speaking) about which to be nostalgic, and no especial emotional connection with the Anglican communion.

Neither is this an attempt to establish an ‘atheist’ alternative to spirituality. I could dilate upon this for a moment, because a number of books have recently appeared that try to do precisely that. Two in particular have attracted a deal of attention.

The Swiss-born pop-philosopher Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012) takes the non-existence of God as axiomatic, while exploring what de Botton calls ‘religion-based’ concepts such as community and tenderness, which could ‘usefully’ enrich secular life. More persuasively, the French thinker André Comte-Sponville’s L’espirit de l’athéisme (2006), published in English as The Book of Atheist Spirituality (2008), sets out conceptually to decouple conventional religion and ‘spirituality’.

But my aim here is unlike either of those. Indeed, what I’m trying to argue is almost the exact opposite. De Botton and Comte-Sponville both take ‘atheism’ to be the default position of the rational human mind, and then turn to ‘religion’ to see what can be salvaged from it without sacrificing their agreeable, rational disbelief in God. That doesn’t interest me. Empirically, religion is what most humans do. Atheists like me are in the minority, a statistically trivial aberration. This puts us in an interesting position.

Apologia in Latin means ‘defence’ or ‘apology’ but apologo means ‘reject’ or even ‘spurn’. This rejecting defence, or spurning apology, seeks to engage specifically with Christianity, not ‘religion’ or ‘belief in God’ more generally. And that isn’t only because Christianity happens to have been the most culturally significant religion in my life. It is also because of its own particular logic as a faith.

Read More