Can one be an atheist and a Christian?

Posted:
in General Discussion edited January 2014
I recently saw a speech by John Spong, who was an Anglican Bishop until he retired a few years ago. See here for some of his writings. He's also written a ton of books. The central point of the speech that I heard was that although he considers himself a committed Christian, he's basically an atheist, at least by most people's definition. In his own words:
Quote:

Yet I do not define God as a supernatural being. I do not believe in a deity who can help a nation win a war, intervene to cure a loved one?s sickness, allow a particular athletic team to defeat its opponent, or affect the weather for anyone?s benefit. I do not think it is appropriate for me to pretend that those things are possible when everything I know about the natural order of the world I inhabit proclaims that they are not.



Since I do not see God as a being, I cannot interpret Jesus as the earthly incarnation of this supernatural deity, nor can I with credibility assume that he possessed sufficient Godlike power to do such miraculous things as stilling the storm, banishing demons, walking on water, or expanding five loaves to provide sufficient bread to feed 5,000 men, plus women and children.



This was a one of the highest-up officials in a mainline Christian church, and he's pretty much admitting to being an atheist. In the speech I heard, he explicitly says that Christianity needs to dump theism, and any other supernatural beliefs. (He does make some claims to being a kind of deist or maybe pantheist, though he doesn't use those terms.)



Spong's position is basically that there have been Reformations in the past, that all through the history of Christianity, theology has changed with the times, and done so in ways that were unthinkable to those living in earlier times. He says that to a modern person, belief in the supernatural goes against the grain in a way that it wouldn't to a person from prior eras. They used to believe that there was a bearded man in the sky, but now we know about the solar system and the universe. They used to believe in the virgin birth, but now we understand reproductive biology. Etc. So today, the Reformation must involve ridding Christianity of theism and supernatural beliefs.



Is this possible? Desirable? Would it attract more people who currently look at religious people as kooks who believe in the unbelievable? Or is he just trying to delay the inevitable death of religion?
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 92
    I'm pretty irreligious and atheistic, specifically because I don't believe in the supernatural, I definitely don't believe in God as a sentient omniscient being with divine influence over our actions, to me, that's absolutely absurd. But, I do believe in many of the teachings of jesus, and many of the ideals of christianity. But, as it appears to me, so much of 'christianity' today and in all of history, has bastardized those ideals and essentially lost track with what it's supposed to be about. I don't like the concept of organized religion much, because it so often turns sour as it's essentially politics just with a different veil, and the same BS happens in it as does in politics.



    Whatever, I'll live my life how I want to.
  • Reply 2 of 92
    giaguaragiaguara Posts: 2,724member
    in the last census i was counted in, i ticked catholic, buddhist, and atheist. and find nothing weird in that.



    ie tried to raised as the first of those, thinking since kid as the second, and since that is not a religion, the third.
  • Reply 3 of 92
    brussellbrussell Posts: 9,812member
    Quote:

    Originally posted by Wrong Robot

    I'm pretty irreligious and atheistic, specifically because I don't believe in the supernatural, I definitely don't believe in God as a sentient omniscient being with divine influence over our actions, to me, that's absolutely absurd. But, I do believe in many of the teachings of jesus, and many of the ideals of christianity. But, as it appears to me, so much of 'christianity' today and in all of history, has bastardized those ideals and essentially lost track with what it's supposed to be about. I don't like the concept of organized religion much, because it so often turns sour as it's essentially politics just with a different veil, and the same BS happens in it as does in politics.



    Whatever, I'll live my life how I want to.




    That's right. I think so many people today, me included, just can't believe in something that violates their basic knowledge of the world.



    I think that's why you're seeing the religious polarization that's occurring today. People who are religious are becoming more fundamentalist, more political conservative, more creationist, literalist, etc., and on the other hand many people are simply leaving the church because they can't relate to that belief system. That's why I think this Spong is onto something. Something is wrong if an institution that's been such an important part of people's lives throughout history is today making so little sense to people that they just reject it without a second thought.



    But then I think maybe we'll just live without religion. We have other, and IMO better ways of understanding the world today. I still hold out hope though, because I think spirituality and community are basic human needs, and they're probably not fulfilled through other means.



