Monday, March 19, 2012

A Christian Atheist?

We've talked before about whether the faithful need believers (here and here) and about my own thoughts on non-belief (see summary here).

Along those lines, here's another entry. Jon Meacham reflects on the passing of William Hamilton, a notable "Christian atheist" and theologian who was interviewed for the famous TIME magazine "Is God Dead?" issue.
In his view that faith was “not a possession but a hope,” Hamilton was tapping into an ancient tradition. As the author of the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews wrote, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”—in this sense, religious faith is way of interpreting experience that allows for the possibility of the redemptive.

Faith in this sense assumes that scripture and tradition are the works of human hands and hearts, efforts undertaken to explain the seemingly inexplicable. Faith in this sense is inextricably tied to doubt; it is an attempt, sometimes successful and sometimes not, to squint and struggle to “see through a glass darkly,” as Paul wrote in Corinthians. Faith without such doubt has never been part of the Christian tradition; it is telling, I think, that one of the earliest resurrection scenes in the Bible is that of Thomas demanding evidence—he wanted to see, to touch, to prove. Those who question and probe and debate are heirs of the apostles just as much as the most fervent of believers.
So, what do you think of the concept of "Christian atheist"? I'm not sure I agree it's possible. I don't think of myself as a Christian, since I think you really do have to believe at some level in God and Christ's crucification and resurrection to claim that title. The description of faith as a hope, not a possession, makes sense, but sounds more like "agnostic" than "atheist". I think my own experience would be, in that regard, hopeless: I don't have such a hope. I think it would be nice, living as I do surrounded by people of faith, to have any sense that I could share what gives them (and you) joy and comfort, but just I don't have it.


Denbeau said...

You wouldn't have trouble with the idea of a 'Buddhist atheist' would you?

There's no need for a Christian to believe in the divinity of Jesus any more than there is a for a Buddhist to believe in the divinity of Buddha.

Christian atheists may not be in the mainstream, but I think the concept is valid.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I agree with Denbeau. I think you can follow the teachings of Christ (all that love-your-neighbor, forgive-your-enemies, put-down-your-sword, care-for-the-least-among-you, judge-not, take-the-plank-out-of-your-own-eye-first stuff) and still call yourself a Christian without believing in the virgin birth, miracles, or the resurrection. I know lots of people who fall in that category....

On most days, I would probably style myself an Anglican Agnostic (if Anglican hadn't become a dirty word). I am drawn to the Transcendent, and I have found it in Christianity because (as my first rector once said) "It is the stream in which I was cast." And because the deeply compassionate nature of Jesus' teaching speaks to me on some truly elemental level.

Do I believe in the magic? Some days I do. Some days I don't. But I always want to model my life on the "stuff" I listed above. Because--at the end of the day--it doesn't really matter whether it is "true" or not. And it doesn't even matter whether there is anything more than this life or not. I will live as if it IS true and the rest will sort itself out....


Chris Sissons said...

It seems the Romans thought the first Christians were atheists because they rejected the gods. I certainly have no argument with atheists because I don't see how anyone could believe in the absurd god they reject. To vigorously deny all images of God as false is to be Christian and atheist. It makes sense to me.

So, was Jesus divine? The doctrine of incarnation, of this impossible God amongst us? An ironic and bitter sweet story when you consider what the religious and political authorities did to him.

Kevin K said...

I think it was Mr. Hitchens who said that a christian who denied the virgin birth, the resurrection, the forgiveness of sins (all those parts of the absurd God we believe in) really was not a Christian in any accepted sense of the word.

I do not believe that one can be both atheist and Christian. An atheist, by definition, cannot or does not take something on faith.

Christians believe in Christ the divine. Thomas Jefferson believed in Christ as a moral teacher. A Christian and Jefferson could behave in many similar ways. But what they believe is on either sides of a chasm.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

Pardon me if I don't allow Christopher Hitchens (may he rest in peace) to define what Christianity is or isn't.

Christians believe in Christ the divine.

Well, since Jesus wasn't really declared to be God until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD/BCE, you've just thrown most of the early Christians out with the bathwater....

dr.primrose said...

I'm afraid I don't agree with your reading of history on early Christians' views on Christ's divinity.

There are certainly New Testament texts that attest to Jesus somehow being equivalent to God.

By the 90s, John contains things like "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1) and "Thomas answered him, 'My Lord and my God!'" (John 20:28).

