In these newly religious times, it no longer seems superfluous to rearm the atheists with arguments. When push comes to shove, atheists can only trust their reason, writes Burkhard Müller.
Some years ago I wrote a book entitled Drawing a Line – A Critique of Christianity [Schlußstrich – Kritik des Christentums], which argued that Christianity was false: not only in terms of its historical record, but fundamentally, as a very concept. I undertook to uncover this falsity as a contradiction in terms. While I do not wish to retract any of what I said at the time, I would now go beyond what I argued then in two respects.
For one thing, I no longer wish to adopt the same aggressive tone. The book was written at the beginning of the 1990s, when I was still living in Würzburg (in Bavaria), a bastion of Roman Catholicism. It is a prosperous city, powerful and conscious of the fact, which made it more than capable of provoking my ire; whereas for thirteen years now I have been living in the new East of Germany, where roughly eighty per cent of the population no longer recognize Christianity even as a rumour, where it appears as the exception, not the rule, and where one has the opportunity to reflect on the truth of the claim “this is as good as it gets”.
The second point is this: it seems to me that institutionalized, dogmatic Christianity, as expressed in the words of the Holy Scriptures and – more succinctly still – in the Credo, is losing ground. This is not only at the expense of a stupid and potentially violent strain of fundamentalism, as manifested in Islam and the American religious Right, but in Europe mostly at the expense of an often rather intellectually woolly and mawkish eclecticism. I will not be dealing here with any theological system in its doctrinal sense. I want rather to sound out the religious impulse, even – and especially – in its more diffuse form, and to get to its root. That is to say, to enquire of the concept of God whether in practice it accomplishes what is expected of it.
For people do not believe in God because they have been shown the proof of his existence. All such proofs presented by philosophers and theologians through the millennia have, by their very nature, the regrettable flaw that a proof can only refer to the circumstances of existing things, whereas God, as the predecessor of all circumstances, comes before, so to speak, and outside the realm of the demonstrable. These proofs, then, all have the character of something tacked on, giving the impression of a thin veneer on a very hefty block of wood. Belief in God, where it does not merely arise out of an unquestioned tradition, demands a spontaneous act on the part of the believer which the believers themselves will tend to describe as an act of faith, their opponents as a purely arbitrary decision; one, nevertheless, that always stems from a need of some kind. People believe in God because along with this belief goes an expectation that a particular wish will be fulfilled for them, a particular problem solved. What kinds of need are these, and how can God meet them?