Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Atheism's Gift to Christianity

Atheism, as it has always been, is not merely a denial of God but a criticism of the validity of any belief and religion. Atheism appears in many guises, and to help unravel its presence in our modern society, a priest, in a recent article in the Kyeongyang magazine, gives an overview of its growth as a movement throughout history.

Atheism as a movement appeared at the time of Christianity. Before and outside of Christianity there were no movements that denied the existence of God, he says. Denials would come from individuals but not from groups of atheists. The priest points to the appearance on the intellectual scene of empiricism, positivism, the 'enlightenment' ideas, materialist evolution, and the like, as the impetus which turned atheism into a movement in Europe. 
Since atheism as a movement appeared within a Christian culture, Christianity can be considered responsible for its appearance and growth.
In ancient times and in the middle ages, the nature and existence of a transcendent being who created mankind, the world and the universe was the central concern of most scholars in those days. Though conflicts in Europe were not missing, it was basically one culture with a belief in one God, which created the conditions for a similar worldview. However, at the end of the middle ages, with the discoveries of science and a new appreciation of our intellectual understanding, there was a breakdown of the old ways of understanding and a movement to the new.

The signs of this new atheism began to be seen in the breakdown of the old religious order in society. In the 16th century, the divisions within the Church, the fighting between religious groups, and the general upheaval within the world of belief brought in relativism and apathy. There were also discoveries of new lands, a new understanding of the universe, and enlightenment ideas began to change our thinking. The move toward secularization helped to bring atheism to the attention of many, beginning with the so-called intellectuals, mostly in academia. They generally considered themselves the enlightened ones, the priest says, and took pride in overcoming the "infantile state of a humanity lost in religion."

Theology and religion, in those days, were seen as the 'light' and 'shade' of the intellectual quest. There were theologians who became atheists, and atheists who became theologians. Feuerbach and Nietzsche both started off as believers, he says, and became atheists, prime examples, in his view, of our modern atheists; Freud and Marx were both influenced by them. The modern movement started with a small group of intellectuals and attracted many followers.  During the 19th century, its influence on society was substantial, and in the 20th century it became a strong  political force in East Europe.

In the 1960-70s theology was on the defensive. Intellectuals were pointing to the works of Feuerbach, who considered religion a  projection of our inner nature; to Marx, who considered it as opium;  and to Freud, who saw it as an infantile fantasy. It came to a draw, says our writer, and as we do not have the proof for the existence of God to convince atheists, neither do they have the proof for the non-existence of God. More important than proof for the existence of God for the Christian, he says, is a decision  and confession: a gift which they spend a lifetime to understand and give thanks.
Atheism has contributed a great deal to our theology, he says. (Which may be a surprising admission to some readers.) Because of their critical attacks, he says Christianity has been able to look at itself more closely and deal with a great many of the problems it has faced throughout its history, such as its tendency to individualism and idealism, to name only two. Atheistic criticism has become, he says, a part of the Church's legacy.
Looking over the history of the Church, seeing the problems and the scandals, we must, he says, acknowledge both the holiness and the sinfulness of the Church. As people of faith, we should dialogue with the atheists, for they help us to think clearly, stripping away the non-essentials.

He concludes the article with the words of a theologian, "The reason that the world is not changing is not because of any failure in the message of Jesus but because of our personal failures as Christians. The greatest refutation of Christianity is simply seeing the way many Christians live. The best way to promote Christianity is for Christians to begin living like Christians."

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