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on 31 December 2011
This is a generous and engaging book that works well as a broad introduction and exploration of Christian Atheism. Christian Atheism is broadly defined in the book and it is to the credit of the author that he allows his interviewees and subjects to do much of the defining. The term covers a broad range of positions and the book includes interviews and quotes from people formed in the Christian tradition e.g. Phillip Pullman (who describes himself as a Book of Common Prayer Atheist) and atheists who are keen to engage with the church and Christian traditions. Particularly fascinating are those people who contributed to the author's research who regularly attend church services and events, in some cases even being members of the choir and PCC. The overall theme of the book is call for honest admission and hospitality on the part of the church to recognise the presence of atheists who wish to engage with Christianity on a variety of levels, and to recognise their important contribution to the development of church life and thought.

The book is only intended as an introduction and for a short text (c.130 pages) it manages to cover a wide range of themes. However, I did find that this could be frustrating as important points were alluded to then left undeveloped. Overall I found that the book's structure to be somewhat disjointed, perhaps as a result of the author trying to explore a broad phenomenon rather than articulate a closed argument. Given the subject matter of the book it is perhaps no surprise that the focus is on Christian orthopraxy (doing the right thing) rather than orthodoxy (believing the right thing), and whilst the author stops short of saying Christianity is essentially about what you do rather than what you believe it is very much the direction of travel. Whilst there is a brief comment to the effect that believe and practice cannot be separated, the interplay and connection between the two feels largely unexplored - perhaps as this would steer the discussion into more divisive waters. There are limitations with the interview sample being both small and seeming to consist largely of well-educated middle class Oxford denizens. As an introduction this is fine, but limits the extent to which the author's findings can be safely extrapolated.

The question I kept asking myself in the course of reading this book was whether Christian Atheism could be seen an energetic movement within the broad and dynamic sweep of the Christian story, or whether it is something more transitional, vestigial even, a position for those who cannot quite kick the habit Christianity in one go. My sense on reading the book is perhaps that it is more the latter, a symbiotic position dependent on Christian theism, which in itself is capable of containing a wide range of beliefs and doubts. The author's intent is to push for both greater honesty and openness, and it is certainly a pertinent text for our times (if you happen to live in Western Europe or areas of similar culture). However, a more comprehensive and wide-ranging study would be required in order to ask whether the phenomenon of Christian Atheism is a small and passing phase, or whether it represents something more substantial and game-changing.
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on 5 January 2014
"Christian Atheist" was something of a disappointment. I had expected a sustained argument in favour of some exotic new heresy, but instead Brian Mountford simply rehashes liberal Anglicanism (or one of its fissiparous varieties). The author is the vicar of the University Church at Oxford, and a personal friend of Richard Dawkins!

In his book, Mountford has interviewed a number of people, both known and unknown, who don't really believe in God or Christianity, or believe in it only barely, but who nevertheless decided to stay inside the Church of England. The reasons are often cultural or even aesthetic: community feeling, a lot of activities, good music, etc. One of the interviewees describes himself, tongue-in-cheek, as Anglo-Choral rather than Anglo-Catholic! Another reason is nostalgia, as when one of the characters in Philip Pullman's novel "Northern Lights" say that he rather misses God, now when he's gone. A more elaborate argument is that humans need a moral compass, ritual and a sense of belonging. Religion does provide this, even though it's man-made, and for that reason, even atheists could belong to a Christian church. Several of the interviewees like the specifically Christian morality (love your neighbour, love your enemies, etc).

Mountford does wonder how one can isolate Christian morality, or aesthetics for that matter, from a relationship to a God who actually exists? In the end, however, he is too liberal to be able to challenge the "Christian atheists" (or Sunday Christians, or cultural Christians). He sees doctrine as evolving and fluid, doubt as natural and most of the Bible as metaphorical. Thus, the vicar of Oxford supports homosexuality and abortion, opposes creationism, and believes that God didn't gave Israel to the Jews. No? At another point, Mountford wonders what it could possibly mean to a modern reader that the death of Jesus takes away "sin". Does it do away with global warming?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a Christian, and I probably have more in common (politically) with the author of this book than with, say, the really hard line Anglo-Catholics. Still, what's the *point* of claiming to be Christian if you reject everything distinctive about Christianity, or argue that we are dealing with metaphors and clever stories? The apostle Paul said that Christian faith is in vain if Jesus wasn't resurrected. That was no metaphor, brother. Conversely, if Mountford (like his Christian-atheist friends) believe that everything in Christianity is true, except the Christianity, (with apologies to C.S. Lewis), how come that so many positive results came from this particular ancient superstition? Isn't the liberal position, if framed in this manner, really parasitical on the traditional one?

I don't think Brian Mountford ever solves these questions, and he probably doesn't even think they can be solved. But this is precisely what has led many outside observers to conclude, that the liberal clergy hold on to the outer strapping of the faith simply in order to fill the pews. And judging from this book, many of the church-goers are just as sceptical as their clergymen...
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on 27 August 2013
Saw this book and thought "yes!" so ordered it.

