Glory to God for All Things

Christian Atheism

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The title for this post sounds like an oxymoron, and, of course, it is. How can one be both an atheist and a Christian? Again, I am wanting to push the understanding of the one-versus-two-storey universe. In the history of religious thought, one of the closest versions to what I am describing as a “two-storey” world-view, is that espoused by classical Deism (the philosophy espoused by a number of the American founding fathers).

They had an almost pure, two-storey worldview. God, “the Deity,” had created the universe in the beginning, setting it in motion. He had done so in such a way that the world could be described as directed by His Providence, but not in any sense interfered with after its creation. Thomas Jefferson produced a New Testament, wholly in tune with this philosophy. He expunged all reference to miracle and kept only those things he considered to have a purpose in “moral teaching.” The creator had accomplished His work: it was up to us to conform ourselves to His purposes and morality – which were pretty indistinguishable from natural law. If you read the writings of the period it’s much more common to read Providence where a Christian might put God. Many modern evangelicals mistakenly read such statements as Christian.

Functionally, other than having some notion of an original Creator, Deists were practical atheists. The God Who created had completed His work. Ethics were as much a matter of scientific discovery as any other principle of physics. They believed in something they called “God” or “Providence” but only in a very divorced sense. It would be hard to distinguish their thought from that of an atheist except that they clung to an idea of God at least as the initiator of all things.

I have here introduced the notion of “practical atheism,” meaning by it, that although a person may espouse a belief in God, it is quite possible for that belief to be so removed from everyday life, that God’s non-existence would make little difference.

Surprisingly, I would place some forms of Christian fundamentalism within this category (as I have defined it). I recall a group affiliated with some particular Church of Christ, who regularly evangelized our apartment complex when I lived in Columbia, S.C. They were also a constant presence on the campus of the local university. They were absolute inerrantists on the subject of the Holy Scriptures. They were equally adamant that all miracles had ceased with the completion of the canon of the New Testament. Christians today only relate to God through the Bible.

Such a group can be called “Biblicists,” or something, but, in the terminology I am using here, I would describe them as “practical atheists.” Though they had great, even absolutist, faith in the Holy Scriptures, they had no relationship with a God who is living and active and directly involved in their world. Had their notion of a God died, and left somebody else in charge of His heaven, it would not have made much difference so long as the rules did not change.

I realize that this is strong criticism, but it is important for us to understand what is at stake. The more the secular world is exalted as secular, that is, having an existence somehow independent of God, the more we will live as practical atheists – perhaps practical atheists who pray (but for what do we pray?). I would also suggest that the more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become. We will necessarily resort to the same tools and weapons as those who do not believe.

Christianity that has purged the Church of the sacraments, and of the sacramental, have only ideas which can be substituted – the result being the eradication of God from the world in all ways other than theoretical. Of course, since much of modern Christianity functions on this ideological level rather than the level of the God-Who-is among-us, much of Christianity functions in a mode of practical atheism. The more ideological the faith, the more likely its proponents are to expouse what amounts to a practical atheism.

Orthodox Christianity, with its wealth of dogma and Tradition, could easily be translated into this model – and I have encountered it in such a form. But it is a falsification of Orthodoxy. Sacraments must not be quasi-magical moments in which a carefully defined grace is transmitted to us – they must, instead, threaten to swallow up the whole world. The medieval limitation of sacraments to the number 7 comes far too close to removing sacraments from the world itself. Orthodoxy seems to have declared that there are 7 sacraments solely as a response to Western Reform and Catholic arguments. In some sense, everything is a sacrament – the whole world is a sacrament.

However, if we only say that the whole world is a sacrament, soon nothing will be a sacrament. Thus the sacraments recognized as such by the Church, should serve not just for pointing to themselves, but also pointing to God and to everything around us. Holy Baptism should change all water. The Cross should change all trees, etc. But Baptism gives the definition: water does not define Baptism. Neither do trees define the Cross. Nor does man define Christ. Christ defines what it is to be human, etc.

The more truly sacramental becomes the Christian life, the more thoroughly grounded it is in the God-Who-is-among-us. Such a God is indeed, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Our options are between such a God – as proclaimed in the New Testament – or a God who need be no God at all for He is removed from us anyway.

At the Divine Liturgy, before approaching the Communion Cup, Orthodox Christians pray together:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ the Son of the living God who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first. I believe also that this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood. Therefore, I pray Thee: have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, committed in knowledge or in ignorance. And make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, for the remission of my sins, and unto life everlasting. Amen.

There is not a single hint of a distance between us and God. At this point, having prepared for communion, having confessed our sins, we stand at the very center of the universe, before the God Who Is, before the God with Whom Moses conversed on Mt. Sinai, and we receive His true Body and Blood.

