Nicholas Frankovich has written an excellent essay for the National Review Online, titled, Do Atheists Exist? A new “godless” church makes you wonder. Frankovich’s article is outstanding for its depth and maturity of thought, and I would highly recommend it to readers of Uncommon Descent. He begins his piece with a description of an atheist church (yes, you read that right) founded in the UK at the beginning of 2013:
For people who like church except for the parts about God, a British couple have bodied forth a new denomination that cheerfully excludes him, raising the volume on the question “What is atheism?” several decibels overnight. The Sunday Assembly, a “godless congregation” founded in East London last January by standup comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, now boasts affiliates in Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Canberra, Melbourne, New York, and Portland, Ore[gon]…
“Church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked),” Jones and Evans confess in a short piece that appeared in the New York Times to mark the launch of their venture. Stuart Balkham, an earnest convert, told the Guardian that at a London meeting he attended the Assembly was “unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format,” which he thought was great…
The founders of this new “atheist church” declare that they want to “help people (ourselves included) to live better, help often and wonder more.” This invites the question: does that make it a religion of sorts? The founders of the new church deny this, on the grounds that they don’t require their members to have any sort of faith; their beliefs, they say, are driven by evidence. But as Frankovich observes, not all atheists agree with this assessment:
If “religion” remains the inevitable word for a certain moral and philosophical seriousness, however, atheism is, or should be, counted as religious after all. Among the latest to advance that thesis is Ronald Dworkin, whose Religion without God was published posthumously in September. His argument is solid at least insofar as it’s not original; his readers may be quicker to grasp it than he anticipated. Citing Torcasco v. Watkins (1961), Dworkin quoted Hugo Black, who in a clarifying footnote to that Supreme Court decision had commented that “among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others,” a list to which the casual observer could be forgiven for adding several mainline Protestant denominations whose vanishing theism quotients have haunted the landscape of organized religion in America for half a century or more. And so the Sunday Assembly, its rejection of the label “religion” notwithstanding, joins a distinguished parade of institutions demonstrating that religious practice persists as an anthropological fact even where belief in God is muted or absent…
I should add that not all religions demand faith, in any case: the Buddha warned that even his own teachings should be tested before being accepted as fact; while the religion of spiritualism rejects the need for faith, as it maintains that the truthfulness of their claims can be tested scientifically.
But wonder is a distinctively religious emotion, and one which the new atheist church openly encourages. And as Frankovich notes, the dangerous thing about wonder is that there’s no telling where it might lead:
Wonder more: No one disputes that atheism is compatible with wonder at the physical universe and how it works. Wonder at how it came to be just so, however, soon leads to wonder at how it came to be at all, a question that atheists typically sidestep. The pleasure of contemplating it is forbidden fruit to which the Sunday Assembly approaches nearer than a good atheist ought.
Philosophically if not historically, the theism of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of Islam and major religious currents outside the Western tradition, begins with the observation that the mystery of being is irreducibly mysterious, absolutely immune to attempts at demystifying it…
What Frankovich finds ironical is that modern atheists reject the Judeo-Christian concept of God as petty and anthropomorphic, even though the utter ineffability of the Divine was emphasized by “succeeding generations of thinkers descended from the union of Greek philosophy and Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology,” leading to an identification of God with Being itself – or what Aquinas termed “ipsum esse subsistens” (the Ground of Being, in modern parlance). Aquinas was not the first to make this identification: Frankovich points out that the notion “developed organically over the course of more than a millennium.” Fr. Aidan Kimel confirms this observation in a thought-provoking article titled, Being, Beyond Being, or Oz the Great and Terrible? (26 November 2013), over at his blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy:
Right off the top of my head, I can think of three Christian theologians of antiquity who identified divinity and Being — St Gregory of Nazianzus, St Augustine of Hippo, and St Thomas Aquinas. I can also think of three Christian theologians who preferred to speak of God as “beyond Being” — Dionysius, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Gregory Palamas. And not one had a problem identifying their God with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The intensity of New Atheists’ loathing for the God of the Old Testament (or Tanakh) not only renders them totally oblivious to the classical theist conception of God as Being Itself, but also impels them to embrace an absurd conception of reality: the notion that Nothing can explain literally everything. As Frankovich remarks in his essay, the New Atheists are deadly serious about their beloved Nothing, to the point that it effectively functions as a God-substitute in their thinking:
For their rejection of all “gods” in the familiar sense of the term, Christians in ancient Rome were sometimes accused of being atheists. Now the misunderstanding is turned on its head: Atheists hold the Christian, and indeed any modern theist, to be most glaringly wrong in his understanding that God is a person, like a god of pagan antiquity. Training their sights on the notion of an anthropomorphic god, they excite and distract themselves. God as Being itself barely registers with them.
