Atheists on to something

by
20 May 2016

If Christendom is finished, what next? Keith Ward detects a crisis of confidence


Dawkins the cartoon hero: a panel from Goodbye God?: An illustrated exploration of science vs religion, by Sean Michael Wilson, drawn by Hunt Emerson, a graphic onslaught on what its humanist creators hold to be the irrational and harmful aspects of religion, and reflecting the heated debate about the teaching of creationism (New Internationalist, £9.99 (£9); 978-1-78026-226-0)

Dawkins the cartoon hero: a panel from Goodbye God?: An illustrated exploration of science vs religion, by Sean Michael Wilson, drawn by Hunt Emerson,...

Atheism after Christendom: Unbelief in an age of encounter

Simon Perry

Paternoster £14.99

(978-1-84227-829-1)

Church Times Bookshop £13.50

 

Faithful Doubt: The wisdom of uncertainty

Guy Collins

The Lutterworth Press £16.50

(978-0-7188-9393-4)

 

Beyond the God Delusion

Thomas Jackson

Golden Toad Publications £4.99*

(978-0-9572648-6-1)

*This title can be obtained from thomas@jackson96.wanadoo.co.uk



THESE three books are connected by a common interest in exploring an alliance between atheism, doubt, and Christian belief. They are, however, very different in style and content.

Dr Simon Perry has a radical case to argue: atheism has usually been a protest against social structures of tyranny and convention. Modern atheism, however, unknowingly colludes with such structures, and faith in Jesus now has to take the place of traditional atheism. True atheism is rebellion against the gods of the age, and being radically open to the truly “other”.

The author traces his argument through penetrating historical and cultural analyses, and defends a radical view of Christianity as standing alongside the poor and outcast, without seeking power or privilege. “Christendom”, the alliance of political power and Christian belief, is finished, and Christianity should now stand with authentic atheism in rejecting the gods of “neoliberal capitalism”.

Guy Collins’s argument is that doubt is necessary for faith. He surveys philosophers such as Derrida, popular novels and science fiction, and writers including Eleonore Stump and Kierkegaard, to deconstruct any over-simple division between atheism and faith, and to show that commitment in theoretical uncertainty is at the heart of Christian belief. “Faith”, he writes, “is an attitude of radical uncertainty that self-authenticates in the midst of things we can never fully understand.”

Thomas Jackson starts with Richard Dawkins, and celebrates him as a prophet who has felled the “Designer God” who exists outside the universe and constructed it like a watch. What we need, the author writes, is the idea of “a cosmic intelligence deep within the universe”. In contemplative prayer, we can sense this spiritual dimension to reality, and humans are perhaps ways in which the divine reality becomes more fully known, or even comes to know itself, as it progresses and expresses itself through history.

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These three approaches all express a desire to move beyond the abstract arguments of theism against atheism, and to seek something that is at least potentially good and positive in the “New Atheist” movement. But the prescriptions they offer seem irreconcilable.

Perry, seeking a genuinely counter-cultural understanding of Christian faith, sees the future as lying in small minority groups that eschew social power and identify with the poor of the earth. What happens if his view becomes that of a majority, who happen to have social power?

Maybe he thinks that will never happen. But there surely has to be a faith for the powerful, for the exercise of responsible power, and for the effective implementation of social justice. As with many revolutionary agendas, the positive programme for political action is hard to discern in this powerfully written book.

The radical uncertainties of Collins are unlikely to inspire the revolutionary enthusiasm of Perry. There is endurance and solidarity with suffering; but there is no clarion call to overthrow the capitalist gods. There is more meditation and silent acceptance, more self-doubt and sadness. Christendom has ended here, too, but it has left behind only the darkness between the stars of an unknowable God, and the longing for what he calls an “impossible truth”.

Jackson has yet another approach. He seeks a deeper theological analysis of the idea of God than the “New Atheists” provide, and finds it in St Thomas Aquinas — but an Aquinas seen through the eyes of Hegelian Idealism (I am not sure he realises this, but it is clear when he says “There is only a universe which is slowly evolving into the God who began it,” which, I think, would have surprised Aquinas considerably).

He seeks a more contemplative approach, one heavily influenced by quasi-pantheistic ideas (“There is no God outside the universe”), but providing a moving personal account of how it is possible to find a spiritual dimension to life without recourse to “the God of the scientists and philosophers”.

It is impossible to do justice to these three books in a short review. I have tried to convey their flavour, and show how they convey three different responses to the end of Christendom, as a unifying social and political force. They all show sympathy with modern atheism, while arguing that such atheism has itself lost its way in arid abstractions and misunderstandings.

They each seek for a new way forward for Christian faith, either as a radical social movement, or as a less dogmatic and more ambiguous set of forms of religious life, or as a contemplative way of becoming aware of a spiritual dimension to experience. Thus they express a crisis of confidence in the traditional Christian faith of the Western world, and a scepticism about conventional understandings of God. But they also express a longing for a more practical, life-changing, and experimental approach to faith.

Together, they provide an illuminating window into the modern soul of the West. The diagnoses are acute, though the remedies can be difficult to discern.

 

Canon Ward is Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

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