    One approach that's worked for me is to examine the historical scholarship on religion by folks like the Jesus Seminar among others. I think that work basically agrees with your approach that the teachings of Jesus are very different from Christianity the religion. For one, Christianity basically ignores the life of Jesus, focusing almost completely on the fact of his death and his (supposed) resurrection. Jesus "died for our sins." That also you have to say, and BAM you're a Christian. You needn't know anything else about his life or what he actually said. Maybe a better Christianity would forget all the resurrection stuff, which so many of us can't ever believe in anyway, and focus on his teachings.
  • Reply 4 of 92
    gongon Posts: 2,437member
    The very meaning of religion is, IMO, faith in something. If there is no faith, christianity stops being religion and goes on to become some sort of organization, club, point of view.



    Sometimes, some of the objects of belief are possible to show true or false by science, however the majority of the beliefs are not provable either way and can perfectly well coexist with a scientific worldview, apart from Occam's razor.



    All Spong says in the quote is he thinks the part of christianity that is incompatible with modern scientific worldview should go. If you buy that, you can still believe in God, believe in afterlife, things like that. You just can't say any of those things affect this physical world in a measurable way.



    There's just one thing that's a bit problematic to me about this.



    Believer says: 'God told me to plant a tree'. If God's talking to people, sending them 'messages', that means actual things happen in the world as a result of God's interaction with people, and you could for instance lose your job because God told the boss to kick you out. If there are 'coincidences' bad enough, the scientific method can show it's extremely likely that there is something going on behind the scenes. That's basically in supernatural realm which Spong says is not okay, right?



    So what if he means you can't 'get messages from God'? He can't. Basically, any faith itself is a 'supernatural experience', affects the behavior of people, and through them affects the physical world. It's the equivalent of 'message from God'. If we assume Spong doesn't mean christianity should stop being a religion, the line is actually drawn roughly like this: "there are no supernatural incidents except ones that are absolutely unverifiable".



    Sounds fishy. Is there a flaw in my logic? Is he really calling for christianity to stop being a religion?
  • Reply 5 of 92
    hirohiro Posts: 2,663member
    To answer quite simply. No.



    You might have common values with those that are Christians, but the rub is belief in Christ as the Son of God. You don't have that, you don't have a Christian.
  • Reply 6 of 92
    That is retarded. Christianity is more than a religion and more than its fundamental tenant.
  • Reply 7 of 92
    gongon Posts: 2,437member
    Okay, I read Spong's writing and he is actually advocating end of all belief - atheism and some sort of philosophy with a misleadingly named concept of 'god'.



    At least where I live, I perceive christianity is struggling to maintain its grip on the majority of people. That's not because the people don't believe. Most really want to believe in something, but it's all very vague and murky and it often doesn't really fit in with the basic viewpoints of the church and/or Bible. The people stick with the official church of the state because there is no obvious other place to go, they don't want to go through the trouble of resigning, they want the regular ceremonies like weddings and funerals and don't realize they could have the ceremonies without the church.



    Now, suppose the church transformed into something that is not religion - when the only thing the folks were sure of, was that they believed in something. The people would leave en masse, some just to leave and some to join an actual religious group.
  • Reply 8 of 92
    groveratgroverat Posts: 10,872member
    No.



    You cannot be a Christian and an atheist.



    To be a Christian you must believe in the Bible (otherwise Jesus wouldn't exist to you). And there is absolutely no way to interpret the Bible without seeing that (1) there is a God and (2) Jesus is the mortal incarnation of that god.



    It is just puffery to say otherwise. I would go so far as to say it is pure intellectual cowardice on Spong's part. Christianity doesn't need to dump theism, Spong needs to grow a pair of balls and dump Christianity.



    Stop trying to change a broken set of beliefs to force them fit into a modern time they are just not made for. Just leave them behind.



    Coward.
  • Reply 9 of 92
    Whatever, I certainly don't believe in god nor was I ever a Christian -- however, on the outside of things, Christianity is far more of a culture than most people within it realize. Christmas traditions without mention of god. Easter traditions without mention of god. Halloween. Etc etc etc. It really is easy to put everything in context when you aren't in the context upon which everything around you is based.
  • Reply 10 of 92
    brussellbrussell Posts: 9,812member
    Quote:

    Originally posted by Gon

    Okay, I read Spong's writing and he is actually advocating end of all belief - atheism and some sort of philosophy with a misleadingly named concept of 'god'.



