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Excerpts From ‘Christian Atheist’ by Brian Mountford and musings upon the topic.

April 5, 2012

I heard Brian Mountford speak about his recent book ‘Christian Atheist’ at the London Sea of Faith in the Churches conference on 10 March, and I’ve now been lent the book by a friend. I find much in it that resonates with me, so I’m jotting down a few bits from it here and a few of my thoughts too.

” Sane religion doesn’t ask people to believe impossible things, but to be open to a kind of imaginative religious thinking outside the box’.

‘Is it silly to assume that a religious position can be strengthened by being exposed not only to the assurances of fellow believers but also to the sceptic’s questions?’

‘The grand idea in Christianity is the ethical one – Christ’s teaching on attitudes to the sick, the poor, the deformed, the sinful. When genuinely felt and practised, such compassion is not only good for the sick and the poor, but also for the healthy and well-off, since it is morally edifying to think of others in this way and never to forget their condition. It expands the soul immeasurably not to despise, not to shun.

Such concern for others is much more than the utilitarian idea of just trying to minimise suffering; different from the instrumentality of putting money into the NHS, or building quake-proof buildings in cities prone to earthquakes – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is to do with the moral subtlety of seeing humanity even when it is most crippled’ (Roger Teichmann – Oxford Philosopher and atheist).

‘I was brought up Roman Catholic and experienced indoctrination as a child. Now I’m rebelling against that. So. please don’t tell me what to think. Don’t tell me I’m excluded if I can’t rattle off the catechism’ (Mary Zacaroli).

‘However marginally a person may wish to be included, surely organised religion should welcome anyone who bothers to take reflection on metaphysics seriously; and many hangers-on, it seems to me, are precisely in that position’.

‘In letters from his prison cell…..Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer ( hanged ….in 1945 for plotting against Hitler) questioned the meaning of God and Christ for the contemporary world. Acutely aware of the Church’s failure to oppose the Nazi persecution, he saw Christianity as trapped in religious institutionalism and defined by elitist metaphysical beliefs. He therefore coined the phrase ‘religionless Christianity’, which subsequently became the rallying cry for some of the theologians of the 1960’s…. He didn’t mean that God was dead, but that God must be understood in different terms.’

‘Faith……..can withstand rigorous questioning because questioning is actually intrinsic to the phenomenon, even if creationists, Bible bashers and creed makers try to suggest otherwise….I conclude that doubt is positive and not corrosive;’

‘At the local church I found myself surrounded by highly intelligent and successful people who seemed to believe a load of palpable nonsense….. I just wasn’t able to believe in ideas and events entirely contrary to everyday experience…. But I’m still keen to pursue the enquiry and I’m actively involved in discussing these matters with friends, in a group we have started…’ (David Gye).

‘I’ve been an atheist since the age of fifteen when…..I jacked out of … confirmation class, realising I didn’t really believe in God after all. I suspect that those who say they do believe in God have all defined their own personal gods to meet their inner requirements…'(Nigel Hamway).

‘Christian Atheism could mean sustaining a religion with Jesus at the centre but without God. In which case Jesus would have to be especially important – more so than, say, Plato – in such a way as to be almost divine……. If you take divinity away, what’s so special about Jesus?’ (Paul Snowden)

‘But not all worship is directed outwards to the divine…… worship also functions as a ritual of community, or of ethics, or aesthetics…… worship can have a kind of legitimacy for some people quite apart from a belief in the divine.’

‘Another sense of Christian Atheist could be that you take a modernist approach…. There’s a Christian story and a tradition of Christian imagery which is helpful and life-enhancing, but with no metaphysical reality behind it all’ (Paul Snowden).

‘I dislike the word ‘atheist’ on the grounds that it defines a positive position in negative terms. I don’t want my belief system to be parasitic on religion, merely defined by non-belief in God. An atheist can live a virtuous and purposeful life without reference to meaningless (to him or her) notions of the supernatural.’ (David Gye)

Julian Baggini argues that although atheism is etymologically the negative of theism, belief in God, you can’t simply judge a word by its etymological roots…… If there were no religion and no history of belief in divine beings, you would still be able to develop a philosophy from a humanist starting point that would take for granted the non-existence of any metaphysical being. The fact that we call this ‘atheism’ is neither here nor there.’

‘ Karen Armstrong’s take on orthodoxy emphasises action rather than belief. If she is right, then those who seriously engage with the Christian moral challenge are just as close to the Christian centre as those who emphasize belief in a metaphysical God. In fact, you could argue that time spent on abstracted thought about God and the contemplation of what constitutes right teaching,…… is an easy diversion from Christ’s call for humility, compassion, mercy and service to others….. there are those who would rather talk of ‘orthopraxy’ than ‘orthodoxy’.

 

All the unattributed pieces of text quoted here are Brian Mountford’s words.

I have been attempting for 3 years to ‘belong without believing’ to a couple of churches local to me, and finding the task very difficult, The language of the services presents a serious barrier to engagement with what is going on; so much so that the experience is more negative than positive, and quite draining. Yet, I have a strong Christian ethic and want to be a part of a community of good values, good works and good attitudes towards others.

Last year I discovered a Unitarian church in Islington, North London (www.new-unity.org) which is hardly on the doorstep, and not local, but offers me what no Christian church does – belonging without the need to believe in anything but goodness.

So, that’s ok then, right? Wrong – this doesn’t solve the problem of why the Church cannot make people who don’t believe in God feel more welcome and accepted. It doesn’t help me meet good people in my local community and it doesn’t encourage anyone else to seek this, either; it is too much of a struggle. You have to do too many jumps through hoops and suspend your disbelief so much it is exhausting rather than refreshing and rejuvenating. 

But it could all be so different. Why does God have to be central to worship? The Christian ethic can stand without Him. I know, because I live it as best I can. Without my Unitarian church, living this way would be so much more difficult. There would be no resources to draw on to sustain me. My local churches will not offer me what I need. Instead they say ‘welcome’ and offer me ‘rocks’ to eat – all with a smile and a hand held out in blessing. These’rocks’ are the god words, the ‘I believe’ words, the language of almighty God enthroned and the worm theology of my unworthy rottenness. 

They will not deviate from this path one tiny step, not once a month, not ever, to meet those of us who crave something different. To me they seem ungenerous in this, smug in their own exclusive world, fenced around by their god who is a product of their own making and has no appeal for most of us.

The Unitarians are, to me, more ‘christian’ than any mainstream church, welcoming everyone and making you feel special and valued. They build you up, rather than making you compare yourself to the ideal of a perfect God, and operate the Christian ethic without all the accompanying theology that is outdated in concept and repugnant in many respects.

There are 6 Christian churches on my doorstep, however. All with the capacity to be just as welcoming as the Unitarians, if only they would unbend a little. Would it really be such a betrayal of their cherished theology to offer a less religious and more openly spiritual service just once a month? For those who might value it?

Sadly, it seems that it is.

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