Monday, 24 October 2005

Guardian extra

The Guardian has now published on its website the Face to Faith column by Giles Fraser that was in the Saturday paper with the strapline:

Secularists who dismiss Christianity as the choice of the stupid should turn their critical gaze a little closer to home…

Here’s a part of it:

While the ordinary atheist remains indifferent to religion and all its ways, the born-again atheist has adopted the worst arrogance of Christian fundamentalists - just in negative.

Part of the problem is that many born-again atheists remain trapped in a 19th-century time warp, reheating the standard refutations of religious belief based on a form of rationalism that harks back to an era of fob-watches and long sideburns. One Oxford don has called the website of the National Secular Society a “museum of modernity, untroubled by the awkward rise of postmodernity”. Ignoring the fact that at least three generations of thought have challenged an uncritical faith in rationality, the society continues to build its temples to reason, deaf to claims that it is building on sand.

This commitment to Victorian philosophy turns to farce when campaigning secularists describe themselves as freethinkers. In truth, atheism is about as alternative as Rod Stewart. The joke is that many who were converted at university via Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene think of themselves as agents of some subversive counterculturalism. This is ridiculous to Da Vinci Code proportions. Contemporary atheism is mainstream stuff. As John Updike put it: “Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position.”

(More about the “Secularist of the Year” award mentioned can be found here)

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 2:54pm BST
You can make a Permalink to this if you like
Categorised as: Opinion

Yea Simon!

This is a point well made. It is amazing how many run-of-the-mill atheists I meet who think that they are somehow free-thinking innovators and cutting edge intellectuals attuned to the lastest currents of thought amoung the avant guard intelligentsia. In fact, they tend to be the tedious purveyors of time-worn bromides and pedestrian thinkers in the extreme, tired minds full of tired ideas.


Posted by: steven on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 4:11pm BST

What exactly is a 'born again atheist'? This is a vacuous expression that seems minted so that the Rev Fraser can express his scorn for conservative Christians as well as rejecting atheism. He doesn't want to be seen with THEM. But the tone of hauteur in this article shows that conservative Christians have no monopoly of arrogance. Most of them (like the rest of humankind) don't have great apologetic or philosophical acuity or training - they are more likely to be interested in sharing their faith through Alpha or related programmes - but there is a good number of conservative Christian academics (catholic and evangelical and - shudder - even 'born again') ready and able to do battle with Nietzsche and his epigoni. Among catholics, Boston College's Peter Kreeft offers in his website a raft of traditional arguments for theism that meshes C. S. Lewis with Aquinas (first cause, design, moral instution etc). Among evangelicals of note, Ravi Zacharias is a semi-popular apologist/evangelist who tours universities around the world, and his website engages with many of the recurrent issues, chesnuts old and new. Professor Alister McGrath of Oxford has of course recently penned a book on atheism, in which he deals in part with Dawkins (who is scarcely an intellectual in this matter - A. C. Grayling is a far more adept critic). The evangelical who has done the most in interacting with Nietzsche and his case against Christianity is Professor Stephen Williams of Belfast, in two lengthy articles in the Tyndale Bulletin on 'Dionysus against the crucified'.
Lastly, the Society of Christian Philosophers in the USA, founded by Alvin Plantinga, a neo-calvinist evangelical at Notre Dame, has done a great deal to affirm philosophy as a distinctly Christian enterprise. So there is really in our age an enormous coming together of conservative catholics and evangelicals. Born again philosophy, perhaps?

Posted by: Mark Beaton on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 5:04pm BST

Mark is clearly not a Morrissey fan
but the phrase is usually attributed to Gore Vidal

Posted by: Simon Sarmiento on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 5:54pm BST

Readers may be interested in this piece from McGrath's 'The Twilight of Atheism', which the Rev Fraser actually quotes from and reflects some of its ideas:
McGrath acknowledges that atheism does a (negative) service to Christianity by making us think more carefully about what we actually profess. Reading this made me wonder to what extent liberal Christianity reflects a response or accommodation to the critiques of atheism; I'm thinking here of its tendency to reduce religion to morality and its anti-supernaturalism. Herbert Braun and Gerd Theissen think this is how Bultmann's demythologising programme should be developed.

