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Faith and Unbelief: An Interview with Dr. Stephen Bullivant (Video)

Stephen Bullivant

Dr. Stephen Bullivant has long been one of our most popular contributors here at Strange Notions. Atheists appreciate his respectful, fair-minded articles while Catholics value his careful articulation of what Catholicism actually teaches about atheism.

Stephen has authored two books, The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Faith and Unbelief (Canterbury Press, 2013; Paulist Press, 2014). He also just released a massive tome that he co-edited with the philosopher Michael Ruse, titled The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013).

I recently sat down with Stephen to discuss his conversion from atheism to Catholicism, the role of Christianity in the rise of atheism, and what Catholicism teaches about the salvation of atheists. Enjoy!


Watch the video here (15 minutes)


Download the interview here (15 minutes)

Topics Discussed:

1:32 - How did you, as an atheist, become interested in researching Catholicism?
3:16 - What role have Christians played in the rise of atheism?
6:10 - What does the Catholic Church teach about the salvation of non-believers?
10:19 - What can Christians and atheists learn from each other?
Read Stephen's many articles at Strange Notions and be sure to pick up one of his books, The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology (Oxford University Press, 2012), Faith and Unbelief (Canterbury Press, 2013; Paulist Press, 2014), or The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013).
Faith and Unbelief

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Brandon Vogt

Written by

Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker. He's also the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and RETURN (Numinous Books, 2015). He works as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their five children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

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  • Brett Salkeld

    Re: the part that Christians play in the rise of atheism, I am also interested in the role that Christianity per se plays in the rise of atheism. If atheism, from a purely historical and sociological point of view, is a largely post-Christian reality, what is it about Christianity itself, and not just morally reprehensible or intellectually incoherent Christians, that leads to it?

    I think that the term "religion" is particularly deceiving in this regard because it puts Christianity in a group of phenomena with which it may not have as much in common as it has with atheism. I wonder if the simple fact that for many Christians the obvious choice is between Christianity and atheism, not between Christianity and Islam or Christianity and new age spirituality or Christianity and tribal religions is not quite meaningful in this regard. It seems to me that Christianity's rejection of "the gods," its demythologization of the world, is a cultural prerequisite for atheism as we know it.

    The oft-repeated suggestion that atheists have only rejected one more god
    than Christians misses the point it tries to make, because it mistakes
    the Christian idea of God as just one more of the things which Christianity (and Judaism before it) called "idols." (Herbert McCabe points out that the Christian use of the term "god" for God is already accommodated language open to vast misrepresentation.) On the other hand, it contains the hidden grain of truth that Christians and atheists do believe a whole lot in common about the world. They even have a whole lot in common epistemologically on the question of faith and
    reason, provided we are talking about "faith" in its purely natural sense, i.e., to avoid insanity and/or paralysis we sometimes have to act without fully demonstrable knowledge on something that can only demonstrate its veracity after the fact. (Cf. Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures)

    To avoid writing a whole essay, perhaps I will finish with the observation that Christians seem constantly in these debates to say that they agree with atheists on all kinds of things and that , where they don't, it is very often because of
    disagreements around terminology. This seems to me to indicate a kind
    of genetic relationship between Christianity and atheism that I would very much like to see discussed here on Strange Notions, perhaps by Dr. Bullivant himself.

    • David Nickol

      I think Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, have in some ways sewed the seeds of their own decline by accreting, over 2000 years, things Catholics "have to believe" that, increasingly, they either don't learn or don't believe. Jesus in the Gospels remains very "popular," but the but the Jesus of official, doctrinal Christianity was a problem very early on. I think it is safe to say that the earliest followers of Jesus—those who knew him in person, or knew persons who had known him—would have been utterly baffled by the filoque controversy. I think the early Christians who took part in eucharistic celebrations in each others' homes would not have found discussions of transubstantiation at all helpful and would not recognize receiving communion in the 21st century as anything comparable to eucharistic celebrations of the first century.

      It seems to me the Catholic Church "took ownership" of everything mystical and spiritual and wove it (very successfully for a very long time) into one huge system. Then, perhaps modernity (not "modernism"), probably with a very large boost by Vatican II, shook people's confidence in the entire edifice, and in some ways left them a choice between Catholicism and nothing. Catholicism was religion and spirituality bound up in one unified package, and for those who lost faith in it, it was difficult to simply choose another religion (although some chose the Episcopal Church). Catholicism set itself up for this by it's demand that Catholics believe all or nothing. A great many, not being able to believe it all, chose nothing.

      Catholicism has long had an answer for every challenge put to it, but somehow in the 21st century, those answers haven't been at all satisfying to people, including many who post here. Pat explanations of why, say, there is evil in the world just don't work any more, one reason being questioners pretty much have to buy into a system of thought and argument that seems archaic, accepting "Christian" premises and philosophy developed by the architects of the whole system the questioners already reject.

      Part of the problem with the debate over the salvation of atheists is that it looks as if the Church, realizing (to their credit) how unjust it would be for God to condemn atheist for not following principles they never heard of, have to find some way of incorporating into the Church people who never heard of it. The importance of baptism and explicit acceptance of Catholic doctrine must somehow be an absolute requirement, while on the other hand some rationale must be found that opens the possibility of salvation to those who never heard of Jesus, and quite possibly (in theory) to those who heard of him and rejected him.

      I think, for many people confronted with modern religion, with Catholicism (or Islam) as representative, the choice (unfortunately) seems to be to accept one of the established religions or reject them all lock, stock, and barrel. I think that is perhaps why there was such a strong reaction to Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, which I have admittedly not read, but which I understand to be saying that neither the Catholics nor the atheists are correct. There is something profound still left to be explained, but it can't be explained by either camp.