    He even used Nietzsche's "God is dead" line in his talk. He then goes on to say that God is the label we give to the feeling of being alive, or something like that. From what I gather, it seems like he's describing a kind of pantheism, except that maybe God only exists in living things, and not everything. But at this point, God is sort of whatever you want it to be. There's really no "gnosis." Maybe it's just an evolved psychological state of awe or spirituality. I know I can get it if I think about the infinite universe, or sometimes even listening to music, or if you hold some electromagnets over my head in just the right way.



    Quote:

    A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.



    --Carl Sagan



    I think it's also important to remember that not all religions are theistic in the same way that Christianity is theistic. When Spong talks about the nature of God, he's not too far off from what I understand about Hinduism, for example. And yet no one would doubt that Hinduism is a religion.
  • Reply 11 of 92
    brussellbrussell Posts: 9,812member
    Quote:

    Originally posted by Hiro

    To answer quite simply. No.



    You might have common values with those that are Christians, but the rub is belief in Christ as the Son of God. You don't have that, you don't have a Christian.




    That's certainly orthodox (small o) Christianity, but could that be changed? I sincerely doubt that Jesus ever referred to himself as the unique son of God, let alone part of some trinity. Those things were set in stone several hundred years later. Would it be possible to re-evaluate all that?
  • Reply 12 of 92
    brussellbrussell Posts: 9,812member
    Quote:

    Originally posted by groverat

    To be a Christian you must believe in the Bible (otherwise Jesus wouldn't exist to you). And there is absolutely no way to interpret the Bible without seeing that (1) there is a God and (2) Jesus is the mortal incarnation of that god.



    What do you mean "believe in the Bible?" One can believe it was written by folks very different from us trying to understand events, and trying to make interesting stories, but one need not believe in its literal truth. Why not read it like a questionable history book? You can believe some of it, piece together parts that seem to be true or false, see how it fits with other religious texts, etc.



    I think there is an amazing message in the history of Christianity. One of the most powerful empires in the history of the world squashed a little nobody just because they could, and within about 300 years the followers of that nobody had taken over that empire. Within 500 years the empire was gone and all that was left were his followers. Whether God exists or not, the story of some dead radical egalitarian nobody taking over the known world through his followers is pretty amazing. Can someone be a Christian simply by acknowledging that?
  • Reply 13 of 92
    giaguaragiaguara Posts: 2,724member
    Quote:

    Originally posted by Gon

    The very meaning of religion is, IMO, faith in something. If there is no faith, christianity stops being religion and goes on to become some sort of organization, club, point of view.



    that probably puts it well .. the way i see it.



    there is the ORGANIZATION .. and there are the 95% (rough estimate) of people who belong to the church JUST BECAUSE they were born and their parents wanted them to be part of it, as it is / was a common habit and everyone would have looked at you like a weirdo .. (a valid argument in a lot of places on this planet).



    i personally cant stand how the religion is taught to kids, and as "the truth". i thought as a kid that everything christian i heard was pretty BS, i didnt get why the adults kept repeating those lies, .. maybe they were just all afraid of thinking by their own (and terrified about realizing that they'd die one day, that i remember from being a child)... none of what i was told / taught as

    "the truth" ever made any sense to me. BUT ... untill i was 18, i had nothing to say about it. forced to study the religion JUST because my mum decided so. what a waste of time ..



    thus, statistically christian all the time until i was 18 (i did sign myself off that the day i was 18) ... in practise what siddhartha had thought had made sense to me all the time. i remember having read something he had written / discovered when i was like 9, ... and that just made sense.



    and i know a bunch of other similar people.



    probably even the majority of the people who are part of a church .. since many od them don't REALLY believe what tehy are told anyway.
  • Reply 14 of 92
    Well, Spong sounds like a pretty typical Anglican to me... the Anglican church is more of a social club than a theological stamping ground.



    At any rate, I don't think that "belief in the Bible" can really be said to be the only test of Christianity -- for example, the radical "inner light" style Protestants such as the early Baptists often raised, and continue to raise, personal revelation to a similar, or even higher level than the bible. At any rate, there's a big difference between Anglican-style biblical scholarship (looking at large parts of it as basically a metaphor, and trying to use historical context to gain the real sense of the passages) and literal interpretations (which are just crazy, I'm sorry).