Even before then, Paul has this: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness." (Philippians 2:5-7) Philippians probably dates from sometime from the mid-50s to the early-60s. It is widely believed that Paul here is quoting a pre-existing hymn. So there's some pretty clear indication of acceptance of Christ's "divinity" within 20-30 years after his death.

There was certainly a lot of disagreement about Christ's divinity during the early history of Christianity. But most of the disagreement was not whether Christ was "divine" but what kind of "divineness" did have Christ have. Was his divinity pre-existent before his birth? Was he born a human being and made divine at his birth, or at his baptism, or at his resurrection? Was his divinity lesser than God the Father's?

The issue at Nicea was not whether Christ was "divine"; the issue was what kind of divinity Christ had -- in a nutshell, whether Christ was "unbegotten" or "made." Arius basically believed that Christ was pre-existently divine but at some point he was "made" so that, while God the Father was without beginning, Christ did have a beginning. Nicea disagreed with Arius's view – "eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made.”

I say all this because there seems to a perception by a lot of people that Jesus's followers treated him as just a great moral teacher (like those of Moses, Mohammed, and the Buddha) until the polytheistic Romans unilaterally proclaimed him divine. That’s just not the way it was. And this perception sidesteps what I think is the really interesting question – what caused a bunch of rapidly anti-polytheistic Jews to think Jesus was in some sense "divine" from a very early period after Jesus's death?

Wormwood's Doxy said...

There was certainly a lot of disagreement about Christ's divinity during the early history of Christianity.

And that was ENTIRELY my point....

dr.primrose said...

But my point was the following sentence -- But most of the disagreement was not whether Christ was "divine" but what kind of "divineness" did have Christ have.

My impression of your initial comment was that you believed the fight was "divine" versus "non-divine" as opposed to "divine type A" versus "divine type B." I think it's the latter rather than the former. If I have misunderstood the point you were trying to make, I do apologize.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

My impression of your initial comment was that you believed the fight was "divine" versus "non-divine" as opposed to "divine type A" versus "divine type B."

I may have phrased it poorly because I really didn't want to type out an entire History of the Early Christian Church post. But the point is that Kevin claimed that "Christians believe in Christ the divine." That is a simplistic statement and has to be unpacked in all kinds of ways before it even makes any sense. Early Christians did NOT all believe the same thing about Jesus--and neither have Christians throughout the ages.

Mostly, I dispute that Kevin--or Christopher Hitches--gets to decide who is and who isn't Christian. If someone tells me they follow Christ, I have no business telling hir "No you aren't, because you don't believe X, Y, and Z."

As Jesus himself said, "Those who are not against me are for me."

Erp said...

I also think Hitchins was wrong especially as I know some Christian Unitarians. Note a Christian atheist would also not believe in the divinity or existence of God the father as well as the divinity of Jesus.

I might use the term cultural Christian to describe myself though I'm also a fourth generation atheist in at least one line and most of the rest were Unitarians or Quakers so not exactly your standard trinitarian Christians who practice baptism and communion (admittedly one of my atheist/agnostic remote cousins did edit a fairly popular English Hymnal, perhaps he could be called a Christian atheist).

Paul said...

I read this term very differently. I recall reading an essay (I don't remember the source) which claimed that there was no such thing as a pure atheist. Every atheist, in this writer's opinion, was rejecting a particular version of God. In other words, the Christian atheist rejected the Christian god, the Jewish atheist rejected the Jewish god and so forth. It seemed to me to be a pretty broad claim, since how can one interview every atheist in the world and support such a claim? On the other hand, most of us have only been exposed to a few religions in any depth.

In any case, the phrase "Christian atheist" tells me a story of a person's journey from one point to another. That is how I read the phrase.

klady said...

I would say yes, first and foremost to defend Hamilton from those who mercilessly attacked him and drove him from his position in Rochester. In addition, it makes historical sense in the context of the theological thought and writings of Hamilton and Alitizer (See their Radical Theology and the Death of God , which sparked the controversy, available at and, just for the heck of it, the review by Avery Dulles at

Nevertheless, what made sense to such theologians in the mid 20th c. -- taking theological and philosophical thinking to what seemed its logical conclusion, namely "the Death of God" -- may no longer be compelling (if it ever was), since it would seem to require a negation of something that has permeated one's personal, social, and cultural history, a former grounding or desire to be grounded that has need of some kind of constructive exit, or, at least, a radical accomodation.

Hamilton said:

"We try to convince others that God is dead. We are not talking about the absence of the experience of God, but about the experience of the absence of God. Yet the death of God theologians claim to be theologians, to be Christians, to be speaking out of a community to a community. They do not grant that their view is really a complicated sort of atheism dressed in a new spring bonnet."

