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The plums from a Christmas pie

01 November 2011

Richard Cheetham on what atheists find valuable in the faith


Christian Atheist: Belonging without believing
Brian Mountford
O Books £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

An Enlightened Philosophy: Can an atheist believe anything?
Geoff Crocker

O Books £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

PUBLIC debate on atheism has been dominated in recent years by the shrill voices of the so-called New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins. This discourse has been widespread and has raised crucial questions, but it has also suffered from dealing in caricatures of both religious faith and atheism, which have polarised the discussion. The subject-matter of both these books adds some welcome texture to an important topic. They both em­phasise that the theist/atheist debate is more of a spectrum of views than a simple either/or position.

Brian Mountford writes as a Christian with sym­pathy for those who come to church and value the Church’s moral and aesthetic tradi­tions, but struggle with what they see as the doctrinal baggage of a trans­cendent God. Geoff Crocker brings the perspec­tive of an atheist who, never­theless, thinks that what he calls the “myth” of religious belief can provide valuable “meta-narratives of mean­ing” for human life.

Mountford is the long-serving Vicar of the University Church in Oxford, and his book is based on a series of conversations with 12 people from a variety of backgrounds — all of whom value the Church, but cannot cope with its doctrine. Its subtitle is Belonging without believing — reversing the well-known phrase of the sociologist Grace Davie, who used it to describe the widespread phenomenon of belief in God which is not accom­panied by any regular churchgoing.

The phrase “Christian atheist” came from a conversation that Mountford had with the author Philip Pullman, who described him­self with this term. Mountford explores the views and attitudes of such people, and why they continue to engage with the Church.

He includes chapters on morality, aesthetics, doctrine, and doubt. The style is informal and anecdotal: one whole chapter is “Loose Ends”, and this could almost describe the whole book. But it does contain some fas­cinating and thought-provoking ideas about the doctrine of God. Mountford concludes by saying that the “Church must listen to its be­long­ing without believing fringe” — a sentiment with which I agree.

Crocker advises multinational clients on strategy issues and speaks on issues of faith and values. In An Enlightened Philosophy, he argues that “even an atheist needs human values,” and that “religion inter­preted as myth offers a classic contribution.” Drawing on this view of religion, he seeks to build a “mean­ingful metaphysics” to shape the way in which we see the world.

The book is divided into three sections. The first attempts to give a broad overview of “Humanity Today”. This section ranges widely, including the influence of the En­lightenment, neo-Darwinism, and post-modernism. Unfortunately, such a broad scope means that it comes across as a hotchpotch of sweeping generalisations. Its essen­tial line is that we “are free and able to define purpose and meaning for ourselves”. In the current plurality of beliefs (religious and non-religious), the author concludes that “our only hope is to build a value system which has common appeal and to which we yield sovereignty.”

The second section, “The Church in Modernity”, is an analysis that is close to a diatribe against what he sees as the current state of the Church worldwide. Unfortunately, his attack is aimed at a caricature Church. He suggests that there are three categories of Church on offer: Evangelical doctrinal, Charismatic phenomenological, and Catholic ritualist. His critique shows little understanding of the breadth and depth of contemporary Christianity.

The final section, “Towards a Synthesis”, argues that there is no Divine Being, but that certain values, e.g. justice, can be seen as “divine”. He speaks of “replacing an exogenous God by an endogenous divine”, thereby “grasping divine values” (such as truth or justice) without any God belief. He then uses these values to present a critique of important features of modern life, such as the free-market economy, and the part played by the state. His attempts to draw from Christian tradition, however, mean viewing doctrines such as the resur­rection and the Trinity as entirely mythical — with absolutely no literal truth-content.

I sympathise with his attempt to engage with Christian thought, but find the end result rather shallow.

Dr Cheetham is the Area Bishop of Kingston in Southwark diocese.

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