It is Christmas time and we all should remember that, in the words of every Christmas card we have received from my Great-Aunt for the past forty years, “Jesus is the Reason for the season.” And he is. But, being an atheist and coming from a more-or-less atheistic family that celebrates Christmas with fervor, this ubiquitous phrase is only a conceit.
But, the permeation of Christianity throughout American and Western society is something that cannot be ignored. Recently, the [well-publicized conversion](http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=315976) of famous atheist Antony Flew to theism has been getting attention precisely because of this societal pervasion of Christianity. In a Christian nation, with predominantly Christian press and Christian audiences the conversion of a stalwart atheist is seen as a major victory – another who has “seen the light.” However, this Christian majority creates another problem: an incredibly minute view of the concept of “god.”
For most members of Christian nations, and particularly Christians, the question “do you believe in god?” is seen as identical, or at least quasi-synonymous, with the question “are you a Christian?” I encounter this oblique phrasing often – a large packet of assumptions tied up into a pat little question. The assumptions contained within this small question: a belief in a two-way afterlife, a belief in a personal god that has values and beliefs, a belief that god judges people and then rewards or punishes them, a belief in a “loving god” as opposed to a malicious or indifferent one, a belief that Jesus was the physical manifestation of god, and many more issues that make up the backbone of Christian theology. This myopia is the result of living in a culture that, generally, only speaks about one type of god in one way.
The minute view of god is likewise true of the majority of atheists in this country – at least nearly every one that I have met. Their atheism is nothing more than a reaction to Christianity. I call it “punk atheism” – built upon the same ethos that manifests itself so strongly in the punk music scene: rejection of authority, rejection of tradition, rejection of the status quo, and all of it over-the-top and obstreperous. To them the concept of god is one-dimensional and easily rejectable, as easily rejectable as conservative politics and the Republican Party – which, of course, allows the two to go together like cheese and crackers.
When I arrived at work a few days ago, while I was shaking the newly fallen snow from my coat, a coworker, knowing of my atheism, held up the article on Flew’s conversion. She violently poked the paper with a rigid forefinger. “Did you see this?” she queried, “another has seen the light.” I looked askance. I was familiar with the story and also with my coworker’s fervent Christianity. “He’s not a Christian,” I said. “I know. But at least he believes in God now.” I walked away, knowing that such a minute view of god was not an issue worth pressing.
Yes, the Christian web is moderately buzzing about Flew. [This guy](http://christdot.org/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=4661) thinks Flew’s conversion gives a nod to his arguments against evolution (Flew admits to still believing in evolution). [This post](http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=19712) from bpnews.net (Baptist Press) takes special care to say that, while Flew isn’t a Christian, he most certainly isn’t a “[stupid] Muslim” (extra word added with dramatic license to convey the gist of the message). [This](http://www.joeuser.com/Forums.asp?c=1&MID=3&AID=57517&u=0) forum discussion has one respondent stating, “There will be a day in which every soul shall come to this same conclusion. Every knee shall bow & every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God.” To be fair, [this site](http://www.existence-of-god.com/flew-abandons-atheism.html), which I enjoy, gives a very intelligent treatment of the story. However, in general fists are being raised and victories proclaimed. [Romans 1:18-23](http://bible.gospelcom.net/passage/?book_id=52&chapter=1&version=31) is said to be verified again.
To be honest, Antony Flew is a moderately “famous atheist.” As academic philosophers go, I suppose he is on the cusp of the bigger names, making him kind of the Richard Hell of atheistic academicians – someone who the aficionados and intelligentsia know but most of us are unaware. I am moderately familiar with his paper “The Presumption of Atheism” and I am fond of his “Theology and Falsification.” This familiarity is only because I recently finished a philosophy degree and I have a particular interest in the Philosophy of Religion.
Getting a philosophy degree required four years of moving within the insular academic cloister. I wrote papers that teemed with the arcane images of symbolic logic – a system which combines mathematical operations and sentences (or “propositions” in the jargon of the field) to produce a supremely esoteric hodgepodge that philosophers love to flaunt because it excludes all laymen. I would seriously read Hegel to try figure out what the hell he is saying. (Free advice: if you are planning to buy Phenomenology of Spirit or even A Very Short Introduction to Hegel just go bowling, rent “Ishtar,” or do something else more valuable.) Words like “epistemology,” “ontology,” and “counterfactual” became part of my daily vocabulary, much to the anger of my non-philosopher friends. Drinking parties, during which I had reached the point of inebriation when you perpetually sway in a figure-eight and tell recent acquaintances how much you love them, usually had me saying bizarrely constructed sentences like “Fuck, dude, I mean, come on, the ontology of that counterfactual is at the very least epistemologically demanding and at the most a fucking dream that presupposes-fuck man, I don’t know. Do you think Wendy’s is still open?”
