Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Christian Atheism

That has an odd ring to it, doesn't it? Is Christian atheism even a logical possibility? Is Christianity inherently theistic? Must Christianity be forever wedded to belief in a supernatural being?

I think there is a place for Christian atheism. This would be a philosophy that denies the existence of any supernatural entity, or in fact anything outside of the universe to which one appeals to give the universe meaning.

Yet it is religious in that the language of religion has value and is to be treasured as wisdom. It is specifically Christian in that the language is primarily connected with Christian history, ethics, liturgy, and practice.

We will be talking about this and other things as we read Robert Jensen's All My Bones Shake beginning tomorrow.

If you are near our mountain, come and join us. We are going to read the introduction to his book.

If you don't have the book yet, just read the following:

Join us from 10:30 until noon!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. For what it's worth, Robert Jensen says he no longer uses word "atheist" to describe himself. I believe that he said that in the interview he did for the God Complex podcast series.

  3. He also says that in his book. In the book he didn't want to call himself atheist because he didn't want to be confused with Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and so forth.

    He also said his philosophical views hadn't changed.

    I wonder if the issue isn't that the word "atheism" means more in the popular mind than the denial of the existence of a supernatural being, which is all it really means to me.

  4. I suppose I should read his book so I can be better informed on where he is coming from, but I think that for a lot of people how you define "atheist" depends on how you define God. If you define God as a being who is not much different from us except more powerful and invisible, then those who reject that particular concept of God would be considered atheists. But if you think of God as something of a wholly different metaphysical category of being than what you and I are, as Being itself (a la Tillich) or whatever it is that Spong means when he talks about a nontheistic God, then that's something different entirely.

    I how noticed that folks like Dawkins and Hitchens tend to define God as "a" being. As as result, they often say things like "you can't prove that supernatural beings exist or gods, hence I don't believe in them." Of course, they don't distinguish many between gods (plural) and (g)od (singular), the latter which they often spell in lower case so as to be both provocative and to characterize God as "a" hypothetical being no different from the gods of Greek mythology.

    But I think that this misses the point, since many of us do not construe God as "a" being in the sense that you are I are. I believe that these atheists might be committing what philosophers call a category mistake. In any case, if Jensen conceives of God at all, then my guess is (and I could be wrong) that he conceives of him/her in terms that manifest themselves when we as humans fight for things like justice, peace, and compassion. If that is not how Jensen views God, I would say that it is very similar to how I view God.

    For a lot of people, both atheists and fundamentalists, this concept defies what they think "God" means, so they claim that such a conception is vague or "watered down". On the contrary, I would argue that such a concept is more sophisticated then a conception of God as a powerful figure in the sky who carries out the occasional miracle and who can defy the laws of nature at a whim if he/she feels like it. The latter concept is really easier for the human imagination to swallow, because it makes God into something more analogous with our experience of the beings that we encounter in everyday life. So which is really more watered down?

    In any case, I think that the word atheist, like the word Christian, can be used as a hammer to promote certain agendas. People are invested on who is or isn't a Christian, and consequently also who is and isn't an atheist.

  5. Thanks Seeker. Very well said. This is the dance that happens a great deal. I would be curious what you think of Lloyd Geering's thoughts.

  6. "I wonder if the issue isn't that the word "atheism" means more in the popular mind than the denial of the existence of a supernatural being, which is all it really means to me."

    I'm with that definition. I like the idea of Creation Spirituality, being shepherds of the earth, and all the stuff Jesus tried to get people to think about and do. All the other stuff seems to me like an attempt to create a rain-barrel definition of God just so lots of folks can say "Yeah, well, ok. If you put it that way..."

  7. Y'all are fantastic to be meeting this topic head-on. By the end, maybe a new definition of what it means to be "christian" (not A Christian) will begin to come into focus. It is certainly part of the progressive dialogue.

    I have been dealing with the "theism" issue for three years in my Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary. I (and Jensen, whose book I will definitely read) are often accused of not being "Christian" if we don't subscribe to the orthodox belief system.

    In my work it has become clear to me that Jesus would not be a Christian today. So far as biblical scholars can tell, Jesus did not believe what the church later came to insist that everyone has to believe to avoid going to hell.

    As I say often in my commentaries, Christianity is not about belief in a resuscitated corpse, nor is christianity about what happens after we die. Christianity, as Jesus preached it, is about US personally incarnating distributive justice-compassion in this life. That means, joining the program to create the kingdom -- in John Dominic Crossan's words, creating a "share world" as opposed to a "greed world," or, as I put it "Covenant" not "Empire."

    Crossan's definition of god is of a kenotic being -- one whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death.

    For a thorough exploration of this meaning of "kenosis" see, and click on Year C highlights in the Blog Archive.

    I just looked on a map, and I could be in Elizabethton in a day, straight down I-81. One of these days, I'll get in my new Subaru and hit the road. I'll need a place to stay . . . and I could bring my harp.

