What does Christian atheism mean?

Two opposed camps can only have a fruitful debate if they agree on what it is they disagree about. A militant atheist such as Richard Dawkins is right to call out scientific ignorance in some religious settings. But at a deeper level his argument fails, because the deity he rejects is a blown-up thing, not the Creator conceived in classical tradition. Similar considerations apply to Slavoj Žižek’s Christian Atheism. When the claim that religion is no more than pious fantasy forms your starting point as well as your conclusion, then reason becomes the first casualty. This approach is as circular as beginning a book on socialism by asserting that all

Why did Jon Fosse win the Nobel Prize for literature? It’s baffling.

The Nobel Prize for Literature this year was awarded to the Norwegian novelist and playwright Jon Fosse (pictured). He has long been admired by anyone in the literary world keen to advertise their seriousness. The Canadian critic Randy Boyagoda, writing of Fosse’s Septology in the New York Times, said that he’d ‘come into awe and reverence myself for idiosyncratic forms of immense metaphysical fortitude’. The technique is to bury statements of mystic vision or horror in piles of mostly tiny and uninteresting events Fosse is published in Britain by Fitzcarraldo Editions, that elegant firm bringing all sorts of high-minded writers to our attention in matchy-matchy formats. The Spectator’s literary editor

A playful version of the universe: Pure Colour, by Sheila Heti, reviewed

Readers familiar with Sheila Heti’s work, most notably How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood, in which she examines both the possibility and implications of choosing one’s life and dealing with the consequences, will be familiar with her apparent capriciousness. Her prose — freewheeling, elliptical, a tangle of jokiness and jeopardy — seems to capture the puzzle of proportionality: how seriously should we take this one life we have, and how can we hope to balance our opposing urges towards levity and gravity? In Pure Colour, we appear to be in similar territory, immediately introduced to a playful version of the universe in which humans are the critics of God’s

The End of Times and the coming of the Antichrist

Two things it may be wise to know before picking up this relatively short and surprisingly cheerful brand spanking NEW biography of the Antichrist: (1) the meaning of the word ‘eschatological’ (it’s fairly critical); (2) the fact that the Antichrist is not the devil (a common misapprehension). The Antichrist is actually the son/spawn of the devil, and Philip C. Almond has already provided us with a perfectly serviceable biography of the Prince of Darkness himself (also NEW, even though, um, a few years old now). As a religious/cultural figure the Antichrist was actually a bit of a slow starter. The earliest and most comprehensive text about him, Adso’s A Little

Alternatives to God

K. Chesterton, in one of his wise and gracious apothegms, once wrote that ‘When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.’ John Gray, one of the most pernickety and carnaptious of contemporary philosophers, presents here a kind of taxonomy of not atheism, per se, but of the vacuums and nothings into which the loss of belief has rushed. It is, as one would expect, an exhilarating read. The title winks to Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, and he appears as one of the figures in these essays. One might think that atheism is a fairly simply proposition. There is no God. The argument here

Eat the forbidden fruit

Eating human brains, burying one’s face in dead people’s ashes and publicly deriding the president of the United States as a ‘piece of shit’ are not among the activities usually associated with serious religious historians. But Reza Aslan is something else. An American academic born in Iran, brought up as a Muslim, converted to Jesus by the Jesuits and back to Islam through his own free will, he came to prominence following an interview on Fox TV to promote his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013). He was repeatedly asked how being a Muslim qualified him to write about Jesus, to which he responded by

Why it’s obvious that morality precedes religion

At a beautiful church service recently I encountered again a Gospel parable that left me, again, torn between sympathy and doubt. You will recognise Matthew 25: 35-40, for its phrasing has entered the idiom: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food … sick and you visited me … in prison and you came to me … a stranger and you took me in … naked and you clothed me … ’ The story is of a king praising his subjects for these kindnesses to him. This puzzles them: ‘When did we see you hungry, and feed you … a stranger and take you in…’ (etc)? The king replies: ‘Inasmuch

Dreaming of wide open spaces

On the website of the Australian National University in Canberra, emeritus professor of history Barry Higman lists his research interests as food sciences, cultural studies and historical studies, with a particular interest in The world history of food over the last 5,000 years; the global history of domestic servants in the modern world; the history of the Jamaican landscape; the history of Australia as a flat place; and the history of islands and insularity. This rather unusual breadth of interests suggests either that Professor Higman is a very curious man indeed or a complete academic fraud. Fortunately, for the sake of the future of higher education in south-eastern Australia, it’s

All about my father

My father had many faces. There was much that made up the man. If you think you ‘know’ John R. Cash, think again. There are many layers, so much beneath the surface. First, I knew him to be fun. Within the first six years of my life, if asked what Dad was to me I would have emphatically responded: ‘Dad is fun!’ This was my simple foundation for my enduring relationship with my father. This is the man he was. He never lost this. To those who knew him well — family, friends, co-workers alike — the one essential thing that was blazingly evident was the light and laughter within

The gospel truth

More brides in Britain go down the aisle to Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ than to any other tune, Simon Loveday notes. He cannot resist adding that ‘it seems doubtful that they have fully taken in the words of the rest of the song’. That must be true. ‘I’m not that chainedup little person still in love with you,’ yells the defiant narrator in Gloria’s song. ‘You’re not welcome anymore.’ If anything, ‘I Will Survive’ belongs, it seems to me, to a genre of assertive anthems, like ‘My Way’ and ‘Invictus’, that appeal to people who are the imaginary heroes of their own Desert Island Discs and examine their lives

