Friday, 30 August 2013

Atheism and girl guides

The recent national and local spats about the new 'Godless' oath for Girl Guides (eg: Daily Telegraph article, here) symbolizes a growing issue in public spaces as an increasingly stroppy and numerous atheism grapples with inherited Christian forms.

At one level, the atheist reworking of the Girl Guide oath to drop mention of God makes absolute sense: if you have disparate groups, you try to find a common level on which they can all agree. In the past, Catholics, Muslims, Jews etc managed to meet on a non-denominational theism. Now, theists and atheists meet on a programme of shared morals. It's about compromise and agreeing on what we share rather than what divides us.

For a Christian, however, what you have is a serious impoverishment of a culture. Particularly in an organization which is devoted to the character formation of the young, that formation essentially consists in getting young people to see the difference between what they think or feel, and what is actually the case; what they want to do, and what they should do. There are (at least) two elements to this: a cognitive element based on understanding the world in a certain way; and a narrative element which provides us with a network of stories and heroes that provide analogies for our own behaviour. So, eg, a Christian formation will regard the world as meaningful and directed by the will of God, and will refer to (eg) the Bible as a stock of narrative on which we can draw.

From a Christian perspective, the more attenuated the stock from which the formation is drawn, the worse that formation. At best, the formation of character is weakened. At worst, it is actually poisoned by a pernicious alternative: to replace, "love my God" with "to be true to myself and develop my beliefs" is to replace an objective source of values with feeling.

In the end, this is not just about atheism vs theism, but an impoverished narrative vs a rich one, and relativism vs objectivity. A lot of modern atheism is simply dumb: it's the sort of thing 18 year old computer geeks would come up with. Christianity is being dumped, but instead of being replaced by a rich humanism soaked in the classicism and literature of the past, it is being replaced by a void. The better sort of atheist realize that but most don't and even fewer have any sort of viable proposals to fill that void.

My own guess is that, for the last couple of generations or so, religion in much of public life in the UK has been run on the basis of 'it's good for the kids': a short lived experiment to send me out to Sunday School in my childhood was explicitly described in those terms by my mother, and I doubt she was unique in this. The forms of the Christian religion were kept simply because they offered a way of articulating those central differences between seeming and being, one's desires and one's duties. That facade has now fallen, but the need for a similar structure to replace it remains. From a Catholic point of view, there is simply nothing that will work in the long run beyond a true religious formation. I don't expect atheists to agree, but I do expect them to start provide suggestions which go beyond simply using the delete key or suggesting that four year olds study Darwin.


  1. You are making a few mistakes here. The "values" of Christianity are not objective. They are different from believer to believer and can in fact be vastly different. Unless you, or some other Christian, is willing to stand up and define the faith for all you can never claim objective fact. the Catholics tried that and look how it turned out.

    You also state that atheism is impoverished and "dumb". I am a 44 year old IT professional and I can tell you with certainty that many of the 18 year old computer geeks I have had as interns are a good deal smarter then you are. the, at least, know a good argument from a bad one. Since your religion is a myth only with no evidence or reason to believe in it, Christians are raised with many misconceptions about how the world works. Atheists are raised with clear eyed knowledge. Who is really impoverished? It is obviously the people who think they "know" things that aren't true.

  2. Yep. Don't quite know what to say to that tirade, Unknown. Perhaps it would be good for you to explain what happened when 'the Catholics tried that'. I was under the impression it all went rather well...

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