Posted by: Mark Beaton on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 6:04pm BST

I was saddened some years ago to read the compendium of computer file fragments and occasional articles and interviews by Douglas Adams of "Hitchhiker's Guide..." fame. Apparently he was an atheist of the Dawkinsite variety; and I was particularly sorry to see that the "God" he thought atheists should be up against is not the God most Christian theologians would recognize, but rather the more primitive idea of the Big Man in the Sky with the White Beard who Meddles in Things from Time to Time. What a pity he didn't have more contact with the likes of Peacocke and Polkinghorne.

Posted by: Tobias S Haller BSG on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 6:08pm BST

Ooops, somehow I skipped right past the gratuitous jab at conservative Christians. Thanks for pointing it out Mark. Thanks also for the in depth commentary and the recital of worthies involved on the Christian side of this debate.


Posted by: steven on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 6:21pm BST

Trouble is, Tobias, that is exactly the sort of God who some Christians do believe for conservative theology being academic, its an oxymoron, as no academic discipline worth a light would give the uncritical place of authority to a single text over others which that form of religion affords.

Posted by: Merseymike on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 6:36pm BST

Interesting - in the course of slagging off my piece - that you refer approvingly to McGrath and to Williams' article "Dionysus against the Crucified". As it happens, I ran my piece past Prof McGrath before publication. He enjoyed it. And Williams, who I agree is an excellent thinker, actually refers approvingly to my work on Nietzsche in precisely the article you mention.

As for Grayling. I have publicly debated with him at last years Fabian Society Conference. Perhaps you are letting some of my other convictions get in the way of you acknowledging that liberals too can actually believe with sufficient conviction to want to have a go at atheism.

Posted by: Giles Fraser on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 7:06pm BST

Correction: I meant Gerd Ludemann, not Theissen. Ludemann, a professor of NT in Princeton then in Germany, has declared himself an atheist, having gradually dismissed all the supernaturalist claims of the NT:

An Orthodox friend who studied J.H. Newman used to say to me, 'Newman figured that liberalism led to atheism.' By this he meant that the liberal habit of prioritising or privileging human reason in matters of religion, over against supernaturalist claims (incarnation, miracles, resurrection etc) would only lead to unbelief. Maybe Newman was thinking of the change within his own brother Francis, from a fervent Calvinism in his early days to a later agnosticism.

Posted by: Mark Beaton on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 7:08pm BST

He's Mr Fraser.

Posted by: Andrew Brown on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 7:14pm BST

Indeed, Merseymike, and it gets worse and worse when the raised voices of Creationists and others of that point of view dominate the image of the church. So we find contermporary skeptics fighting battles over 19th-century issues that a good part of the church has moved beyond. I see a great failure of evangelism on the part of the church that can embrace a doctrine of God that is coherent with a rationally scientific view of the universe. Those of us who see no conflict between faith and science have allowed those who do to set the terms of the discussion. This is particularly sad for Anglicans, as any number of our best and brightest theologians should be better known.

Posted by: Tobias S Haller BSG on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 7:40pm BST

Giles, I don't think I really 'slagged off' your article, most of which I agreed with in its criticism of scientism and cultural myopia; my objection was to your de rigueur swipe at conservative Christians ('the arrogant born again'), a feature which detracts generally from your writing. I don't think a priest should run down fellow Christians in writing, even to gain a hearing among the cultured despisers of Guardian readers. McGrath and Williams, as you know, are both evangelicals and intellectual leaders of the Christian Union movement in Britain and Ireland. McGrath can be pretty sharp in his criticisms himself, but they are usually against soft targets like Spong, whose ideas are scarcely theist, let alone Christian.
Of course I am not surprised that liberal Christians 'can believe with sufficient conviction to have a go at atheists'; I only wonder if they can do so with much rigour or warrant, as they seem to give many hostages to fortune and often prefer questions more than answers - indeed the liberal criticism of conservatives ('arrogance'?) is often that it believes too much or too firmly. The (catholic and evangelical) conservatives' reply is founded on their conviction of Scripture as the word of God, along with (in varying degrees of confidence) the apologetic arguments afforded by natural theology. Theological liberalism, on the other hand, finds these two approaches very problematic and it still has the heavy weight of Kant and Troeltsch upon it; so their latter day disciples often end up ditching the transcendent. See the article on Ludemann linked above for an illustration of what I mean. Some liberals seem to pride themselves on how little they actually believe, but how far can you take this and still have an apostolic faith? Or does that matter? Consider the journey of ex-bishop Richard Holloway for another case in point.