      I recently finished Barbara Ehrenreich's Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything, which unfortunately I found largely unsatisfying, but I believe she is saying, in an attempt to understand her "mystical" experiences as a teenager, that there is something we don't understand, but it's something that neither religion nor science seems to have figured out. But I think in the developed countries in the 21st century, those who believe that their are truly mysteries about existence don't turn to science, but also don't see "mainstream" religion as a place to look for answers. It is not because, say, Catholicism has no answers. It is because it seems to claim it has all the answers, but those answers no longer satisfy.

    • "It seems to me that Christianity's rejection of "the gods," its demythologization of the world, is a cultural prerequisite for atheism as we know it."

      Great comment, Brett. I think you're on to something, but I'd note that "demythologizing" is a feature only of certain streams of Christianity--for example, liberal Protestantism and biblical literalists. The more sacramental traditions, including Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, take a far more mystical, enchanted, mythologized view of the world. This was, in essence, what converted C.S. Lewis to Christianity. His friend J.R.R. Tolkien convinced him that Christianity was the "true myth."

      • David Nickol

        I can't speak for Brett, but my thoughts (some of which I have already written about at length) when I read his message were that Catholicism successfully made itself the sole source of mystery and myth, and consequently when Catholicism is rejected for whatever reason, all the mystery and myth goes with it. When educated as a Catholic, you are taught that there is nothing else. Anything else that may have elements of goodness and truth have simply stumble upon parts of the goodness and truth Catholicism already has in full. So it makes no sense, if a person rejects Catholicism, to embrace Buddhism, since the only value in Buddhism (according to Catholicism) is that Buddhism may have some of the truth the Catholic Church has all of.

        • "When educated as a Catholic, you are taught that there is nothing else."

          This may have been your own experience, but I'm not sure this is generally true.

          • David Nickol

            I think the sentence of mine you quoted is a bit out of context unless my following sentence is also included:

            When educated as a Catholic, you are taught that there is nothing else. Anything else that may have elements of goodness and truth have simply stumble upon parts of the goodness and truth Catholicism already has in full.

            It is still taught that the Catholic Church is the "one true Church," is it not?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Yes, but the unfolding logic of the one true Church has been understood to involve enrichment *from outside of herself*. For example, JPII said of Indian religious traditions:

            "In India particularly, it is the duty of the Christians now to draw from this rich heritage [of the East] the elements compatible with their faith in order to *enrich* Christian thought."

            (emphasis mine)

            Therefore, to say that the Catholic Church is the one true church does not imply that, in its current state, it embodies the fully expressed logic of Christ. She is on a journey to express that full logic of Christ, and that journey involves learning from everyone.

          • David Nickol

            She is on a journey to express that full logic of Christ, and that journey involves learning from everyone.

            I understand your point. But my point is that the Catholic Church, allegedly being the "one true Church," is the only Church to which Catholics may belong. The Catholic Church may claim to want to learn from other religious groups, but it would never be the case that the "official" Catholic Church would say, "For Person A (a Catholic) Religion X (a religion other than Catholicism) has something very valuable which the Catholic Church can learn from, and this facet of Religion X is so well suited to Person A's needs that it is the best religion (or if not the best, a very suitable religion) for Person A, who therefore may practice Religion X rather than Catholicism."

            Or to put it much more succinctly, the Catholic Church would never approve of a Catholic converting to another religion. Things have changed quite dramatically in my lifetime. When I was young, special permission was required to set foot in a Protestant church, even for a wedding or funeral. CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) ID Cards were required to get into dances at my high school so friends who were not Catholic could not attend.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Even more precisely, the Catholic Church considers itself to be THE ONLY true church; while other religions have some elements of insight that may be valuable IN EXPLICATING catholic doctrine, no other religion is correct, no other religion possesses correct doctrine, and no other religion guarantees salvation.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            , no other religion possesses correct doctrine, no other religion is correct

            This is just not the Catholic view. Even in Dominus Iesus -- which, given its title and its authors can hardly be considered the liberal fringe of Catholicism -- you can read:

            "Nevertheless, God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, "does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors'". Therefore, the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain."

            Note there is no identification of any specific "gaps, insufficiencies and errors", so there is not necessarily a claim that any particular religion is "incorrect". Obviously all non-Christian religions would be considered to have the "gap and insufficiency" that they lack *explicit* acknowledgement of the primacy of Christ, but does not imply that those religions are incorrect, as far as they go.

            the Catholic Church considers itself to be THE ONLY true church

            This is also not as unambiguous as you make it seem. Also in Dominus Iesus:

            "With respect to the way in which the salvific grace of God — which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church — comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to the statement that God bestows it "in ways known to himself"."

            The acknowledgment of the "mysterious relationship [of non-Christians] to the Church" is (to me) a way of saying: "We don't necessarily understand who is partaking in the the one true Church and who isn't".

          • David Nickol

            Therefore, the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.

            That is carefully (one might say "cleverly") worded, as is this from Nostra Aetate:

            The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.

            The Catholic Church is not saying the Koran or the Tripitaka are good and holy. It is saying that the "elements of goodness and grace" the scripture of other religions may contain come from Christ. As for the quote from Nostra Aetate, why in the world would the Church reject anything that is "true and holy"?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            As for the quote from Nostra Aetate, why in the world would the Church reject anything that is "true and holy"?

            Indeed, she wouldn't :-)

            Of course, your point is that no one in his right mind would reject anything that is true and holy. So fine, that statement on its own has little value added. But I think the point is the Church's teaching on other religions signals an openness to finding, and even actively looking for, that which is good and holy in other traditions. Just as the Church once looked for and found good and holy things in Aristotelian philosophy, so she can now do the same in her encounter with (for example) Buddhist traditions.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Which is all very well, but do we have any evidence at all that the church has ever done this?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I assume you are not asking if there is evidence that the Church has ever appropriated the wisdom of Aristotelian philosophy ... you are asking whether the Church has ever appropriated the insights of Buddhism?

