Is Christian Atheism an Oxymoron?

Browsing through Amazon’s search engines one day not so very long ago, part of a book title caught my attention: Christian Atheist.  An oxymoron, I wondered?  So I placed the book on my virtual wish list for a closer look later–along with other curiosities like (I just looked up my account and these were on it, in fact) Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years around the World on a Triumph, One Man Caravan, and A Child’s History of the World.  This ever-transitioning wish list, incidentally, gets the occasional makeover, when I delete almost everything for lack of interest (though the history book’s been on it since 2003).  It’s a good tool against impulse buying–whether or not Amazon knows it.

So, not so very long ago, I returned to my wish list after something of a hiatus to find this title still flummoxing me: Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing, by Brian Mountford.  No one I know had read it, so I couldn’t go on a trustworthy recommendation.  But the Amazonian description said a thing or two about the author being a priest of the Church of England and that he was convinced that this topic needed to become a part of the ongoing conversation on Christianity’s place in society.  Thus, what with that and the relatively small price tag, I bought the book.

When it arrived some days later I picked it up with a casual interest, like I might be thumbing through a magazine I’d never seen before, curious, perhaps hoping for a flavorful mind cocktail, you know, something tasty to loosen me up a bit but pretty much lacking in any nutritional value.  But within a few minutes I found myself more than intrigued.  I was even almost delighted by what Mr. Mountford had to say, persuaded that what he had to say was right, that Christian atheism (as he defines it) does indeed need to become part of the conversation.

That’s because, in part, Mountford has been able to interact with people like Philip Pullman, author of Northern Lights, upon which the controversial film The Golden Compass is based.  Do you remember when that one came out?  American evangelicalism just about blew a fuse!  The film would somehow entice children away from the Christian faith and convince them all that atheism was the Gospel truth, or so it was suggested.  But Pullman himself has this to say: “I am a Christian Atheist; a Church of England Atheist; a Book of Common Prayer Atheist.  You could add a King James Bible Atheist, if you want.  All those things go deep for me; they formed me; that heritage is impossible to disentangle, like a piece of barbed-wire fence embedded in the bark of a tree.  I’ve absorbed the Church’s rituals and enjoy its language, which I knew as a boy, and now that it’s gone I miss it” (p. 1).

For Pullman the terms Christian and atheist are not mutually exclusive, but something that can be shared.  My wife had a professor in college with a similar sort of outlook; he called himself an Episcopal Buddhist because, he said, he practices Buddhism now but absolutely cherishes the traditions with which he was raised.  I didn’t get it then; I still don’t totally get it now.  But here is a book that addresses this apparent oxymoron in an intelligent, serious way.

Mountford himself has difficulty defining Christian atheism.  “The phrase Christian Atheist stayed with me,” he writes, “because it seemed such a good description of all the people I know who value the cultural heritage of Christianity–its language, art, music, moral compass, sense of transcendence–without actually believing in God; or,”–and here’s a key difficulty in my thinking–“at least without believing in God in a way that would satisfy Christian orthodoxy, particularly in the metaphysics department” (p. 1).

What Mountford speaks of here is not quite Christian; but neither it is quite atheism.  But which is emphasized more, Christianity or atheism?  There is a growing number of people in our churches who believe in church–its traditions, aesthetics, morality, and so on–without believing everything the creeds say about Christ.  At the same time they rely on science for their metaphysics; but that does not necessarily mean that God does not exist.

Interestingly, in his conversation with Philip Pullman, Mountford–a priest, remember–described himself as having more of a secular temperament than a religious one, “because I wanted to dissociate myself from the Church’s introspective agenda of gays and women bishops and to make him see me as a man of the world, an open thinker who looks to the concerns of the bustling metropolis rather than the reflections of the cloister” (p. 9).

But Pullman balked at this idea and said that he, a self-proclaimed atheist, in fact possessed a religious temperament, for he has a sense of awe and wonder, he says, and he asks bigger questions–who we are, what is our purpose, why we are here.  Then, tellingly, he adds, “Some people are satisfied with one sort of answer, others want a mythological answer.  Of course you can’t prove that there’s no possibility of God, and in that sense I suppose I ought to call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist, but I see no evidence for a God” (p. 9).

Hmm.  I wonder, then, would Quasi-Christian Agnostic be a better term?  Christian Atheist certainly has a better ring to it.

Anyway, the point in all this is conversation.  Is it too much to “welcome those who want the values of religion without its metaphysics” (p. 129)?  Christians and atheists have not ever really been on speaking terms, at least with respect to religion.  (Sports and politics might be a different matter.)  But what Mountford is exposing here is that they are already sitting in the same religious venues: on the one hand, (at least some) self-proclaimed atheists value Mother Church; and, on the other hand, (some, maybe many) Christians recognize and embrace the contributions science has made to the collective pool of metaphysical wisdom despite whatever conundrums it has stirred up.  Why not then talk?  Otherwise we are very much like middle schoolers at a dance, too preoccupied with our own self-image and too worried that we might be rejected by the other side to walk across the room, introduce ourselves, and seek out common ground whence we can begin to foster and develop a friendship.

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One Response to “Is Christian Atheism an Oxymoron?”

  1. Ignostic Atheist Says:

    My knee-jerk reaction is to say no, but I suppose if you consider the cultural aspect, it’s no different from being Italian American.

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