Christianity and Atheism

Some friends and I are beginning a reading group on Jose Miranda’s Marx and the Bible. It’s a fascinating text that I’d highly recommend. I stumbled across this quote in the second chapter that I thought deserved some commentary.

“The reader is not going to find here another book on the “God is dead” theme or on the much-discussed “secularization,” nor the nth attempt to “recover” the atheists by making them see that although they might say that they deny the existence of God, deep down they accept it. We have had more than enough apologetics in recent centuries, and in my opinion the atheist has the right to be an atheist in peace without someone continually interpreting his position as undercover theism” (p. 35)

I couldn’t agree more. Although this text was written back in 1971, it is amazing how pertinent it is today. Over the last two years I’ve been avoiding theology (for professional and personal reasons), and I must say that I’ve becoming increasingly annoyed with Christian theology’s engagement with atheism. The Christian theologian’s relationship with atheists has always been a violent one. Too many theologians seem intent on appropriating atheism and somehow Christianizing and colonizing atheistic voices. For example, Westphal’s work on atheism was geared towards subjecting Christianity to the critiques of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (the holy Trinity of atheism) and enabling Christians to use these critiques to strengthen their faith. It reminds me of the ways in which some evangelicals have courses in apologetics to prepare students for (imagined) hostile and secular university professors with the hopes that the young believer will be impenetrable to competing worldviews. I also wonder if postmodern theology’s project to integrate doubt and atheism into the Christian tradition is just one more attempt to domesticate atheistic critiques. Perhaps Miranda is right that we should leave the atheists alone because they are inevitably used as means by which Christianity attempts to convert non-Christians to the faith.

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26 Responses to “Christianity and Atheism”

  1. ahab Says:

    Great post about a great book by a great thinker. I would say that we have the same problem with more radial christian atheists – for example doesn´t Altizers theory more or less imply that it´s not enough to be an atheist, you have to be a christian to be be a real atheist, so we are stuck in a strange situation where there is no real atheism _outside_ christianity. But then again, I am very interested to see what you think of Miranda´s argument that Christianity must convert to some sort of Marxism (that is how I remember the book which I read long ago). I couldn´t agree less. There are differences between conversions, as between enemies.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Thanks. I should say that I don’t mind religious thinkers engaging atheists. It’s just my experience that the apologetic impulse that drives many of these engagements makes the appropriation of the atheistic thinker worrisome. In other words, I don’t trust Christians not to assimilate everything into their Christian worldview.

  3. Michael Carl Says:

    What would it look like to leave the atheists well enough alone? Isn’t there some important distinction between Christians forcing theism (through reinterpretation) on atheism on the one hand and Christians who may be called atheists engaging with their own atheism in the religious language that was formative with them?

  4. danbarber Says:

    ahab, yes! Altizer, following a Hegelian tradition, and along with people like Vattimo, Zabala, and Zizek, definitely set up this line in which one must be Christian to be atheist. Replace “atheist” with “secular” and you get the same logic: one must be Christian to be secular. So Christianity is able to maintain its importance / superiority by confessing its failure. Or if you prefer, the West is able to maintain its importance / superiority precisely by confessing the failure of Christianity, which as post-Christanity / atheism / secularism is able to maintain its importance / superiority.

  5. Jeremy Says:

    “so we are stuck in a strange situation where there is no real atheism _outside_ christianity. ”

    Thanks you for stating this so clearly. In fact, Christianity is so all encompassing of theists and atheists that nobody can escape being assimilated and processed through the Christian machine. What’s interesting is how this also translates to the ways in which these more radical Christians understand the Christ’s cry of dereliction on the cross ‘my God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?’. They’ll often make the move that God doubts God and thus the person who doubts God is paradoxically more identified with Son of God. In other words, there’s nowhere to run or hide from God because both in belief and in un-belief God has always already been there waiting for you. In fact, expressing doubt can be construed as an affirmation of faith. Again, Christianity is has this curious ability to continue to infiltrate, colonize and expand everything it touches.

  6. Brad Says:

    Shouldn’t we, though, be a little wary of too simply identifying Christianity? The Christianities of Altizer, or hell, even Zizek, are both heretical, it seems to me; and where they’ve been incorporated into orthodox affirmations of faith, the ‘scandal’ of what they bring to the table is manifest by what is omitted. (Because quite frankly I don’t think Altizer would ever say there is no *real* atheism outside Christianity. The foundation on which is dialectical thinking twirls is that the Christian myth requires that there be no real Christianity outside atheism. *That*, it seems, is the starting point — though, admittedly, the starting point does not determine the ending or prevent it from colluding with Euro-centric secularism. My only point being the Christianity on view here that of the heretic, and certainly w/ respect to Altizer, has been treated as such.) Which isn’t to say I disagree with anything being said here. I just wonder what complexities heterodoxy and fringe, forgotten, & fought beliefs — which often occur within the colonizer’s chosen name & myth, and as such often gets colonized itself — has on things.