            One notable example would be David Stendl-Rast, a Catholic Benedictine monk who, with the blessing of the Vatican (www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqoIxrQq9ro), has spent the better part of his life dialoguing with Buddhists. Fr. Kevin Hunt (http://www.kevinhuntsensei.org/) is another example, a Catholic monk who is also a Buddhist sensei. There was also Thomas Merton's famous interest in Buddhism as well, of course.

            Will it ever be appropriated into magisterial teaching at the level that Aristotelian philosophy was? I don't think anyone knows, but the future seems promising to me.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I'm sorry, but "dialoguing" with Buddhists hardly demonstrates the Church appropriating elements of goodness and grace from other religions.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I think it is clear that I wasn't claiming that the Church had appropriated Buddhist thought into her magisterial teaching. I think that is a possibility for the future (probably the very distant future), but all I was claiming for now is that the Church has clearly signaled an openness to learning from the Buddhist tradition. I have provided what I consider to be real evidence of this openness.

            I think part of the reason you find my evidence unconvincing is that you have a different concept of how the Church works than I do. The Church is an organism -- the Mystical Body of Christ. That vast organism sometimes expresses its innermost logic and definitive boundaries through the magisterial voice of the Church, but what the magisterial voice expresses is not the totality of what the organism does, nor is it necessarily near the forefront of what the organism is doing. Orthodoxy is expressed magisterially only after a long dialectical process within the Church. In the meantime, when members of the Church -- cells who were grafted onto that vast organism in their baptism -- begin to assimilate Buddhist thought in their lived Christian faith, and when those actions are not only not rejected by the magisterium, but are actively encouraged, that IS the appropriation of Buddhist thought within the life of the Church.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I don't find your evidence completely unconvincing (though a single priest having conversation with Buddhists does not demonstrate that the CHURCH is open either to dialogue or assimilation), but that's not what I was asking for. I was asking for evidence that the church has ever assimilated ideas from another religion.

          • Moussa Taouk

            I was asking for evidence that the church has ever assimilated ideas from another religion.

            As to doctrine, the Church has no need of assimilating "ideas" from elsewhere because She contains (in union with Her Lord) the fullness of Truth.

            As to expression, the Church assimilates some things from other cultures/religions where appropriate. For example various artistic expressions. Another example: a few years ago there was a requirement for parishes to not use hymns containing the word "Yahweh". I think this is based on the Jewish reverence for the name of God (Jewish people say "Lord" instead).

            M, on a bit of a tangent, it would be useful if you quote the person you're responding to so that the reader knows exactly which point you're addressing.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I posted before the other post was visible. So the answer is no - despite the citations the church wants nothing and desires to learn nothing from other faiths?

          • Moussa Taouk

            So the answer is no - despite the citations the church wants nothing and desires to learn nothing from other faiths?

            Now you see... I don't know how you arrived at that conclusion. If you quote which part of what I said led you to conclude that the Church "wants nothing and desires to learn nothing" from other faiths I could either better agree or disagree with you. As it is, I'm left wondering, "What do you mean 'despite the citations'? The examples illustrate how the Church does assimilate certain things from other faiths."

            Anyway, I just wanted to share the example that came to my mind regarding not using the word "Yahweh" in line with the Jewish faith tradition.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I think the most obvious example, which I already mentioned, would be the appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy. You may not consider that a "religion", but then we go down a long road of trying to understand what a "religion" is (some don't consider Buddhism a religion either). In any event, Aristotelian philosophy is a method for investigating truth that was originally foreign to the Church. She later came to see that she could express her innermost truths in a fresh and insightful way in terms of this thought system, and now that way of understanding it is essentially inseparable from the Church's teaching.

            More trivial examples would be the appropriation of European pagan rituals within the life of the Church -- Christmas trees and Easter eggs and so forth. That stuff doesn't come forward in the magisterial teaching of the Church, but it has clearly been welcomed in the life of the Church, because the Church recognized that these pagan expressions of hope (in the lit up Christmas trees) and new life (in Easter eggs) were valid expressions of the same mysteries that she held within her.

      • Brett Salkeld

        Thanks Brandon. There is a way, of course, in which certain brands of Christianity are more comfortable with mythology and mysticism, but I was speaking in a more general way. The worldview that made the scientific method possible, e.g., was not liberal Protestantism, but medieval Catholicism. (Only a particular take of the scientific method could make Liberal Protestantism possible!)

        Demythologizing in the sense of accommodating Christan claims to Enlightenment prejudices was not my concern. Rather, I was speaking of the continuation of the process of demythologization that we see happening already in the Old Testament as the Israelites move from the idea that Yahweh is one tribal god among others to the sense that Yahweh is the only "god" and therefore a different kind of reality that what had heretofore been considered a "god," which are now seen to be, variously, demonic forces or simply the inventions of the human imagination with no reality beyond what we give them.

        Of course, the kind of Enlightenment demythologizing you refer to is an important factor in contemporary atheism, and not something Catholics are interested in endorsing, but I think that there is something in the water long before that that Christians and atheists actually agree about.

    • Ben Posin

      The claimed distinction between Christianity and the other religions atheists reject is something I've encountered more and more recently, and it's a fascinating one to me. It typically seems to rest on the idea that other past (and present?) religions had a lesser, more limited idea of God, that, for instance, Zeus and Hera are too manlike to be credible, and could not be considered "foundational" in any event.

