CPBD 086: Peter Rollins – The Role of Atheism in Christianity

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 23, 2011 in Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview theologian and emergent church leader Pete Rollins about the centrality of doubt to Christianity, the differences between analytic and continental philosophy, and existential atheism.

Download CPBD episode 086 with Peter Rollins. Total time is 1:06:28.

Pete Rollins links:

Links for things we discussed:

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Dean Norman January 23, 2011 at 5:30 am

I’ve actually read up on some of Pete’s philosophy over the past few months. I was a little surprised to see an interview with him here. I was also pleased that you didn’t let him get away with “Only an Atheist can be a good Christian”. He quotes Bloch a couple of times in the interview. And his comment about us all being a “natural believer”. What is more apropos is that we are all pre-disposed for finding design in the world around us. We often mistakenly and naively attribute that design to something supernatural.


nonchai January 23, 2011 at 7:58 am

I listened to this hoping to get some insight, trying to be open but still found myself confused by the end.

Is he trying to sell the idea that wisdom can be found in obfuscation ?.

But i liked the idea of his groups “Omega Course”. ( Unless its just a replacement of fundie apologetics with more “nailing jelly to the wall”.


jerid January 23, 2011 at 9:18 am

do u have transcript?


Luke Muehlhauser January 23, 2011 at 10:26 am


If you’d like to donate to create a transcript, please contact me!


Reginald Selkirk January 23, 2011 at 10:44 am

Nailing jello to the wall
The secret is to increase the ration of gelatin to water.


Shane January 23, 2011 at 10:51 am

I haven’t listened to this yet, but I tend to sort-of enjoy where Pete is coming from, until it tends to collapse (for me) into postmodern slabber. Still, he has some fairly good points, and if you ain’t pissin’ people off, you’re doin’ it wrong. When I was setting up the Church of Jesus Christ Atheist (see? All the best theologians come from Northern Ireland!) site (also on Facebook), I wondered whether to take an “emergent” slant at it, but decided that that’s not really the target audience (who IS?). Still, I’m looking forward to hearing what Pete has to say when getting some of the Luke treatment.


Epistememe January 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Three words come to mind.

Confused fuzzy nonsense


kwhipke1 January 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Three words come to mind.Confused fuzzy nonsense  



Shane January 23, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Yeah, but I thought that was half the point..?


Luke Muehlhauser January 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm


Lol, what a great image!


Ex Hypothesi January 23, 2011 at 3:44 pm

You say

“…when I try to process that it doesn’t work because I’m thinking of God in the traditional sense, that is that that term [God] refers to supernatural being that is very powerful…”

But this isn’t exactly right. St. Augustine and St. Thomas, along with the vast majority of their contemporaries, would deny that the word “God” refers to any concrete substance in the way singular terms (whether a proper name or not) usually do. In a nut shell, on Classical theism, God is not *a* being, but *Being* per se. Trying to find a substance that the term “God” refers to is like trying to find what the copula “is” refers to in a declarative sentence. At best, God is conceived as a principle, on par with the principle of non-contradiction (PNC). On this picture, the PNC does not refer to any one substance, nor is it merely a generalization made from observing substances. Rather, the PNC is a condition of any and all substances. And the same goes for ‘God’. Both God and the PNC fail to refer to anything at all, but that is no reason to think that the PNC is not true or that the statement “God exists” is false.


Gilgamesh January 23, 2011 at 4:29 pm

@ Ex Hypothesi

Under you definition of God, that would exclude such a word from actually doing anything. PNC does not create universes or perform miracles, but Augustine and Aquinas thought that is what God does and did. In other words, if you turn God into the verb “to be” (i.e. “is”), then it does not do anything. Considering that the old theologians you mention believe that God did and does things, either you are reading into them or they had contradicting views of God.

Also, your notion of God would seem to exclude personhood. PNC does not think or feel, nor does “is”. If you want to make God not a person, fine. But then you are talking about something that 99% of the people in the world don’t believe, and the remainder I’m not sure have a clear understanding of what this God “is”. We can at least understand PNC, and to some degree what being is, but I am at a loss for what “God” means in your understanding. Perhaps I need to listen to others that have this same tact to get it into my head.


Steven R. January 23, 2011 at 5:16 pm

if you ain’t pissin’ people off, you’re doin’ it wrong.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8F5YSA1Oz0 So they’re doing it right?


As interesting as it was to hear, there’s no way I’d subscribe to this.


AndrewR January 23, 2011 at 6:03 pm

If there is such a thing as “continental” theism I think it would be something like this.


Gilgamesh January 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm

After listening to the interview, I feel that Pete said a sentence that made sense to me. And once he said “the word God does not have an external reference”, that just suggested to me an atheism in denial. I simply didn’t find a coherent idea. Someone tell me what’s wrong with me!


Gilgamesh January 23, 2011 at 7:11 pm

After listening to the interview, I feel that Pete said a sentence that made sense to me.And once he said “the word God does not have an external reference”, that just suggested to me an atheism in denial.I simply didn’t find a coherent idea.Someone tell me what’s wrong with me!

Needed to say “I feel that Pete DIDN’T say a sentence that made sense to me”.


Stewart, aka Luigi January 23, 2011 at 8:47 pm

‘Under you definition of God, that would exclude such a word from actually doing anything. PNC does not create universes or perform miracles..’

This sounds like Aristotle’s version of God – gloriously beside the point. Yet Aristotle somehow felt the need to posit it.