    Personally, I'd view the dividing line as being some belief in either the godhead of one or more of Jesus, God, or The Trinity, or of them as a metaphor for a set of rules consistent with "christian" living. I firmly believe that one can identify as Christian without actually believing that Jesus was the son of God (except in the sense that we all are).



    What do I know though? I'm definitely a non-christian Atheist.



    -s
  • Reply 15 of 92
    Lets stop redefining terms.



    Quote:

    Religion, as distinguished from theology, is subjective, designating the feelings and acts of men which relate to God; while theology is objective, and denotes those ideas which man entertains respecting the God whom he worships, especially his systematized views of God.



    As distinguished from morality, religion denotes the influences and motives to human duty which are found in the character and will of God, while morality describes the duties to man, to which true religion always influences.



    As distinguished from piety, religion is a high sense of moral obligation and spirit of reverence or worship which affect the heart of man with respect to the Deity, while piety, which first expressed the feelings of a child toward a parent, is used for that filial sentiment of veneration and love which we owe to the Father of all.



    As distinguished from sanctity, religion is the means by which sanctity is achieved, sanctity denoting primarily that purity of heart and life which results from habitual communion with God, and a sense of his continual presence.



    Quote:

    atheism



    n 1: the doctrine or belief that there is no God [syn: godlessness] [ant: theism] 2: a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods



    The two don't mix and match by definition. So you cannot be a Christian and an aethist.
  • Reply 16 of 92
    groveratgroverat Posts: 10,872member
    Quote:

    What do you mean "believe in the Bible?" One can believe it was written by folks very different from us trying to understand events, and trying to make interesting stories, but one need not believe in its literal truth.



    They were not just "trying to understand events" or "trying to make interesting stories", they were either claiming direct inspiration from God (i.e. - "I saw God and He talked to me") or they claimed to actually be walking around with God incarnate. They claimed to see miraculous things.



    I am not Christian, but I see it as tremendously disrespectful of the belief structure to hang like a rabid dog onto a book you don't believe in. I also see it as pointless.





    Quote:

    Why not read it like a questionable history book?



    Here is a better question:

    Why read it like it is a questionable history book?





    Quote:

    You can believe some of it, piece together parts that seem to be true or false, see how it fits with other religious texts, etc.



    Sure, you can pick and choose, all Christians do, but there are fundamental, absolute truths put forth, and the absolute teaching of the entire thing is that there is a God and He is supreme.





    Quote:

    I think there is an amazing message in the history of Christianity. One of the most powerful empires in the history of the world squashed a little nobody just because they could, and within about 300 years the followers of that nobody had taken over that empire. Within 500 years the empire was gone and all that was left were his followers. Whether God exists or not, the story of some dead radical egalitarian nobody taking over the known world through his followers is pretty amazing. Can someone be a Christian simply by acknowledging that?



    No, because "Christian" involves faith in Christ's divinity. Unequivocal. That is what "Christian" is. One might as well be "X-ian" for every single figure in history that gives one inspiration.



    I can't believe I am calling for basic respect for a religion I think is , but there it is. Why the hell would anyone be motivated to call themselves "Christian" without believing in God, it is either cowardly or childish.



    "No, grandma, I promise I'm still Christian! (I just don't believe in God.)"



    The "no" is absolute and unequivocal; if you do not believe in God you are not a Christian.
  • Reply 17 of 92
    gongon Posts: 2,437member
    Quote:

    Originally posted by Giaguara

    i personally cant stand how the religion is taught to kids, and as "the truth". i thought as a kid that everything christian i heard was pretty BS, i didnt get why the adults kept repeating those lies, .. maybe they were just all afraid of thinking by their own (and terrified about realizing that they'd die one day, that i remember from being a child)... none of what i was told / taught as

    "the truth" ever made any sense to me. BUT ... untill i was 18, i had nothing to say about it. forced to study the religion JUST because my mum decided so. what a waste of time ...

    thus, statistically christian all the time until i was 18 (i did sign myself off that the day i was 18) ... in practise what siddhartha had thought had made sense to me all the time. i remember having read something he had written / discovered when i was like 9, ... and that just made sense.




