On 13 May 2016, Atheism for Christians was officially launched at Gleebooks in Sydney by Professor Carole Cusack. It is a work that challenges Christians to familiarise themselves with the secular tradition and look for common ground on divisive issues. It explores the work of some towering figures in the atheist pantheon and applies it to some of the contemporary debates that rage in the church from the treatment of women and the LGBT community to sexual ethics and a response to scientism. The book is part history, part philosophy with a healthy dose of autobiography also making it a very personal work. Below is a copy of my launch speech.
New York’s famous “Met” is home to Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical masterpiece, The Death of Socrates. It is a deeply moving piece. I have a copy that hangs proudly in my home and it often prompts me to pause and reflect on what is really valuable in this life, the only one we have. Created in 1787, David typified the Enlightenment zeitgeist by emphasising the value of reason and logic over emotion or tradition. Socrates is depicted calm and upright as he prepares to drink hemlock, contrasting sharply with his grief-stricken followers. The young man who hands Socrates the poisoned chalice is hiding his face in despair. The old sage sits stoically. With one hand open to accept his fate, the other is raised with a pointed finger. Even as he prepares to die, he is still teaching his disciples and offering freely what knowledge he has gained. His final moments convey his life’s passion; to pursue and share wisdom.
The importance of wisdom is a repeated theme throughout the Bible. It is one thing to gain knowledge but to seek true wisdom is one of the most laudable goals in virtually every culture. The word philosophy means the love of wisdom, coming from the Greek, philo: to love and sophia: wisdom. The golden age of ancient Athens is commonly associated in Western popular consciousness with the birth of this noble pursuit with Alfred North Whitehead famously quipping that all philosophy since is merely “a series of footnotes to Plato.” While Plato may well have “invented the subject of philosophy as we know it”, as long as there have been homo sapiens, there have been those committed to the study of ethics, logic, nature, metaphysics and epistemology. In 1953, the prominent Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, argued that, “philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” Philosophy employs the medium of language to try and unpack the conceptual problems surrounding what it means to be human.
Plato famously charged that only a society that allowed philosophy to rule could hope for truly ethical and happy government. In The Republic, Socrates argues that:
Until philosophers rule as kings in their cities, or those who are nowadays called kings and leading men become genuine and adequate philosophers so that political power and philosophy become thoroughly blended together, while the numerous natures that now pursue either one exclusively are compelled not to do so, cities will have no rest from evils.
Few world leaders have ever been a paragon of the philosopher king but it has endured as a noble ideal. At some level, we all need and use philosophy and we all have certain creeds and ethical standards that guide our behaviour. To embrace philosophy, however, is to go a step further and actively explore and deconstruct the values and principles we may take for granted. Whether we wish to govern a nation or simply appraise the tenets that govern our lives, the critical eye must first be turned inward before it can hope to be of use looking outward. The ancient Delphic maxim carved on the Temple of Apollo has transcended time and place. The greatest philosophical task truly is to “know thyself.”
Although a firm Christian, the English poet, Alexander Pope, saw fit to write, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is Man.”
The similarities between the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus have been highlighted since at least the second century. Emily Wilson notes that for Shelly, Socrates was “the Jesus Christ of Greece” while Voltaire regarded Jesus as “the Socrates of Palestine.” Both men were great teachers who wrote no books but had their words recorded by their disciples. Both were unjustly charged but refused the help of their followers to flee. Both went willingly to their deaths and forgave their killers. Plato’s moving account of Socrates’s last days, Phaedo, serves as a powerful warning against ignorance and lynch mob mentality.
Despite its reputation in posterity as the cradle of Western thought, ancient Athens was a hostile place that openly persecuted many of its philosophers. With religion at the heart of civic life, philosophers were routinely accused of being atheists seeking to corrupt the youth with their non-belief. This was the charge laid against Socrates. He defended himself ably with the tools he had spent a lifetime acquiring, logic and reason, yet when the guilty verdict was passed he never entertained his followers’ pleas to escape. He surrendered himself to the city he loved and drank the hemlock.
Some 500 years later, the tragic death of Socrates deeply moved Justin Martyr, a Greek convert to Christianity. Justin used the similarities with Jesus to great affect among Greek pagans. Wilson writes:
Socrates had already taught his disciples to reject Greek mythology and pagan religion, and exhorted people to get to know the unknown god through reason. Jesus, then, was exactly the same kind of teacher as Socrates; but he was more successful in getting his message across. Justin did not want his readers to abandon the good lessons of Platonism, but to incorporate them into the new Gospel.
Tertullian, born 55 years after Justin, fiercely condemned linking Socrates and Jesus. While Justin still saw value in the wisdom of Socrates and the Platonic tradition, for Tertullian, Socrates and philosophy more generally was corrupting and incompatible with the Christian message. For all the centuries that have passed since then, Christians still find themselves with the same choice.
They can roundly reject philosophy and the wisdom of other religious and non-religious traditions and, like Tertullian, see nothing but harm and false idols everywhere but in the narrow confines of accepted dogma. Or, like Justin, they can approach ideas, new and old, with an open heart and open eyes to see the good that has come from the grand pantheon of thinking people throughout the ages.
Christianity is beautiful, yet, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there is a dark side too. There is the side that exploits the poor and abuses the innocent. There is the side that craves money and power. There is the side that draws its strength from the politics of fear. Christianity at its worst is truly as ugly as the sins it condemns. It lashes outward like a spoiled child, refuses to see its own faults, and damns for eternity those who do not fit into its rigid mould of righteousness, cast in its own petty image.
