Until his life was tragically cut short in 2014, John Hughes was one of the country’s most promising theologians. Many of his writings are collected in Graced Life. John edited another volume for SCM Press too, The Unknown God – a collection of sermons in response to the rise of the ‘new atheists’. Contributors to the book include Alister McGrath and Tina Beattie. Today we bring you a sermon from John Hughes himself, preaching from Amos and Ephesians.
Amos 9:5–end; Ephesians 6:1–20
“Be strong in the Lord … for we are not contending against flesh and blood …”
What does Christianity have to do with atheism?1 We can begin by asking what is peculiar, what is “new” about the New Atheists. What is the history of atheism? Atheism itself, of course, is nothing new, being found in various forms in the ancient world, and enjoying considerable fashion in certain Western intellectual circles for at least the last century or two. One thing that is remarkable about the new strain, however, is its virulence, the sheer strength of its loathing of religion and its desire to eradicate it from the face of the earth. As Eagleton suggested in his sermon in this volume, this is probably a reaction to the surprising resurgence of religion in geopolitics and even in the West in the last twenty years. Lofty scorn toward religion, such as was found in many mid-twentieth-century Oxbridge dons, is fine for something that you believe to be dying out; but if you think the disease is spreading, then fiercer action may be needed. This already suggests that the history of atheism may be more symbiotically bound up with that of religion than either might like to admit (more of this in a moment).
The other thing that particularly characterizes the New Atheists is what we might call their Anglo-Saxon temperament. By this I mean a particular combination of, on the one hand, not even taking religion very seriously, seeing it as something silly that makes very little difference to life either way; combined on the other hand, with a rather complacent lack of awareness regarding the provenance of their own worldview, which is seen as somehow self-evident to all sensible chaps. As a number of our preachers have noticed, you only have to contrast this with the great continental atheists such as Sade, Nietzsche, Marx, or Sartre to see just how very “English” this style of atheism is. These continental thinkers were much more aware of how Christianity had shaped the values and thought of the West in ways almost too subtle to notice, and how if one were to abandon God, then everything would look different. You will probably have gathered by now that I think these continental atheists make much more interesting dialogue partners for religion, because they at least understand what is at stake, unlike the polite drawing-room English atheists, for whom the news that there is no God seems about as significant as if someone had told them the cricket had been rained off. This “Anglo-Saxon” atheism goes back quite some way – we can see traces of it in Hume or George Eliot – but it is nevertheless a product of a particular culture and history, not the universal self-evident position that it sometimes makes itself out to be. Indeed, when Bertrand Russell quipped that he was a “Protestant atheist” rather than a Catholic one, he was touching on something very important. Anglo-Saxon atheism has a very Protestant, at times even Puritan, ethos. It is classically liberal, affirming human freedom and progress, and suspicious of all tradition and authority. And it would not be unfair, I think, to suggest that it often has a rather limited bourgeois aesthetic sensibility; it is suspicious of images and metaphors, in a way that can incline towards philistinism in its love of brute facts. A passage such as we heard in our first reading about “the mountains dripping sweet wine” just sounds silly to such a mentality. This Anglo-Saxon atheism is also, to be fair, often very high-minded in its moralism, almost trying to be more Christian than Christianity, so that ironically it will attack Christians for failing to live up to their own ideals. Recognizing this Christian provenance of much modern atheism can help contemporary debates in a number of ways. First, to recognize that atheism has a history is to see that atheism is not simply the natural, neutral default position that everyone would have held if they had not been indoctrinated by some religion or other. This, in turn, can help put the debate back on a more equal footing: it becomes a debate between two views rather than between common sense and madness. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the very word religion, which in its contemporary sense is a relatively modern construct, is largely unhelpful and would be best dispensed with.2 If we speak instead of worldviews, or something similar, we might begin to recognize that everyone, whether they are “religious” or not, has views on the nature of ultimate reality, which are, in the final instance, a matter of faith, or interpretation, beyond mere proof. We can describe something in terms of its genetic codes or in terms of mass or energy, and these descriptions are extremely clever, precise, and useful; but they are not the only, or the ultimate, way of describing reality.
Secondly, however, recognizing that atheism has a particular history that relates it to Christianity can help genuine dialogue by enabling atheists to see that some of their most cherished values are the fruit of the Christian tradition. (This can be particularly difficult to see because of how pervasive Christian values still are in the modern world, making them seem simply universal and self-evident rather than distinctively Christian.) For their part, Christians might see that some of the atheists’ objections to religion have their roots in Christianity itself. Some of our other preachers have alluded to this, and it would take too long to spell it all out here tonight, but in brief, Christians would do well to remember that if atheists sometimes talk as if God were some distant clockmaker, or a brutal tyrant, then this is probably because certain Christians did so first! Likewise, if the New Atheists treat the Scriptures in a completely ahistorical way, like some encyclopedia dropped from the skies, then it is probably because there were already Christians doing exactly the same thing. If this is so, then atheism can serve to recall Christians to our traditions, to look at where things may have gone awry, and to recover more authentic accounts of what we believe.
Some writers have gone even further than this on the relationship between Christianity and atheism. Given the way that, in the scope of world history, atheism, far from being the universal default, is actually the more unusual option, they have suggested that Judaism and Christianity actually helped pave the way for atheism, with ideas such as the rejection of all idols, the incarnation (God becomes human), and the crucifixion (God dies). On some accounts, then, Christianity is destined to become atheistic.3 It won’t surprise you, I hope, to discover that I do not take this view. But, I think, there is a half-truth here: Christianity does have a special attitude in relation to atheism that sets it apart from other religions. Christians believe that God does not force himself upon us, that he does leave us the freedom to respond to him in faith or not. This is one of the reasons why Christians must take atheists seriously: because God has given us this freedom to say no to him.
But it does not stop there: at the heart of Christianity stands the cross, where God the incarnate Son cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In this extraordinary, incomprehensible event, at which the drawing-room atheist might well shake his head in disbelief, God is alienated from Godself and experiences the depths of despair. Here God takes upon Godself our rejection of him and bears it for us. Atheism is then not just something to which Christianity can simply be opposed. According to the Christian faith, God takes into himself even the rebellion against himself that is atheism. Within the life of any believer, there are moments of doubt and despair, moments in which we experience isolation from God, as Christ did upon the cross. But in Christ, we believe that even this cannot separate us from God.
Because of this, we can say, by way of conclusion, that Christians should not be overly anxious or defensive towards even the most vehement and aggressive atheism, because if we are right, then it is almost impossible to live a life completely in opposition to God, whatever people may say with their lips. When we hear the language of battle used in relation to Christianity, as in our second reading from Ephesians, or in the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” we should not be misled into taking this literally as calling for some crusade against unbelievers. As Paul says, “we are not contending against flesh and blood”; hence the weapons that are needed are simply “the belt of truth,” “the breastplate of justice,” “the helmet of salvation,” and “the sword of the Spirit.” There is a place for arguments and debates, but finally it will be through the testimony of lives lived that hearts may be changed – lives that enter into the experience of those who reject them and, instead of returning opposition, return love, as God himself does upon the cross.
The Unknown God: Sermons Responding to the New Atheists is on offer now as part of our week long mini-sale. Go to our website to find more details about this and other titles on offer.
1 This way of thinking about atheism is influenced by the work of Henri de Lubac (Drama of Atheist Humanism) and Alasdair MacIntyre (see especially After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?).
2 See Lash, Beginning and End of “Religion.”
3 This Hegelian thought is developed by various “Death of God” theologians such as Gianni Vattimo.