Yes, campus philosophers and philosophy majors tend to lead near-monastic lives. But college campuses themselves are like massive VR games that most of the participants do not know they are playing but which the rest of us watch with the detracted amusement of seeing the guy in the arcade dodge invisible bullets. (Granted, I went to CU Boulder, where the VR game has expanded to encompass the entire town.) The scoring system is equally ridiculous: 10 points for a skillful benighting of the masses, 1 point for using the word “hermeneutics,” 15 points for conspicuously protesting corporations, 10 points for applying Foucault to “American Idol,” etc. If you win you get to install minimalist track-lighting in your house, buy V-8 by the case, and never leave.
But, academic philosophers are arguably the most esoteric of a highly esoteric group – the difference between being able to change your own oil and being able to dismantle and reassemble a car as a simple, laid-back Saturday diversion. But, don’t get me wrong, my education was absolutely rewarding and I was able to devote significant energy to studying the Philosophy of Religion and Political Theory – two fields that gave me many tools to continue my studies throughout my life. I have considered the major arguments for the existence of God – cosmological, ontological, moral etc. – and I have decided they are all, well, wrong. With this in mind, the conversion of Antony Flew to theism didn’t incite in me the faintest quiver of doubt or anxiety. Since it “broke,” the story has been getting a substantial amount of the aforementioned lip-service around the web – mainly from Christians that are now happy to include Flew with the oft-mentioned Einstein on their “Smart-Scientists-and-Philosophers-who-believe-in-God” list. This list, which is an obvious example of the “appeal to authority” fallacy, is often used by Christians as part of the growing tendency to attempt to add scientific and/or philosophical credibility to their fantastic belief system. Intelligent design theory and creation science are other examples of this movement.
Often, at parties or gatherings, usually after my questioner has discovered my appreciation of religious philosophy, I am asked the fateful, jam-packed question “do you believe in god?” Following this question, I let a large sigh jump from my chest and then begin a flurry of follow-up questions. These questions – the strive for clarification – are, of course, how we philosophers tend to behave. My first question usually is “well, that depends on what you mean by ‘god.'” Several hours, several questions, several beers, and several vague analogies later – assuming my interlocutor is as interested in the matter (which is a big “if”) as I am – we come to the understanding that, while the concept of god is unclear and has many metaphysical problems, crucifixion would hurt and “The Exorcist” is a pretty sweet movie. In other words, it is difficult to make progress in religious debate. As we all know, religious questions are never easy to put to rest and usually end up stealing rest from you.
But a concerted attempt to define and clarify issues is essential to any meaningful religious debate – not to mention debates on other topics. By rigorously engaging the topic it will become quite clear that theism isn’t Christianity. Nor is it significantly closer to Christianity than atheism. Yes, perhaps it is a tiny step closer, but no more than you gain by buying two lottery tickets instead of one. Historical questions are decided on entirely different grounds.
Christianity as a Historical Contingency
Christianity is a historical issue – self-described as so. The defining characteristic is a specific and exacting historical relationship between man and god – culminating, and depending, on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith is also in vain.” (I Corinth. 15:14) In the middle of the first century Paul pegged the issue. Christians often quote this passage to clarify the crux (pun intended) of their faith.
Christians, through their behavior and self-definition, have lifted their historically contingent faith above the battlements and all the siegers’ arrows are now aimed at it. Modern archeology, historiography and general academic scholarship are very young – no more than two-hundred years old. Christianity’s historical issue, the nature and resurrection of Jesus, is under fire from that modern scholarship and, in my highly considered opinion, the Christians are severely losing. Scholarship on Christian history has greatly increased in the past fifty years. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and possibly more importantly, the library of the Nag Hammadi, has produced an explosion in the critical examination of the New Testament and the period when it was written – radically changing our view of Jesus and his time. In short, for two-thousand years Christians, by relying on an historical event, have demanded a historical debate. Now, they are getting one.
Over the past few years I have become moderately obsessed with Christian scholarship. If there is one subject that I would like to become an expert in, meaning I actually enjoy reading academia-directed books like [this]( http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0962364274/symbolicorder-20), it would be this. However, while immersing myself in Christianity – reading the Bible numerous times, attending many church services and Bible studies, reading the other primary texts of the period and extensive commentary on these texts, and reading many of the numerous popularized books on the subject ï¿½- I found myself arriving in a different place than I expected. Originally, I must admit, I went into the subject with a W.C. Fields-esque “looking for loopholes” attitude. However, although I certainly found myself with more reasons to believe Christianity is a massive historical corruption, I also found that Christians didn’t have to be wholesale purchasers of the dogmatic party-line.
