Volume 38 - Issue 1
Colonial Atheism: A Very British ViceBy Michael J. Ovey
As I write this the UK Parliament is considering Clause 1(1) of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. It reads ‘Marriage of same sex couples is lawful’. Aside from all considerations about how Christians should respond to same-sex attraction and see biblical teaching reflected in the law of the land, what intrigues me here is one of the background assumptions, namely, that same-sex marriage is possible. Now, in the UK same-sex marriage has not been a social norm, to put it mildly. And the assumption of the UK government actually boils down to an assumption that, for the geographical entity of the UK, marriage ‘belongs’ to the UK government. It ‘belongs’ to it in the sense that it has the right to define and shape it. It has the right to ‘name’ what is and is not marriage.
Now, you do not have to have the theological acumen of John Calvin to spot that this is in practical terms atheistic. What I want to propose here is that this kind of atheism has a striking quality to it. It is colonialist. It is colonial atheism. There are no doubt other dimensions to it, but the colonial quality is important. And while I think it is very British, I do not think we Brits have any monopoly on this kind of colonialism.
Why should we describe some aspects of contemporary atheism as colonialist? The terms obviously suggest that colonial history and contemporary atheism have something in common. But what? The common denominator hinges on the idea of what is now called terra nullius, land that belongs to no one. And what I aim to do here is develop a line of thought that came up recently in discussion with the Bishop of St Albans in the UK, Alan Smith (‘colonial atheism’ is his phrase). It is hugely illuminating.
The idea behind terra nullius is quite simple. You declare that some land belongs to no-one, so it then becomes available for occupation. Something like this crops up in ancient Roman law, where it gave an account of how, for example, a newly appeared island in the sea could be reduced into ownership (Justinian’s Institutes II.1.22). This is not unreasonable: it is new land and clearly no one has laid any claim to it, either explicitly or implicitly. But imagine how very different the application is when you come across land where other people are living out their lives and you then declare it belongs to no one, thereby leaving it open to you to occupy for yourself. Now, the provenance of the term terra nullius is certainly a point of contention in academic circles just now, but the idea is found in judgments British authorities make in nineteenth-century Australia which relate to the claims to lands lived on by Aboriginal Australians. Unmistakably, it works to the disadvantage of those Aboriginal Australians.
However, whatever the original intention, there is a ‘Heads-I-win-tails-you-lose’ sense to terra nullius here. This happens in the following way. In order to qualify for recognition as owner, you have to have cultural forms which map onto the culture and practice of the colonial power. If you do have cultural forms which map onto the culture and practice of the colonial power, they are treated as part of the culture and practice of the colonial power. They are not treated as having an independent validity. The risk then is that your own culture has simply been assimilated into the colonial power anyway. Alternatively, because you retain culture and practice which does not fit the colonial power, you are un-personed in one of the most significant ways a property-owning culture knows: you are a non-owner.
At this point, the terra nullius idea goes beyond being simply a ‘legal’ and ‘respectable’ way of getting hold of land other people have been living on for generations. It very readily becomes a strategy for un-personing someone else: they either conform to your norms or they are non-owners. But either way, they are not allowed to exist as someone different and other from you. Either way, they have to fit into your scheme of things. They are assimilated or annihilated, but not allowed a real coexistence. Assimilation or annihilation has, tragically, been precisely the experience of people groups who encounter the colonial attitude.
Let us now take one strand of contemporary atheism, of which the late Bertrand Russell is a good example. Asked the question what would he do if it turned out there was a God after all, he responded, ‘Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.’ Now, it is intriguing that Russell’s remark has a superficial appeal. How rational, how reasonable, one thinks at first. But in fact the implicit demand is that God conform to whatever rules of evidence we lay down, in the same way that British authorities would only recognise Aboriginal Australian rights if they conformed to British rules of ownership. With regard to God, Bertrand Russell was thoroughly colonial.
Now, to put it mildly, we British had a vested interest in seeing things only in our cultural terms when it came to land ownership and terra nullius. In a similar way, humans have a vested interest in un-personing God. Psalm 24:1-2 tell us that the world belongs to God because he made it, all of it, us included. But if we are saying that God does not exist unless he meets our self-interested exacting standards of evidence or behaviour, well, who does everything belong to then? Us, I suppose. What could be more convenient?
There are profound issues at stake here. If as his human creature I belong to God, then I cannot say my body and mind are mine to do what I like with. My use of my body and the thoughts that I think are not my property. But if I can say God has not made good his ‘property title’, then why can I not use my body and mind as I wish? All this affects the obvious areas of sex, marriage, social life, but also the intellectual life. If my mind is God’s property, what books should I read? What material should I entertain? Do I ever ask if God would have me read such-and-such a book? Or, as a teacher, do I ever ask why I think God would have my students read such-and-such a book?
Of course, it was not just the British who used ideas like terra nullius to justify expropriating land other people lived on. Over the years our species has proved frighteningly adept at un-personing other humans, whether on grounds of race, class, or belief. But then it is not just atheists who have colonial attitudes to God, because a key part of sin is trying to have God conform to us and our norms, rather than conforming ourselves to God and his. Twentieth-century atheists do indeed have an appalling record of un-personing others, but lest we forget, religious people were involved in the un-personing of God incarnate at the crucifixion. Colonialism: we British didn’t start it, but it didn’t stop when we left Africa.
Michael J. Ovey
Mike Ovey is principal of Oak Hill College in London and consulting editor of Themelios.
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