The atheist paradox | Aeon

Lowlier than thou: ‘animals possess an unexamined wisdom where true belief is concerned.’ Photo by Christopher Anderson


The atheist paradox

Now that Christianity is the dominant religion on the planet, it is unbelievers who have most in common with Christ

by Adam Roberts + BIO

Lowlier than thou: ‘animals possess an unexamined wisdom where true belief is concerned.’ Photo by Christopher Anderson

A little while ago, I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. I’d missed it on its original release in 1988, although I remembered news reports of the bother it caused, among certain groups of the devout, for its blasphemous portrayal of Christ’s dying dream on the cross — giving up his mission, marrying and having sex with Mary Magdalene, living to old age. Watching it today, the film seems very 1980s, in good and bad ways. But what struck me most was not its closing scenes. It was the vividness with which Scorsese generates a sense of the startling novelty of Christ’s ministry. This is surely at the heart of Christianity: that the world was one way, for thousands (science now says billions) of years, then a man was born who embodied the message that everything is different now.

It so happened that, the week I watched the film, there was other news of bother among Christians. The BBC reported on plans by the Church of England to ordain female bishops. Some members of the Church are so outraged by this decision that they are planning to leave. Since none of those upset could be coaxed into saying ‘But women are inferior to men!’, at root their outrage was based upon the complaint ‘But this is not what we are used to!’ To say that something violates tradition is always, in the end, to denigrate it, to say it’s just not what we’re used to. And part of me thinks, fair enough: continuity and tradition are important props to help human subjectivity along its torturous path.

It seems to me that newness is one crucial idiom of Christianity that gets short shrift. So, consider this an atheist’s apology for Christianity

Nevertheless, opponents of the ordination of women tend to make me want to buttonhole them to say, friend, have you even read the New Testament? It’s a text open to a number of interpretations, of course, but one thing that comes out of it unambiguously is the message: everything is different now. It is a book that says, in its whole as well as in numerous specific places: give up your attachments to the old ways, however comforting you find them. It’s a book that says: it’s all new. To live according to the logic of the Gospels, surely, is to live — as thoroughly as you can — the everythingness and the difference and the nowness of everything.

Still, who am I to buttonhole anybody? I do not doubt that there are many Christians for whom tradition, continuity and familiarity are the height, length and breadth of their faith. But I prefer the version of Christ I find in that big beast of Christian apologetics, GK Chesterton:

When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross, the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay … but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation: only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

Let’s take Chesterton at his word. I’m an atheist, and I choose a god. I am naturally enough drawn to the god who was, even if only for an instant, an atheist. But I want to make a new argument about this religion, because it seems to me that newness is one crucial idiom of Christianity that gets short shrift. So, consider this an atheist’s apology for Christianity.

I had better start by saying what this essay is not. It is not an exercise in ‘radical atheism’, or a polemic designed to destroy any reader’s faith in God. Proselytising seems to me the least interesting thing an atheist can do, and I do not attempt it here. Nor am I trying, as an atheist, to ‘enter into’ the mindset of a believer in any sort of abstract or thought-experimental way.

This is not an exercise in lost-faith nostalgia, or sepia-tinted affection for the charming architecture and rites of (for instance) the Church of England. As it happens, I am neither nostalgic nor especially affectionate for that institution. My mother’s father was an Anglican vicar, but my mother was herself an atheist from an early age, and my father lost his evangelical faith in his teens. I was raised, non-dogmatically but effectively, in disbelief, which leaves me with nothing (personally speaking) about which to be nostalgic, and no especial emotional connection with the Anglican communion.

Neither is this an attempt to establish an ‘atheist’ alternative to spirituality. I could dilate upon this for a moment, because a number of books have recently appeared that try to do precisely that. Two in particular have attracted a deal of attention. The Swiss-born pop-philosopher Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012) takes the non-existence of God as axiomatic, while exploring what de Botton calls ‘religion-based’ concepts such as community and tenderness, which could ‘usefully’ enrich secular life. More persuasively, the French thinker André Comte-Sponville’s L’espirit de l’athéisme (2006), published in English as The Book of Atheist Spirituality (2008), sets out conceptually to decouple conventional religion and ‘spirituality’.

But my aim here is unlike either of those. Indeed, what I’m trying to argue is almost the exact opposite. De Botton and Comte-Sponville both take ‘atheism’ to be the default position of the rational human mind, and then turn to ‘religion’ to see what can be salvaged from it without sacrificing their agreeable, rational disbelief in God. That doesn’t interest me. Empirically, religion is what most humans do. Atheists like me are in the minority, a statistically trivial aberration. This puts us in an interesting position.