      I'll admit to skepticism that there is something so fundamentally different about Islam and Christianity that, to an outsider, different mental methods and tools result in the rejection of them as true. I'll also note that the supposed difference between God and idols isn't one that seems to have bearing on the concepts' credulity to an outsider, and there's something a little perverse in the belief that a grander, more far reaching claim (God) is inherently more credible than a supposedly more limited one ("idols").

      • M. Solange O’Brien

        I would agree; the essential point is rejection of "god definitions", whatever the degree of sophistication may be. Somebody (Daniel Fincke?) has something he calls an outsider test: can you apply the same rules of evidence and evaluation to your own "god definition" as you do to anyone else's?

        • Ben Posin

          Well, what's really remarkable to me is that some Christians seem to think that Christianity in some sense does pass the Outsider test--at least when they try to think about how atheists they are talking to see the world. I can't speak for whether they actually make a mental effort to put themselves in that position. It could be that's easier said than done. But I'm reminded of comments Brandon made in the saving pascal's wager thread. He seemed genuinely taken aback at the idea that atheists could consider other religions, whether actually established or made up on the spot to address the wager, equally "likely" or "plausible" as Christianity. To him it seemed obvious beyond need for explanation that we would see Christianity as the most plausible of religions, the only real alternative to atheism.

          • David Nickol

            To him it seemed obvious beyond need for explanation that we would see Christianity as the most plausible of religions, the only real alternative to atheism.

            Would anyone like to venture a list of world religions ranked in order of their plausibility? :P

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Zen Buddhism, followed by...everything else as a distant second.

          • Loreen Lee

            I think of 'Tibetan' Buddhism and Christianity as being the religions of 'love', and Judaism and Islam as being the religions of the 'law'. With Buddhism however, there is also Hinduism, which as a cultural religion, can often be very close to Buddhism. All wonderful traditions. (And what about the social/philosophic religions like Confucianism, etc.).

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Confucianism isn't actually a religion; it's a collection of philosophical positions.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I'm curious - are you a practicing Zen Buddhist, or do you just view Zen Buddhism as the least bad among all of the bad religious options?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            A little of both.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I wouldn't want to argue that the choice is obvious in any universal, impersonal sense, but it could be that the choice is obvious for you.

            Among Western / Abrahamic religions, the only major options are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Modern Judaism, insofar as I understand it, does not proselytize. From that I infer that modern Jews do not think that modern Judaism is especially relevant for me, and I guess I just take them at their word. Islam does proselytize, so that seems like an option worth investigating. In my admittedly superficial understanding of Islam (not totally superficial -- I did live in an Islamic country for two years), God is so far above us that He is not constrained by love for us. Specifically, His love for us does not constrain Him to be intelligible to us. I guess you have to make your own decision about whether that is the way reality is.

            Then you have Eastern religions. Buddhism seems to be the most popular consideration among Westerners. It's not obvious to me that Buddhism and Christianity are incompatible. Maybe they are, but I think few people are sufficiently grounded in both Eastern and Western categories of reality that they would be able to make that judgement. As far as I can tell, the Buddha never said anything that would have precluded the primacy of a Christ-like reality. He did teach things that are superficially at odds with Jesus's teachings (e.g. superficially it is hard to reconcile the concept of renunciation of all attachment with Jesus's instruction to "come, follow me"), but I think much more dialogue is needed to determine the true meaning of those superficially conflicting teachings. So, I'm not sure you even need to make a choice there.

            There are of course many more options, but I think sometimes the conversation get more complicated that it needs to be. I think it simplifies things quite a bit to focus on the choices that you actually consider to be viable.

          • Ben Posin


            I get what you're saying, about what my "viable" choices are, as far as choosing an established religion. There are a lot more options out there than you've mentioned (I have an ISKCON temple a few blocks down my street,for example), but that's not really the point.

            The point I was getting at is that, from this atheist outsider's perspective (and apparently that of others), there's nothing particularly compelling about the truth claims of Christianity as opposed to that of other religions, past, present, or imaginary. Christianity is just seen by some as the default alternative to atheism, because we happen to live in a society with a lot of Christians. Thus when considering something like Pascal's Wager, it's not a coin flip between the two.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I would agree that its not just a coin flip between the two.

            FWIW, the thing that was originally compelling to me about about Christianity is that it is the story that seems to subsume and anchor all other stories, or all other good ones. I later became interested in the connection between the Christian story and "what actually happened", and that is fascinating and now very important to me. But the initially compelling part to me was the power of the Christian narrative, somewhat apart from whether it was actually true.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            And other religions have other "powerful narratives" - at least powerful to those who accept them. From an outsider's point of view, the strength of the narrative doesn't particularly distinguish Christianity from every other religion. Personally, I find the Christian narrative and theology a bit simplistic; the Upanishads and the Qu'ran are better poetry, and Taoism and Hinduism have a far more sophisticated theology.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Great - knock yourself out! I think those texts are great, at least what I know of them (never read much of the Qu'ran or Taoist texts, but I did spend a good amount of time with the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and some of the stories about Krishna are still with me and influential in my understanding of the divine).
            If that is what makes more sense to you, delve deeper into it.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I'm sorry - my point was that while I appreciate the strength and power of the Christian narrative to you, I caution against the idea of using that as a distinguishing characteristic of Christianity. From an atheist's point of view, it doesn't stand out for that reason.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Well, I can see that it is not a distinguishing characteristic from one atheist's point of view :-), but I don't think you should assume that no atheist will consider it a distinguishing feature. People come at Christianity from all different angles -- historical, philosophical, personal, etc - I was just offering the angle of my own approach.

            In any case, part of the point I was making to Ben initially is that I wouldn't want to focus exclusively on the distinctive elements of Christianity, as important as they are. I am quite happy to focus on the ways in which Christianity is in continuity with other religious worldviews, past and present.

