Earlier this week, I published a guest post from Robin McGhee arguing that atheism offers “a more beautiful depiction of the world than religious faith could ever offer.” Here’s my response.
In his post, Robin wrote that:
“Sometimes I have tried to imagine how I would see the world if I were a practising Christian. I feel it would be a much less interesting, and considerably less welcoming, world. Instead of acknowledging a world created by amazing coincidences, I would feel compelled to ask searing moral questions about the causes of its hardships, and ignore its beauty. Instead of complete freedom to choose my own direction and meaning in life, I would feel compelled to see my purpose as serving a deity who might never makes its presence known to me, and whose edicts and proclamations are frequently confusing. It would be a life of direction, but not a direction of my choosing”
There are a number of claims in that passage which I take issue with.
I just don’t recognise the notion of Christianity being a barrier to appreciating the beauty of our universe. It does not deny the reality of that universe as some religions do. Rather it posits the existence of the divine and the spiritual as well as the material; it only adds it doesn’t take away. Therefore, Christianity does not remove opportunities to appreciate the beauty of our universe.
Nor does it find anything wrong in doing so. In the early centuries of the Church there were Christians (known as Gnostics) who encouraged people to shun the material world in favour of the spiritual one. However, their views rapidly came to be seen as heretical and they disappeared soon afterwards. The fundamental problem they had is that Christianity is too ‘earthy’ a faith to sustain such ethereal notions. It commemorates its central moment with food and alcohol, its holy book uses sexual imagery to describe God’s love and has God actually becoming a material being. It is therefore hard to sustain a reading which sees Christianity having a problem with appreciating the beauty of the material – be that in a sunset or in sex – as a problem.
And I would need much convincing that something has greater beauty because it arises from co-incidence rather than being crafted.
However, Robin’s more major objection is that Christianity robs us our freedom. I don’t think he means freedom here in the sense we use it in political debates. Nor should he have. Politics is a matter between men (and women). Religion can be corrosive of this kind of freedom when it unjustly legitimates the power of one group of people over another. So, for example, the Islamist ideology of the Saudi government gives men over women they have no reason to have. However, Christianity properly understood teaches that sin is a trait all humans share. It ought therefore to lead to scepticism about hierarchies. There is also a strong argument for connecting the emergence of the human rights which guarantee our freedom to the notion that all individuals are created and loved by God.
I assume Robin is talking about the kind of freedom which Martin Luther disclaimed having when he said “here I stand, I can do no other.” Luther wasn’t saying he couldn’t recant but that he couldn’t do so in good conscience; his convictions narrowed his choices and thereby restricted his freedom. And in this regard embracing Christianity does indeed limit the options available to you: it should prevent you from murdering, blaspheming, stealing, deceiving or anything else that goes against the principle of loving your neighbour. But so does any belief that has moral content. So for example, if you are a utilitarian then you will be constrained to choose actions that promote happiness rather than harm. Only someone deeply amoral enjoys this kind of freedom.
Its true there might be a question – and I think this is the crux of Robin’s argument – about whether one has chosen the constraints which come with Christianity or if God has chosen them for you. But the reality is that one has to make a decision to obey a Christian moral code just as much as any other system of morality. The obvious rejoinder is that they are not the same; there is a coercive element to Christianity because our obedience is demanded on pain of hell. And certainly listening to many Christians would give you the impression that that is indeed the case. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. As I’ve blogged about before there is a proud tradition of Christian Universalism: the belief that because God loves all of us, he will save all of us.
As a convert I’ve been lucky enough to be inside the head of first an atheist and then a Christian. And while my relationship to my faith as not always been an easy one, I don’t regret the change. It certainly has cost me neither my appreciation of beauty nor the freedom to think. Christianity represents an incredibly rich tradition and both of those things are present within it, as is so much else. While partaking in it has made demands on me, I am prepared to accept them because the God who saved me has asked me to. And he sounds like the kind of fellow whose views I should pay attention to. Complying with his wishes is not a diminution of my freedom but an exercise of it.