Such realism of a first-storey character makes bold claims about the nature of the God whom we worship and how it is that we relate to Him. It’s removal from the “end of miracles” deism of some Biblicists could not be more complete.

There is a dialog that may take place between Christians and atheists. But there is, prior to that, an even more important dialog to be had, and that is with the practical atheism of Christians who have exiled God from the world around us. Such practical atheism is a severe distortion of the Christian faith and an extremely poor substitute for the real thing.

Richard John Neuhaus has written frequently of returning the Church to the public square. I think the problem is far deeper. In many cases we have to speak about returning God to the Church. In cases where practical atheism is the faith of a goup of “believers,” their presence in the public square makes no difference. Who cares?

But within the Orthodox faith, God cannot be exiled from our world no matter how men try. He has come among us, and not at our invitation. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He is already in the Public Square as the Crucified God who is reconciling the world to Himself, whether we like it or not. The opposite of practical atheism is to do the only thing the Christianity of the first-storey can do: keep His commandments and fall down and worship – for God is with us.

32 Responses to “Christian Atheism”

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  1. BV says:

    In The Root of Evil?, which is Richard Dawkins’ polemic against religion for those that may not know, Dawkins stated that we are all practical functioning atheists. His term is basically the same as your practical atheist. While I disagree with Dawkins on his larger points, here he is (mostly) right – and no more so than here in the West. This may be extreme, but I don’t see a difference between being a confessing atheist and being a practical functioning atheist. Dawkins’ point here is that we all go about our day without God on our minds. How often this is sadly true – especially in my own life :-(.

    I think Paul’s admonishment to “pray without ceasing” is language of the single-story life. If prayer is only these momentary homilies that are characteristic of the two-story approach then we can never satisfy Paul’s admonishment. I figured this out pretty early as I thought Paul was being impractical here; however, in the single-story approach, eating my lunch is a prayer of rejoicing to the God Who is there.

    I’m very much enjoying this series of posts.

  2. BV,

    I had not read Dawkin’s stuff, though I’m aware of him. It’s interesting that he and I should agree on something like this – though for differing reasons. But it says to me that I am on to something in this thread, and that it’s worth continuing where it leads. Thanks so much.

  3. Jack says:

    Father Stephen,

    An excellent series of posts. It is this exact issue that attracted me to Orthodox Christianity. It is the difference between ideology and ontology.

  4. Fr. Stephen,

    Wonderful post. I agreed with nearly everything you said, but was a little puzzled at this paragraph:

    I would also suggest that the more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become. We will necessarily resort to the same tools and weapons as those who do not believe.

    It seems that, as one moves towards a more wholistic view of the world, one is more inclined to see the political questions of the day as relevant to the gospel of Christ. Issues of the care for the earth, third-world debt, international justice, etc. become even more relevant as we realize just how much God’s loving presence fills our world, and how creation itself groans for the loving reign of the sons of God. That doesn’t mean we use the same weapons and tools as unbelievers, but it does mean we consider “political” issues as within the bounds of what the church can speak to.

  5. Sophocles says:

    Father bless,

    I, in my own life associate with many people who are in 12 Step Programs, especially AA. In my talks with them(many, the majority) and in their meetings, this theme of a God far removed from them is cited as their main grudge against “organized religion”. If anything, this God they have left behind in His only interaction with them is a punishing, vengeful God and many of these alcoholics feel they would be crazy to return to Him as their “conception of a Higher Power”.

    In my history with these people, I heard one man say that he was “An agnostic in the sense that though he believed in God, he had no practical use for Him.” When I heard this, I adopted this for myself, realizing that I too am such a man.

    In my speaking to these people, it is always necessary to recapitulate Christian history to its beginnings and this time stress to them the Incarnation, to give them a radical view of the Christian Faith that they have never encountered before. Always, I do not spend time giving proofs of God, but I speak of these matters in an, “As if” manner. Meaning, in the course of recapitulating to the beginning, I attempt to draw them with me to the point in time when our Lord appeared. And I simply make a statement such as, “So, Bill, when God became Man,…..” and “And when He returns”….

    Here’s the kicker for me. As I continue in the journey of our Holy Faith, I discover more and more that this language is the wisest of all even among Orthodox.