  8. Nah. There's just too much cognitive dissonance there for a Christian Atheist. You can be a Christian with agnostic tendencies. You could be an atheist who sees value in the humanistic principles that are engendered by Christ's teaching, and is sympathetic to many of those principles. I know plenty of folk like that. Good folk.

    But the vigorous opposition to theistic assumptions that appears to be the sole defining characteristic of atheism just can't connect to the basic and essential theism of the Gospels. Cain't do it.

    Well, one can. We can say many things. But saying both of those things isn't, by definition, coherent.

  9. Good thoughts. Thank you all.

    Beloved, I hear you that the Bible is theistic and in fact you can't make sense of its stories without understanding its theism (a supernatural "Father" who is up in the heavens). can't make sense of its stories without understanding its cosmology either.

    As our cosmology has changed why cannot our a/theology change as well?

    I don't insist, really. I just ask a lot!

  10. Theology in the Bible evolved with the times, so why shouldn't post-Biblical theology change also? The more tribal God of pre-Babylonian Judaism wasn't the same as the more universal GOd of post-Babylonian Judaism. In fact, going back even further, the God of the Garden of Eden story was very human-like, walking around with Adam and not being particularly omniscient. Early Jews had no concept of heaven and hell as modern Christians conceive it, and pretty much consigned all the dead to Sheol. It wasn't until the Macabees era that the idea of God rewarding us in an afterlife came into vogue. The point is that our ideas of God do change. The old idea of the man in the sky was part of a three-tiered universe (where Jesus could somehow "ascend" to heaven).

    Perhaps for that reason, I have to admit that I'm not comfortable with the idea of "atheism" within Christianity. I think that people tend to have too limited an idea of what "God" means and if you don't accept that particular idea than that somehow makes you an "atheist".

  11. I think the word atheism and atheist is so charged that it moves beyond the definition of saying no to the denial of the existence of a supernatural being.

    Robert Jensen and Don Cupitt both call themselves radical Christians or in Cupitt's case a radical theologian.

    That leaves it all a bit more ambiguous in regards to what radical means.

    I don't insist on the term atheism. Radical is good for me! :)

    I want to say something a bit more positive than that I simply don't believe in supernatural beings. To me that is a given, a starting point, maybe.

    Now I want to move ahead and have the interesting conversations regarding pantheism or panentheism or non-realism or secular theology and more.

    Sometimes atheism means no to all religion. That I reject. I think religion has to do with the human quest for meaning and as such does not require belief in supernatural beings.

    Yes I affirm that religion can evolve beyond its supernatural past, but that does not mean we jettison its legacy, we instead reform it.

  12. I think the word atheism and atheist is so charged that it moves beyond the definition of saying no to the denial of the existence of a supernatural being.

    Perhaps that is because those who describe(d) themselves as atheist have had to qualify it so much, in order to not offend others (and in some instances - such as in this area - to keep their jobs) that it has become meaningless. It isn't the atheists who have convoluted it. It is the ones who simply can' take "no" for an answer.

  13. Thank you, Snad.

    That is another point I want to make. There are people who self-describe as atheist who happen to attend my church and as far as I am concerned are as fully Christian as anyone else (assuming they want to be).

    So while many may not want the label atheist (although they probably are by the strict definition of the word) many do and are religious, even Christian, too.

  14. And another point:

    Atheists are discriminated against in this country and in this area. Thanks for pointing that out, Snad.

    Anecdotal evidence?

    At our local university, ETSU, the two groups who get their posters ripped down and/or defaced on a regular basis are the gay-straight alliance group and the atheist group.

    I have a soft spot for my atheist buds.

    Besides that, they are far more intelligent and ethical than most of the theists I know.

  15. @SeaRaven

    I just looked on a map, and I could be in Elizabethton in a day, straight down I-81. One of these days, I'll get in my new Subaru and hit the road. I'll need a place to stay . . . and I could bring my harp.

    We have you covered! Would love it!

  16. Correction:

    Besides that, they are far more intelligent and ethical than most of the theists I know.

    Most of theists I know personally are ethical, intelligent, and above average.

    I meant the theists who...oh you know what I mean...

  17. There is waaaay too much in this conversation that I want to respond to. I’m going to limit my 2 cents to some small part of it. Please pardon my longwindedness.

    I hear a misconception of atheism here, at least according to the way I understand it. I base my understanding on conversations with friends who are actual atheists. Atheism shouldn’t be defined by whether or not one believes “God exists.” Atheism’s stance is that the belief/acceptance of God (or gods, or Spirit, or Divine, Real, or Numinous, or…well, ANY derivation of the “idea,” which includes plays on words) is completely and utterly irrelevant to life and reality as it is. That pretty much kicks out theists, pantheists, panenthesist, classical theists, polytheists, monists, and any other kind of religious or religious-like perspective.

    So it’s not about “belief in God”; it’s about an attitude taken in relationship to one’s reality. There is no Significance (note the capital “S”) through, with, in, by and/or under the universe in which we live. Therefore, atheist perceptions of the silly quest for Significance range from “how quaint” to “how absurd”…to “how downright dangerous for human existence.”

