“NO RELIGION”

According to the most recent census information, released this past week, nearly 30% of Australians have “no religion.” Understandably, that statistic was front and centre in much of the Australian news. The most recent available information for Canada comes from 2001, in which about 17% of Canadians reported that they had no religious affiliation. In 2001 that number was basically the same for Australia. Presumably Canada can expect similar census results in the near future. Continue reading ““NO RELIGION””

DISREGARD OR DESPAIR? C.S. LEWIS AND ALASDAIR MACINTYRE ON MODERN THEOLOGY

In typical fashion, Nietzsche unleashed the hammer of his polemic on the stand-in figure of George Eliot: in getting rid of God Eliot had nonetheless clung to Christian morality. Nothing could have disgusted Nietzsche more, and he duly fulminated against all she stood for, however unfairly, in righteous indignation. His sharp criticism, delivered in Twilight of the Idols (1888), consisted of the claim that you could not get rid of God and yet retain Christian morality. To fail to see that they were necessarily interconnected was a failure to discover the sickness from which Europe was suffering. For Nietzsche it is quite clearly all or nothing, even if we might wonder today about whether or not Nietzsche successfully shed his religious skin as fully as he hoped. Nevertheless, the “revaluation of all values,” the project to which Nietzsche returned again and again in his mature work, was precisely the attempt to do what he accused so many of his contemporaries of failing to do. It is why Nietzsche eventually turned on both Schopenhauer and Wagner. In order to breathe the aristocratic mountain air of healthy overmen he insisted that one has to leave “flatland.” The Dionysian doctor offers Zarathustra as the philosophical pharmakon. Continue reading “DISREGARD OR DESPAIR? C.S. LEWIS AND ALASDAIR MACINTYRE ON MODERN THEOLOGY”

ATHEISM’S ORIGINS: READING NICK SPENCER

Nick Spencer begins Atheists: The Origin of the Species with a fairy tale. The story he recounts is an abbreviated version of the tale championed in nineteenth-century Europe whereby progress in scientific understanding banishes ignorance and with it the pseudo-knowledge peddled by priests. In other words: progress followed science, and science displaced religion. The trouble with this story is that it contains, at best, a merely partial truth. Any airtight or global connection between scientific progress and secularization has been massively challenged in recent years by a wide range of scholars in many different fields. Continue reading “ATHEISM’S ORIGINS: READING NICK SPENCER”

LIVING THE STORY OF BELIEF: MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S “GILEAD”

Consider a quote from the The Varieties of Religious Experience: “This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it.” Here William James attempts to describe the varieties of religious experience and in doing so approaches his topic in a way that frames religion in terms that continue to resonate with readers today. Charles Taylor made the same point in Varieties of Religion Today. For James religion is a matter of the heart more than the head. Religious apologetics and theology are not doomed for James because they are irrational, rather they are superstructures, elaborate abstractions derived from a more primordial existential feeling. Continue reading “LIVING THE STORY OF BELIEF: MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S “GILEAD””

HISTORY, ATHEISM, COMMUNITY

Consider the brief “history” of atheism as outlined in a recent post by a member of an atheist group in Tucson, Arizona (update: the link is now broken). Here history is construed as the presentation of facts across time; to tell the history of atheism quickly all that is required are the names, dates, and arguments of various figures presented in chronological form. Although the post raises questions about the certainty with which we can establish certain historical facts, what we get is a straightforward chronology and a series of minimally interpretive bullet-points. The purpose of the sketch seems to be to trace doubts about the divine throughout the whole of human history. Continue reading “HISTORY, ATHEISM, COMMUNITY”

ATHEISM’S MODERN HISTORY: READING GAVIN HYMAN

“Yes to God? For many believers, this has not been obvious for a long time. No to God? Neither has this been obvious for a long time to unbelievers.” Hans Küng, Does God Exist?

