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Portrait of a serious atheist

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 14 November 2017


What are we to make of the cancellation of the third Global Atheist Convention due to be held in Melbourne next year because of lack of interest? The big names were to be present, Salman Rushdie and Richard Dawkins. But alas ticket sales were low and the whole event has been cancelled. It could be that this has happened because atheism, for many, has won the day and it is no longer contested. It is the new normal and as such is of no interest.

Let us reflect on the achievements of atheism. Our age has produced what I would call the "serious atheist" for whom religion is no more. This one does not froth at the mouth at the mention of religion, he (why do I see him as male?) is simply ambivalent. He may concede that the Judaeo/Christian tradition has been the basis of our civilization and he may applaud that, but it is not for him. He sees that humanity has come of age and that once our civilization has been set on its foundations there is no more need to bother with its origins. We, with our advanced technology, our understanding of the human soul from modern psychology and our general command of all things can be trusted to take it from here.

If we continue this outline in the same mode, we might come to the following. Atheists are to be admired for their commitment to truth and their refusal of superstition, sentimentality and the wishful thinking that cannot cope with the stark realities of life. They accept that before their birth and after their death they did not and will not exist. They spurn the anthropocentric view of the universe that tells us that it was created just for us and our happiness. They would be surprised by the ending of the Anglican Gloria Patri :"as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end" because for them the world is contingent. Life is not protected by a supernatural being but could be wiped out in an instant given a large enough meteorite straying into the earth's path. Atheists will take anthropogenic global warming seriously unlike some religious who would rather trust in God to preserve the creation.

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Atheists may look at the far reaches of the universe and be awed but they do not see the hand of a creator. They see instead a terrible beauty, astounding but unfeeling whose origins lie in obscure mechanism.

If one were to look for a particular moral characteristic then it would be that they are responsible. The origins of this is that they see themselves as the only players in the world who can be. Indeed, they may go about their lives practicing good citizenship, being faithful husbands and wives and raising children in their own image. They may rely on the golden rule for their morality and have a sturdy view of justice. They may be vulnerable, since they are so responsible, to causes. Rather than being immoral they tend to hyper-morality and have very strict ideas about right and wrong.

Atheists are appalled that religion could disparage this world in favour of a world to come for the faithful dead. While the universe displays a cruel beauty, and has no concern for us, it is full of a beauty that fills us with joy. They know that the earth is our home and that we have evolved to live here. We are attuned to the beauty around us, the turning of the seasons, the taste of food, the loveliness of children and our begetting of them. To say that we go to a better place can only be an absurdity.

For the serious atheist, there is no narrative arch of history beginning at Creation and ending with the fulfilment of all things in the Kingdom of God. If there is an arc of history it is powered by technology that promises ease from hardship, the cure of all diseases and the prolongation of life for most to their 90's. Because many are not tutored in the characteristics of idolatry and its consequences they tend to place hope in technological advance. Witness the hysteria over the launch of a new IPhone.

Such people may be on the way to becoming the majority in our society if they are not already. We in the Church look upon the world and its human turmoil in despair. There is no reason that serious atheists would not do likewise and make the same analysis of human failings. All they need to do is to read some fairly recent history to have a convincing account of human cruelty and delusion. This has the power to save them from humanist triumphalism and to be introspective of their own motives. The absence of God is felt as a relief. They may go about their lives as they wish.

Such a portrait of the serious atheist raises the problem of the missiology of the Church in late modernity. How does the Church speak to these people without stigmatising them as the living dead or the morally lost or existentially challenged? How does the Church speak without invoking a division between the damned and the saved? But crucially, how does the Church profess its own ambiguity and nihilism and humbly embrace the atheist as a fellow human being with all of the brokenness that that implies?

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There has existed in the Church the idea that people are more amenable to evangelism when they are at their lowest ebb. This is confirmed by many coming to faith in prison. We are told that there are no atheists in fox holes. Meaning, that God comes to the fore in our minds when we are weak and in greatest need. But how does the Church speak to the educated, affluent and cultured despisers of religion i.e. the serious atheist?

My intention in outlining the characteristics of the serious atheist is to help the Church see what it is up against, that to rely on the easy fruits of evangelism among the downtrodden and weak may be applauded, but we are in danger of ignoring the increasing number of men and women who pose a challenge to the Church that is unique to our age. Never before has religion been thought to be at an end and that the idea of God is surplus to requirements.

The old arguments do not work anymore and are in themselves unfaithful. How can a gospel of grace use the promise of heaven and the threat of hell to gain and keep adherents? How can the Church claim to instruct us on morality when that morality is based on the assertion of a plan that God has for us that looks very much like a cleaned-up version of nature?

The time is past for the Church to wield morality as its own justification. My serious atheist will keep his or her own counsel and live a moral life. If he is in moral danger it is often that he takes it too seriously because he is too responsible.

The Church, in its arrogance, thinks that it has something that everyone needs. But when we look at popular Christian piety or even the piety of the clergy, we often find a shallow thing. I came across this remarkable sentence in Miskotte that describes what needs to be given up by Christian believers:

That God does not have a Being which is analogous to our being, that the Word is not a mystical experience, that faith is not an experience and not even something that man is capable of, that God cannot be thought of as substance, that Gods' work cannot be conceived as causality, that holy history cannot be thought of as a process - all these gravely passionate negations are simply inherent in the fundamental structure of the bible.

He goes on to say that anyone who cannot grasp and own this sentence cannot have any relationship with the given and that their "objective intellect is bottomlessly subjective." Here we find where my serious atheist come from, he lives in reaction to a faith that is incapable of grasping the real, a faith that is self-delusion, a faith whose end must be nihilism. He sees that stoicism is better and I am inclined to agree. Thus, a conversation between the serious atheist and church people who are insulated against the harsh realities of life cannot occur. This is where the evangelism of the Church grinds to a halt.

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I owe inspiration for this essay to Kornelis Miskotte's book "When the Gods are Silent" (1967).



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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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