New atheists attract a lot of hostility but, if you’re not one yourself, consider how infuriating it must be to see church worship on the rise internationally despite all the scientific evidence undermining religious superstition.
Atheists – of whom I count myself as one – look upon stubbornly high rates of supernatural belief (84 per cent of the world's population identifies with a religious group) a bit like the way liberals look upon the electoral success of Donald Trump in the United States. It really is hard to fathom!
Just why has atheism been slow to catch on?
Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed God is dead in 1882. Yet, writes historian Alec Ryrie: "The dominant religious story of the past two centuries is surely the spread of Christianity and Islam around the globe, a race in which those two hares have so far outpaced the secular tortoise that it takes a considerable act of faith to believe it might one day catch up."
In a new book, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, Ryrie explores the forces behind Western secularism. He reminds us immediately what a unique cultural project it is, describing secularism as "an offshoot of European Christendom, and in particular . . . of the Protestant world".
Unbelief has been carried along two main streams, he argues. One is of anger at – among other things – the hypocrisy of priests and preachers and the abuses of religious leaders. The other is of anxiety, whereby earnest faith turns in on itself and discovers an empty hole.
Though Ryrie is a Church of England lay minister, he is generous to followers of all religions and none. Carefully tracing the many manifestations of unbelief from Martin Luther to Father Ted, he highlights how dissent and doubt are cornerstones of the Christian experience just as much as faith. In the process, he hints at an inherent weakness in the atheist stance.
Christianity may have been “its own gravedigger” – as sociologist Peter Berger once claimed – but unbelief also seems to contradict itself because lack of faith is impossible to sustain entirely. Ryrie discusses further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.
Why has atheism been slow to catch on?
“Actual ‘hard’ atheism – the assertion that there is no God – isn’t just, in its own way, an act of faith, and a combative stance. It’s also an empty position, an assertion of what someone doesn’t believe, not what they do believe.
“Some very successful philosophies – Marxism for much of the 20th century, humanism in our own times – include or can include atheism, but they catch on, or don’t, for their own reasons, not chiefly because of their religious or anti-religious claims. In other words, atheism can certainly catch on but only if it’s tied up with a belief or value system that has its own appeal. The same is of course true of the assertion that there is a God.
“On its own, the question of whether or not there is a God is like whether or not parallel universes exist: interesting in the abstract, but not very relevant to daily life. It becomes relevant when it’s part of a wider system like Marxism, or Christianity.”
You highlight the way in which Christianity has always had a current of unbelief. Can you be both a Christian and an unbeliever?
“To be a Christian you have to be an unbeliever: you reject belief in Ganesh, Maoism, the Force and lots more. The Bible is full of searing, scornful unbelief directed at the idols of the Gentiles. So to be a Christian – or a Jew, or a Muslim, or many other things – you have to believe some things and disbelieve others.
“Faith has never meant believing anything you are told. The trick is to know what, and why. Most of the great moments of renewal and revival in Christian history have been spurred by unbelief – by some Christians’ refusal to accept the easy answers they were being given, but instead to keep searching.
“We’re supposed to build houses on rock, and how do you know that you’re building on rock unless you do some digging first?”
You note that mockery of religion by unbelievers tends to be targeted “not at God himself, but his earthly representatives”. Should believers view ridicule of their religion as a kind of constructive feedback?
“Yes! Churches often – perhaps usually – deserve it, for the simple reason that they consist of human beings. It seems to me that the appropriate Christian response to mockery is neither to lash out nor even, sometimes, to argue back, but to embrace it with humility and to try to deserve it a little less next time.”
What’s the single best argument today in favour of Christianity?
“I don’t think it’s really a matter of argument, trading debating points back and forth. The intellectual cases for and against Christianity haven’t really changed much in the past century. The ‘new atheists’ are most rehearsing old arguments. In fact, much of the discussion remains the same as in Roman times.
“We mostly ‘choose’ belief or unbelief for intuitive, emotional reasons and then find ways of rationalising our choices after the fact. That’s not a bad thing, as long as we’re aware of it. It’s what human beings do, and our intuition can be surprisingly wise sometimes.
“Which is to say: the best ‘argument’ in favour of Christianity is the account of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. If you’re won over by his moral authority, then the rest is just tidying up. If you’re not, then there’s not much more to be said.”
Ask a sage:
Question: What are the odds of there being a God?
Blaise Pascal replies: "Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails."