Thursday, July 24, 2014
Why Does Christianity Produce Atheists?
A while ago on Strange Notions someone noted that modern Christianity is the first religion to produce a significant number of atheists. Before the last 200 years atheists were rare. Female atheists were almost non-existent. Even in the last 200 years we have not seen a lot of atheism in Muslim cultures or Buddhist cultures or Hindu cultures. The only cultures that have produced a lot of atheists is those where the dominant historical religion is Christianity.
Why is that? What is it about Christianity and particularly modern Christianity that becomes a fertile ground for atheism? A key clue, I think, is to look at atheists. What kind of Christians do they typically resemble? Certainly politically they are left of center. They tend to be feminists. They tend to be environmentalists. Basically they are almost all pretty consistent liberals.
There is such a thing as liberal Christianity. It does not have to coincide with liberal politics but it tends to. I am strange because I am politically liberal, except on social issues, and yet theologically I am not at all liberal. You find a few people like that but very few, most of us are Catholics.
So what defines Liberal Christianity? Is it their willingness to question long standing traditional Christian teachings? Sort of. It is an undisciplined questioning of Christian teachings. Questioning is good. All Christians do that. But is there anything you won't question? The bible? The resurrection of Jesus? Sexual morality? Anything? The ultimate liberal would be willing to question any aspect of Christianity. There are very few of those. Most Liberal Christians have a few things they believe are solid. Yet the list is quite arbitrary.
You might be able to see why liberal Christians and atheists have a lot in common. If you start questioning the basics of the faith then it just makes sense to question the existence of God as well. If more and more of your religion is based on human reason rather than divine revelation then why not go all the way and say it is all reason and no divinity is required?
Of course, it has its roots in the reformation. Protestants saw the bible as the one thing that could not be questioned. That was quite problematic partly because it is arbitrary and partly because of the nature of scripture. Lots of questions about how we find the right interpretation of scripture and lots of questions about where the bible came from.
The insidious thing about the reformation is that Sola Fide allowed room for Sola Scriptura. Salvation by faith alone without specifying the content of the faith means all the questions left open didn't really need answers. As long as you believed the details of your theology didn't matter. People knew there must be limits. You can't believe just anything. Yet there was no way to define what those limits were.
So what happens? The limits get defined informally but they move as the generations go. The general trend is towards more and more questions although from time to time you get a revival. Some major movement that calls people back to traditional Christianity. The trouble is even the revivals don't call Christians all the way back. They are blips on a general trend of the Christian faith degrading.
So Christianity was strong enough to destroy all other faiths yet it disintegrates on its own. Nobody wants to go back to paganism or any other pre-christian religion. The only choice left is atheism.
That is what is happening and would come to completion except for the fact that God is real. God has preserved His church. Within the Catholic church there are many that are attracted to liberal Christianity. Yet the church has remained orthodox. That is no small miracle. Not only have the popes been solid but the vast majority of bishops are faithful as well. Priest being ordained today are more orthodox than they were a generation ago. I don't know of any other church that can say that.
Catholicism spells out exactly what can be questioned and what cannot. It does it in a way that is logical and historical and beautiful. Faith and reason are both maintained in a way that they strengthen and purify each other. You really have to look at liberal/protestant Christianity to understand how amazing that is.