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Way forward or cul-de-sac?
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.