Yet, he still tries to reclaim Jesus as more than a teacher:

"But we do more than play the waiting game. We concentrate our energy and passion on the specific, the concrete, the personal. We turn from the problems of faith to the reality of love. We walk away from the inner anguish of a Hamlet or an Oedipus and take up our worldly responsibility with Prospero and Orestes. As Protestants, we push the movement from church to world as far as it can go and become frankly worldly men. And in this world, as we have seen, there is no need for religion and no need for God. This means that we refuse to consent to that traditional interpretation of the world as a shadow-screen of unreality, masking or concealing the eternal which is the only true reality. This refusal is made inevitable by the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and it is this refusal that stands as a troublesome shadow between ourselves and the Reformation of the sixteenth. The world of experience is real, and it is necessary and right to be actively engaged in changing its patterns and structures.
. . . .
There is something more than our phrase "waiting for God" that keeps this from sheer atheist humanism. Not only our waiting but our worldly work is Christian too, for our way to our neighbor is not only mapped out by the secular social and psychological and literary disciplines, it is mapped out as well by Jesus Christ and his way to his neighbor. Our ethical existence is partly a time of waiting for God and partly an actual Christology. . . .
In this first sense, the Christian life, ethics, love, is public, outward, visible. It is finding Jesus in your neighbor: "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

There is another form of the presence of Jesus Christ in the world. Here, we no longer talk about unmasking Jesus who is out there in the world somewhere, we talk about becoming Jesus in and to the world. Here, the Christian life, ethics, love, is first a decision about the self, and then a movement beyond the self into the world.

etc. from The Death of God Theologies Today by William Hamilton (at

Brother David said...

The problem with this is that it gives us only the two possibilities, atheist and theist. I would posit that in this modern world their are those of us who would claim the title non-theist. You would need to study the writings of Bishop Spong to get the gist of that.

But based on the standard definition of an atheist, I do not believe that an atheist can be a Christian. An atheist could behave as a Christian, but I don't believe that behavior alone makes one Christian.

JCF said...

since I think you really do have to believe at some level in God and Christ's crucification and resurrection

To even be able to type the above phrase, IT, I think takes "belief at some level" (as an epistemological question, what makes "belief" different than other kinds of cognition?)

As we see above, there are disputes about WHAT level is sufficient to make you One of Our Kind of People.

Being that I find myself very much in the Age of Identity (often disparaged as "identity politics"), it is second nature to me, to accept people as they define themselves.

There's always a greater rub to ID'ing someone other than they identify themself.

You say you're an atheist. OK, you're atheist. But if you were to say you're "not an Episcopalian", do I necessarily (or morally) have to accept that?

I don't know. Heck, I could even back it up to "not a theist." Rhetorically it follows that "atheist" = "not a theist", but I'm just not hugely convinced these WORDS mean very much. [Heh, I've been influenced by Deconstructionism, haven't I? ;-/]

...but the consequences of that---not believing the words mean very much---may mean I'm DENYING your identity, aren't I? [How oppressive of me!]

It's a conundrum (or at least another of my blessed paradoxes).


Wanna add a "+1" to Doxy's "Hitchens does not define Xty for me". ["Accepted sense of the word": fiddle-faddle! Accepted to whom, Hitch? (RIP) Do we take a vote? (Hitch wouldn't do so, say, on Evolution!)]

I identify (if pressed!) as a Christian. No Hitch-ling can deny that I am . . . unless they are willing to oppress me (there's that pesky conundrum again! :-X)

Kevin K said...

My point was aimed more at the concept that I do not see how an atheist, or person who sees Christ as a moral philosopher, can be identified as a Christian, in the religious sense. Mr. Hitchens (may he RIP) was I think on to something. His point was that a belief system must include a system orf beliefs.

The Christian community has taken a vote, so to speak, in the various councils and by the adoption of the Creeds and doctrines of the Church. Individuals may choose to indentify as Christian and reject those creeds. If I disagree with their self identification I am not oppressing anyone. If I prevent them from worshiping or beliefing as their conscience dictates, then I am oppressing them.

Consider this hypothetical: A person identifies as a follower of Islam, but denies that Mohammed was a prophet or that the the Koran is a holy book, or that he is required to fast or observe Ramadan or that Mecca is a holy city. Is his self identification accurate in any commonly understood sense of Islamic practices and beliefs?


IT said...

Delighted to see such a spirited conversation!

Thank you, klady, for the quotes! That's very helpful in fleshing out the context.