    A few days ago I had the opportunity to answer the question put to me by a non-Christian I knew whom I had invited to compline with me who wished to know what the difference was between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic church. I opened my heart and soul and spoke the “one story” language to him. Witnessing this was a fellow parishioner who had come to Orthodoxy via Eastern Catholicism. He listened to what I told this fellow. We got into the topic a bit more as he believes differently than I as to the standing of the Roman church in relation to The Church(Orthodox). In his speech he brought to my attention that we both shared 7 Sacraments and my heart was grieved, much as I believe you mentioned yours is, Father, when you hear Orthodox speak of “7″ Sacraments.(“Mysteries” sounds so much better to me than “Sacraments”).

    Also, I liked your speaking of some of our nation’s Founding Fathers as being Deists and not Christians. I, too, as an Evangelical would read “Providence” and assume I was hearing “God”. I assumed they were synonymous.

    On another, separate note, it should be noted that many of our Founding Fahters were also Freemasons which would explain their opting for Deism, where the Supreme Being remains in shadow and has not become flesh, to be known amongst us as one of us.

    Perhaps an interesting topic to pursue would be that if such is the case of our Founding Fathers, can America be considered to have been a “Christian Nation?”. As an Evangelical I used to believe(and preach) this but now, as you alluded to the use of believing in Concept rather than Person, I believe this may be closer to the truth.

    Thank you as always, Father for these wonderful posts.

    p.s. I said “Hi” to Father Eric from you and he says the same back.

  6. Margaret says:

    Fr. Stephen, These posts are a balm to my soul. May God bless you richly!
    This is just what I need to read at this time in my life and if I can put my thoughts into coherent sentences, I will expound on them. In the meantime, thank you, thank you!

  7. Sophocles – excellent post! Thank you.

    Wonders of Oyarsa – Yes, I think living on the first-storey with God does makes us far more aware of many things. But much that is political action or action by political bodies is only secular action, use of the power of the state for the ends of the state. Caesar will always be Caesar, I believe. We should care deeply about the things that matter, so deeply we do something and the something very likely should be more than vote. Though I do not advocate not voting. But voting and the Kingdom of God are not the same thing. When I think about these matters, I think about Christians becoming the answer rather than using the coercive power of the state to make someone else be the answer. Interestingly, one of the things I always liked best about St. Francis, was that during one of the Crusades, he simply took passage to the mideast and went to the court of the Sultan and witnessed to him about Christ. The Sultan listened and dismissed him, but did not kill him. It would be like looking for Osama Bin Laden in order to forgive him and tell him about Jesus. I can’t help but like such people and think there is more there than we allow.

    When Christians have become a serious political force in the various states they have inhabited they have as often been coopted by the state as they have had an influence on the behavior of the state. As my Archbishop says, “On the whole, in Church State relations, we have not done so well when we were the state Church.”

    Interesting example – British evangelicals, led by W.Wilberforce, outlawed slavery in the British realm decades befoe the American Civil War. But the slaveholders in America, were almost to a man, professed evangelical Christians. John Woolman, a Quaker, had preached dynamically and prophetically in the South about the coming disaster unless repentance was forthcoming. No repentance came from people who should have known better, and their land was reduced to rubble and has been better than a century recovering if it has yet recovered in some areas. Of course, these were two-storey Christians. I just can’t think of a lot of great examples of one-storey Christians who were political activists. There’s more conversation to be had…

  8. cp says:

    This is a very helpful series, Father Stephen.
    Thank you.

  9. Sophocles says:

    Father bless,

    Thank you, Father.

    As I was vacuuming my home, more thoughts related to this series came up.

    One Storey language cannot be spoken about. It is lived and from the experience of living it, it comes forth.

    I agree with you in your remark concerning Richard John Neuhaus that the problem is other than what he said and that it is much deeper, sublimely so.

    A One Storey universe, by its nature, is “impossible” as it is part and parcel of the falleness of our *and* the cosmos’ current fallen state.

    A One Storey person, in the truest sense, is a Saint. As he inhabits the One Storey World, this habitation, this acclimating himself to that world where shadows dwell not, where Light shines forth eternally, such a person, suffused in the energies of the Holy Trinity “reports” back to us dwelling in our two storey world.

    We take his word at faith(if we possibly believe him). This man makes no sense to us as his language is born out of his experience in The One Storey World. He communicates clearly to us this Other World and how too we may enter but his words “translate” into Two Storey Talk and we understand him not.

    And I think, to tie into your overall post’s [assumed]theme, that America by default is Protestant, perhaps the envelope needs to be pushed further. Perhaps the “default” stage can be applied to the world. In the absence of The One Storey World( the entire cosmos divinized not only potentially but actually), a two storey Reality with all its people thinking their thoughts fill in the absence.