Apologia in Latin means ‘defence’ or ‘apology’ but apologo means ‘reject’ or even ‘spurn’. This rejecting defence, or spurning apology, seeks to engage specifically with Christianity, not ‘religion’ or ‘belief in God’ more generally. And that isn’t only because Christianity happens to have been the most culturally significant religion in my life. It is also because of its own particular logic as a faith.

Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (1988) considers the development of Islam from a small-group belief to a global religion with a billion adherents. The novel asks the question: what happens when the faith of a small group of outsiders becomes the faith of billions and cognate with the State? I make no attempt here to engage with Islam, but Rushdie’s question is a far-reaching one. We can reframe it in Christian terms: what happens when Christianity stops being a marginal sect, rejected and persecuted by the Roman Empire, and becomes, in a literal sense, the Roman Empire? The Islam described in the Qur’an is a religion consonant with the structures of social power. Crucial to it is the idea that submission to the law (since the law comes from God) is equally required for good social order and good spiritual health.

It’s not about what you have but what you should give up; not about power but about the disempowered — this is the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount

Christianity is different. In part, that’s because of its bivalve holy book, which sets up, in the Old Testament, a set of social codes, restrictions and laws and then, in its New Testament, specifically overturns them. Moses brought 10 commandments; Jesus replaces them with two — to love God, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. And those two commandments aren’t articulated like legal codes. Some of the New Testament attempts to work out the social and legal consequences of its new creed, but much of it gives up on that, and instead gives eloquent voice to the irrelevance of society and law in the face of the imminent end-times. The Old Testament is, in the largest sense, about the building of a temple. In the New Testament, the temple is redefined as Christ’s body, built precisely to be torn down, tortured to death and radically reconfigured. Instructions to give up all one’s money, to leave one’s family and job, not to marry (though St Paul concedes that it is better to marry than burn with lust), to live as spontaneously as the birds and the flowers — all these things are iterations of a powerful sense that the old ways have been overturned.

Of course, as generation followed generation and the world stubbornly did not end, Christians had to find ways of getting on with life. The early church re-established modified forms of the old laws and codes. Over time, Christianity stopped being a despised and socially abject sect and became the mainstream. In its American incarnations, it has come to rule the world. The 20th century saw America shrugging off notions of the Death of God and rising to the position of a Christian empire. It grows more imperial as it grows more Christian.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that this has caused ‘the ethical core of Christianity to be lost’ or anything like that. However, the reason I’m not arguing that is because my reading of the New Testament, or at least of the non-Pauline parts of it, finds a text that is formally and theologically allergic to ‘coreness’ as an idea. Christianity is not about God but instead about an adjunct of God (Christ — who is, in the potent mystery of faith, also in some sense God himself). It’s not about what you have but what you should give up; not about power but about the disempowered — this is the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount.

In fact, that’s the whole point of the Gospels. To reread these primary Christian documents is to remind yourself how radically concerned the Gospels are with the excluded, the non-chosen people, the scum, the chavs. And from this insight, I hew and plane a major plank of my own argument. Now that Christianity has gone from being a small-time sect to being the dominant religion on the planet, the key category of excluded has become precisely the unbelievers. Indeed, I want to try to develop the strong form of this argument: that Christianity can find a place for all kinds of sin, heresy and doctrinal otherness except atheism. Which is to say, I want to argue that since Christianity is both the world’s numerically dominant faith and, in important ways, the religion of the socially and spiritually abject, the key category here becomes: those abjected from the body of the faithful.

Of course I’m not pretending that atheists are all abject in the common sense of the world, miserable and psychologically homeless individuals. Neither am I suggesting that they are aggressively persecuted or murdered for their lack of belief. Empirically, that isn’t so. But I am saying that, from the Christian point of view, the ground of faith is precisely those not included in faith. A polemical way of putting this might be to say, in appropriately paradoxical mode, ‘only an atheist can truly be a Christian’. That might come over merely as glib. I hope it doesn’t. There’s something very important here.

This is one of the beauties of Christianity as a world faith: the fact that Christ was a nobody; a commoner; a carpenter who had given up even that humble profession for a life of holy vagrancy. In the words of the great Kurt Vonnegut (an unjustly overlooked theologian, I’d say), he was a bum. Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five (1969) contains an account of another religious work. In its imaginary ‘The Gospel from Outer Space’, an extraterrestrial being studies Christianity to learn, if he can, ‘why Christians found it so easy to be cruel’. The visitor starts from the position that the point of Christianity is to teach people to be merciful, even to the lowest members of their society. But he comes to realise that what the Gospels actually teach is this: ‘Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well-connected.’