    I was put to sunday school at age of 4 (actually just to meet other kids who spoke my language; this was abroad; my parents aren't really religious at all). I became anxious and disturbed because the religious content offered there seemed bullshit. I had read about evolution and stuff like that, and that made sense, the sunday school teaching didn't. So for me the sunday school was over after something like two weeks \



    Then at about seven years old, me and both my parents resigned the church so that I could get into alternate religion class in school instead of the christian class. That was only possible if neither parent was a member of the church, but again I assume that wasn't any real loss for my parents. Just stupid - of course it should be enough the kid doesn't belong to the church. With a law like this, the state is really working hard to maintain a bullshit facade of 'spiritual unity'.. like people would actually pick up religion, and not just a habit, from some classes in school.



    At about ten, I started thinking things over and realized my atheism (which was then absolute denial of gods) wasn't right because I also believed stuff I couldn't prove. So after that I've thought myself as an agnostic (I understand the term 'weak atheist' is also used). I also started respecting and tolerating religious belief whereas I had mocked it before.



    Lately (like five years or so) I've been interested in zen and meditation, but haven't yet made a move to explore those. I don't think that stuff is religion at all, since there doesn't seem to be a leap of faith required, just exercising the mind in a certain way that leads to better understanding of... things.
  • Reply 18 of 92
    brussellbrussell Posts: 9,812member
    Quote:

    Originally posted by groverat

    They were not just "trying to understand events" or "trying to make interesting stories", they were either claiming direct inspiration from God (i.e. - "I saw God and He talked to me") or they claimed to actually be walking around with God incarnate. They claimed to see miraculous things.



    That was how they made sense of things, and how they told their history. The literalism and inerrancy stuff is a recent phenomenon associated with 20th-century American Christianity. My understanding is that throughout even the Middle Ages, people wouldn't have thought to interpret the Bible the way many conservative American Christians do today.
    Quote:

    Here is a better question:

    Why read it like it is a questionable history book?



    I guess we could simply ignore it. While we're at it why don't we ignore Homer and Plato too? Ignoring it is not an option for a person interested in human history. The other option is to read it as the literal truth. That's not an option for many people either. So you're left with reading it but reading it skeptically and analytically.
    Quote:

    No, because "Christian" involves faith in Christ's divinity. Unequivocal. That is what "Christian" is.



    That's how Christianity was defined after Jesus died. There was substantial debate about it, with many Christians believing that Jesus was not divine. Now Spong is calling for a reformation of that long-held definition.
  • Reply 19 of 92
    trumptmantrumptman Posts: 16,452member
    Quote:

    Originally posted by BRussell

    I recently saw a speech by John Spong, who was an Anglican Bishop until he retired a few years ago. See here for some of his writings. He's also written a ton of books. The central point of the speech that I heard was that although he considers himself a committed Christian, he's basically an atheist, at least by most people's definition. In his own words:This was a one of the highest-up officials in a mainline Christian church, and he's pretty much admitting to being an atheist. In the speech I heard, he explicitly says that Christianity needs to dump theism, and any other supernatural beliefs. (He does make some claims to being a kind of deist or maybe pantheist, though he doesn't use those terms.)



    Spong's position is basically that there have been Reformations in the past, that all through the history of Christianity, theology has changed with the times, and done so in ways that were unthinkable to those living in earlier times. He says that to a modern person, belief in the supernatural goes against the grain in a way that it wouldn't to a person from prior eras. They used to believe that there was a bearded man in the sky, but now we know about the solar system and the universe. They used to believe in the virgin birth, but now we understand reproductive biology. Etc. So today, the Reformation must involve ridding Christianity of theism and supernatural beliefs.



    Is this possible? Desirable? Would it attract more people who currently look at religious people as kooks who believe in the unbelievable? Or is he just trying to delay the inevitable death of religion?




    I think he considers himself a christian much like how Zel Miller considers himself a Democrat. The times have changed and what their label means to them has changed, but they are too old to change their label.



    We have to remember that outside the United States, religion is much more cultural and not necessarily a belief system. There are folks who believe that by virtue of being Italian, you are for example, Catholic as well, just by birth. He might be referring to himself as "christian" in that regard as well.



    As far as belief systems, he wouldn't be considered "christian" by many churches, though he is free, in my opinion, to call himself whatever he desires.



    Nick
  • Reply 20 of 92
    brussellbrussell Posts: 9,812member
    Quote:

    Originally posted by talksense101

    Lets stop redefining terms.



    The two don't mix and match by definition. So you cannot be a Christian and an aethist.




    There are religions that aren't monotheistic. But the larger point is that Spong wants to redefine religion for the modern world.
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