Doxy would appear to be comfortable with, shall I say, a Hamiltonian point of view: that one can be Christian without a traditional concept of divinity, and defined by one's self and the choice to follow JEsus.

JCF also comes down on the side of self-identification.

Kevin, on the other hand, points out that the creeds (which one might argue define Christianity at least institutionally) require acknowledgement o f the divine.

Erp makes an argument for a cultural Christianity, rather the way an atheist friend of mine still identifies culturally as a Jew. I've discussed this previously, clearly I am culturally a high trinitarian Catholic of some form, since I find that a comfortable space to be in (in its Episcopal flavor, that is)

So we have the following:
You're a Christian if you act like one But
does this require that you are intentionally acting Christian? That is, if I am acting as a good and moral person, without deliberately or even consciously saying "I'm following Jesus' teachings", does this count?

You're a Christian if you say you're one But what if you say you're one and you don't act the least Christian? I guess that 's between you and God...oh wait ;-)

You're a Christian if you believe the creeds

You're a Christian if you have a cultural connection to Christianity

Does that sum it up?

By the way, you may be amused that I've actually met with a priest to discuss whether I can be an Episcopalian without identifying as a Christian. It was a very enjoyable conversation, the mere fact of which brought a grin to BP's face. :-)

Wormwood's Doxy said...

IT--I grew up in a denomination that never recited the Nicene Creed. I had never even *heard* of it until I started visiting the Episcopal Church.

You can't "believe the creeds" if you've never even heard of them!

But I certainly considered myself Christian. I was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, read my Bible, and attended church regularly (as well as attending a fundamentalist Christian school affiliated with my church, where I had Bible class and chapel every day).

That is, if I am acting as a good and moral person, without deliberately or even consciously saying "I'm following Jesus' teachings", does this count?

I would say "No." I thought we were talking about people who actively claim to be "atheist Christians"--IOW, people who actually WANT to be labeled "Christian," even if they do not believe in Jesus as a divine being. Did I misunderstand the question?

By the way, you may be amused that I've actually met with a priest to discuss whether I can be an Episcopalian without identifying as a Christian.

I hope the answer was "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!" :-)

IT said...

Doxy, I was using "believe the creeds" as shorthand for "believe Jesus was the Son of God, died and resurrected...." etc. My bad.

Did I misunderstand the question? Not at all! I left the question somewhat murky as to whether I was referring to "Christian atheist" as a self-definition or a label applied from outside.

It's not a title I claim for myself, for the reasons I enumerated.

I hope the answer was "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!" :-) yes, most definitely. I am very welcomed, and moreover, clearly wanted, warts and all! "Whoever you are and wherever you are...." is a sentiment fully lived by the community we found.

JCF said...

Consider this hypothetical: A person identifies as a follower of Islam...

KevinK, please don't take the following personally---

More and more in public discourse, I'm seeing the rhetorical device of "...but if the Muslims" or "you wouldn't say that about Muhammad!" or "try that in Saudi Arabia" etc etc.

It's definitely a post-9/11 device, and it seems TO ME to be an attempt to silence discussion (or at least a certain line-of-discussion). Sort of a Neo-Godwin's Law kind of thing (where comparisons are made to Hitler/Nazis).

As you can tell, I really don't like it. I think an argument should stand or fall w/o such a problematic gambit into the sensitive area of Islam.

Kevin K said...


I see your point and I don't take it personally.

I used Islam because I expect we all know the basis tenants I used as examples. Knowing the respondents here I don't think anything could silence discussion among this lot (myself included) and certainly did not mean to.

I hoped that if the conversation went outside of the Christian tradition this would allow us a differnt look at the issue. Like Islam's view of Mohammed as prophet, the divinity of Christ seems to me to be the bedrock of Christian belief.

I have little first hand experience with Moslesm. However, I knew a Bangladeshi student in graduate school and she seemed quite nice. I generalize that other Moslems are also likely nice so perhaps I don't have quite the same 9-11 visceral response to Islam.

I guess I could have said that I was a norse pagan but denied tht those who died in battle lived in eternal glory in Valhalla. But it just doesn't have the same affect.

Kevin K.

Counterlight said...

As far as I'm concerned, anyone who calls her/ himself a Christian is one. I don't bother over the faith of those next to me at the altar, just over mine. For all I care, feed them all and let God sort them out.

As far as I'm concerned, atheist or not, IT is always welcome in our company.

Kevin K said...



IT is a very nice atheist, she is.

as for the former: I leave to God the enforcement of any Judgments about the sufficiency or insufficiency of anyone's faith. I would never bar anyone from Church or the altar.

