Wednesday, February 06, 2008

On talking with atheists

Rev Sam has started a series (here, here and here) reflecting on his extensive experiences talking with atheists about the Christian faith. He distinguishes between two kinds of athesist: (a) humourless atheists and (b) sophisticated atheists. The former are "humourless" in the sense that they just don't get the "joke" of theology, they think it entirely a waste of time and simply nonsense. They have a kind of aspect blindness. They often base their criticisms on stereotypes, populist or fundamentalist understandings of Christianity (which often deserve to be criticised!), but have little or not familiarity with the more significant, rigorous and creative figures in the Christian theological tradition. The latter "get" it much more, and probably feel the attractiveness of Christ, but are perhaps unconvinced by some point: the resurrection, the problem of evil, or something else. I think this is a useful distinction and the series has sparked some very interesting responses, with many of Sam's points being illustrated within the discussion of them.

This double classification of atheisms reminds me of a somewhat similar one by Merold Westphal in his excellent little book on Nietzsche, Marx and Freud called Suspicion and Faith: the religious uses of modern atheism. He very usefully distinguishes between an atheism of scepticism (à la Hume), which finds the claims of Christianity to be untrue, and an atheism of suspicion (as in Nietzsche and co.), in which Christian belief is found to be immoral.


Sam Charles Norton said...

Yes - I didn't pick up on the Westphal distinction when you made it, but it's very interesting, and ~pretty much~ what I have in mind.

byron smith said...

And like you, Westphal also distinguishes between what a healthy Christian response involves in each case. Although there are some similarities, I don't think the two pairs of alternatives are entirely equivalent, which is why I find your suggestion so interesting. It is also interesting because (at least so far) you are focussing on the "inferior" atheist response, whereas Westphal is much more interested in talking about the more "sophisticated" version (you, like him, are more interested in talking with the sophisticated version, but have so far spent longer talking about the other one).

Thanks again.