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought … :

Oh, boy — they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

And that thought had a brother: ‘There are right people to lynch.’ Who? People not well-connected. So it goes.

Christ only seems like a nobody, a bum, a poor carpenter: in fact he is the prince of Heaven, the most royal of royalty. The visitor from outer space makes a gift of a new gospel in which this disparity does not exist. His Jesus actually is the lowest of the low; God himself stresses repeatedly what a nobody he is. Accordingly, the people assume there will be no comebacks when they decide to amuse themselves by nailing him to a cross:

And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of the Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this:

From this moment on, He will punish anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!

The point of this splendid midrash is that the gospel message loses force if Christ actually is the sort of person you shouldn’t lynch — a king, the son of God — not least because such a story inevitably establishes the category of ‘people you are permitted to lynch’. The most cursory glance at what Christ says in the Gospels ought to persuade us of his repudiation of any such idea.

In her book Gravity and Grace (1952), the late French philosopher Simone Weil calls the divine incarnation ‘that fugitive from the camp of the conquerors’. Thus, she pinpoints something more about the event than its simple contingency. When she talks of ‘Christ’s paradoxical identification with the plight of the wretched’, the paradox is presumably that Christ, as God, is something like the opposite of ‘wretched’. But perhaps wretchedness is exactly the idiom of a ‘fugitive’ incarnation.

One way of thinking about this might be to conceptualise the incarnation as a kind of exile of God from God. Imagine that God is sent away to a far place, and for a time even believes he has been abandoned there (‘why hast thou forsaken me?’). We might want to go further and suggest that God’s ‘exiling’ of Christ also entails the fact that he was born into human poverty rather than riches, born a carpenter rather than a prince, a Jew on the edge of Empire rather than a senator in Rome — all of that. From a human perspective, perhaps, it is more of an exile to be socially, racially and economically marginalised. But from God’s perspective (as it were) the disjunction between transcendent divine plenitude and human existence is already so colossal that quibbling over whether the specific human existence has a little more, or a little less, money or status is surely beside the point.

Assume there is a God, and then ask: why does He require his creations to believe in Him?

To test this hypothesis, we could try a thought experiment. Imagine Christ being incarnated as a wealthy Roman senator rather than a poor Jewish carpenter. He would have worn finer clothes, eaten better food and lived in a nicer house. Let’s extend the thought experiment, and imagine him becoming emperor, worshipped as a god by his people. By how much would these improvements diminish the gap between mortal existence and divine plenitude? By how much less would such a figure have been transcendentally exiled than was actually the case? Clearly the answer is: by an infinitesimal amount. The difference between immortal, omnipotent God and any mortal human being is so great that the question of whether the particular mortal human being is rich or poor seems irrelevant.

But this brings me up short. It surely can’t be right — because so much of Christ’s ministry is precisely about the chasm between rich mortality and poor mortality. How does that look sub specie aeternitatis? Or to put it another way: if, from that perspective, it looks trivial, then maybe it is the perspective itself that must give way. The burden of Christ’s mission was a focus upon the passing, temporal and relative standings of humanity; it was a mission exactly designed to dissolve the notion that we should regard things from the perspective of eternity.

I’ll explain what I mean by this. It might be tempting to think: when I have lived 10 million years of afterlife and I look back at my mayfly mortal existence, it will seem unimportant whether I lived on £6.19 an hour or earned £1 million a year. That kind of difference will seem to me, in the larger perspective, neither here nor there. Surely from the perspective of eternity — if, for instance, we talk in terms of ‘the immortal soul’ and try to see things from its point of view — human existence lived in poverty looks very like a human existence lived in wealth.

But this, very forcefully, is not what the Gospels say. They say that it is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than get into heaven. They say the rich man should give up all his wealth and donate it to the poor. They bless the materially deprived, value the widow’s mite over the large, public donation of the millionaire. They see grace and beauty in the sufferings of the poor, and see wealth as an active impediment to salvation.

And of course (and this can’t be stressed enough) from the point of view of actual lived experience, a life lived in poverty feels massively different to a life lived with comfortable wealth. It is more than simply a question of material privation; it engages questions of justice and injustice, of physical and mental health, of society as a whole. It is precisely the power of lived experience to erase the perspective of immortality. In the deepest sense, this is what the incarnation means. At a hundred points, the Gospels reinforce this idea.

