People rightly note the way Christians in English-speaking Western culture have moved in a generation from being ‘moral majority’ to ‘immoral minority’. But I wonder whether that really catches the intensity of the dislike and disdain that I see in the two Western societies with which I am most familiar, the UK and Australia. You see, when I read the Sydney Morning Herald or the UK’s Guardian, what I perceive goes beyond a simple charge of immorality (and I’m not talking just about the articles, but the subsequent reader feedback). It has a religious intensity. The same applies to the so-called New Atheism: Richard Dawkins sounds like an OT prophet denouncing Israel’s unbelief.
It is important, I think, to understand that our surrounding secular culture regards Christians not just as fools, but also—unconsciously—in a religious sense as evil atheists.
Why? Because our culture practices polytheism. This is a paradoxical polytheism which is both a kind of atheism itself and which will also see us as atheist. We need to grasp this if we are to respond faithfully in our time and place.
We can explore this paradoxical polytheism using three questions: Is our culture polytheist? How can that polytheism also be atheistic? And why should our culture see Christians as atheist?
1. So Is Our Culture Polytheist?
After all, at first glance this is not how our culture sees itself. But the biblical idea of idolatry sheds a different light. Idolatry has many dimensions, but one key ingredient is that in idolatry we parody the real relationship between us and our creator by using substitutes for God. Substitution is at the heart of the exchange/change language of Rom 1:23 and Jer 2:11.
Tertullian develops this in De Idololatria 4 when he points out that an idol stands pro Deo (‘for God’). Something can substitute for God either by passing itself off as God and trying to look as much as possible like the real thing (Aaron’s golden calves fall into that category) or simply by distracting and obscuring our view of the real God so that we look at the idol and not at God.
I suspect many of our culture’s idols fall into that latter category. Our gods are not necessarily gods who create from nothing, are omniscient, and are personal. Vitally, they may now be quite small-scale. In particular, we must grasp that idol-gods may be impersonal: wealth is the obvious biblical example of something impersonal that can be treated as a god. For our time, we have many gods, some crass like wealth and sexual pleasure, others not ignoble in the right context, like equality before the law and freedom of speech—ideological idols. But the cultural memory that a god should be personal obscures the fact that this is idolatry.
Hence, our culture is not only polytheist, in having many small-scale things that stand pro Deo, it is an unaware polytheist culture. This means that as Christian trinitarian monotheists we are deeply at odds theologically with a culture that is polytheist but does not know it.
2. But Why Is Such Polytheism an Atheism?
Remember that the patristic theologians were set in a polytheistic culture. Ultimately, their analysis of polytheism was that it became atheism. This sounds odd. Wonderful temples were built, staggering works of art made depicting Zeus, etc. How can that be atheism?
Athanasius sums it up nicely when discussing the idea of having two gods (Contra Gentes 6). He argues that if you have two gods, you have no gods in the real sense of the word because to be God means you have no rivals who can resist your will. His base assumption here, drawn from biblical descriptions of God as Lord, is that to be ‘God’ necessarily entails sovereignty. So the multiple impersonal values of our time boil down to this kind of atheism.
But it works the other way too. If you are an atheist in Athanasius’s terms, what are you left with? There is no overall coherence, no God who in himself is the sum of all perfections, and so there’s no reason not to elevate your own personal values into things which function as absolutes for you, and to accept that others are entitled to do the same. In that way, atheism becomes polytheism where there are lots of small, often impersonal gods who function as divine in our lives, even if we don’t see ourselves as worshipping them. Think of G. K. Chesterton’s comment that when people stop worshipping God, they don’t worship nothing; they worship anything. Or indeed, everything.
One of Athanasius’s followers, Gregory of Nazianzen, is useful here. He commented on the worldviews that polytheism and monotheism tend to create and noted that there are three ways of viewing the cosmos (3rd Oration on the Son 1):
- A cosmic monarchy (one ruler)
- A cosmic polyarchy (lots of rulers)
- A cosmic anarchy (no ruler)
His point was that polytheism involved a cosmic polyarchy, and this in turn became a cosmic anarchy because no one holds things together and integrates them. Atheism and anarchy go together.
But anarchy is unstable. Anarchy is not a self-regulating dynamic equilibrium in human experience, but consistently tends to allow different power-holders to establish themselves at the expense of others. Each power-holder acts and competes against others without restraint—as if absolute. So in the value-anarchy of atheism, each small-scale value can, paradoxically, be treated as if absolute. There is nothing there to restrain it.
But where do Christians fit into a culture caught in polytheism and atheism? This takes us to the third question.
3. Why Should Our Culture See Christians as Atheists?
Again, think back to the early church. One of the more surprising charges made was that Christians were atheists. Why? Because of the number of gods they denied. No Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Mithras, Isis, or whoever. Similarly, we deny our culture’s gods.
Take one of the current cultural idols: equality. This is one of those impersonal gods we were discussing earlier. Does the Bible give us an account of equality? Yes, but in relation to other considerations. We have an integrated account of equality, that is, equality is put in proper perspective and place by the whole Bible’s teaching, and crucially, we as creatures are not equal to our creator. In that way, equality is not the great overarching theme of Christian thought. But it is one of the gods of the current secular pantheon and pursued with a religious fervour. In the value-anarchy of our time, it competes to be treated as absolute.
So my refusal to accept equality as absolute looks rather like earlier Christians refusing to worship the god Zeus. I am an atheist within that framework of reference.
Hence some of the rage which comes our way on some of the debates of the day. When we oppose same-sex marriage, we are not just discussing different ethical positions, we are demonstrating that we are irreligious atheists because we are denying the ‘divinity’ of some very popular gods—sexual satisfaction, autonomy, equality, liberty. Of course, what makes it hard for people to see this rage as a religious rage is their self-image as secular people. But then polytheistic idolatry has always had a somewhat delusional, self-deceptive dimension: see Isa 44.
There are some further parallels here in the way early Christians were regarded. The neoplatonist Porphyry famously argues, ‘How can people not be in every way impious and atheistic who have apostatized from the customs of our ancestors through which every nation and city is sustained?’
This raises an important dimension. By not worshipping the ancestral ‘public’ gods, Christians were thought of as atheists who undermined the state. And this is not too far from the way atheist Christians who do not sacrifice at the altar of equality or liberty in personal hedonism can be thought of as atheists who are public enemies, bad citizens. Our assertions of cosmic monarchy destabilise the value-anarchy polytheism of our time.
It’s not surprising, then, that Christians in the UK speaking on practising homosexuality as meriting God’s condemnation are prosecuted under public-order offences. And such state action is perceived as ‘self-defence’. This seems to me to be an extremely important part of the rhetoric the media elite uses against Christians and other cosmic monarchists. It is self-defence because we are thought to undermine a society which is a process of competing and plural forces and persons. The latter half of the twentieth century is replete with arguments that a democratic society can take strong steps in defending itself against those who would overthrow it. In fact, because democracy is so precious (dare one say such an idol?), security services are justified in taking very extreme action to preserve something so precious.
The rhetoric about self-defence is significant. In an instant the claim of self-defence allows one to present oneself as the victim. And a polytheistic culture may readily see itself victimised by the rhetoric of cosmic monarchists—for we are the atheists.