          • M. Solange O’Brien


          • Loreen Lee

            Quote: e.g. superficially it is hard to reconcile the concept of renunciation
            of all attachment with Jesus's instruction to "come, follow me"

            From my own experience, may I offer the interpretation that the 'invitation' to follow Jesus is not in contradiction with the Buddhist principles, either of attachment, or of renunciation.
            I 'believe' that in following Christ one indeed renounces 'the world' for the 'spiritual'. This is in essence the meaning of the Buddhist scripture. They both call for a selfless pursuit of wisdom and 'the truth'.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I would tentatively agree to some of that Loreen, but (as you know), what exactly it means in Christianity to "renounce the world for the spiritual" is very subtle and prone to misinterpretation. I suspect the meaning is subtle in Buddhism too. I was raised by a father who read a lot of books of Buddhism and went on a lot of Buddhist retreats, and I took two semesters of Buddhism in college (as well as one semester in Hinduism) from an awesome professor, but I'm still very hesitant to assert all that much about Buddhism with any confidence. I'm not sure how well Buddhist ideas have weathered the voyage to Western culture, so I think I would want to be immersed in a Buddhist culture before I started pointing to equivalences in Christian and Buddhist thought.

          • Loreen Lee

            I appreciate your comment, Jim, and I agree that not only on the particulars, but also with respect to the philosophical world view Buddhism and Christianity are very different. Raised a Catholic, I also went to a Mahayana Buddhist center for five years in the late 90's. I thus understand the subtlety of what can be involved in 'renouncing the world for the spiritual' and that there are different interpretations as to meaning. The adaptation of Buddhism by New Age spirituality is a case in point. So please understand that my remark was very, very general, as pointing to something held in common between Christianity, as I understand it, and Buddhism. It is perhaps the importance of developing what may be called the 'inner life': (The kingdom of God is 'within'). But this too could be discerned as an interpretation that does not fully express the depth and breadth of the religion. Thanks.

          • Jim (hillclimber)


          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I must disagree; following Christ would be the antithesis of Buddhist teachings - binding one's self to a figure of the world.

            And reincarnation is not reconcilable with Christian theology.

          • Loreen Lee

            I agree on the 'subtlety' of the points, as usual. Buddhism advises that one ought not to follow anyone, in a sense of blind allegiance. The onus to find 'nirvana' is on the individual, not a priestly caste. There is no 'confessional'. Indeed the world 'maya' or 'appearance' (what I recently read is an acceptable translation) or the world of conventional truth is contrasted with the ultimate truth of nirvana. This is the only 'way out' to avoid reincarnation into the 'world of samsara'. But what nirvana, nothingness, emptiness is or is not - is a discussion for another time.

            I left Buddhism under the belief/interpretation that this 'world' was not conceived as being 'good' in any way, certainly not in acceptance of a theology that envisions (my interpretation) a world/cosmos that would be so transformed that the day of judgment would involve a 'resurrection of the dead' into a new life and a new world. As an idea, and narrative, I can't find a religion with more 'promise', whether or not these are empty promises is, as a result of any acceptance of this narrative, a moot point. There is the overriding 'belief' that 'being is Good' and that there is a value in the 'acceptance',(meaning neither denial nor avoidance) rather than the 'resistance' of 'evil'.

      • Brett Salkeld

        There are good questions in here, Ben. I don't think the Christian claim should get some sort of automatic pass for being "grander." Only that it is important when evaluating the claim to see if for the kind of claim it is and not make a category mistake with it.

        In any case, I wasn't trying to argue for the credibility of the Christian claim at this stage at all. I was more interested in the role of the Christian idea of God in the history of ideas and its relationship to contemporary atheism. That the two are sociologically and historically related is beyond doubt. Which begs the question, for me at least, of their relationship precisely in the realm of ideas. I think that this angle may be fruitful in Christian-atheist dialogue. I do not intend, thereby, to suggest that atheists need to accept Christianity's definition of God and idols as true, only that understanding how and why Christians (and Jews first!) came to make those distinctions/definitions is important for understanding what kinds of claims they see themselves as making. And, furthermore, I think it indicates that those claims are not always opposed to atheists' claims, but may in fact be genetically related to them in the realm of ideas.

        I'm not trying to impose definitions covertly or to whitewash important disagreements. But I do think there is more agreement than is often apparent when Christianity is considered one of the genus "religion" and atheism is something else entirely. I don't find the category "religion" all that helpful in any case, but that's another post for another day, though I would refer anyone interested to the works of Brent Nongbri (Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept) , William Cavanaugh (Migrations of the Holy), or even Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

        • M. Solange O’Brien

          In what possible sense are Christians' ideas somehow related to atheist claims? I'm not seeing it. And atheism is far older than Christianity. I would suggest that science has been the stimulus of modern atheism, rather than Christianity.

          • Brett Salkeld

            I don't deny the role of science, but to me that's part of the genetic pattern. Where did science emerge, but in Christian Europe? Basic Christian convictions about reason and the intelligibility of the universe were essential in creating a climate where science could happen. I don't see science as Christianity as two opposing theories, but as part of the same theory. My starting point is history and sociology: where does contemporary atheism emerge? If it is primarily in historically Christian contexts, why? What is going on in the history of ideas, of which science is a part?

          • Ben Posin

            I guess what I don't see as that Christians "demythologized" the world, particularly when I think about Catholicism. If I had a dollar for every time a Catholic on this site has resorted to "mystery," or every time someone has suggested that a proposed flaw or contradiction in Catholic doctrine can be disregarded because there could be some unknowable reason why it makes sense for God to act in a certain way, well, I'd...still have to go to work on Monday, but I could probably stay in a nice hotel for a day or two.

