By Edward James.
A Response to: “The Making of a Quaker Atheist,” by George Amoss, Jr., in Quaker Theology #1. (Amoss’s comments follow.)
Mother Angelica of the Eternal Word TV Network likes to describe those Catholic churches which have abandoned or modified their sacred traditions to be more in tune with the modern world as “electric churches”: every time you go to Mass, you get another shock. George Amoss provides a similar jolt for traditional Friends with his idea of being at the same time both a Quaker and an atheist.
To make the idea of being a “Quaker atheist” credible is a heavy challenge. The words “Quaker” and “atheist” clash in discordant marriage. Being a “Jewish atheist” is a real possibility since being Jewish does not imply that one is also religious. It is more difficult to conceive of “Christian atheism,” although a few have tried. Thomas Altizer tried to make a case for it in The Gospel of Christian Atheism.1 The attempt failed to attract any following and his work was judged by Austin Farrer to be “an essay in the preposterous.”2 The idea of being a “Quaker atheist” would hardly occur to traditional Quaker thinkers from George Fox to Douglas Steere and Rufus Jones.
The attempt by Amoss to formulate a faith without God may be viewed by orthodox Christians as the logical outcome of the Quaker way which makes no provision for an earthly authority in matters of faith and morals. Orthodox Christians have long maintained that unless some form of authority is upheld–the papacy, church tradition, the scriptures, or some combination of these–Christianity would evolve in every direction and eventually bear no resemblance to the faith of the New Testament. For generations, however, Quakers have been remarkably successful in disproving this. But George Amoss may be going in a direction few Quakers have ever considered. Since there is no question that Amoss is a sincere and dedicated Friend, the ideas he presents in this article must be considered carefully and calmly, in the spirit of Quaker openness. But, the result of his years of searching for a faith he can hold with integrity raises questions which were not answered in the article’s limited scope. So in the spirit of Quaker openness and dialog, the following questions are suggested for further discussion:
The case for atheism has been made many times in the past without success because it is very difficult, some say impossible, 3 to argue that something does not exist. If a new approach is attempted, Amoss should give at least a summary of why he believes previous theistic thinking is deficient, i.e., where do the classical arguments for God devised by Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibnitz, and Kant go wrong? Then a critique of modern theistic ideas, including those of Tillich, Farrer, and Hartshorne, would be desirable. By omitting any reference to the history of theistic thinking, Amoss says in effect that he has no responsibility to consider the merit of those arguments. I suspect that a credible case for an atheistic faith cannot be made without due consideration of the arguments made by the greatest theistic thinkers in our civilization.
A second question is related to this. At the beginning of the twentieth century, G.K. Chesterton argued against the “materialists” who believed that everything began in matter and could be explained by scientific principles based on a chain of causation. The materialist’s explanations of complex issues seemed deficient. This train of thought continues to the present day, supported by even more powerful evidence as a result of the discoveries of modern biology. For example, Touchstone, A Journal of Mere Christianity, recently devoted a double issue to the question of “Intelligent Design” containing thirteen brilliant essays dealing with new evidence for development by design. 4
The case for atheism presented by Amoss goes in the opposite direction. By concluding that God is no longer part of his worldview, Amoss has shut the door on further discussion. Like a goldfish who bumps into the aquarium glass and says “Well, that’s all there is in this direction!”, Amoss is saying that, since he hasn’t found God, we can forget about him. But the Mystery of the Universe will not go away so easily, and this question arises: in the spirit of Quaker openness, does the idea of “Quaker atheism” preclude further inquiry into whether the universe is the product of intelligent design? That is, in place of being open to such inquiry, does Amoss have sufficient foundation to dismiss it out of hand, thereby putting himself in the very anti-Quaker position of closing his mind to this fascinating on-going search for truth? If the answer is that intelligent-design investigations should continue, then isn’t the matter of Quaker atheism as a tenet of faith placed in the category of weak possibility, a rather shaky option, depending on how the evidence for intelligent design is accepted? As the evidence for intelligent design mounts, isn’t the basis for any atheistic position eroded? What then? Is faith contingent upon how this works out?
A third question involves the “Christocentric”faith which Amoss describes. Christocentric faith without God seems to me a formidable contradiction. My understanding of the Gospels shows Jesus as having deep roots in the Jewish experience of God. Indeed, Jesus is portrayed as having such an uncommonly intimate relationship with God that he calls him “Father” and even “Daddy.” The Gospels portray Jesus as living moment by moment in the presence of God. To think of Jesus without God is akin to thinking about air without oxygen.
