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Creed
6 min read

Confessions of an atheist philosopher. Part 1: born to be atheist, born to be anxious

In the first of a series, Stefani Ruper tells of the first steps on her journey from secular philosopher to a person of faith.

Stefani Ruper is a philosopher specialising in the ethics of belief and Associate Member of Christ Church College, Oxford. She received her PhD from the Theology & Religion faculty at the University of Oxford in 2020.

Cartoon God over painting

My name is Stefani. I was a committed atheist for almost my entire life. I studied religion to try to figure out how to have spiritual fulfillment without God. I tried writing books on spirituality for agnostics and atheists, but I gave up because the answers were terrible. Two years after completing my PhD, I finally realised that that’s because the answer is God. 

Today, I explain how and why I decided to walk into Christian faith. 

Here at Seen & Unseen I am publishing a six-article series highlighting key turning points or realisations I made on my walk into faith. It tells my story, and it tells our story too. 

I began having panic attacks about dying and the meaning of life when I was four years old. I would lay in bed at night and beat my head against the mattress while imagining what it would be like to stop existing. What would it be like to cease to be? I had no idea, but it seemed too horrible to fathom. I literally tore my hair out with the dread of it. 

Like many people in my generation, my parents had been raised in the church but left it as soon as they were able. They raised my brothers and me completely without God or other spiritual things. I had no idea of anything beyond what we could see or touch. My first exposure to God was through the TV, as He makes a few guest appearances on The Simpsons

As a child raised in today’s world, God was what Charles Taylor calls “unthinkable” to me. By “unthinkable” he means literally unthinkable. It was impossible for me to think God; it remains difficult for me to think God. But here’s the thing: this unthinkability of God—the sheer impossibility, the ridiculousness, the strangeness, the preposterousness of God, to me—was a bias I inherited from being born into this specific place and time.  

I was pre-wired to disbelieve in God.  

The thing is, every society is founded on tacit assumptions about the nature of reality. Ours, the modern West, assumes that nothing is real except for physical stuff. Philosopher Charles Taylor calls this the immanent frame. Inside the immanent frame, you can, if you like, believe in more than just what we can see and touch. But that’s a choice, and it’s one you make while others consider the things you hold most sacred as like cartoon characters lounging on clouds in the sky.  Such beliefs are difficult to maintain with grace, and people often hold them with either too much timidity or too much obstinacy; many, like my parents, eschew belief altogether. This is a recipe for a tumultuous, confusing, and often unfriendly spiritual landscape.  

The great existential trade-off 

We are the first society in the history of societies to be founded on nothingness.  A child born 500 years ago would not have been able to imagine a world without God. Back then, God was not just real but number one on the list of possibly real things. Atheism was unthinkable. God was the singular, unchanging reality upon which all material things—constantly changing and subject to decay and death—depended. You can read a little about what it was like in this review of Pentiment, an adventure game set in medieval Bavaria. 

Today, faith is, even for Christians, typically cordoned off in a little corner of life, maybe squeezed into 15 minutes on a Bible app on the way to work. But back then faith was what scholar Timothy Fitzgerald appropriately labels encompassing. God was not a hypothesis to be posed, a belief into which you could opt. God suffused the world. The transcendent encompassed all.  

Here’s how it flipped.

In 1451 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which made printing books faster and cheaper than ever before. New ideas about God began to spread faster than the then dominant Church could stomp them out. Within a lightning-quick five hundred years, the number of versions of the faith in Europe multiplied from one to literal thousands. 

No one was prepared for the shock of it all. People began to differentiate themselves according to their beliefs, and authorities exploited burgeoning fault lines for the sake of conflict. Between 1517 and 1648, ten million people died in the Wars of Religion. 

The things that seem the most real to us are those we share and discuss. The whole realm of the transcendent began to lose its status as unshakably real. 

What was to be done? Philosophers like John Locke offered a solution: separate the church and the state. That seemed simple enough. And in some ways, it was. But this meant our European ancestors stopped sharing and talking about their beliefs in public. The problem is that humans are social animals. The things that seem the most real to us are those we share and discuss. The whole realm of the transcendent began to lose its status as unshakably real.  

Over time, people discussed their fundamental beliefs less and less. Society even developed the notion that sharing beliefs at social gatherings like dinner parties is impolite. So religious beliefs became deeply private things, and it started to seem like people were choosing to believe them due to personal feelings or needs. This eventually made it seem to many that beliefs were mere  wishful thinking—flights of fancy, silly, and weak.  

On the opposing side, people who abstained from religious belief started to see their nonbelief as noble resistance to the temptations of wishful thinking. The idea was that being willing to view the universe as cold and uncaring was the difficult but right and brave thing to do.  Nobody wants to seem weak, and everybody wants to seem noble. The transcendent faded out of our collective consciousness. 

Or, to use Nietzsche’s terms, God died. 

Thus, God and material things swapped places in our understanding of reality. God, once the most real thing in existence, became something you could believe in if you felt like it. Material things, once viewed as constantly decaying and thus only real through God, became the unquestionably real.  

 

This isn’t normal, we weren’t made for this. We weren’t made to live without hope or homecoming or a bigger story of which we are a part. 

Today, the immanent frame reigns. But it’s not inert. It has its own compulsive, even hypnotic, powers, arguably with as strong a grip on our souls as God once had. It locks our attention on the here-and-now (as that’s all there is), and in doing so elevates the status of things like food, fashion, and entertainment in our quests for fulfillment. We throw ourselves into pleasure, hoping for relief. But immanence leads nowhere except back into itself, like an Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.   

Immanence is so pervasive we take for granted that this is just the way things are. And yet young children do things like tear their hair out trying to make sense of what seems like an absurd existence. This isn’t normal. We weren’t made for this. We weren’t made to live without hope or homecoming or a bigger story of which we are a part. Characters in today’s novels are always buying sportscars and asking Is this all there is? Maybe it’s not. 

What if all of us are grasping at the same ultimate truth, getting little bits of it right and wrong?

Betting on transcendence 

My panic attacks made me obsessed with finding answers. The horror I felt at living in a cold and dark universe was relentless. But I also couldn’t lie to myself. A solution wouldn’t be real if it were imaginary. So as much as I wished I could believe in God, I couldn’t.  

When I learned this history of immanence however, I realised that my automatic inclination to disbelief was a bias—an inheritance of our culture, and nothing more. 

I then asked myself: 

What if, as our culture sloughed off the transcendent, it didn’t move into greater nobility, truth, and progress like it tells itself, but pre-emptively gave up on the most important thing in existence? What if all of us are grasping at the same ultimate truth, getting little bits of it right and wrong? What if some of us are on the right path, exploring relationship with a Creative power beyond our imagining that loves us, helps us, saves us?  

The fact is, when it comes to transcendence, we don’t know what’s true. No one knows with certainty. 

But we do know that immanence is a bias. And we know the first step to finding the truth is to free ourselves from bias. We must identify and untangle presumptions, then rebuild our mental frameworks as carefully as we are able.  

As for me, I’ve spent more than a decade in the academy doing this work. And in the end? Spoiler alert: I’ve thrown my hat in with transcendence.  

Explainer
Creed
Faith
6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  

Watch

The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.