Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Stefan Orth {*}

Gentle Atheists


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2013, P. 487-489
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


A pastor who considers himself an atheist is provokative. It is therefore not surprising that the "Manifesto of an Atheist Pastor" of the Reformed Dutchman Klaas Hendrikse in a short time reached more than a dozen editions; and since this year inter alia also a German edition exists. Even the title is distressing: "Faith in a God who does not exist." But it becomes soon apparent that his atheism deals above all with a very specific expression of the thought about God, even though the consequences are then more far-reaching. In his booklet Hendrikse settles up with a theology that is far too sure of God. His reproach: In the church one is praying and blessing in a manner that suffocates every doubt. Today, such faith is virtually a catalyst of secularization, because people have no longer the feeling that they are taken seriously.

Hendrikse mainly denies that there is a God, due to the fact that He in this way would be subsumed under the category of things. God would also too often simply become the answer to all those questions which life was unable to answer. At the end, however, a number of important beliefs of Christianity are greatly relativized: from the role of Jesus up to the importance of the church as a community of faith.

On the other hand, Hendrikse still regards himself as a believer - and only in this way it can be explained at all that he last year went as pastor into retirement. According to him, "God" is a word that refers to human experiences which cannot be put into words. Faith begins with the awareness that everything which is of importance is given to us. It is therefore primarily a question of lifestyle, in the light of which God then "occurs".

As an atheist pastor, Hendrikse explicitly takes the place between the chairs. He feels close to all those seekers who only avoid the word "God" until it has been freed from the burden of church's preaching. For the statements about God from the mouth of atheists in turn are also "rarely reasonable, mostly nonsensical, often caricaturing," especially where they only deny the Christian tradition and become a kind of "reverse fundamentalism." Hendrikse resolutely states that there would be no atheistic arguments which would prohibit it for rational reasons to believe in a God. It is an irrational misconception that the atheist is more rational than the believer.

Especially due to this middle position, the position of Klaas Hendrikse is interesting in the current intellectual landscape where the militant atheists recently try with a bit louder voices to distinguish themselves by effect-seeking actions in the public. His position is a sign of the certainly not small group of those who have not only turned their back to the church as an institution but also to her beliefs, because in their view this world of thought appears to be ossified. But quite in accordance with the maxim "undenominational happy" (Hans-Martin Barth), they are therefore not simply unbelieving.

A similar, albeit differently accented case is the just appeared legacy of Kurt Flasch. While Hendrikse has initially been brought up non-religiously, in his very personal book, "Why I Am Not a Christian," the renowned historian of philosophy, one of the best connoisseurs of the late antique and medieval history of theology, tells how he has lost his faith in his life, because under the weight of objections the arguments for Christianity were almost "crumbled" - a kind of justification of unbelief.



His study of philosophy and historical research had "raised" his childish doubt about the Christian faith, whereas theology, which he hoped would help, had ultimately proved to be nebulous. He had gradually lost his faith "by listening for decades to unfit arguments, lame excuses and empty promises." Since the 20th century, a language that sounds profound would hide too often the lacking content of theology. With the result: If you would regard as Christian someone who believes in God, in a life after death and in the divinity of Christ, he would no longer be a Christian.

The train of thought is here of particular interest: After an examination of the classical arguments of theological epistemology, Flasch examines in detail the Christian argument for the defense of important theologoumena. The strength of the book consists in the fact that resentment appears only in a few places, and that in a largely objective and scrupulous manner a number of weaknesses of the previous apologetics are presented.


Against Fundamentalism on Both Sides

But also in Flasch's work it is conspicuous that the rejected God has only little to do with todays understanding of God, as it is articulated in the mainstream of theology and church. For him, it is ultimately possible to articulate the Christian faith only within the antique philosophical framework, which generally had plausibility only up to 1800 (and in "intellectually isolated provinces" up to 1960) - as Flasch rightly writes.

In this context it is annoying that Flasch on the one hand connects the beginning of his doubts to his view: to be allowed to study biblical texts as well as other literary testimonies of antiquity with the means of historical-critical philology. But when he goes through the range of important topics he always tends to a biblicism with negative auspices. Hans Maier has rightly criticized that one makes things too easy for oneself if one refers to individual - definitely problematic - Bible passages, in order to give far-reaching judgments on the basis of a narrow understanding of inspiration which ultimately is obsolete officially in the Catholic Church since 50 years. (Prime examples are also here passages which tell of a brutal intervention of God.) This is not least due to the fact that Flasch knows "canonical exegesis" only in a distorted form; it does not go beyond a spiritual reading of Scripture and with which you may ignore quickly all the contradictions.

He thus brings ultimately the verdict of Hendrikse upon himself that atheists would not keep pace with the times because their reasoning were still in the context of medieval proofs of God. For it was just not a solution to tie believers down to a certain orthodoxy, in order to scold them then for being simple-minded. In fact, Christianity is here tied down to concrete historical milestones, without taking into account the historical development in its dynamism with regard to present and future.

On the other hand, Flasch interestingly emphasizes that his path in unbelief shall not be justified by bad experiences with the church. What matters for him is not the failure of the church but - in a strict sense - theological controversies which are certainly capable to electrify further on.

Against this background, both authors may be related to the phenomenon of an atheism that is decidedly interested in religious issues. An atheism which today obviously gains in importance besides the aggressive atheism à la Richard Dawkins. This applies even if the one remained pastor and the other explicitly says that he does not want to be seen as an atheist, because he, too, could not prove the non-existence of God. Flasch does not even regard himself as an agnostic, because such slogans would obliterate the lively, interminable discussion of history - and just as little as a seeker of God.