At the beginning I quoted the prince of paradox, GK Chesterton; and I want to move towards finishing with another Chestertonian engagement. Of all the religious-believers I have read, Chesterton is the one who articulates best the point that paradox (a Christian might prefer ‘holy mystery’) is not an occasional or marginal feature of faith. It is crucial. Moreover, to read Chesterton is to understand that paradox is not ‘a cloud of unknowing’, a knot of ‘mystery’ that can be safely bracketed away from the rest of the believer’s life. On the contrary, Chesterton sees religious paradox as a practical feature of lived faith that puts its tendrils into every limb of Christian existence. It’s a great shame that Chesterton is no longer around. Were he still alive today, he might write something like this:

We are tempted to rank our three friends, Mr Atheist, Mr Anglican and Mr Puritan in ascending order of intensity of religious belief. This is quite the wrong way around. Prayer, contemplation and chapel attendance are indeed one way of worship, but they are as small, in comparison with the other ways, as the church is in comparison to the world as a whole. Verily (as preachers are fond of saying) the Puritan’s worship is the smallest, for it seeks to shrink God, and pen Him in a narrow mind made of plaited commandments, rules, obligations and repressions. The Anglican, though perfectly conventional in his piety and assiduous in his church attendance, is the next smallest in terms of the magnitude of his worship: for although the box in which he seeks to confine God is bigger than Mr Puritan’s oligophalic skull, yet it is a red-brick, steepled and coloured-glass box for all that. No, of the three, the Atheist has the largest mode of worship, although he himself doubtless does not realise it. He alone instinctively understands that God fits into no box at all, not even the capacious container marked ‘belief’ (for we bestow belief on a swarm of things). The atheist worships God with the holy innocence of the fool and the animal, unwittingly, by being the creature God made, moving through the world God made, and filling his heart with all the human emotions in which God delights. Of all the three, Mr Atheist is the only one who does not consider himself in some manner superior to his maker, a feat he manages by not believing in him at all. The other two, however much they might deny it, and however genuine those denials might be, cannot boast as much: for they worship a boxed God, and might as well pray to stocks and stones … God is both the principle of creation and of restriction, of heaven-and-Earth in seven days, and the list of 10 thou-shalt-nots. But the former so dwarfs the latter, the possibilities and thou-maysts so vastly outnumber the prohibitions, that it is mere perversity to concentrate one’s worship upon the latter. And the atheist instinctively knows this. Christ took Moses’ 10 commandments and replaced them with two, to love God and one another. The atheist is bolder still: he replaces all 12 with one,

thou shalt not attempt to fit God inside thy mortal mind

, and thereby frees all the creatively possibilities from their bonds.

I have to admit that my Faux-Chesterton, above, goes further than the Echt-Chesterton did in the passage quoted earlier (‘let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation: only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist’). But my defence is that Faux-Chesterton is merely supplying Echt-Chesterton with the only-apparently-paradoxical world-tuned-upside-down flourish that was his own stock-in-trade. ‘Let the atheists choose a god’ is one sort of rhetorical assertion. More interesting, and more apropos for the true Christian, is its inversion: ‘Let the devout choose atheism.’ Believing is not the difficult thing for a Christian; nor is it believing despite the absence of hard proof. The difficult thing is to win belief in order to give it up. Sacrifice doesn’t come any more all-encompassing.

Giving up what? Many thinkers and philosophers have observed that — for example — my belief that I’m presently sitting at a table typing on a computer isn’t itself an act of will. I certainly don’t disbelieve that I’m sitting at a table typing, especially since it happens (at the moment) to be true. But nor do I have to will that belief. I know it; or I would if I stopped to think about it. I know I love my children and believe they love me, but that latter belief isn’t willed; it just is. If I had to will either belief, to force it, it would suggest that something had gone very wrong somewhere. Will is a contaminant where true belief is concerned. This is something on which children, and animals, possess an unexamined wisdom, but about which adults can become rather tangled.

Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) features a wise priest whose afternoon meditations on scripture have become so subtle that he is actually asleep. Perhaps we’re tempted to disapprove of such a mode of worship. Still, it’s worth pondering what’s wrong with it. Isn’t sleep (as opposed to dreaming, which presumably has a different set of religious valences) a perfect passivity, a perfect harmlessness, the very epitome of Christian observance? To become again as a little child, if we follow through on the thought, would also be to sleep a great deal more than we, as adults, tend to do.

I have tried to avoid autobiography in this piece as far as possible. John Bunyan’s memoir of his personal conversion, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), contains only a few very scattered autobiographical data, despite the fact that the book comprises his own life story. Since in effect I’m writing ‘Atheism Abounding to the Chief of Christians’, I should probably do the same. But I’ll mention one thing about me: I am a writer of science fiction stories. I’m a university academic too, but I often find it easier to think in terms of story than according to the drier precepts of cognitive ratiocination. At any rate, I’m going to close with a science fiction story. And, appropriately to the burden of this essay, it will be in one of the most despised modes of the genre, the Adam and Eve fable.

