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Taking ‘old’ atheism seriously

24 April 2015

John Saxbee looks ata thoughtful approach to apologetics


Faith and Unbelief

Stephen Bullivant

Canterbury Press £12.99


Church Times Bookshop £11.70 

STEPHEN BULLIVANT describes atheism today as "a large, pervasive, growing and - by now - perfectly 'ordinary' feature of a great many societies". So this book is a timely addition to Andrew Davison's Faith Going Deeper series. So, what is it about?

Well, it is not about the relative merits of faith and unbelief; nor is it concerned with doubt and uncertainty as positive aspects of belief. It is about how theists, and especially Christian theists, relate to those who have no belief in God and who may positively argue for God's non-existence.

First of all, we have an intentionally provocative chapter on Christian atheism, tracing its origins back to the classical distinction between God and a god. From Paul onwards, there was a determination to separate the one true God from the gods of Greece and Rome. This made Christians "atheists" in the sense of denying what they condemned as idolatrous conceptions of divinity. But there is also a form of Christian atheism which balks at any attempt to speak about God in objective terms. As the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch put it: "only an atheist can be a good Christian."

Among other things, this chapter demonstrates that atheism is a far subtler and more sophisticated phenomenon than New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins seem to comprehend.

Subsequent chapters focus on barriers to belief (e.g. the scandalous nature of the gospel; suffering and evil; the apparent sufficiency of scientific explanations); the extent to which Christianity is itself to blame for an increase in unbelief; the dynamics of dialogue with unbelievers, and, finally, the need for what Catholics are calling the "New Evangelisation" aimed at those who have had acquaintance with Christianity, but have subsequently rejected it.

A key chapter asks "Can atheists be saved?" and provides a sympathetic treatment of what Bullivant describes as "the weightiest of all the topics treated in this book". It offers a classic example of the way faith defines itself on a spectrum of possibilities without needing to opt for one view to the exclusion of others. On balance, Bullivant opts for universal salvation as a plausible belief - but don't count on it!

One striking aspect of this generally measured and helpful book is just how tribal theological apologetics can be. The author is Roman Catholic, and so are the majority of authors he cites in developing his argument. This does not detract from the plausibility or otherwise of his position, and it is likely that, if the series editor had opted for a Protestant contributor, there would have been an equal but opposite bias. The estimable aims of this series would, however, surely be better served by a rather more ecumenically eclectic slate of secondary sources.

Bullivant repeatedly acknowledges the extent to which he has had to skate across the surface of subjects that really require more extensive treatment. But he does supply helpful suggestions for further reading, and, anyway, the aim of this series is to provide "a framework for understanding the subject in hand", so that its authors need not be too sensitive to charges of superficiality. As Canon Angela Tilby has put it, here is "real theology aimed at the non-specialist and written in accessible language which does not patronise or over simplify" - and we look forward to more from this particular stable.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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