Sunday 1 April 2012
By Chris Mulherin
Kairos Catholic Journal, Volume 23, issue 5
Melbourne is to be blessed this year with the visits of two very different breeds of atheist. Alain de Botton, a European popular philosopher, was recently among us and received copious coverage promoting his book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. Meanwhile in April thousands of the so-called New Atheists will converge on the city for a mostly comedy festival known as the Global Atheist Convention. Going by my experience, it is probably a show to be missed.
Being an Anglican myself, I have spent sleepless nights wrestling with the intricacies of all the variations of Christian, and yes, even Catholic, beliefs. But right now I am working on an atheist taxonomy in order to make sense of the varieties of non-religious belief. My neat pigeon-holing of atheism divides my non-believing friends into three categories: the mad, the glad and the sad. The mad atheists are led by biologist and science populariser Richard Dawkins, the 'high priest' of the New Atheism, and these people are as cranky as hell at religion. We will return to them in a moment.
The glad atheist—think, Alain de Botton—floats through the godless life with nary a care for the issues at stake. For de Botton, the tragedy of atheism is that it threw out the wonderful trappings of religion with the dirty bathwater of belief in God. "Of course no religions are true in any god-given sense," says de Botton in the second sentence of his book, after which he proceeds cheerily to ignore the question that serious thinkers have grappled with for thousands of years.
Meanwhile, the sad atheists are those who do take the God question seriously. They know that the stakes are high and that without God it is notoriously difficult to make sense of the world or of human life or death or joy or pain or love-making or justice or even, at the philosophical end of the spectrum, of truth itself. But despite their awareness of the cost, the sad atheist cannot believe in the One who might be the well of life-giving meaning to quell our anxieties.
Let us return to the maddened crowd of New Atheists, who are at the vanguard of the 'God wars' so prominent in the media of late. I went to the inaugural Global Atheist Convention here in Melbourne in 2010, which was billed as 'probably the world's largest atheist convention'. This year will be possibly bigger and certainly better—better, because it will have more comedians. The 2010 program was liberally laced with comic relief and, despite suggestions that Christians have hang-ups about sex, the various performers and much of the audience seemed fixated on the f-word and all its connotations. Although this year's convention is called 'A Celebration of Reason', if the 2010 event is anything to go by, serious reasoning will not be given a hearing.
Is it a coincidence that one of the few speakers at the 2010 convention who engaged intelligently with the issues is missing from this year's line-up? Tamas Pataki opened his talk by saying that after listening to the other speakers and comedians he had come to the realisation that he would probably be the least popular speaker. He was right. Let me quote the four reasons he gave: "I have no jokes; I have no inclination to incite ridicule of the religious; I plan to do some philosophy; and I criticise some of the other atheists." It is an unfortunate reflection on the lack of serious thinking at the convention that apparently Pataki was not invited back.
But perhaps my expectations are out of line? Where I hope for serious engagement with the issues of atheism and the nature of science, the convention is more like a Christian revival meeting: a rally for the faithful with abundant noise, laughter and loud affirmation. Only the songs and the interjected 'amens' are missing. In 2010 it was quickly clear that the gathering was not about debating issues of faith and (non-)belief nor to defend the assumption that science is the only source of truth. The overwhelming and simplistic dogma was that religious people are misguided and unwilling to accept the clear evidence of the natural sciences.
At one point when Richard Dawkins referred to the work of Simon Conway Morris—a Christian and renowned Cambridge palaeontologist—he spoke of Conway Morris's "weird belief in Christianity". And after a question about how scientists could be Christians, Dawkins replied simply, "Religion poisons your ability to use your brain."
But, while the tenor of the New Atheism is condescending and anti-religious, it is ironic that religion is central to the neo-atheist psyche. As much as they want to discard religion there is a sense in which they are defined by it; this anti-religious and anti-theist stance echoes Alister McGrath's suggestion that "Western atheism now finds itself in something of a twilight zone. Once a world view with a positive view of reality, it seems to have become a permanent pressure group, its defensive agenda dominated by concerns about limiting the growing political influence of religion."
Notwithstanding our opposing belief systems, we Christians share common ground with these committed 'true non-believers'. Like Christians, these atheists have taken their stand; one thing they have got clear is that atheism and Christianity are not compatible at the philosophical or theological level. For them, there is no God and theology is a project without an object. In a bizarre sort of way it was good to be among people who have no time for relativism or for a postmodernism which turns truth into plasticine.
What about the challenges the New Atheists pose, especially for the Christian Church? What can we learn from them?
First, it is salutary for the Church to listen respectfully to those who are critical of us. Although it was not expressed in these terms, time and again the refrain in 2010 amounted to 'you have not acted like Christ.' If I were into mind reading I might guess that much of the passion and anger heard at the convention had roots in hurt people expressing deep pain for sins and perceived sins committed by the Church.
I cannot help but reflect that Jesus rejected no one except the religious bigots and those who thought themselves righteous. There are two lessons for Christians here: one is the imperative to respect the opinions of those who do not share our faith; the other is the importance of dealing with sin in our camp with a transparency that will catch atheists by surprise and build a bridge of trust across a philosophical chasm.
Second, Christians ought to thank God for the dialogue made possible by atheism. Conversation with atheists throws the spotlight on the distinctiveness of the Christian faith. Beliefs and agendas are on the table for all to see. This is a stark contrast and challenge to the temptation to hide our light under a bushel for fear of causing offence. Christianity is not simply one option among other compatible belief systems, and engaging with atheists leaves that abundantly clear.
Third, while the uniqueness of Christian claims is highlighted by the dialogue, that is not a reason to participate in culture wars premised on the idea that one or other belief system must dominate. We need to examine the implications of living in an increasingly secular society where a harmonious future will only be forged through mutual tolerance. Trust can be built, but only when beliefs and values are clear, and when all parties accept the limitations imposed by living in a multicultural democratic state. As Christians we ought to preach the Gospel in word and deed, we ought to persuade others, offering good reasons for our hope. But coercion and manipulation are ungodly and will bring disrepute to the Church and its Lord.
Chris Mulherin is an Anglican minister researching a doctorate at Catholic Theological College. He is also minister of the Unichurch congregations at St Jude's Anglican Church in Carlton. Some of this article is based on one published in The Melbourne Anglican in 2010.
Photo: Chris Mulherin, who has recently returned from a two-week bushwalk in south-west Tasmania with his four boys. Photo supplied by Chris Mulherin.