Darkness visible

Perhaps you have sometimes wondered: how would you even begin to make a film about going blind and being blind and what that means? How, when the subject is so profoundly and inherently uncinematic? Or maybe it’s other thoughts that keep you awake at night — such as when we all finally receive our £350 million a week plus free puppy, where will we be expected to keep them? — but even if that’s so you’ll still find Notes on Blindness to be a singular achievement, as well as a truly wonderful one. This is based on the audio recordings of John Hull, the academic, writer and theologian who was

War on Mount Olympus

It is a curious fact that the modern Hebrew for ‘atheist’, Tim Whitmarsh notes in passing, is apikoros. The word derives from Epicurus, who set up shop as a philosopher in Athens around 306 BC, but it became so domesticated in Hebrew that the medieval thinker Moses Maimonides, till he found out better, thought it was of home-grown Aramaic origin. In ancient Jewish usage, however, I think apikoros meant someone who denied that God takes care of the world, which was indeed the claim of Epicurus. Though Whitmarsh sets out to show that atheism was quite normal in ancient (Greek) history, atheism turns out to be a slippery notion. Epicurus

The Spectator’s Notes | 21 May 2015

Who benefits from Prince Charles’s handshake with Gerry Adams? Not the victims of IRA violence, including the 18 soldiers who died at Warrenpoint on the same day as Lord Mountbatten was murdered. Not the moderate parties in Ireland, north or south, who never blew up anybody and so can get no kudos for pretending to be sorry about it afterwards. Only Adams (who was a senior IRA commander at the time of the killings) and Sinn Fein. His party has thus been relieved of current unpopularity in the Republic caused by long-running rape accusations, and is suddenly made to look good in the run-up to the centenary of the Easter

Former Communist spy: KGB created Catholic liberation theology

The respected Catholic News Agency has published an interview with Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former general in Romania’s secret police who was one of the Eastern Bloc’s highest-ranking defectors in the 1970s. In it, he says that Soviet Union – and the KGB in particular – created liberation theology, the quasi-Marxist movement that flourished in Latin America from the 1960s to the 1990s and is still a powerful influence on the Catholic Left. The interview provides fresh evidence of the infiltration of liberation theology by Russia – a subject Catholic liberals would much rather not discuss, just as they don’t want to know about the heavy Soviet investment in CND. But first, some

Early Christian alms race

Peter Brown’s explorations of the mindsets of late antiquity have been educating us for nearly half a century, ever since his great life of St Augustine in 1967. His latest book, relatively short in volume but very wide in scope, explores Christian attitudes to the afterlife, from the time of Cyprian of Carthage (martyred in 258) to that of Julian, Bishop of Toledo in the late seventh century. Julian put together an anthology called the Prognosticon Futuri Saeculi. He viewed his book as a compilation of the shared wisdom of Christianity. What in fact he demonstrated, in this ‘futurology of the Christian soul’ as Brown calls it, was the extreme

The forgotten flowering of the medieval mind

For those who imagine the medieval period along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — knights, castles, fair maidens, filthy peasants and buckets of blood and gore (you know, all the fun stuff) — Johannes Fried’s version may come as something of an aesthetic shock. His interests lie in the more rarefied world of theologians, lawyers and philosophers. So while the kings and emperors of the Middle Ages are afforded largely thumbnail sketches, it is the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, William of Ockham and Peter Abelard that attract Fried’s closest attention in his study of the ‘cultural evolution’ of the Middle Ages. Fried, the éminence

This ex-priest’s history of the gospels could unsettle the most faithful churchgoer

When James Carroll was a boy, lying on the floor watching television, he would glance up at his mother and ‘see her lips moving, only to glimpse the beads in her lap. I recall thinking that they slipped through her thumb and forefinger the way cartridges moved into machine guns’. There was nothing unusual about this: in 1970s England, as well as 1950s America, most devout Catholic ladies carried a rosary in their handbag. If you walked into church while the Legion of Mary were at prayer, you’d be deafened by their Hail Marys. It was a competitive sport. Whoever prayed loudest and fastest — usually an Irish biddy with

Humans hunger for the sacred. Why can’t the new atheists understand that?

Does the world have a purpose? The new atheists regard the question as absurd. Purposes emerge in the course of evolution, they tell us; to suppose that they could exist before any organism can gain a reproductive advantage from possessing them is to unlearn the lesson of Darwin. With the theory of evolution firmly established, therefore, there is no room in the scientific worldview for an original purpose, and therefore no room for God. Today’s evangelical atheists go further, and tell us that history has shown religion to be so toxic that we should do our best to extinguish it. Such writers describe the loss of religion as a moral

Spectator letters: Why Aids is still a threat, elephants are altruistic, and crime has gone online

Aids is still deadly Sir: Dr Pemberton (‘Life after Aids’, 19 April) subscribes to the now prevalent view that we have turned the corner on Aids. Well only up to a point, Lord Copper. There are now about 100,000 HIV carriers in the UK, and in London, where Dr Pemberton works, as in the rest of the UK, reports of new diagnoses of HIV infection are continuing at much the same rate as before. These diagnoses are too often of individuals who have been infected for years, and are liable to have passed HIV on to others. It is also estimated that as many as one fifth of all HIV-infected individuals

Village life can be gripping

Black Sheep opens biblically, with a mining village named Mount of Zeal, which is ‘built in a bowl like an amphitheatre, with the pit winding gear where a stage would be’. It is divided into Lower, Middle and Upper Terrace, the last-mentioned known by the locals as Paradise. If, like many bookshop browsers, you judge a novel by its first page rather than by its cover, you might think, at this early point, that Susan Hill’s fairly recent theological studies sit heavily on the structure. You might expect (not necessarily with wild excitement) a familiar tale of stock characters and their moral failings. But it’s not like that. The opening