            I see discussion of original sin and our fallen world and its effect on both people and nature, of the trinity, of Jesus having a human and divine nature, of the role of Satan in this world, of Jesus' miracles, of saints and more recent "miracles," and that's just on this site and off the top of my head. I think it takes being immersed in Catholicism that this all seems like normal, background stuff to be able to earnestly say that Catholicism doesn't have its own mythology, or that it promotes an "intelligible" world.

            You are showing a (arguable, as noted by Solange) chronological progression between areas that had Christians, which now have some atheists. This is very, very different than showing that Christianity represented some sort of bridge of thought that allowed atheism to exist.

            From the outside, it isn't apparent to this atheist that Catholicism or Christianity in general is a religion of "reason" and lack of mythology in the way that other religions, past or present, are not. The only difference I see is that modern Christianity has to try to thrive in a world where scientific knowledge has advanced to a large degree, which causes the reinterpretation of some mythology to fit those scientific discoveries accepted by the religious inclined, and perhaps drop some that are completely contradicted. But that's science birthing a modern Christianity, not the other way around.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I would agree that Christianity didn't demythologize the world - it just replaced existing myths with a another set.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Science emerged in Ancient Greece - not Christian Europe. It's development was arrested by economic and political collapse. Science continued to develop primarily in non-Christian countries, and though powerful development occurred in Europe, there doesn't appear to be any good reason to think it was because of Christianity. More probable, I think, might the similarity of economic conditions: small, independent states in competition and a rapidly developing economy. If Christianity was a factor, then the first 1500 years of non-science in Europe need some explaining.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            I think you are on to something with science's birth in ancient Greece, but most Christians make the claim that it "flourished" under Christianity, not was born in it.
            Christianity was a system that was dedicated to the truth, so finding it wherever it may lead was acceptable. We were a religion based on a real figure and a real event - Christians spread through their religion arguing for people to believe something real happened.
            Also, because Christianity was an outpouring of Judaism, they too became obsessed with writing and clerical training. This led to the modern university as we know it (also religious orders within Christianity) and the pursuit of knowledge, being an original tenet to our religion, caused a whole system that allowed science to flourish. Wherever modern science started to really cohesively find itself, 99 times out of 100, it was in a Christian learning center in the dark and middle ages.
            Our claim was a universal one (greek mythology was definitely top down), one that was obligated to be understood and passed on by every last man and also carried with it certain moral attitudes conducive to scientific burgeoning, namely egalitarianism, nobility in knowledge for knowledge's sake, and of course, the idea that the earth was a created and rational place.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Christianity claims to be founded on a real person and real events. But so does Islam. And Buddhism. And Mormonism. There's no particular emphasis in the history of the church on truth, but merely an expansion and explication if certain events and doctrines

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            Islam claims to be of Abrahamic origin that needed Muhammad to right the "mistranslations" of the Christians and the Jews (they too believe Jesus will come again in the end times). Buddhism claims that suffering is caused by detaching from the world you see around you, and Mormonism is another religion that claims that Judaism and Catholicism have essentially corrupted the message.
            What I am saying is that Catholicism makes only positive claims and doesn't have to deny or rely on someone else to deny something happened (at its inception at least). All of those other religions rely on you to actually disbelieve something tangible that came before it (in the case of Buddhism, I'd argue that you have to deny the world itself).

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            I see you're not familiar with Buddhism. And you're completely missing the point.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            I'm not a practitioner but I've read some stuff on it - is there a basic idea I got wrong?
            And I think the point originale was that the Christian religion is one that is fundamentally oriented toward the truth; the fact that many religions have to begin with, "We want you to believe in X, but everything that has been written/said about X until now is a lie" made me view Christianity differently.
            Even if Buddhism doesn't fit that particular objection, the Buddha's existence is given as an estimated 2,000 year time span. While technically he is historical- people squabble over Jesus' birth on like a nine year range - I just don't see it as the same thing.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I am unfortunately without details to back this up, but I know I've seen it proposed that, if you had to pick a watershed moment in the historical development of contemporary atheism, it would be World War I. On that analysis, the loss of meaning that was experienced when so many millions of loved ones died for such a stupid, senseless conflict was far more significant than any challenge posed by science. I'd have to leave it to real historians to debate the merits of this argument, but it seems plausible to me.

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      The oft-repeated suggestion that atheists have only rejected one more god
      than Christians misses the point it tries to make, because it mistakes
      the Christian idea of God as just one more of the things which Christianity (and Judaism before it) called "idols."

      Frankly, this both insulting and false. Most of the atheists here and elsewhere quite clearly understand the Christian claim that the Christian god is somehow qualitatively different from "all those other gods". But in terms of claims about reality, it's just one more apparently unverifiable explication of that nebulous concept called faith, or the "sensus divinitatus". It presents fewer possibilities for flagrant disproof, but it exchanges empirical clarity for semantic and logical incoherence.

      The one less god argument is quite clear.

    • Loreen Lee

      Quote: "provided we talk about "faith" in its purely natural sense, i.e. to avoid insanity and/or paralysis".

      I'm not convinced that this 'definition' need refer to a merely 'natural faith'. Are you familiar by any change with Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling" in which he portrays the faith of Abraham, (indirectly) with something that can only be described as an insanity. I listened to a sermon today, (they are I believe one gospel ahead of the schedule) in which the priest discussed faith as a 'gift of the Holy Spirit". At one point he referred to an anxiety that one may have in reconciling the dependence of the 'believer' with the inability to to be 'close to God' (for want of a better expression, please excuse). I am at the moment attempting to read a book: The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto, which discusses the 'numen' or 'numinous', which involves a consideration of the irrational as well as the rational aspects of 'divinity' as understood by the aspirant. Indeed, there is also the term 'divine madness', for the same reason, and I believe that all of these characteristics can be related to the theological virtues, and faith in this context rather than merely a natural relevance.

