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“We Confess that we are Atheists”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2024

Stephen Bullivant*
St Mary's University
Twickenham, TW1 4SX.


In the immortal words of Herbert McCabe, ‘Whatever we are referring to when we use the word “God” it can no more be a god than it can be a model aeroplane or half-past eleven’ (God Still Matters). This striking idea – the “atheism” of true Christianity – has, in fact, a long pedigree. This paper traces its history from the early Church to the Angelic Doctor himself. The essential point is this: if our God really is who Christians claim God is, then all our words about God – including the word “god” – must necessarily fall short.

Catholic Theological Association 2019 Conference Papers
Copyright © 2020 Provincial Council of the English Province of the Order of Preachers

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1 An earlier version of some of this paper was published in Faith and Unbelief (London: Canterbury Press, 2013).

2 Towey, A., An Introduction to Christian Theology (London: T & T. Clark, 2018), p. 201Google Scholar.

3 The translation used here (slightly amended) is taken from Staniforth, Maxwell (trans.), Early Christian Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 153-67Google Scholar.

4 The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 12 in Staniforth op. cit.

5 Edwards, M., ‘The First Millennium’ in ed by Bullivant, S. & Ruse, M., The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford, OUP, 2013), p. 155Google Scholar.

6 Novak, M., Christianity and the Roman Empire: Background Texts (Harrisburg, Trinity Press, 2001), p. 183Google Scholar.

7 This, and all other quotations from Justin's and Pseudo-Justin's (see below) writings, may be found in Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James (eds), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers – Justin Martyr – Irenaeus (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996)Google Scholar. These and a huge number of other translated texts from the early Church fathers can also be found online at:

8 Dawkins, R., The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 53Google Scholar.

9 McCabe, Herbert, God Still Matters, ed. Davies, Brian (London: Continuum, 2002), p. 55Google Scholar.

10 Ibid., p. 3.

11 Augustine, On the Trinity, 5.10; quoted in O'Collins, G., ‘The Incarnation: The Critical Issues’ in The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God, ed by Davis, S. T., Kendall, D. & O'Collins, G., 2004, p. 141Google Scholar.

12 The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, translated by M. O'C. Walshe (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009), p. 422. Attentive readers may note here an echo of the title of Don Cupitt's 1984 book Taking Leave of God, and they would be right to do so. Cupitt took the title from this passage of Eckhart's (albeit in a different translation to the one I am using here), and gives a fuller quotation of it as the book's frontispiece.

13 McCabe, op. cit., p. 56.

14 Bloch, E., Atheism in Christianity: the Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom, London, Verso Books, 1972, p. 9Google Scholar.

15 L. Irvine, ‘Slavoj Žižek's jokes are no laughing matter’, Guardian, 6 January 2012, available online at:

16 Žižek, S., Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London: Verso Books, 2012), p. 116Google Scholar.

17 E. Bloch, op. cit., p. 21.

18 Turner, D., Faith Seeking (London: SCM Press, 2002), p. 8Google Scholar.

19 Borne, É., Modern Atheism, trans. Testier, S. J. (London: Burns and Oates, 1961), p. 144Google Scholar.

20 Luibheid, C. & Rorem, P., Pseudo-Dionysios: the Complete Works (Michigan: Paulist Press, 1987), p. 141Google Scholar.

21 See Pattinson, G. & Thompson, D. O., Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition (Cambridge, CUP, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Williams, R. D., Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2008)Google Scholar.

22 See Pyman, A., ‘Dostoevsky in the Prism of the Orthodox Semiosphere’ in Pattinson, G. & Thompson, D. O., op. cit., p. 103CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 H. McCabe, op. cit., p. 32.

24 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, IV, 20, 4.

25 D. Turner, op. cit., p. 11.