    So, the dilemma, as I see it according to your developing posts is to live a “one storey existence” or have being in one storeyness. This is accomplished through our Lord in His Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and Second Coming. In His Person all things “finding” and fulfilling themselves. Salvation, then, is acquiring an ever growing “one storey-ness” in Him, by Him, through Him. Becoming Him.

    But once it is legislated that we must become One Storey Folk, this becomes a law, Death through the law sets in and the fractured Two Storey world by default once again sets in.

    So by its nature the One Storey World is gotten voluntarily, by love, by choosing to lay aside the Two Sorey world and its shadows. Any forcing of the issue as a must, imposed as a law, then once again – two storeys.

    This inadvertantly ties into your:

    “the more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become.”

    As an aside, I believe this best explains the Roman church in that in legislating that the one storey be operative, and the attempt to formulate and perfect the means to achieve “one storey-ness” by system rather than Person; to “capture” and “establish” the One Storey World, here is two storey-ness in its most insiduous form, “Having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).

    All the right things are believed in, including the right Person and Persons, but by becoming law. The One Storey world can never be forced externally and captured or formulated to “package it” so to speak. Always and only by love, is the One Storey world to be found and entered into.

    This further, I believe, sheds light on our aversion of Orthodox adopting the two-storey view of creating artificial categories where “seven sacraments” makes sense, yet prevents the hearer into entering his entire existence as sacrament or Mystery.

    Anyway, Father, thank you for listening. I look forward to upcoming posts.

    In Christ and in fellowship,

  10. Father & Brother,

    Glory to Jesus Christ.

    In your recent posts about the one and two storey universe, you have been dealing with a number of themes that I have been working on as well, and it is a pleasure to see how you have handled them. Somewhere along the spectrum from Orthodoxy to Christian Atheism must surely be placed the Secular Christians who make up most of what passes for evangelical Christianity.

    One of my parishioners reads your blog and has found the series very helpful, and he has has let slip that he thinks you and I sound a lot alike in what we say. Of course, I am flattered to be compared with you, though you may regard the comparison with dismay.

    I still have my notes from your presentation to the Pastoral Life Conference at St Tikhon’s a few years ago.

    You’re making my job easier. Keep up the good work.

    May Paradise consume us.

    Fr.M.

  11. Fatherstephen says:

    A noted exception to your observations. Perhpas the most “one-storey” life any of us have witnessed in our lives was that lived my Mother Teresa. Saints happen where and when they happen, thank God. And usually mess up anything we figure out. For which I’m grateful.

  12. Fr. Michael,

    No. Indeed, I’m flattered. I hope we all have a “likeness” we share. Mind you, when I speak of of “Christian Atheist” I don’t mean anyone who would consider themselves atheist, just that they would functionally be so because God has been exiled mentally to the “upper storey.” I think that you are correct that there are varying shades of this. And I know it has a place in my own life despite my efforts to eradicate it there. But, God is merciful. Thank you for your kind words – may paradise indeed consume us!

  13. Nathaniel says:

    Father bless,

    Could you talk a bit about how a two storey universe and one storey universe differ in how we understand evil in the world?

  14. Nathaniel,

    Yes. May need to think a short bit about how to present it.

  15. Greetings Father,

    What would be the role of science in this? It seems that, in order to actually do science, one would have to assume the stance of the practical atheist, a stance that would be merely methodological, not noetic. In other words, can practical atheism be useful for practical, scientific, and technological purposes; even if it lacks fullness as a way of actually living one’s life? If so, could practical atheism be seen as one of many perspectives (none of which alone are sufficient) within a larger Christian worldview?

  16. I don’t think there is any activity as a Christian that I properly engage in and intentionally discard God. When I’m adding a group of numbers, I can still pray, give thanks – as a Christian it is learning to live with my heart in union with God.

    Is there any scientific activity that requires a married man to act as if he is not married?

    If you’re asking questions about say cosmoslogy, God has hidden Himself in many ways, such that it is quite possible to describe the universe, even the big bang, without having answered questions about God. I am a believer and I don’t think anything happens without God, but I cannot test that in a laboratory other than the living lab of my life.

  17. Sophocles says:

    Father bless,

    Yes, Mother Theresa was definately a One Storey life (in the limited fashion I am able to make this determination).

    I meant to make the gist of the whole statement that the “bottling” or “packaging” of “one storey-ness” automatically creates a two storey world. I believe that a one storey life is impossible for anyone, including for the Orthodox, but as “With God all things are possible”, the “impossible” one storey life is to be lived, believing on Him, taking Him at His word that He desires to know us.

    I intended to point to the danger of institutionalizing one storey-ness as I believe it cannot be and hence the sense of unease I feel when fellow Orthodox use the terminology that is not part of our Tradition(as I currently understand it) in order to respond to our Western friends’ attempts to categorize the Life in Christ in terms such as “Seven Sacraments”.