Man and woman were content, as to the measure of content, when the whole world was a garden; and they worshipped God as animals do, blithely and brutishly, by their nature not their will. And God was well pleased, for faith sustained them unconsciously: it was something they were, rather than something they did. But Satan, whose name means pride, had fallen from the horizontal paradise of heaven, where all are equal in the love of God. Satan craved hierarchy, and rank, and to define his own superiority in terms of the inferiority of others — all monstrous in the eyes of all-loving God. He could do nothing to persuade the angels, for they knew that to surrender their equality with God and sink into hierarchy would be loss and no gain. But Satan recognised a kink in the soul of humankind, and visited them in the garden. He did not appeal to their self-interest, for they would have rejected such an appeal. Instead he said: why do you walk around, so arrogant in your nakedness? Do you not know that God who made you is vastly superior to you? Do you not comprehend that, when compared to him, you are loathsome, at the bottom of contempt? You should hide your abject bodies under cloaks and veils, fall down to your knees and worship the All High!’ To this, Man was struck, and fell to his knees; for he felt that a true note was being bowed out of the string of his soul. But Woman was not persuaded. ‘How can this be?’ she challenged Satan. ‘For we are made of God, and if our stuff is abject then so is His, and if He is exalted then so are we — there can be no vertical dimension to the logic of paradise.’ And Satan saw that he could not persuade Woman, and so returned his attention to the man. ‘Do you hear her? For as far as God is above, so you are above her, and when she thwarts your will your duty is to rebuke her.’ ‘Is it so?’ replied Man, feeling the intoxication of hierarchy seeping through his veins, and leapt to his feet. ‘Woman,’ said the Man. ‘Be quiet! For God made humankind; humankind did not make God. Therefore God is greater.’ ‘But woman gives birth to man,’ objected Woman. ‘Man does not give birth to woman!’ Satan grew wroth, and said: ‘Yours is a false analogy and thus evidence of inferior intellect. Man! Your duties are: to raise up a temple in which to worship God the All-High — and to chastise your wife, and teach her the ways of the hierarchy! Every creature has a place, some higher, some lower, and God highest of all!

This Shavian fable proposes a simple enough moral: what if the fall of man was precisely the fall into worship? If we wanted to extrapolate the story further, the combined glee of Satan and Man would need to be centre-stage: for the more they look into the arrangement of natural objects, the more opportunity for inserting hierarchical values they see — to discriminate on grounds of age over youth, of white skin over brown, of wealthy over poor, and so on. The coda to this little narrative would come when God sends his Son (who is actually his self) to the world to undo all this mischief. But by the time He arrives in human form, the human mind has become so saturated with the pride of hierarchy that not even He can escape it. Hence, instead of preaching the universal equality of God’s love, He ends up simply inverting the hierarchies that already exist (‘the last shall be first’ and so on). But to become again as little children is to work backwards, against the vector of this fall. It is to become less wilfully believing; to aspire to the condition of infants and animals.

Assume there is a God, and then ask: why does He require his creations to believe in Him? Putting it like this, I suppose, it looks like I’m asking you to think yourself inside the mind of deity, which is a difficult exercise. But my point is simpler. God is happy with his other creations living their lives without actively believing in him (which is to say: we can assume that the whale’s leaping up and splashing into the ocean, or the raven’s flight, or the burrowing of termites is, from God’s perspective, worship; and that the whale, raven and termite embody this worship without the least self-consciousness). On those terms, it’s hard to see what He gets from human belief in Him — from human reduction of Him to human proportions, human appropriation of Him to human projects and battles, human second-guessing and misrepresentation.

Of course, even to ask this question is to engage in human-style appropriation and misrepresentation. Kierkegaard was, as so often, ahead of me here: ‘Seek first God’s Kingdom,’ he instructed his readership, in 1849. ‘That is, become like the lilies and the birds, become perfectly silent — then shall the rest be added unto you.’ What he didn’t make explicit is that the rest might be the perfection of unbelief. What should believers do if they discover that their belief is getting in the way of their proper connection to God? Would they be prepared to sacrifice their faith for their faith? For the true believer, God is always a mysterious supplement, present in life but never completely known, always in essence just beyond the ability of the mind to grasp. But for a true atheist, this is even more profoundly true: the atheist embraces the mysterious Otherness of God much more wholeheartedly than the believer does. To the point, indeed, of Othering God from existence itself. For a long, long time Christianity has been about an unironic, literal belief in the Trinity. It has lost touch with its everythingness and its difference and its novelty. Disbelief restores that.

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