“Why don’t you see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that we can explain the world, life, how it started, from nothing?” Dawkins asked the archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Rowan Williams, during a debate at the Cambridge Union Society last year. “Why clutter it up with something so messy as God?”
“I’m not thinking of God as being shoehorned in,” Williams answered…
Used loosely, “nothing” is put to practical use every day. Dawkins makes it a placeholder for “God.” By invoking “nothing,” he can point to the source of the universe without implying that You Know Who had anything to do with it…
Richard Dawkins believes that “we can explain the world, life, how it started, from nothing.” This is a self-refuting assertion if ever I heard one. To assert that the world comes from nothing is simply to say that it has no explanation.
However, Frankovich is more charitable; he wonders whether the New Atheists, in their confused terminology, might be trying to convey the same underlying truth as the mystics in the classical theistic tradition, and he gently warns them that in their effort to experience a collective feeling of awe and wonder, they are opening the door to the Transcendent God:
Notice how “nothing” can function for the atheist as “God” does for the theist. Are the two only using different linguistic tokens in parallel efforts to express the same ineffable thought? Their fear and trembling at the prospect of the “eternal nada,” Jones and Evans explain, moves them to cultivate their appreciation for the physical world (Christians call it “Creation”) that tickles our sense organs in the here and now: “Transcendence can be found in a breath of wind on your face or in a mouthful of custard tart,” they write. They pronounce nature “awesome,” a word whose recently acquired colloquial sense still shades into its older, literal sense. Open the door to just that much transcendence, however, and all of it comes rushing in, like a strong wind. Atheists instinctively try to resist it, while those of us who have been blown away by it recommend the experience.
I have to say I was deeply impressed by the learning displayed in Frankovich’s piece. I’d like to close with a couple of observations of my own.
First, while the equation of God with Being Itself is a venerable one in the Christian tradition – many theologians see a hint of it in Exodus 3:14, where God refers to Himself as “I am That I am” – I have to say that I am wary of certain modern theologians who go further, and deny that God is “a being.” If they simply mean to deny that God is a being on the same plane of reality as we are, then of course, they are perfectly correct; but if they mean to deny that God is Someone, then they are badly mistaken. It is worth noting that even in Exodus 3:14, God tells Moses, “I am That I am,” and in the memorable passage in the book of Job where God reduces Job to silence after he foolishly questions the Almighty, He also identifies Himself in the first person:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
4 Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:2-4, NIV.)
I should add that while St. Anselm of Canterbury and Blessed John Duns Scotus both belonged to the classical theistic tradition, they also spoke of God as a Being. For Anselm, God is “a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived,” and for Scotus also, God can be described as a being, although One Who is infinitely greater than we are.
The second point I’d like to make is that equating God with Being Itself is not the most profound thing that can be said about Him, as it leaves unanswered the question, “What does God actually do?” It is no good to simply answer, “He exists, and that’s all.” Existence is not the name of an activity; and if God did not have a characteristic activity of His own, then He wouldn’t have any existence of His own. Within the classical theistic tradition, knowing and loving are two activities that have been ascribed to God, as they are the only activities which do not imply any limitations in their possessor; hence they can be fittingly ascribed to God. (Aquinas himself writes that God’s act of understanding is His essence, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 45.1, and he identifies God’s will with His essence in his Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 73.1.) In the eighteenth century, John Wesley took this line of thinking even further: as Professor Thomas Jay Oord points out, Wesley considered love to be God’s reigning attribute.
For my part, I consider the most profound verse in the Bible to be 1 John 4:16, which declares: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” The statement, “God is love,” cuts both ways: as Jennifer Fulwiler, a convert from atheism, puts it in a post titled, Love and conversion, it not only tells us what God is, but also tells us what love is:
One of the biggest lessons I learned in the conversion process, maybe the biggest lesson I learned in my life, was that the phrase “God is Love” is meant to be taken literally: God is love. God = Love. It’s not just some characteristic, but his essence. To paraphrase the Cynical Christian’s recent post on a similar subject, when we say “God is love,” we’re not describing what God is, we’re describing what love is — love is God.
I see that the New Atheist church founded by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans exhorts its members to “live better” and “help often” as well as wondering more. And I note also that the British intellectual Alain de Botton, an atheist who declares that he has absolutely no interest in mocking religion, has this to say about the awe-inspiring temple to atheism which he wants to build in London:
“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions.”
A temple to love, which is meant to inspire awe? Who knows where that might lead? I’ll give former atheist Jennifer Fulwiler the last word:
…[W]hat I found is this: God is not something you prove; he is Someone you come to know. To know God is to know love. And love is not something you find in a book.
I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year.