    I hope I made a little more sense?

  18. Practical Atheism sounds much like the Stoicism of Epictetus. I think meaning and motive is always worthy of thought be there a God in it or not.

    Keep writing stephen.

  19. Michael Bauman says:

    A one-storey approach makes praying for the “dead” a lot more senseable and reasonable don’t you think?

  20. Irenaeus says:

    Doesn’t the one-storey approach mean that we have the ‘basement dwellers’ living amongst us as well?

  21. Bill Moore says:

    While up in the middle of the night last night (insomnia – what fun!) I caught a portion of a documentary on PBS about the history of atheism as it has developed in the “West”. Unfortunately, I missed both the credits at the beginning and the end, so I do not know much more about its production. I noted a few things claimed in the portion I saw that may overlap with your article:

    (1) The roots of modern atheism can be found in the Greek philosophers (Aristotle, etc.), who were rediscovered during the Renaissance.

    (2) Modern atheism grew out of the thoughts and methods of Christian scientists who sought to understand the material world in mechanistic (material) terms, using the language of science as it developed.

    (3) The Protestant Reformation cut loose the strings of dogma that held people to a single world view, allowing “rational thinkers” more freedom to ask questions and challenge assumptions.

    (4) The Deists were a natural progression from this, and from deism to atheism is a short step.

    Two points mentioned by the narrator that I thought were ironic in their inaccuracy (regarding the Reformation) – [paraphrased]:

    (1) “The anabaptists, for instance, were considered atheists.” As a member of a denomination in the anabaptist stream (Brethren in Christ) this comes as a bit of a surprise to me. :)

    (2) “The Reformation meant that for the first time in its 1500 year history, there was no longer one unified ‘Catholic’ church.” This statement seemed to display an enormous ignorance of church history, and/or ignorance of the Eastern church.

    These two statements caused me to wonder what other inaccuracies there were in the documentary. Nevertheless, I think the basic thrust echoes some of what I’ve heard you say here (and in your earlier posts on atheism).

  22. Bill Moore says:

    For those interested, I looked up the documentary. It was part 2 of 3 titled “Noughts and Crosses” of Jonathan Miller’s “Brief History of Disbelief”. Here is the BBC website for the series.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/atheism.shtml

    Don’t know much more about the program than what is on the page, and the portion I saw last night.

    B

  23. Yvonne says:

    The first scientists were alchemists and natural philosophers who were devout Christians, who held that God revealed Himself in two books, the Bible and the Book of Nature – it was only later that scientific materialism came in. The term scientist was not widely used until the 19th century.

  24. Jersey says:

    Being from Jersey, I grew up in a small cluster of towns that had least a dozen or so different churches from different traditions. Now, I go to a CoC that, like you say, doesn’t even believe in an active God or in miracals anymore. I get chastized if I mention the belief – despite being an atheist, I still believe in miracles, if you think a miracle to be something that happens against what should be dictated.

    When it comes to our increasingly secularized world, I think of it this way. The wealthy have long had a harder time trusting in God. Europe, North America parts of Oceania – we’re the rich class. Places like S. America and Africa and even parts of Asia are seeing a revival or renewal of Christian faith because since have almost no wealth, they need to have something else at least to hold onto. I might not have faith anymore, but sometimes I just long to go back to the East Coast and visit the churches of old and be surrounded by faiths rich in tradition. Sometimes tradition not “found” in the Bible was meant more to help us bond as one people instead of “twisting” and “paganizing” the faith.

  25. fatherstephen says:

    Christ Himself said that it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. Thus the non-faith of the rich is not a comment on the existence of God – just a comment on the emptiness of wealth. Your instinct for miracles is a good thing. I believe they surround us at every moment were we to be able to see things correctly. There is a richness in the tradition of the faith that is completely unknown to the relatively modern ideas of Protestantism. They genuinely threw the baby out with the bath. Paganism is not nearly as frightening as the emptiness of our modern world.

  26. Mary Lowell says:

    “Paganism is not nearly as frightening as the emptiness of our modern world.”

    The kind of godlessness “of our modern world” was unthinkable to pre-Christian pagans. The pagans understood that worship was essential, even to point of covering their bases by giving honor to “unknown gods,” a la Paul’s Mars Hill sermon. To worship what is “not” God in the form of “graven images” is the pagans’ delusion, but real emptiness is the result of choosing a much darker path, the one followed in the last century. The body-count of that path is still being tallied.

  27. Julian Hayda says:

    This article is truly brilliant and has real meaning in 21st century America. Thank you!

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