The discovery of many Christians whom I respect and, on many levels, with whom I agreed was the primary catalyst to this new awareness. Reading the works of John Hick, John Shelby Spong, Karl Rahner, Soren Kierkegaard, and Paul Tillich, along with many others, led me to find a respect for Christianity. These writers emphasize the existential element of Christianity, the view of “humans grasped by an infinite concern” in the words of Paul Tillich.
[Paul Tillich](http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?tag=symbolicorder-20&path=tg%2Flistmania%2Flist-browse%2F-%2FNHAZSU1A9TDE%2Fqid%3D1103673298%2Fsr%3D5-1%2Fref%3Dsr_5_1%2F) has written the most clear and scathing critique of Christians’ tendency to center their theology historically. He defines two dimensions of life; the horizontal, the constant progression forward in time from event to event, moment to moment, and the vertical, the striving to appreciate the depth and meaning of individual moments. He believes religion’s territory is only in the vertical and the search for “ultimate concern,” but that religion, specifically Christianity, has been unjustly pulled into the horizontal. At first, it may seem like he is not a Christian, only a well-spoken critic. However, Tillich is most certainly a Christian. In the essay “Invocation: The Lost Dimension in Religion” he writes:
If the dimension of depth is lost, the symbols in which life in this dimension has expressed itself must also disappear. I am speaking of the great symbols of the historical religions in our Western world, of Judaism and Christianity. The reason that the religious symbols became lost is not primarily scientific criticism, but it is a complete misunderstanding of their meaning; and only because of this misunderstanding was scientific critique able, and even justified, in attacking them. The first step toward the nonreligion of the Western world was made by religion itself. When it defended its great symbols, not as symbols, but as literal stories, it had already lost the battle. In doing so the theologians (and today many religious laymen) helped to transfer the powerful expressions of the dimension of depth into objects or happenings on the horizontal plane. There the symbols lose their power and meaning and become an easy prey to physical, biological and historical attack.
Tillich words are clear and powerful. He was painfully aware of the battle that Christianity was begging for and that was now being given to it, full force.
Tillich continues with his point:
If the symbol of creation which points to the divine ground of everything is transferred to the horizontal plane, it becomes a story of events in a removed past for which there is no evidence. If the symbol of the Fall of Man, which points to the tragic estrangement of man and his world from their true being, is transferred to the horizontal plane, it becomes a story of a human couple a few thousand years ago in what is now present-day Iraq. One of the most profound psychological descriptions of the general human predicament becomes an absurdity on the horizontal plane. If the symbols of the Saviour and the salvation through Him which point to the healing power in history and personal life are transferred to the horizontal plane, they become stories of a half-divine being coming from a heavenly place and returning to it. Obviously in this form, they have no meaning whatsoever for people whose view of the universe is determined by scientific astronomy.
What Tillich says here I could not have put better myself. As long as Christianity is advertised as a historical contingency it will have a huge fight on its hands.
Atheism, Theism, and Christianity
To return to Mr. Flew. Christians championing Flew’s conversion to theism makes no more sense to me than if they started lauding Muslims for their theism. Theism isn’t Christianity. It’s not even close.
What bugs me about many Christians is the “aw-shucks” attitude they often give their religion. When you ask them if they are Christian, if they believe Jesus Christ was crucified for their sins and rose on the third day according to the prophecy of scripture, they shrug their shoulders and give a half-hearted “yeah, sure” as if you just asked them if they really do think that their dish soap cuts through grease and softens hands. As a philosopher – someone who can nearly drive himself nuts trying to justify and streamline my belief system – this complacency is unbelievable. Although I do acknowledge that Christianity could be true, either way, from any angle, it is astoundingly complex – historically, metaphysically, morally, epistemologically, you name it. But very few Christians treat it this way. Alvin Plantinga’s philosophically admirable tome [Warranted Christian Belief]( http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/0195131932/symbolicorder-20) is one of the few examples I know. Me, I could spend a lifetime wading through the historical aspect before I even move on to the other issues.
In short, Flew’s new found theism is quite possibly a justified reaction to a lifelong of study. It is certainly admirable to see an 81 year-old philosopher radically change his mind – an occurrence that is very uncommon. Perhaps, one day, I will see the necessity for a first, intelligent cause and I will end up in the same place – a philosophical theism. However, as of right now, that possibility is greatly more likely to occur than my ever becoming a Christian.