It drives young gay teens to suicide by telling them that their very nature, their essential self, is an abomination to God. It tells women they exist to submit to their husbands and produce children, and measures their worth by maternal obedience. It tells its brightest minds to immediately dismiss all science and academic knowledge that may challenge any comfortable orthodoxies.
Christianity is the world’s largest religion with one in three people on the planet identifying with it. This perverted form of Christianity, which substitutes forgiveness with condemnation, acceptance with exclusivity and love with intolerance, should not be allowed to dominate the discourse. There is too much at stake. We must fight for a God of love.
Atheism too, like Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, has both a beautiful and a horrible face. Atheism at its worst is a militant ideology which heeds the call of American Atheists president, David Silverman and shows “zero tolerance” to competing views. Like Richard Dawkins expressed in an unguarded moment, the motto of militant atheism is “ridicule and show contempt” to your opponents. Atheism does have zealous evangelists and fundamentalist culture warriors who do not seek honest discourse but obedient discipleship.
At the epicentre of atheistic meanness, all dissenters are to be belittled and humiliated. Like its Christian counterpart, it thrives in a culture of fear. Atheism at its best, however, could not be more different. It is a worldview that champions critical thinking, academic debate, open discussion and reason. It looks at the problems facing the world and seeks practical solutions. Having no recourse to the supernatural, it draws on our common humanity as the binding force that should bring all people together to champion the common good and to leave our children a better world than the one we inherited. It is a philosophy that boasts some of the greatest minds to ever live. As this book argues, it would be utterly foolish to ignore their wisdom.
Catholic psychologist, Peter C. Morea, identifies two distinct brands of Christianity, Catholicism in particular, and suggests there is an intellectual contest at work for supremacy. In Towards a Liberal Catholicism, he uses depth psychology to distinguish the liberal and authoritarian wings of the church. Morea argues that an outward display of absolute certainty and a staunch intolerance to hearing other views is often a manifestation of unconscious doubt. If we allow ourselves to contemplate the possibility of being wrong in some areas and remain open to intelligent discourse; we become free to discuss important issues and learn from great minds. If not, we risk becoming exclusive, hostile and aggressive, needing to constantly be around those who share and reaffirm our ideas. The American existential philosopher, Rollo May held that:
People who claim to be absolutely convinced that their stand is the only right one are dangerous. Such conviction is the essence not only of dogmatism, but of its more destructive cousin, fanaticism. It blocks off the user from learning new truth, and it is a dead giveaway of unconscious doubt. The person then has to double his or her protests in order to quiet not only the opposition but his or her own unconscious doubts as well.
In Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Maudie critiques Christian fundamentalism claiming, “sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle.” She continues, “there are just some kind of men . . . who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” Like the classic Bob Dylan folk song, With God on Our Side, Lee is highlighting the great potential for tragedy when Christianity (or one version thereof) is believed without question and enforced without challenge.
Bertrand Russell’s famous 1948 debate on the existence of God with the Jesuit priest Frederick C. Copleston helped popularize the agnostic position in a highly Christian society. For Russell, doubt was not a weakness but a safeguard against extremism. In his Unpopular Essays, he posits that:
Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false. To know the truth is more difficult than most men suppose, and to act with ruthless determination in the belief that truth is the monopoly of their party is to invite disaster.
One of the greatest statements of faith in the Bible comes from the father of the possessed boy. The story recounts that, “Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:23-24). Acknowledging doubt is not a negation of faith or a surrender of values. It is an honest acceptance of the human condition.
Christians, and indeed all people, should regularly examine their worldview and be prepared to challenge aspects that cannot be reasonably justified. The way in which Christianity is practiced today is profoundly different to the early church in many respects. As society has evolved and changed so too has the church and even today there is enormous variety in form, function, rite, and ritual. Christians will never agree on all aspects of theology but it is vital that ideas can at least be discussed and challenged so that, as a faith community, the church can continue to grow and prosper.
Gene Robinson has said that, “God calls all of his children to the table. We can disagree and even say a lot of hateful things, but what we can’t do in good conscience is leave the table. Or demand that someone else not be at the table.” However convinced we may be of our position, there is an inherent value in hearing other voices and being brave enough to question why.
This book presents a number of intellectual giants from the secular tradition in order to highlight some key areas where atheism can be rightly proud of its contribution to humanity.
Christians should not be afraid to learn from the secular tradition but should be quick to appreciate great minds, whatever their religious position. Whether new ideas are accepted, rejected or modified, we must always be willing to scrutinise that which is held sacred to ensure it deserves a position of reverence. Although the Western world, with the possible exception of the United States, is often seen as post-Christian, there is still so much this rich religious tradition can offer.
Similarly, the Christian world can and should learn from the best atheist thinkers. The great truths of the Christian faith are eternal but society is not static and many aspects of the Church must be willing to change in order to retain relevance in a dynamic, interconnected world. Christianity can be a global force for good but it must be inclusive and loving. Christian leaders should be at the vanguard of the fight against racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
It is a tragedy that so often the Church is seen as enabler of prejudice and bigotry. With courage and compassion, Christianity must defend the nexus of faith and reason and be willing to abandon even long held traditions that do not hold up to scrutiny. The great works from the secular pantheon should be known by all thinking Christians. As ever, we should take the advice of Romans 12:9 and “abhor what is evil”, but we should also “cleave to what is good.” It should not matter where we find that goodness.
(Atheism For Christians is published by Wipf and Stock and is available to buy HERE).