Kevin K.

Brother David said...

feed them all and let God sort them out

I think that we are all much more comfortable with your paraphrase CL than the original! ;)

June Butler said...

Beneath the title of my blog:

Faith is not certainty so much as it is acting-as-if in great hope.

I don't know quite what that counts for.

Brother David said...

That seems like a take off Abuela Mimi on the Letter to the Hebrews, 11:1
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

June Butler said...

Brother David, I'm pleased to hear that the author of Hebrews supports my statement of faith.

it's margaret said...

Hmmmmm..... thinking aloud....

Being Christian is not about faith or belief or hope or trusting what Jesus said and did or the circumstances of the Incarnation or Resurrection... babies are baptized without either and are fed from the altar with great intention...

And then again, water and words and prayers don't magically make a Christian....

I would risk saying (because it might be misunderstood) that I don't believe in a "God out there" some where --because of the mysterious in-dwelling of the Spirit, and because God pitched a tent and dwells among us (to paraphrase the Gospel of John).

And, I would risk saying that Jesus, on the cross, probably didn't have much hope --saying, as it is said he said --My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

I would say that being a Christian is to know that one does NOT have faith, does NOT have belief, does NOT have hope, does NOT have certainty ---and is willing to try to live in to the mystery of knowing and seeing God unexpectedly and in the flesh --your own and that of others... to live in to the mystery of living a life beyond death here and now.... and to live for the sake of others.

--or something like that.

it's margaret said...

--ooops, posted before I finished...

So, yes --a Christian atheist?
By all means.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I would say that being a Christian is to know that one does NOT have faith, does NOT have belief, does NOT have hope, does NOT have certainty ---and is willing to try to live in to the mystery of knowing and seeing God unexpectedly and in the flesh --your own and that of others... to live in to the mystery of living a life beyond death here and now.... and to live for the sake of others.

Margaret--that is beautiful and really strikes a chord for me. Thank you....

it's margaret said...

PS --I think IT's statement that she desires to share in the hope that she sees others have is one of the most humbling and glorious things I have ever read/heard. Thank you IT --and I have posted about it this morning.

Doxy --now that I've said it aloud, I'm at risk of creating an idol --so, here comes the hammer m'dear!

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Margaret--I think what I responded to was the idea of faith as mystery and willingness to respond. I'm constantly trying to figure out how I "fit" as a "person of faith," and your statement was just one more way I can think about that issue.

So, no need to get out your hammer... ;-)

Joel said...

Margaret just read to me IT's post. One of the most humbling, most wonder full things I have ever heard. Sounds to me like IT has skipped most of the theological "sandals" and landed deep into "The Cloud of Unknowing," the glorious "Dark Night," and "Abandonment to Divine Providence," "Lost in Wonder, Love, And Praise." Blessed be God for her humbling post! The Christian life has nothing to do with us, nothing! Birth and death prove that. ALL, ALL is Grace! Thank you IT.

BP said...

Paul sums up my feelings quite nicely:
"In any case, the phrase "Christian atheist" tells me a story of a person's journey from one point to another."

A friend of IT's told her: "I actually subscribe to the notion that faith has more to do with hope than belief. I also think one could define a Christian atheist as one who is attracted to the life that Jesus points to and lives – someone involved in the effort to create the reign of God (kindness, wisdom, fairness, etc.) without necessarily subscribing to the more metaphysical aspects."

I think he makes a really valid point. While most people have argued that the term "C/christian" implies a certain set of "beliefs," any other "-ian" word does no such thing, but rather points up similarities (something "of or relating to..."). And that in turn points up the opposite--"Christians" who aren't...

So I would posit the term should be christian atheist as opposed to Christian atheist. :-)

MarkBrunson said...

I would grant that, if you follow the teachings of Christ, which center on treatment of others and relationships with the phenomenal world, you are a Christian - which was originally a pejorative expression, if I recall correctly - though one is left with the pesky problem (and I'm not being sarcastic, it is merely pesky) of His references to God and Summation of the Law.

I am not - strictly speaking - a theist; I don't believe in a person or Person, as we generally think of a deity, but an intelligent force. The idea that we can assign purpose to God based on our understanding is laughable. The Buddhists speak of an impersonal force, rather than God, but . . . wouldn't a compassionate creator and sustainer of the entire universe/space-time continuum seem impersonal from the limited understanding of those self-contained lumps of meat in our skulls? No. I think God is impersonal and a force - to our understanding - because God is not a being, but The Being.