  7. danbarber Says:

    Brad, i hear you on the potential of heretical Chrisitanity, and on things occurring within the colonizer’s chosen name and myth that need not be reducible to this name and myth. Also, you’re right that conceptually speaking ‘no Christianity outside atheism’ is different from ‘no atheism outside of Christianity.’ I guess the question for me is, politically, how that evades the secularization strategy in which the former presents a model for atheism, just as it once did (and still does) for religion.

  8. Rex Styzens Says:

    Jean-Luc Nancy writes that the theism-atheism debate is now moribund, except for practical purposes. At the same time, he argues in ADORATION: THE DECONSTRUCTION OF CHRISTIANITY II, that all monotheisms reveal themselves as atheisms. His characterization of Christianity as an “exit from religion,” because it cannot stop deconstructing itself, leaves us with a world that rests on nothing. He has little patience with organized religion, yet his affirmation of what he calls “adoration” adds up to more than just another peak experience.

  9. ahab Says:

    I have only read Dis-Enclosure in Nancy´s series on Christianity, but I find that book quite disappointing in the same way that I find Altizer´s stuff very problematic (please note that I don´t think Altizers stuff boring, it´s actually mind blowing, but I still find it very _problematic_). I agree with Brad that there of course are real differences between say Ratzinger and Zizek, but then again the whole argument of the more radical christian atheists is still that theism produces atheism in a sort of teleological process in which the truth and result is the death of God. So in some way the difference between ‘no Christianity outside atheism’ and ‘no atheism outside of Christianity’ seems to only be a logical and conceptual difference, not real difference as it still ties atheism to Christianity. Miranda´s position is maybe more matter of fact, and therefore more boring, but it´s more realistic and closer to the facts; there is no point of trying to meet atheism through faith and theology when the real problem is not that there are a lot of atheists out there but that the church and it´s flock don´t read Marx.

  10. ahab Says:

    … and the problem with atheism would of course be exactly the same for Miranda; atheism should not be christian or even deconstructured to be radical but strictly speaking marxist… so the real point of convergence for Miranda between atheists and non-atehists is not that their thought are structured by theological form but that they both should accept the pressing need to arm the poor and eat the rich…

  11. danbarber Says:

    Rex, right, Nancy’s Christianity as ‘exit from religion’ is precisely a means of presenting the post-Christian world as developmentally superior to the rest of the world, which gets characterized as being ‘religious.’ Hence the project of *exiting* religion is a continuation, by other means, of the colonial project of *entering* Christianity.

  12. Jeremy Says:

    ahab, I couldn’t agree with more with your diagnosis of the “real problem”. I don’t remember which liberation theology said that the majority of Western theology is driven by the desire to impress and convert intelligent atheists to Christianity whereas liberation theology is trying to bring bread and hope to the downtrodden.

  13. Wrooines Says:

    “Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (the holy Trinity of atheism” Maybe YOUR atheism.

  14. Jeremy Says:

    I was citing Westphal’s text Suspicion and Faith.

  15. Peter Rollins Says:

    As someone who does identify in the Christian tradition and who does read, engage with, and encourage others to engage with thinkers that include atheists I don’t see a necessary problem. By this I simply mean that it is easy to critique people for only reading those in their tradition (for not being open to the insights and rupture that comes from the other), to critique people for reading those outside their tradition (for being a type of stomach that takes out what one wants, or an immune system that gets a protection from a taste of what can kill), to critique those who don’t read anything (for not pushing themselves critically) etc. etc. etc.

    Alternatively one can impute positive motives and positive outcomes concerning all of the above. In a way I have seen myself fall into each of these categories at different times and so feel sympathetic to others who are in these different places.

    I think that most people who post on this site will be able to recall times when they read things to domesticate them (perhaps once being an evangelical reading Nietzsche). Indeed that might have been the only reason they even exposed themselves to a discourse critical of their own. It makes sense that people will only lift up dynamite if they think it won’t blow them up.

    I myself was very impacted by Wesphal’s book when I was younger (as are many people I know who are no longer Evangelical or Christian). I used it as a safe way to engage the “masters os suspicion” but quickly went to the sources because their critiques were so explosive. It makes sense to me that we generally approach a foreign thinker from a position of trying to consume the thinking, but the great thing is that often we are undone despite our aims.

    The reason why I am saying this is because I don’t really see the value of imputing far reaching judgements concerning the subjective reasons concerning why groups (like “Christians”) read atheist literature. You mention being annoyed and that is totally cool. Many things annoy me. But I think the more that we realise that even those who are reading atheist lit for apologetic reasons are often doing so because of fear. In analysis I found out lots of defenses I use to avoid being decentered and valued deeply a space where the analyst was not annoyed with me but helped draw these out.

    In addition to this, phrases like “The Christian theologian’s relationship with atheists has always been a violent one” seem problematic to me. I am very sure some former Christian theologians ceased being such through reading atheists (I have in fact met many). While that is a type of violence (in that it undid them), it isn’t necessarily a bad violence. And it is not a violence that they did to the thinkers. In addition to this I know many who just enjoy reading different ideas much like some enjoy going to concerts.

