According to the story of his martyrdom, the second-century Christian bishop Polycarp was given the option to recant and stop being an atheist. He refused, and was killed.
In the late twentieth century the Evangelical Bible scholar James Barr advised his colleagues that it was in the interests of the Church that the atheism in their community be of the very highest quality. Last month I came across this macro online:
All of which seemed to call for some thinking on my part about the relationship between Christianity and atheism, and the ways they are often opposed in our culture. The idea that the two are opposites can claim a certain flood of evidence from Christian writers over the last few centuries, with the charge of “atheism” being frequently levelled at those who sought to alter the established order. And modern organized atheism (in the loosest sense) has a habit of choosing Catholic Christianity as the paradigm of what it is rejecting. The picture above certainly rests on some similar idea: that atheists have always been the free-thinking people who stood up to mindless superstition and denounced obscurantist abuses of power. However, this clearly cannot be squared with the fact that Polycarp was offered the customary chance to condemn his fellow atheists and thus save his life. Or indeed James Barr’s concern for high quality atheism.
This isn’t simply a historical quibble. Obviously Polycarp’s executioners were referring to the fact that one of the distinguishing marks of Christians in the Roman Empire at the time was their refusal to make sacrifices to the Emperor and participate in a cult which they believed was blasphemous. As a friend explained when I asked her why early Christians were called atheists, “Well, give them credit: they believed in [none +1] gods, which is as close to [none] as made no odds at the time. They were kept pretty busy disbelieving in an awful lot of gods.” Diarmaid MacCulloch has, in typically provocative style, suggested that atheism is the result of a long Christian struggle with God which ends in denying God’s existence. Whether or not you find that a convincing sketch of its emergence, it’s difficult to deny the importance of having a historical perspective on atheism. After all, that’s what the macro I reproduced above does: place the imagined atheist speaker and Christian listener in a historical perspective which makes one appear more compelling and authentic than the other.
That perspective makes atheism seem a lot less secure than the image would like to suggest, however. Atheism has its own history, and in our culture a lot of that history is bound up in Christian objections to other Christians. The late Christopher Hitchens was perhaps the most prominent example of an atheist whose writing emerged from the language and traditions of Christian protest, including a surprising fondness for an old hymn based on Isaiah 63. P.Z. Myers’ adoption of Luther’s rhetoric whilst denouncing sexual harassment in the atheist community provides another instance, whether or not Myers was consciously paraphrasing. There’s a temptation here to replace “superstition” with “political power” and create a Christian “golden age” before it was co-opted by the Roman Empire, in which (to sketch with rather broad strokes) believing in Christ was a radical and commendable act before Constantine, but an unworthy capitulation to the system afterwards.
However, this doesn’t seem a helpful direction to go. Firstly, as Rowan Williams points out in Why Study the Past, golden ages are not something which a historical hypothesis can afford to produce. Introducing a historical perspective which then generates a “golden age” should make us suspicious of the reasoning involved. Secondly, both Christians and atheists are concerned with the content as well as the context of statements of, and about, faith. Even given the need to reinterpret doctrines, situate theologies historically and develop new thinking in response to new contexts, it seem unsatisfying to suggest that Constantine’s decision should be the determining issue here. (Yes, I know. Nicea.) Thirdly, this has implications for pluralist and secular societies in the modern era: aligning the validity of faith too closely with the element of protest towards the state or dominant culture will give an awful lot of support to a tendency of certain Christians in the UK and US to see themselves as persecuted. Valorizing Polycarp’s actions only on the grounds that they – like those of the imaginary atheist who took a stand against Mithraism – were a challenge to a religious system which had the sanction of the state, would ally this argument with what seem to be unhealthy streams of self-pity and resentment in some modern Christian thinking. Fourthly, it installs Rome as the one point everyone can agree they despise and reject, which is already a problem in such a Protestant-influenced culture as America, particularly given the involvement of traditional British anti-Catholic tropes in racist discourse in the US.
There does, though, seem to be common ground in my friend’s remarks, when she talked about all that disbelieving they had to do. The best tendencies in atheist writing, it seems to me, engage in exactly this kind of disciplined disbelief. They question authority, they reflect upon the influences which have produced the society around them, and ponder the ways in which their own personality and mindset may have been shaped by social forces which they would wish to disavow. Some of the worst show themselves in bigotry which identifies someone else’s “beliefs” as the problem which must be exorcised, whilst insisting on the purity of the movement. (Watching atheist forums suggest that rape culture at conferences is the result of men not having rid themselves of Christianity, and that therefore Rebecca Watson should shut up, would be funny if it didn’t echo parallel comments coming out of Reformed churches in the US.)
Personally I think much organized atheism has far too narrow a focus, and is far too intent on establishing propositional “beliefs” as the way of defining value and virtue. It can seem at times rather too much like a checklist of doctrines. But I also think that is part of its Protestant heritage, the continuation of a tradition where precision and scepticism are highly respected, and a vital element in its project. That historical consciousness can only strengthen its sense of purpose, and occasionally might call attention to blindspots which come from fixating on why other people are wrong. Likewise a Christian memory of Polycarp being ordered to disavow the atheists can remind us to turn away from participation in unjust systems, and help us respect authenticity in the lives of those who don’t share our faith. “Disbelieving” in consumerism, in sexism, in political injustice, and petty power struggles in various parts of life, does not involve denying that they exist, but living in ways which critique and resist them. Atheists and Christians do an awful lot of disbelieving alongside each other, and we could do a lot more.