Giles Fraser: Theologians promoted atheism

09 January 2008

In 1987, the Jesuit writer Michael Buckley published his masterful work, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (Yale University Press). His thesis was that the main cause of atheism is bad theism. In other words, we brought it on ourselves.

The argument is roughly this. As free-thinkers began to challenge the Christian world-view, the Church set its finest minds the task of defending Christianity. As the challenge was basically philosophical, the Church chose Christian philosophers to see off the challenge. The problem was that, in doing so, the Church effectively conceded that the core issues of faith are essentially philosophical.

It was a poor place to mount a defence of Christianity. The teachings of the carpenter from Galilee were replaced by the apparently more sophisticated arguments of the philosophers. The problem was that the arguments of the philosophers became increasingly unconvincing and desperate. Christianity had, in Fr Buckley’s words, “abandoned the justification intrinsic to its nature”. Thus the very forces that were designed to defend God eventually gave rise to atheism.

Last year, I stopped teaching undergraduates at Oxford. For years, I had struggled through the Philosophy of Religion course, where I did not much recognise the God being discussed by generations of students.

For example: to write that hoary old essay on how suffering is possible if God is omnipotent and good, without being able to write about the cross or the story of salvation — not “philosophical” enough — is like trying to fight with both hands tied behind one’s back. Throughout the course, the wonders of God’s loving purposes are exchanged for a metaphysical Meccano set. It was like attempting to understand the beauty of a butterfly by studying one pinned on a board rather than one fluttering in a meadow.

When Tertullian famously asked what Athens has to do with Jerusalem, he was drawing a contrast between the God who is conceived of in the minds of thinkers such as Plato, and the God of the scriptures. Pascal wrote of the difference between the God of the philosophers, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — the former being some lifeless intellectual formula, and the latter something living and active, with which people could have a relationship.

After years of reading philosophy, Martin Luther concluded: “I have worn myself out at this, and can see quite clearly that it is a vain and ruinous study. It is time for us to devote ourselves to other studies, and to learn Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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