    I think specific examples are useful (for instance mentioning Westphal and the common evangelical strategy to inoculate), however the statement, “I also wonder if postmodern theology’s project to integrate doubt and atheism into the Christian tradition is just one more attempt to domesticate atheistic critiques,” is too general to cover the myriad ways in which people are reading them. Personally I love the discussions about whether atheism is opposed to Christianity, able to be integrated into it or a logical outcome of it fascinating. I have a position on it but I have little doubt that it will change as I read and think more. I’m glad that there are people who take various positions on this subject.

    But much of the reason why I like reading these thinkers is simply that, when I studied philosophy at Queens University, people like Marx, Frued and Nietzsche were on the syllabus. I might have been a Christian but I studied them because they were on the course rather than to make them into tools for my (then) evangelicalism. I also happened to really enjoy reading them and still do.

  16. Peter Rollins Says:

    My point in writing what I did is, I should have mentioned, partially in response to the closing line, “Perhaps Miranda is right that we should leave the atheists alone because they are inevitably used as means by which Christianity attempts to convert non-Christians to the faith.”

    I can’t see why I would want to leave them alone, or any other philosophical position. And I can’t understand why other thinkers would either. It seems to me that interesting new ideas and modes of life can come from the confrontation and fusion of different horizons. Not always of course, indeed perhaps not even often. But the last line seems like a defense of the idea that we should not read things that would challenge us. What if instead we say,

    Perhaps we should try and be sensitive to the ways that many of us seek to domesticate thinking critical or our own, being open to the other shaking the foundations of our thought.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The issue, perhaps, is that the very notion of “being open to the other shaking the foundations of our thought” can be easily recast as the most Christian gesture of all.

  18. Peter Rollins Says:

    Yeah. I think that is an interesting point Adam, indeed it is one that I am personally very sympathetic to (obviously as I write from a Christian vantage point and argue for it). Not that I think that means it can’t also be central to other modes of thought, but rather that the Christ event as manifest in the universe it arose out of might be the unsettling of concrete identities justified via Destiny, God, History etc.

    I should say that I may well change my mind as I read more and think more. Many of my friends are not part of Christianity at all anymore and wonder why I still am. They feel that this shaking of the foundations brings one out of that tradition and disagree with my tentative position that this is not opposed to a certain Christology. Although I am not part of the academy I do enjoy reading the various discussions on this subject.

  19. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This just becomes the same thing that Dan Barber is always diagnosing — the classic Christian move of triumphing through admitting its own failure. Yes, everything you read and do comes back to the Christian frame, but fundamentally the Christian frame is one that questions its own foundation, etc. I don’t begrudge you any enjoyment, though, of course.

  20. Peter Rollins Says:

    Yeah. While I don’t know Dan Barber I do find myself attracted to that reading which sees Christianity succeeding in its own failure. I am thinking of Zizek’s reading of Hegel in Less Than Nothing in which one fails and in recognizing the failure finds it succeeding in its very failure.

    Mind you whether one calls this a Christian move or not is of no real interest to me, nor whether it is somehow a universal move. Most of my friends most certainly don’t see it as Christian (they see it as the triumph of overcoming Christianity). And I don’t think it is universal, or at least I wouldn’t know how to go about making that claim.

    To use a personal example, I can’t help thinking, when reading Kierkegaard, that his existential moves would make no sense in other (real or imagined) cultural conditions. They appear to me, as an amateur, to grow from an attempt to work within a tradition influenced by certain ideas such as the courtly love of the 11th century. He happens to speak into my own psychological situation so I find books like “Fear and Trembling” deeply powerful, but I wonder what a Buddhist would make of it.

    My point is that the dialectic I see at work in Christianity (that you perceptively see as giving me pleasure) makes sense to me in my current situation. It is however only a position, like any philosophical position. While I like to argue that we can construct a Christology that operates with this dialectic move, it is primarily the pleasure giving nature of the move that motivates me. I can well imagine breaking out of it in the future, indeed that might be a good thing for me own mental health.

  21. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You might consider reading Barber’s On Diaspora. It’s short! It’s great! It can be found on the “Our Books” link above!

  22. Peter Rollins Says:

    Thanks! Will get it now

  23. Christopher D. Rodkey Says:

    To return to Tillich, as I think Adam was gesturing: It seems that the only way this heretical kind of Christainity “works” is to gesture toward the “Truth” of a particular dogma that correlates and assimiltes more outside of the religion’s traditional doctrinal structure than it would like to readily admit–except when convenient. In Tillich’s brilliant History of Christian Thought and in The Encounter of World Religions, he places his idea of protestant principle, as within the context of his theology of culture, not as a doctrine but a dogma that is universally true–and may possibly be universally true to the point of validating non-Christian religions on their own terms, and claims that in practice this has always been true in the Christian faith in its encounter with “paganism.” The shift toward atheism for Tillich, then, becomes a ultility, but atheism can only be legitimated by acceptance of the dogma of the protestant principle.

  24. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I think Peter might be misunderstanding… Dan sees that as a problem…

  25. Peter Rollins Says:

    No. That’s why I want to read it. Wouldn’t be so interested if it was taking my position!

  26. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Ah, ok. I think there is a kindle version as well if you prefer that sort of thing. A few bucks cheaper last time I checked.


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