He nevertheless fits into the phalanx of the so-called "devout atheists", a term which the philosopher Herbert Schnädelbach has chosen as own description. But it applies also to other authors, as e.g. the French philosopher and journalist André Comte-Sponville. Based on the admission of their own unbelief - at least as far as the core beliefs of Christianity are concerned - they want to deal unexcitedly with the biblical speech about God and its reception history. Devout atheists, so their self-interpretation, could not help but take seriously the beliefs which are not held by them; not least because on both sides of the spectrum religious ideas are abused by fundamentalists.

Would not it be amazing if there were also among undenominational people those who have religious needs - and among them also those who care about the development of their own spirituality, because not all the questions by which believers are challenged are already obsolete for the sole reason that people do not (no longer) believe?

Another, again differently accentuated example of this part of the spectrum is the since a few months available dedicated plea of the philosophical publicist Alain de Botton for the strength of religions to shape culture - also beyond Christianity ("Religion for Atheists. On the Use of Religion for Life"). He deals from the outset in a relaxed manner with the fact that he from time immemorial could not believe, because he has "no feeling" of God. But he sees himself explicitly as a "gentle atheist". The book had primarily been written for those who do not see themselves in a position to believe in "miracles, ghosts or tales of burning bushes".



At the same time, however, with flaming words and a remarkable insouciance he tries to convince his fellow-unbelievers how important the heritage of religions in their diversity is and that it must be possible without God to reinterpret creatively the basic components and thus to preserve them transformed. In a world where believers and secularists often irreconcilably face each other, it must be possible to think some concrete religious rites and beliefs are good, even if one is fundamentally irreligious - so his conviction. Urging aporias remained, even if God is dead. The fact that one had "thrown some of the most useful and attractive parts of faith overboard," was virtually a sign of inadequacy for the secularization that had taken place.

In contrast, as a decidedly infidel de Botton is interested to copy and imitate the religions, and to distill the good thing from them. Crucial aspects for him are here the feeling of gratitude, community spirit, compassion for the neighbor, the knowledge about man's culpability, the structuring of time, and the shaping of the world.

What de Botton with his exuberant imagination proposes in detail seems partly peculiar: Agape Restaurants analogous to the Christian Eucharist, billboards for humanity, a kind of secular day of atonement, and temples for non-believers. It is no coincidence that he feels inspired by Auguste Comte, who wanted to initiate a secular religion in the 19th century. But the main question is whether such a "placebo religion" (Die Zeit) works, because his argumentation is largely based on the need for religious consolation, and "religion" is thus consistently functionalized. Need not religion be in any case more than the celebration of "early childhood feelings of security"?


New Opportunities for Discussion between Religious and Irreligious People?

It is nevertheless an interesting contribution, because it shows that - despite the obvious difficulties in which the major Christian churches in Europe are - the heritage of the biblical message is not only taken seriously by those and simply rejected by all others. The authors jointly commit themselves to achieve that above all the reception history of Christianity in European culture is seen as inspiration. De Botton gives a whole chapter to art and architecture; Hendrikse refers to walks in Rome or Florence, which he did not want to miss. In his rather mildly tempered rereading of his own train of thought at the end of the book, Flasch appreciates Christianity as "gallery of paintings of productive religious inventions." He emphasizes its significance for art and literature, and suggests to appreciate faith in the context of a "poetic conception of truth."

Moreover, he would by no means maintain that everything in Christianity had been bad, but strengths, as e.g. the ethics of love and the Sermon on the Mount, would admittedly often exaggerated. The other two authors, too, praise the role of religion for establishing good personal relationships, in order to overcome the trend to individualization of today's people.

From a theological point of view, many statements of the religious atheists will remain unsatisfactory. And it is certainly possible to prove in detail where factual errors or misunderstandings exist, or where long since the state of the debate is a different one. With other inquiries, on the other hand, is currently intensively dealt within Christian theology.

However, the authors also bring up a painful subject: for various reasons, theologians do not make their voice so heard - both within but especially outside the churches - as it would be necessary for the sake of their cause. The lack of willingness intellectually to comprehend the relevant issues on the one hand, the missing sensitivity to an understandable language on the other hand, are only two aspects.

Those thinkers at the border-lines between belief and unbelief are already remarkable for the sole reason that they do not simply want to slave away at ecclesiastical shortcomings but also take the last question into account. Here, new opportunities for discussion result for the churches. With its initiative "Court of Nations" now the Vatican wants to explore them also in Berlin at the end of November. In mid-September Pope Francis has confirmed this attempt in an "open letter to the non-believers", addressed to Eugenio Scalfari, the publisher of "La Repubblica", with a call for a common commitment. According to Francis "now the time has come for an open dialogue without prejudices, which opens anew the doors for a serious and fruitful encounter." This naturally presupposes that non-believers experience that tolerance and acceptance which they - according to a recent survey - here and there not find among Christians.

That occasionally the impression is given that the debate about ecclesiastical structures had priority over the examination of questions of faith could also be due to the fact that bishops and other church leaders often try to make a name for themselves and to put themselves in the limelight not as theologians or religious thinkers but as church officials.

What is more, the intensive examination of the respective inquiries, which often enough originate in worries about faith, is important. It is possible also in a pensive climate - as the phenomenon of gentle atheists shows. There are currently enough occasions for a serious conversation about the meaning/importance of the Christian faith.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'