      That this is so, (I believe) is a reason why I am very careful with mystical thought generally, and specifically with absorption in a belief in 'miracles' per se. This, as you will understand, raises some difficulty with Church doctrine, among other things. So be it. But it also opens up the possibility of an understanding of the 'atheist' perspective, which also adheres to a 'rational verification' of empirical data. I mention this because the request for empirical evidence is a mainstay in atheistic criticism of theism.

      I don't expect you to comment on this issue at present. I merely raise the question as possibly relevant within the context of the history of ideas within the Western context. Thank you.


  • Moussa Taouk

    One thing mentioned in the interview is how the two opposing groups misrepresent each other. Steven gave the example of misrepresenting atheists as being moral relativists. I'm afraid I'm one person that does that.

    Can someone please explain how atheists can be not moral relativists? If I try to pretend that I'm an atheists I can't get past thinking that matter is neither "good" nor "bad", and so without a measure of good and bad I resort to defining what is good and bad "for me" i.e. my opinion relative to others' opinions with no outside absolute standard.


    • M. Solange O’Brien

      Why does the standard have to be absolute? External group-based standards and built-in biological tendencies seem to account for most ethical norms.

      • Loreen Lee

        Apart from looking for or living up to absolute moral standards, I have been attempting my whole life to develop an 'independence of spirit', so that my judgments and decisions and choices are not taken based merely on the influence of others. That could, in a way, be my attempt to find a kind of absolute. As far as biological tendencies, I believe many religious beliefs take sexual tendencies into account when making determinations on how a person 'ought' to regard biological factors.. Catholicism, for instance, is very 'strict' in this area. The point here, is that in this case at least there is a moral imperative to 'transcend' the biological basis of what is referred to as 'concupiscence

        The overcoming and working towards a more comprehensive (absolute???) criteria is possibly the standard direction that 'ought' to be taken as it implies, does it not, growth as an individual. This is thus the reason not only with respect to my pursuit of personal independence but that taken towards an objectivity in Christianity that is identified with coming to 'know' 'God'. However, as I cannot even live up to the standards Kant set with his universality and necessity, consistently, if at all, and since I 'confess' I know not what the ideal standard God would set for me might be, I can only 'do my best'. (This seems to involve having some kind of 'humility') I would not want to presume, in any case, what God's 'absolute' standard might be, when I compare the 'negative' possibilities that resulted in examples in the OT. These often seem to me, to be based on self deception or some attempt to make oneself equal to the absolute.. (Jephthah for instance).

        As far as pluralism is concerned, therefore, as I believe each person, as an individual has unique reasons for decisions made within particular circumstances, perhaps it cannot be avoided. It becomes a 'talking point in Catholicism', may I argue, because it can be interpretated that pluralism reflects an independence of personality options that may not be in conformity with the dictates/doctrines of the Church. And of course, the Church seem to hold the 'absolute' standard!!!! Yes?
        Although I have my differences with some commandments of Natural Law, I will continue to attempt to become more independent of the pluralism within society, by 'developing my conscience through reflection on my experience, and with 'a little help from my friends', I am sure to benefit in this regard even from further study of both atheist and Catholic comments on this blog. That's the good benefit of pluralism!!!!.

      • Moussa Taouk

        Why does the standard have to be absolute?

        Because as far as I can see, if it's not absolute then it's relative to something. Which, if I understand it correctly, is the idea of "relativism". i.e. that moral values are relative to individual preferences/ cultures/ situations. And as far as I know, the alternative to "relativism" is "absolutism". i.e. moral values are fixed (i.e. absolute) and are not dictated by varying opinions/cultures/situation.

        Whether relativism is true or not is another discussion. But I would have thought the most natural consequence in the world is for atheists to be relativists.

        • M. Solange O’Brien

          And so we go round again. There are no objective moral standards. There is either Nature or God's Nature (for theists) or group/biological contingencies (atheists - most atheists). There's no objective standard.

          • Moussa Taouk

            M, if what you're saying is true then considering atheists to be relalivists is not misrepresenting them. Which basically answers my original question. Thanks.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Right. I've no problem with atheists being labeled relativists. It's a category with good company: all Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. Confucianists? Now that's a different issue.

          • Ben Posin

            It's worse than that: to the extent that no moral absolutes are available to atheists, some atheists like me maintain that they are also unavailable to theists. God has no power to create a meaningful, non-arbitrary morality that would not otherwise be available in some manner to atheists. Convincing me that a God exists tomorrow would not change me into a moral absolutist!

          • David Nickol

            Talk about opening a can of worms!

  • TwistedRelic

    Brett Salkeld is the Archdiocesan Theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina.

    Brett >b>'In any case, I wasn't trying to argue for the credibility of the Christian claim."

    Oh of course not, since you are a Catholic theologian of some rank , pardon me for not thinking that you are pure in motive and not attempting to increase the credibility of the Catholic Church. Catholic evangelism by stealth now?

    • David Nickol

      It looks like you failed to read (or understand) the recent post on ad hominem arguments.

      I used to read Brett Salkeld's posts over on Vox Nova, and I think both Catholics and atheists should be very pleased that he has chosen to enter the conversation here. Try engaging with him and with his ideas. Nobody here who is not a Catholic is in danger of being tricked into becoming one.

      • TwistedRelic

        Have you ever had a discussion with a committed Catholic theologian or committed Catholic apologist,who was not trying in some subtle way, to increase the credibility of the Catholic Church."?
        I was not attacking Brett....was voicing an opinion, and a suspicion based on past experience. I have never been accused of being diplomatic or of pussy footing around when it comes to the topic of the Catholic Church and its' defenders.