Posted by: Mark Beaton on Monday, 24 October 2005 at 11:43pm BST

How true and revealing your quotation from Newman was, Mark. What liberals like Fr. Giles seem to be incapable to realise is that their secular anthropology has a fundamental consequence on both their christology and ecclesiology.

Posted by: Peter on Tuesday, 25 October 2005 at 12:02am BST

My impression is that Giles Fraser was pretty even-handed in his swipes against the sort of arrogance that one associates with the newly-converted to any cause (religious or secular). It unfortunately also afflicts those who feel that their faith is a package deal and everything not known at the time that belief was codified is either inimical or, at best, irrelevant to belief.

I'm not against firmly held beliefs - I have trouble with believers whose core belief doesn't seem to be strong enough to look at divergent views or additional information on this or that issue, and consider them seriously. There will always be some people who aren't cut out for intellectual exploration, but if an intelligent, thoughtful believer tells me that he doesn't or won't look at questions about the consistency of his beliefs, or the relationship of that belief and the world around him, I'd say he might hold that belief as a shield against the world, rather than as a thought-out explanation of the world and his place in it.

For me, at least, this need not abolish the transcendent. Even miracles - does it have to be impossible before it's a miracle? I think not - if there is a rational explanation, but one that happens once in a million times, is it not a miracle that God chose to make it happen that way in this particular situation, just when it is needed?

Posted by: Robin on Tuesday, 25 October 2005 at 5:42pm BST

I'm pretty much in agreement with you, Robin; intellectual and spiritual confidence doesn't come to everyone easily or readily. However, I wonder if you have fully considered the rational, liberal critique of miracle claims. Even Bultmann allowed that many of the Gospel healings took place, partly because he took them to be psychosomatic and so hardly uncaused or unexampled (Troeltsch's analogy and coherence argument). However, the so-called nature miracles and the Resurrection are not even one in a million events: they don't have rational, closed system explanations, so these are either explained away (von Paulus) or mythologised (Strauss). Bultmann didn't improve things, as Ludemann clearly saw. The very point that Kant in his epistemological theory was making is that any special divine action in the world (as distinct from providential ordering of the world), including communication (revelation) and direct answers to prayer, is inaccessible to our knowledge. This is where I think a fatal mistake in theology was made, and it subverts the foundations of liberal thought. The subject really takes us back to the Bible as the miracle of divine covenanted communication with humanity. Kevin Vanhoozer is one of the most creative theologians on this issue today.

Posted by: Mark Beaton on Tuesday, 25 October 2005 at 11:19pm BST

Why read these books if they are so horrible?

Posted by: Göran Koch-Swahne on Wednesday, 26 October 2005 at 7:42am BST

Goran, I don't know what you're referring to. Nobody called any books 'horrible', and serious questions deserve serious answers. But in the end we have to decide whether a particular work or school of theology and its cousin religious philosophy gives an adequate and faithful account of the Bible and the creeds. And it's a safe bet in logic that false premises usually lead to false conclusions (or at least the piling up of speculative hypotheses without any real grounding in fact). A friend once put it this way: 'Bultmann loves Jesus - but he doesn't know who he is.' You could substitute any number of names for Bultmann here to get the story of a lot of modern liberal Protestantism. Do you think Ludemann has correctly followed through on Bultmann? I'd be interested to know your answer.

Posted by: Mark Beaton on Wednesday, 26 October 2005 at 11:44am BST

And I wonder w h y you are at all interested.

Why are these books and their authors so important to you? Why do you ascribe such importance to them?

Why do you think (and state) that they are important to others, whom you apparently don't know and obviously don't agree with?

Are you perchance using these books as a tool to hit your neighbours on their heads?

This is what I wonder when I read your posts.

And no, I haven't read any of them and I wouldn't be seen dead in their company.

How's that for "liberal"?

Posted by: Göran Koch-Swahne on Wednesday, 26 October 2005 at 3:54pm BST

Mark Beaton
I have now looked at the link you provided to an article by an American Southern Baptist about Prof Lüdemann of Göttingen.
As I have read one of the books mentioned (Heretics), I must say that the article is less than truthful.
Moreover, the purpose of it seems to be to label Lüdemann an atheist, as you do, claiming that Prof L. says so himself.
However, this is not in the article!
Instead, Professor Lüdeman is clearly an old fashioned Preussian Calvinist State Church Kulturprotestant, that is a Classic 19th century Liberal.
And yes, many such have been known to call themselves "atheist", when agnostic ;=)
But this is not at all what is labelled "liberal" in today's American polemic.

