[Reflection] The Sacred Structure of Doubt: Reflections on Christ-Haunted Atheism

BenBen Wood considers the ways in which our Western secular culture is still ‘haunted’ by the Christian story. And like an unruly ghost, this narrative presence refuses to rest, producing the peculiar contradiction of faithful unbelief– in art, philosophy, and literature.  Yet, in the midst of this cultural paradox, there exists a stirring coherence.


Contemporary discussions of religious belief in the media are frequently conducted through the unaccommodating lenses of binary thinking. Either we either ‘believe in God’ or we disbelieve. A religious story either makes sense to us or else we are baffled. What is perhaps less talked about however, are the so-called marginal cases where unbelief owes its structure and vitality to faith. So obsessed is our culture with ‘the fundamentalist’ and the ‘true believer’ that we rarely consider the religious life of the doubter. Such oversight is examined with verve and colour in Simon Critchley’s book Faith of the Faithless. Here the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde is described as one living a religiously ambiguous life. Neither straightforwardly Christian nor flatly apostate, Wilde’s sense of the sacred is continually mediated through the beauties of art, iconography and scripture. Such an aesthetic sensibility is forever slippery, neither rejecting Christianity nor fully embracing it. As Critchley suggests, this is ‘the faith of the faithless and the belief of unbelievers, a faith which does not give up the idea of truth, but reinterprets it.’[1]

How should we make sense of this unbelieving faith? Here we are confronted with what the theologian Jürgen Moltmann has shown to be the Janus-faced nature of Western scepticism. He divides atheism into roughly two temperamental camps. The first form involves a morbid praise of human futility. In this pessimistic mode ‘the history of Western atheism becomes at the same time the history of nihilism’.[2] In ‘the hells of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Vietnam’[3] the cynical atheist observes the absolute triumph of evil, so that it becomes more credible to believe that the Devil and not God is the administrator of this nightmarish drama. Nietzsche at times fell into this gloomy trap. By throwing away the decaying debris of Christian slave morality, he opened a bottomless chasm of moral and cultural annihilation, which he was powerless to close. Here atheism is the radical proposition that eats everything around it. Like some monstrous event horizon Nietzsche’s myth of a grisly deicide blots out the lights of both piety and metaphysics in its quest for a perpetual throwing down of the idols. Yet, Nietzsche’s chilling ‘death of God’ does not exhaust the meaning of atheism.

Atheism can also be a source of spiritual illumination as much as it serves as a marker of desolation. In this second form, unbelief manifests as a mournful dirge dedicated to one’s abandonment by God. Here the individual’s loss of faith is contingent, not upon an absolute surrender to evil, but rather an ethical protest the manifest injustice of the world. In this second state, Atheism serves less as a mark of metaphysical cynicism and more an expression of a deep-seated desire to sustain the righteousness that the Supreme Being has failed to uphold. Such a religiously-sensitive atheist perceives unbelief as a means of sustaining commitment to the ethical primacy of love, despite the failure of ‘the God of love’ to keep covenant. In this mould, we might think of Percy Shelley or Albert Camus, who despite their aversion to conventional forms of religious faith, strode to uphold all the meaning and pathos of a God-shaped world (a world where injustice and indignity matters, despite the evident absurdity of it all). Such stoic fortitude reveals something often ignored in contemporary discussions of the secular. The reason why many people today feel ambiguous about religious faith, is because, even their non-belief in God is conditioned by a prior belief. They disbelieve in ways which keeps intact large rudiments of the Christian moral imagination. Such a spiritual unbelief is more than the twee cultural Christianity of Richard Dawkins (the kind overlain with carols and tinsel); it represents the kind of religiously sensitive doubt which finds its metaphysical protest embodied in the depth of the Christian story itself. Nowhere is such protest more vividly played out, than on the Cross. In the crucified Son of God shouting for the Lord that has forsaken him, we find a stirring expression of the conflicted interior state of our own post-Christian culture. Many may have left God behind in their everyday lives as ‘working hypothesis’, yet they still sense the shadow of his absence, and regularly mourn it. In this respect, we have become in a profound sense Christ-haunted. We continually encounter a ghost that cannot be banished, without losing a part of ourselves.

Many liberal-secular people are ‘Christ-haunted’, not simply because they are capable of weeping at Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, but because those tears respond to their deep allegiance to the central stories of Christian culture, not just the empty tomb, but Moses parting the waves and Daniel in the lion’s den. Such people do not want to create revival stories to those of the Church (with Shakespeare and John Lennon at their funeral). They would rather exist in an expansive limbo between perfect faith and perfect doubt, never yielding to absolutes and never immune to elemental shifts in mood. Such devout deniers hope against hope that some Church somewhere will take their unbelief as a faithful act, and that these words will still be read over them at the last: ‘Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ (Ps. 23).

[1] Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, (London: Verso, 2012), p. 3.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans R.A. Wilson & John Bowden, (London: SCM Press, 1973), 221

[3] Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans R.A. Wilson & John Bowden, (London: SCM Press, 1973), 220


Critchley, Simon, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, (London: Verso, 2012)

Moltmann, Jürgen, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans R.A. Wilson & John Bowden, (London: SCM Press, 1973)

Dr. Benjamin J. Wood is a political theologian and researcher, specialising in the reception of Christian ethics in secular liberal societies. From 2013-2015 he was lead researcher of the ‘What Next for Individualism’ project at the University of Manchester. Most recently, Benjamin was visiting lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester.


One thought on “[Reflection] The Sacred Structure of Doubt: Reflections on Christ-Haunted Atheism

  1. I think Dr. Benjamin reflects the emotional response both to the memory of childhood belief and engagement with religious customs and schooling, and the more adult empathic response to great art (e.g., Bach, or the great religious stories, as stories). I’m not so sure they really reflect the faith/doubt conflict he refers to, but a more emotional response to the world as it is.

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