        "Vox Nova is a Catholic group blog. Our contributors come from a wide range of backgrounds, but we all try speak to the world from the heart of the Church."

        • David Nickol

          First, don't you think it is a little ironic that you are doing "exposés" of people's identities and backgrounds while using a fake name and keeping your Disqus user activity private? Brett Salkeld could have used a pseudonym if he wanted to engage in "evangelism by stealth." He is not hiding anything. Why are you?

          Second, here is a more complete version of the quote you challenged:

          In any case, I wasn't trying to argue for the credibility of the Christian claim at this stage at all. I was more interested in the role of the Christian idea of God in the history of ideas and its relationship to contemporary atheism. That the two are sociologically and historically related is beyond doubt. Which begs the question, for me at least, of their relationship precisely in the realm of ideas.

          I am sure Brett Salkeld would be more than willing to argue in favor of "the credibility of the Christian claim" when the credibility of the Christian claim is at issue. However, it's not at issue here. What is at issue is "the Christian idea of God in the history of ideas and its relationship to contemporary atheism." One doesn't need to believe the Christian idea of God is true in order to discuss its relationship to atheism.

          Most atheists posting here, as well as most of the "New Atheists," likely arrived at their position, at least at first, by rejecting the "Judeo-Christian" God or the story of Jesus as God Incarnate. So in that sense, there is a very close relationship between "Judeo-Christian" theists, on the one hand, and atheists on the other. There are times when I think the whole "Judeo-Christian" outlook is a huge mistake and nothing like the God of Judaism or Christianity exists. But even if those moments of doubt are actually glimpses of the truth, the impact that "Judeo-Christian" though has had on the world and still has on me is immense. I would not know how to even begin separating it from Western culture.

          • TwistedRelic

            "First, don't you think it is a little ironic that you are doing
            "exposés" of people's identities and backgrounds while using a fake name
            and keeping your Disqus user activity private? Brett Salkeld could have
            used a pseudonym if he wanted to engage in "evangelism by stealth." He
            is not hiding anything. Why are you?"

            Calling the fact that I did some research...and for you to call it an expose' is a bit of an overreaction don't you think.
            lot of person's use a pseudonym on here for a variety of good reasons.
            Brett is free to do the same if he wants....So What! Since the comment
            he made was tantamount to an article and not simply a comment, and given
            the things he said I wanted to see if he did have an official
            connection to the Catholic Church. Pardon me for honest curiosity for
            wanting to see who was the author of a long winded comment that was
            tantamount to an article in this case. Half the people posting here
            would have to quite posting comments if you took them to task for some
            reason.if it were up to you. The solution is simple.....get Brandon to
            have every commenter register under his or her real name.

            Oh...now I see you have appointed yourself moderator.

            "Second, here is a more complete version of the quote you challenged:"

            did not feel the need to quote his whole "Article" If anyone was
            interested all they had to do was read Brett's voluminous comment.

            am sure Brett Salkeld would be more than willing to argue in favor of
            "the credibility of the Christian claim" when the credibility of the
            Christian claim is at issue.

            Oh I am sure that he would
            have....but that was not my point. Good thing though that you came to
            his rescue. Good attempt at throttling free expression though David.
            Given your shrill expression I can't help but wonder in which direction
            you are heading.

            Of course even a low life intellectually
            challenged dolt such as I understand the obvious connection between
            Catholicism and Western culture. But that does not make it any more

            You would make a good apologist for the Catholic faith
            David, you seem to have a similar temperament as does Brandon. Perhaps
            you could help and advise him who to ban and whose comments to
            delete...and send another batch of participants over to "OutshinetheSun"

          • Loreen Lee

            I thought that might happen myself, but I've changed my mind, and feel that perhaps there is a psychological explanation for your comments. (Please don't be offended by this last statement) I don't think you need to feel inferior in any way, if this observation is correct, in regard to the authority you discerned in the article. This posting is about Faith and Unbelief. As it is my experience, or point of view that I can have both faith and unbelief, I feel that I should not deny this possibility to others, including yourself. Perhaps we can all learn to take the comments made by others in a more charitable way. All the best.

          • TwistedRelic

            "Please don't be offended by this last statement"
            No offense taken....I offer no explanation.....other than that, a belief in god makes absolutely no sense to me....and you are right... a person can waffle between faith and unbelief all of their life, and I am sure that is the case with most believers and even some atheists regarding the existence of a creator of life and the universe. But it is when a particular religion comes into the picture that claims to have the fullness of truth that it is more difficult to hold the to the duality of belief and unbelief. Then the cognitive dissonance will most likely eventually result in the tendency to send one into the arms of religion or atheism.

          • Loreen Lee

            Thanks for the reply and the clarification, you ole' twisted relic! Of what are you a relic I wonder!!!! Yes, I guess it was what you call the angry sarcasm that got my attention. Often, I feel, especially in that post on the ad hominem attacks, that people often feel the argument, (and perhaps the winning of same) is more important than the welfare, whatever, of the person. Possibly if the debater was completely assured of winning the argument, there would be no recourse to charges of ad hominen in the first place!!! grin grin.
            On faith and unbelief, depending on your definition of same, I feel it is possible to have faith on the metaphysical level and have unbelief on the empirical or physical level. I also think even some atheistic scientists for instance, would have to have some explanation of their work which in their expectation of finding answers implies that the universe is intelligible, which itself would possibly need 'explanation and thus the advent of theology which demands another perspective on what constitutes explanation. And so it goes. Full circle!!!???? .I'm going to keep my cognitive dissonance. That's what I understand Soren Kierkegaard to mean by 'having faith'......i.e. living the paradoxes....Take care.

  • gigi4747

    Enjoyed this interview with Stephen Bullivant. Thank you.