Amoss should explain more fully how he can conceive of a “Christocentric” faith without God. How can Jesus be the sole center of faith when the very heart of his life was devoted to an incredibly intimate relationship with God, his Father? Isn’t this something like saying that a tree is only the part above ground, ignoring the roots?
Furthermore, the Gospels (especially the Synoptics) portray Jesus as being in the prophetic tradition, i.e., as always pointing to God, calling for us to see the hand of God in all things. God is the sustainer of the universe, the source of right thinking, the judge of all behavior. Jesus does not direct attention to himself. He is the humble teacher who speaks in God’s behalf, the servant who does the will of the Father. He never asks anyone to worship him nor to pray to him, but always points to the Father. The question arises: If the heart of Jesus’ mission was to turn misguided and sinful mankind around, to point his listeners to the Father who yearns for our return, then how can a “Christocentric” faith without God be understood? Jesus is surely known as the Good Shepherd, but he merely tends the sheep–the sheep belong to the Father. If Jesus is to be understood as the singular focus of our faith, with God nowhere in the picture, this would seem to be a gross misunderstanding and miscarriage of his mission and intention.
A final area for clarification: The article contains some bold statements, such as “Jesus was not a supernatural being…and his resurrection was a scripture-based myth born of desperate hope.” “No good God would allow such things …” (injustice and violence). “The Christian God had once more been revealed as fantasy.” I understand such statements as having their roots in deep desperation. But I have great difficulty in understanding them in the context of Friendly toleration.
Jesus may or may not be a supernatural being; the New Testament writers certainly refer to him as a “man.”5 But this is a matter of faith for each Friend to understand as he or she is able. The resurrection may or may not be a “myth.” This too is a matter of faith for each Friend to deal with. That bad things happen in this world is a necessity which accompanies free will and the laws of nature–we would not have it otherwise or the resulting chaos would be unbearable. This is an argument for God, not against God. That God has been revealed to George Amoss as a “fantasy” may be perfectly acceptable to many Friends who agree that each person must wrestle with matters of faith, and all do not have the same degree of understanding at the same stage of our seeking.
However, the bold statements cited above may be interpreted by the manner in which they are presented to be creedal-type declarations. As such, they are difficult to accept in a Quaker context. Statements like these have been debated among Christians for centuries, often leading to disputes and divisions. Many Quakers hold the unique understanding that various interpretations of faith may exist, but one should not be proclaimed as the only valid interpretation. In this context, may I assume that the phrase “It is my understanding that….” should be attached to each of the bold statements mentioned so that they are understood as statements of faith and should not be mistaken for statements of fact?
1. Cited in Austin Farrer, Reflective Faith, SPCK, London, 1952, p. 175
3. See Paul C. Vitz, “Why Are People Atheists?”, in the New Oxford Review, Vol. LXVII, No. 1 (Jan. 2000), p. 15.
4. Vol. 12, No. 4 (July/August 1999)
5. E.g., I Tim. 2:5.
George Amoss replies:
The purpose of my article was not to “make the idea of being a ‘Quaker atheist’ credible.” It was to relate the process through which this Quaker atheist came to be what he is. With that in mind, I’ll reply briefly to Edward James’s “questions…for further discussion.”
First, the case for atheism does not need to be made. Atheism is not a form of faith or belief; it is simply the absence of belief in gods. The concept of god is logically and morally indefensible, and the burden of proof falls on those who assert the existence of such a being. For a good contemporary overview of the logical aspect, see Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith (Prometheus Books, 1989). As for the moral aspect, simply ponder the phrase “act of God” awhile. The Christian recourse to “free will and the laws of nature” simply emphasizes the impossibility of the Christian God. An omnipotent God could not be constrained by legal necessity; a loving God could not give his children stones when they ask for bread.
Second, the “intelligent design” theory is no more reasonable than other attempts to prove the existence of gods. While there is nothing in atheism that would preclude further discussion of that or any other hypothesis, a willingness to discuss hypotheses is not an assent to the notion that all conclusions are simply matters of faith (that is, belief). If we trust reason, we reach conclusions through it and have no need of belief as understood by theists. If we do not trust reason, we have no basis on which to assert anything as true.
Third, I do not “think of Jesus without God,” nor do I deny that Jesus’ belief and faith in God were essential to him. But just as one can have a religious view of life without being a theist, one can share Jesus’ dream of a world free of suffering without sharing his time-bound worldview. One need not think as Jesus did in order to share in the spirit and dream that animated him.
Finally, I do not insist that my opinions are to be accepted on faith by others, or that they represent “the only valid interpretation” of facts. Such insistence is the province of the believer. However, to say that is not to agree that my views are simply elements of doctrine. Again: atheism is not a religious doctrine, but the absence of belief in such.