Brian Mountford has produced a good concise slim volume covering the ways in which those who don't believe in "God" deal think about and deal with issues of morality and related areas. He used interviews with real people and that's what makes the book strong and immediate.
He also goes into the areas where non-believers find 'transcendence', mostly in the area of the arts. While I find this transcendence impossible to comprehend - and feel that "God' has a strong moral/ethical side, in addition to his/her mystical aspect, rather than being discerned/substituted/glimpsed in an emotional experience, what they say helps me a lot in understanding this way of seeing things.
I would 'recommend this to a friend' (as Boden says!) as it is compact, immediate, based on real presently-alive people's ideas, and is not too long: you can't become bogged down in philosophical concepts.
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on 21 January 2012
The title of this book may seem startling. But if you are no longer sure about Christian beliefs such as a literal incarnation or resurrection, yet still find church services aesthetically uplifting and being part of a community important, you may find this book a great help and comfort. Similarly, if you want to understand how it is possible to be pro-Christianity while not holding any supernatural beliefs, the interviews with various types of "Christian Atheist" will give you an insight into their thought processes. Mountford argues that there is much to be gained for the Church by embracing those in the grey area between ingroup and outgroup, that actually most of us can be found there, and that there are many shared values. These are not your hard line, reductionist atheists, but ones who have a "religious temperament": an interest in questions about the nature of reality, and a taste for what might be called transcendent (but not necessarily supernatural) experiences.
There are useful discussions about the relationship between faith and action, about the role of personality in faith, about the parallels between art and theology. I particularly liked a description of what is distinctive about Christian morals, and the conclusion that while Christianity may not provide a unique basis for ethics, I can still be proud of the traditions of Christ, such as loving your enemy, valuing the dignity of all human life, selling all you have and giving to the poor, the first being last, and so on.
Having read the book, I feel happier that the ongoing journey is about questions more than answers, about suffering more than solutions, and about change rather than preserving the status quo. And knowing that an Anglican priest, as well as fellow churchgoers, are happy with a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible and doctrine is very helpful.
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on 17 July 2011
A very welcome book exploring exactly the position I find myself in. Brian Mountford, through interviews with other Christian atheists, suggests there might still be a place for all those of us who have been brought up in the Christian faith but who find it impossible to beleive in a Christian deity.
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on 2 September 2011
This book has had a profound effect.

Having been Catholic convent educated from age 5 until 18, I, like so many others, have lived with an uneasy conscience all my adult life.

The dogmatic catholic education, made one fearful of questioning anything to do with religion; and when in later life this irrational fear was disposed of, and I became free to think for myself,I felt that 'not belonging' to any particular religion or faith group precluded me from any pleasure gained from the tranquil atmosphere of architecturally beautiful churches, and enjoying church music and art.

I feel liberated now to enjoy Evensong at a nearby cathedral, without any sense of guilt! Guilt, of course, being one of the predominant emotions remaining from my Roman Catholic upbringing.
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on 14 February 2012
One of the best things about Brian Mountford's book, Christian Atheist, is that it is as relevant to people with a religious faith as to those who don't believe in God at all: it is accessible to both ends of the spectrum.

As a church-going Christian with many unanswered questions and quite a few doubts, I found the book extremely helpful. In particular, the significance of religious language as metaphor, the importance of belonging to a Christian community and the value of Christianity as guidance for moral behaviour resonated strongly with me. The writer's assertion that many people who adhere to a belief in God are coming from the same place with the same questions as the Christian Atheist is both reassuring and challenging. This thoughtful and stimulating book provides an opportunity for believers and atheists to examine their differences and develop an understanding of each other's principles and values.
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on 26 March 2012
Dear Brian, Just a brief note to say how very much I appreciated and enjoyed your exploration of "Belonging without Believing". I found it an "un-put-downable" read, which to me posed all the right questions--or at least the right questions for me and many of my friends/colleagues who've spent much of their lives and careers involved in church activities and culture, without being quite able to accept the doctrinal trappings. You guessed it--I'm a musician! Thank you for a thought-provoking experience; I shall not only re-visit it myself (now that I've looked up the definition of "numinous"!) but also buy copies for any number of my friends with whom I've always shared doubts and concerns.
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on 20 February 2012
There is already an embryonic but strong interest in the theme of atheist spirituality, eg André Comte-Sponville's 'The Book of Atheist Spirituality', Alain de Botton's recent 'Religion for Atheists' and my own 'An Enlightened Philosophy - Can an Atheist Believe Anything?'.

It's very heartening therefore to have Brian Mountford express an open mind to such thinking from the church's side. He discusses how aesthetics and ethics are common ground for theists and atheists, and allows that doctrine is flexible and doubt permissible. He doesn't say what, if any, irreducible doctrines define Christianity in his understanding of church. But through his interviews, he does show a very 'listening ear' to the secular world, which is very welcome from a church which normally prefers to preach.

Secular atheism is often reductionist and relies on physicalism, but in so doing, fails to have any account of metaphysics, ie intellect, emotion, and spirit. Meanwhile religion for many fails as doctrine, but has power when interpreted as myth for social meta-narrative. Herein lies a meaningful synthesis for the 'post Dawkins' generation.

It will be very creative if the church shows a more inclusive attitude, and engages in discourse with these elements of atheist spirituality in the way Brian Mountford does. It would make a very meaningful difference to contemporary society which otherwise is driven to consumerist status by the same pervasive physicalism.
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on 17 June 2012
Great book, short, & accessible - interesting & well researched. Thank you Brian for writing it & expressing the views of so many. Read it if you are one of those people who might describe themselves as agnostic or atheist, very uncomfortable with church doctrine, but who would like to feel that their local church can change & become a valuable, relevant & inspiring centre for the community, a refuge from the materialism of everyday life, welcoming everyone whatever their beliefs or lack of them. It will encourage you.
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