    Perhaps a good reverse-parallels might be Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. For example, children receive gifts at Christmas. Why? According to the kids, the gifts came from Santa, because Santa exists. According to adults, the gifts came from Santa, because Santa exists, but Santa isn’t who the kids think it is. Nontheless, the existence (or non-existence) of Santa is ultimately irrelevant to reality. Therefore, it would be silly and childish to orient one’s life (even in part) around the person and work of Santa.

    Thus, I perceive atheism as different from a/theism. According to a/theism God (or whatever symbolic descriptor you want to insert) neither is nor is not, for God cannot be constrained by categories of being. A/theists are caught betwixt and between the attitudes of atheism and theism, or the distinct categories of “A” and “not A”. So, our faux-quest for Significance remains, even if it is not taken with all seriousness, but engaged largely through play.

  18. Interesting points about the idea of "Significance". It's odd, but Albert Camus is one of my favorite writers, despite the fact that he built his philosophy around the atheist notion that there is no ultimate significance to the universe and thus at some level our life is absurd. I may not necessarily agree philosophically with the idea that there is no deeper purpose or meaning to physical world that we inhabit, but I still find great power in Camus's suggestion that we need to make our lives meaningful in the face of this seeming absurdity. Perhaps the reason I like Camus is that even though I believe that the world has meaning, maybe at some level I'm not sure that it does. Further, I am an agnostic on the question of an afterlife, and I find the fact of our mortality tragic at some level and perhaps that does give me a sense of absurdity.

    I think, though, the analogy with Santa Claus is both good and bad. I would equate a lot of the claims that religions often make about the physical universe to be akin to those of Santa Claus--the idea of miraculous intercession by God if we pray hard enough, for example, is to me akin to a kind of fairy tale. But on the other hand, I think that equating God with Santa Claus is where a lot of atheists miss the point, since God is not a being of the same ontological category that "a" hypothetical being like Santa Claus is.

    It may be that the atheists who deride the idea of religion with respect to "Significance" are not in the same camp as those "New Atheists" who attack religion with such vigor. I have found that when one such as myself tries to explain to some of the "New Atheists" that for some of us "God" is really tied up with the sum of our hopes as reflected in our poetic imagination, that it has to do with a metaphysical depth and meaning that we attach to the universe, these atheists will simply attack such a notion of God because it doesn't conform to their own definition of what "God" necessarily refers to. For them, it consistently boils down to the fact that there is no proof that any supernatural "beings" (lower case) exist. This is the argument that bloggers like PZ Myers, Larry Moran, and other atheist bloggers have made repeatedly. Again, I am not saying that they represent all atheists on this question.

    I think that a lot of people can and do subscribe to religious beliefs that are not tied to a particular kind of theism. Consider certain expressions of Buddhism, for example. Is Buddhism "atheistic"? Maybe those who know more about it than I do can answer that question.

  19. I have struggled to understand what this is about. First what does it mean to be an atheist. So first it is important to get an atheists definition of atheism.

    Here is what I got from What is Atheism:

    Atheism does not have a spiritual leader and atheism does not have any rites or rituals (practices) around such a spiritual leader. Atheism requires no initiation, no baptism, there is no Atheist Bible (Koran, Vedas, etc) to read, no rituals that atheists must go through to join an Atheist Church (temple, mosque, synagogue, sect, etc), and no central beliefs that all atheists must adhere to in order to be "true atheists."

    The common thread that ties all atheists together is a lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings. Every atheist is as unique as a fingerprint when it comes to his or her individual philosophy, convictions, and ideals.

    So if I put this definition, with everything he says about morals, values and so on. His version of atheism just runs parallel to some Christian values, that is more a matter of his personal choice and coincidence than anything.

  20. I think this is a complex and fascinating discussion. This is much more than dictionary definitions. It has to do with feeling (such as how one feels about organized religion), group identity, and much more.

    It is much larger than simply (simply!) philosophy about the meaning of the term "God." I wonder if we will ever be able to define terms.

  21. John: That's a vital and important point. Our cosmology has, in fact, changed. God is not in the "sky." Heaven can't mean "up among the stars" unless you are 1) Raelian or 2) one of those ascended Mormons with your own planet.

    Atheists..or rather, those who go beyond atheism to anti-theism, tend to denigrate Christian faith as belief in a Sky Daddy. It'd be a valid argument if it represented Christian faith meaningfully, but it doesn't.

    The shift in our understanding of heaven does not, however, mean that we should abandon the idea of transcendence, or of a Ground of Being (yeah, I like Tillich, so sue me) that rests beyond the bounds of spacetime and that has a normative impact on our existence.

    As a relevant aside, there's an interesting nexus between the concept of transcendence and a significant thread in modern cosmology. Is our spacetime the only spacetime, or is creation comprised of an infinite array of all possible universes?

    I tend to think so...and that has some interesting impacts on an authentically Christian faith.