Atheism has a long and fascinating history. In ancient Greece, as Diogenes Laertius informs us, men such as Diagoras of Melos, Theodorus of Cyrene, and Protagorasthe sophist of Plato’s dialoguescould be described as atheists for statements or actions which implied an impious incredulity. Recent scholarly work, however, immediately qualifies this statement: as the entry for “Atheism” in The Classical Tradition points out, it isn’t clear if these three ancient Greeks were atheists in today’s sense of the term. Arguing about the nature of the gods was unquestionably a staple of ancient thought: in Cicero’s De natura deorum, Diagoras, Theodorus, and Protagoras are mentioned as examples of men who did not seem to believe in the gods. Moreover, coherent theories explaining the origins of the gods were readily available to ancient Greeks and Romans. This included relatively well-known theories such as Euhemerism, the assertion that the gods were little more than heroic men who had been deified.  But is such an explanation of the origins of Greek polytheism easily translated into our understanding of atheism? Continue reading “ATHEISM’S MODERN HISTORY: READING GAVIN HYMAN”

RELIGIOUS AND ATHEIST DIVERSITY

Religion is sometimes held to be untrue today because there are so many different and often conflicting claims made about it. To even speak of “religion” in such reified and monolithic terms offends contemporary ears. In an address to the 2009 American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal, then president Mark Juergensmeyer pointed out that after 100 years of studying religion scholars were still not agreed as to what, if anything, the term “religion” meant. While scholars may not agree as to its meaning, it seems to be the case that religious diversity exerts a kind of negative pressure on those who study and practice a given religion today, as a fact which such a religion must face as mark against it. Religious diversity, in other words, is very often felt to count as an automatic blow to any and all religion whatsoever. But this wasn’t always the case. Continue reading “RELIGIOUS AND ATHEIST DIVERSITY”

IMMORAL ATHEISM?

It is disappointing to see a Christian fulfill what I would have thought was a tired stereotype: asserting that a rival belief or argument is ultimately based on immorality. Aside from being a conversation-stopper, in today’s world it seems to exude the bunker mentality of a subculture that does not want to sincerely engage with the world around it. Jim Spiegel has written a short article in Christianity Today that implies “New Atheists” are atheists because they cannot overcome their irrational passions. He even goes so far as to suggest that unbelief might be best fought by traditional family values, a conclusion derived from another scholar who claims that many prominent atheists in history had what amount to father issues. Continue reading “IMMORAL ATHEISM?”

FAITH AFTER RELIGION: READING RICHARD KEARNEY

In a world that is being transformed by access to information, it can be hard to appreciate the power of words, to appreciate what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur referred to as the “efficacity of speech.” Moreover, that very abundance can also make listening to the Christian message more difficult for those of us intent on doing so. There are, it seems, an endless array of voices clamoring for our attention.

In a collection of essays entitled History and Truth, Ricoeur uses the phrase “efficacity of speech” to refer to the clarifying role that language, written or spoken, can play in relation to the central themes of our culture. In the same essay he also acknowledges, as a Christian, the central importance of remaining a “listener to the Christian message.” For it is as a listener that the power of words can change the human heart. He calls this “the refulgent core of our preferences and the positions we embrace.” Continue reading “FAITH AFTER RELIGION: READING RICHARD KEARNEY”

ARGUING ABOUT ATHEISM: READING FIVE CHRISTIAN RESPONSES TO THE “NEW ATHEISTS”

There are good reasons to read a response to the so-called “new atheists.” When I was young my mother saw that I was an overly inquisitive child who had a seemingly infinite set of questions about current affairs and religion. I remember with fondness when, in 1987, I got my first edition of the Guinness Book of World Records—so many facts to explore and things to learn! I also remember some of the books that sat next to my consecutive Guinness Books, written by Christians responding to the perceived threats of modern life in the 1990s: Lee Strobel, Philip E. Johnson, Ravi Zacharias, and Josh McDowell. Ironically, it was Zacharias’ book, Can Man Live Without God?, that actually raised, rather than settled, so many lasting and perplexing questions. Continue reading “ARGUING ABOUT ATHEISM: READING FIVE CHRISTIAN RESPONSES TO THE “NEW ATHEISTS””