“When all is said and done, the journey is the reward. The end is, well, the end”
Randy Komisar, The Monk and the Riddle
“Religion possesses no solution to the problem of life; rather it makes of the problem a wholly insoluble enigma. Religion neither discovers the problem nor solves it: what it does is to disclose the truth that it cannot be solved.”
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans
I have tried in the past to formulate in my mind a clear way to explain the distinction between New Atheism (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens etc.) and theological atheism, which has quite a different flavour and which I personally find more useful. I have contemplated tables and analogies. But this distinction has now been very clearly articulated by the radical theologian and theological atheist Peter Rollins.
Rollins has just started this year’s running of Atheism for Lent – I have completed this for the last two years and highly recommend it – and has made his opening talk available to those, like me, who subscribe to his Patreon page. It is full of ideas, but this one is striking to me now. The explanation goes something like this.
There are various definitions of religion but in practice it is often aimed at solving the deepest problems of human existence – a path to peace, wholeness, enlightenment, salvation, the thing that will fill up the void we experience and complete us. At the centre of religion, in many cases, is God, the object that will bring us this completeness and wholeness if we approach him the right way, follow his rules, accept his dominion. New Atheism takes aim at this object, arguing (in my view convincingly) that for multiple reasons this object does not exist.
But the problem with New Atheism is that it stops there. The fact is that, in our society, God is only one of the solutions on offer to bring us wholeness and completeness and, if we remove him, it is quite likely that he will simply be replaced by another solution. Other solutions, promising us wholeness and completeness, are all around us. Some of the more common ones in our culture are:
- The ideal romantic relationship, or at least a better one – the philosopher Alain de Botton once shrewdly commented that we seem to spend our lives looking for the relationship that will make all other relationships superfluous;
- Money and status – if we can earn a certain amount or achieve a certain career goal, life will be complete;
- Political causes – all will be well if we can stop Brexit/achieve Brexit/establish true socialism/restore capitalism etc.;
- Technology – all our problems can be solved if we apply enough ingenuity and investment to them.
All of these form very popular secular religions, with gurus, how-to guides and recommended practices. I do not mean to argue that any of them are unimportant. A healthy relationship, successful career, political change and advancing technology can make a big difference in life. But I do mean to deny that any of these are “the answer”, that these are the things that will make our life complete, ending all feelings of emptiness. This is the point of theological atheism – there is no God to grant us completeness and wholeness, but neither will our relationships, money, achieving political goals or technological advances. The belief that they will can cause untold suffering and cruelty as people single-mindedly pursue these objectives, regardless of the damage they may inflict on themselves or others.
The alternative approach is to accept that none of these things will ever truly resolve our problems, our sense of incompleteness, and that we should learn to live with them, finding meaning and what Rollins terms “enjoyment” in our very pursuit of the things that are important to us. If God is Love (1 John 4, 8) then it is in the very act of love itself that God is found and shown, if you want to use that term. There isn’t any truth or answer beyond that. As Rollins has discussed in his book How (Not) to Speak of God, this perhaps can make sense of what is otherwise a truly baffling saying in the gospels:
” Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7, 7-8
This seems bizarre on first reading – the world is full of people asking and not receiving, searching and not finding, knocking at doors that are not opened. It only really makes sense if in fact it is in the very act of asking that we receive, seeking that we find and knocking that the door is opened. It is the asking, searching and knocking itself that is the point, that is what human existence at its best entails.
And so, in a further divergence from the New Atheists, theological atheism does not lead to an outright rejection of the Christian tradition. Instead, as writers from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich to Slavoj Zizek and Thomas Altizer have argued, atheism can take us to the heart of what it is really about.
Edit – This post was edited on 5 March 2018 to correct the reference for Peter Rollins’ discussion of Matthew 7.