Posted by: Göran Koch-Swahne on Wednesday, 26 October 2005 at 7:33pm BST

Goran, the Rev Fraser's article was on seeking to answer modern atheism at the level of epistemology as that is understood today, a project I agree very much with. So it's important to see how Western European epistemological thinking has deeply affected Lutheranism and other forms of Protestantism. Kant and Troeltsch (among others) have been very influential here among Lutherans, so it's important to understand how they have been appropriated, even if unconsciously or unacknowledged. I'm really talking about presuppositions and logical entailments here. (There is another German philosophical tradition, Hegelian idealism, which influences Pannenberg among Lutherans.)

As for Ludemann, you can read him in his own words - he has a substantial website of writings, but for a taster here's a letter he wrote to Mark Goodacre, a NT scholar in America:
Read him and you'll see that the ex-Lutheran Ludemann certainly isn't 'a classic 19th century Kulturprotestant' or a liberal (I guess you mean like Harnack or Troeltsch), but very much an agnostic, if not an atheist. (The terms are *functionally the same.) He says the Resurrection didn't happen and 85% of the words attributed to Jesus in the NT are fictional. So he puts no store by them. Read him on his website on 'Easter Faith', where he professes his belief in personal extinction at death.
Email me, Goran, if you'd like to discuss these issues further.

Posted by: Mark Beaton on Wednesday, 26 October 2005 at 10:45pm BST

Dear Mark Beaton,

I still think you have your German history mixed up.
There have always been close links between German Calvinism and Atheism (Fredrick the Great and his lovely sister Louise Ulrica Queen of Sweden, for instance) as between Calvinism and converting to Rome.
Lutherans seldom convert to Rome (if they're not in reality bent on Calvinism) and seldom become Atheist.
The anti-lutheran policies of the Calvinist Preussian State from 1648 culminating in the 1830 compulsory Calvinist Agenda, do muddle the waters a bit, and I am aware that it is not always easy for someone from outside Lutheran or (as is the case with the Church of Sweden) quasi Lutheran countries to distinguish what from what, but I must instist, that 19th century Kulturprotestantismus went hand in hand with the cultural, political and social Liberalism of the day, as well as with Agnosticism and Atheism.

I also insist, that neither of these have anything to do with today's polemic over these American social politics post 1960 tearing your Communion apart.
So, I still wonder, why is this so important to you?
Why ascribe such importance to all these German fellas and their books? What's the point in saying that such and such are influence by this book or that philosopher?

What's in it for you to call "liberals" Atheist?

Posted by: Göran Koch-Swahne on Thursday, 27 October 2005 at 12:34pm BST

The segment of Giles Fraser's article that you quote is labouring under the misapprehension that if anything is old hat it must therefore be untrue. (Otherwise known as being a fashion victim.)

Posted by: Christopher Shell on Thursday, 27 October 2005 at 5:59pm BST

Steven wrote: "This is a point well made. It is amazing how many run-of-the-mill atheists I meet who think that they are somehow free-thinking innovators and cutting edge intellectuals ...."
My experience exactly; so many people you speak to think they somehow have radical and rebellious beliefs, and then state almost identical beliefs to everyone else (as broadcast on the BBC). This is a huge propaganda success story for atheism!
I must say that Newman's assessment of Liberalism leading inevitably to atheism also strikes me as true. How many liberal assertions start with denying the existence of "a big man in the sky".. (which hardly anyone would believe in) but fail to come up with any definition of God!
The problem with liberalism is in its assumptions; starting with a human-centred world view puts pressure on the authority of a God to be anything other than a "sugar daddy", and asuming the souvereignty of (our own) experience inevitably allows you to dismiss everything else!

Posted by: Dave on Friday, 28 October 2005 at 3:59pm BST

The problem with statements that begin "The problem with liberalism is...." is that liberalism has been responsible for almost every advance and improvement in human life on this planet. Women's rights, Civil Rights, scientific achievements that have made our lives immeasurably easier and better - all are part of the liberal project.

Conservatism is necessary as a counterbalance, but it isn't very interesting. And all the screeching and hyperventilating against "liberalism" was amusing for awhile, but it's sort of not very interesting anymore, either. A new slogan, at last, please!

Anyway, I'm a liberal - if I have to be something - and I'm not an atheist. And there are millions like me, so there goes that theory.

Posted by: bls on Sunday, 30 October 2005 at 12:30am GMT
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