The need for such an entity seems somewhat reduced these days.


mopey January 23, 2011 at 10:15 pm

“If we have no idea what God [would be], then what sense is there in asking
whether God exists or not?” — (Peterson et al. 1991, p. 49)

In Logic and Theism, Jordan Howard Sobel argues that St. Thomas’ opposition to the term ‘God’ as a proper name is unnecessary. “A name can be a proper name, and signifying or expressive. ‘God’ is such a name.” — (Sobel, p. 6)


Ex Hypothesi January 23, 2011 at 10:32 pm

“Under you definition of God, that would exclude such a word from actually doing anything.”

If by “actually doing anything” you mean the pushes and pulls of what Aristotle called “efficient causation”, then you’re right, and this is more or less St. Thomas’s view (among others).

Again, on their view, God is not *a*being, and hence he doesn’t do anything in the same way things (beings) do things. Instead, God is existence per se. He doesn’t have the predicate “existence”, he just *is* (identity statement) existence per se. He doesn’t “actually do anything”, rather he just *is* (identity statement) actuality.

And finally, you’re right. On their view, God is not a person; at least not in the same way we think of persons, and this is because all persons we know of are individual substances (things).


Ex Hypothesi January 23, 2011 at 10:41 pm


I don’t think Aquinas would mind if Sobel insisted that “God” is a proper name, so long as Sobel would be okay with a proper name of which nothing can be predicated. That’s the real issue.

Concerning the Peterson quote: God doesn’t have a nature (only created things do for Aquinas), and hence there’s no answer to the question “what is God?”. As you point out, this means that God does not exist, at least *not in the way ordinary objects do*. God exists, for Aquinas, only in the sense in which God just *is* (identity) existence. If Peterson, Sobel, et al. have a problem with this, they should read Aquinas et al. more carefully.


DaVead January 23, 2011 at 11:33 pm

What an awesome roundabout the hermeneutic circle. You really need to understand the project of continental philosophy to understand anything he’s talking about. Approach this analytically, and what we have is a failure to communicate. Dialogue between the camps is really only possible on the metaphilosophical level, not at the level of the actual debated issues.


AndrewR January 24, 2011 at 2:29 am

I did like Peter’s approach of just declaring that Christianity means a particular thing (basically by extrapolating from a single verse and ignoring everything else) – that’s what all the other Christian sects throughout history have done, after all.

I agree with others in this thread that it was generally very hard to follow exactly what he was talking about most of the time. I’m willing to give Peter the benefit of the doubt here and assume that’s because I’m unfamiliar with Continental thought (at least until the Sokal of pomo christianity turns up), but it’s maddening to listen to.

I think part of the problem is that in many other fields it’s easy to tell when you’re out of your depth. In analytic philosophy or medicine, it’s when you stop understanding the jargon terms, in physics it’s when you stop grasping the math. In Peter’s case, however, I don’t think he used a single word I didn’t understand; they were just placed in an order that appeared to make very little sense. It felt like I should be understanding it, but I just didn’t.


Gilgamesh January 24, 2011 at 6:34 am

@ Ex Hypo

We seem to be in agreement on what your view entails, so nothing is heated on that front. However, the declaration of “God just is” is simply that, a declaration. I don’t see the word having meaning. Moreover, it seems that this sort of statement that God is just existence is simply defining God to be invulnerable to analytic thought, let alone refutation. Yet it still carries the psychological baggage that the term has had through its history. After all, if God simply is existence, why not just drop the God term and just say existence?


CharlesP January 24, 2011 at 9:39 am

I’ve not listened to this yet, but Rollins is an interesting figure in my de-conversion. I wish I had done a better job of noting what I read, and when, during that process, but Rollins was fairly early on. I believe it was after I had already moved pretty heavily into doubting land when my pastor put together a group of us and we read Rollins’ “How (not) to speak of God”. The group was a mix of religious and atheist and… whatever I was at the time. I found it interesting, though the writing was such that, as somebody who has done way too much reading on the craft of writing, I couldn’t help but conclude he had spent far too much time in high-level philosophy class and not enough time conversing with real people for the book to reach all that many members of the church. Two of my best friends from my old church, who still believe, are big fans of Rollins and his emergent church stuff, though for me he sounds far too much like those friends back in high-school who had smoked one too many joints (or dropped too much acid) before philosophizing. All that said, he did make me think, and start pushing my boundaries as far as what I was reading regarding God and religion.


Ex Hypothesi January 24, 2011 at 10:13 am

“I don’t see the word having meaning.”

Sorry, which word?

“Moreover, it seems that this sort of statement that God is just existence is simply defining God to be invulnerable to analytic thought, let alone refutation.”

I don’t see what this follows from. You may think it’s silly that God = existence, but surely you understand what that means, don’t you? Furthermore, I don’t see how it’s immune from refutation either. Someone could argue that God is a being, and hence God isn’t existence itself. Depending on the cogency or soundness of the argument, the thesis that God just is existence would be refuted, wouldn’t it? If you have something else, in mind, let me know.

” Yet it still carries the psychological baggage that the term has had through its history. After all, if God simply is existence, why not just drop the God term and just say existence?”

From our point of view, it might seem that God is not existence per se, and so the statement “God is existence itself” is informative. The move would not be much different than the statement “heat is mean kinetic energy”. Nowadays, such a statement is a tautology, but it wasn’t prior to the advent of molecular theory.


Shane January 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm

OK, finally got around to listening to this; on one hand I think I got what Pete was saying, and a slightly clearer idea of what he meant by “god”, but it took you (Luke) a while to drag it out of him. I’m not a massive fan of the “Continental” approach, but one way of looking at these ideas is to think of “God” as an emergent property, not from the atoms of the “system” of Christians, but from their *interactions*. Now I will suggest that that doesn’t mount up to a hill of beans if you’re happy in atheism, but for many atheistic Christians, that “loss of god” can indeed be pretty traumatic (seriously – I know many atheists who don’t realise this, but for some of us it was a kick in the guts, albeit in retrospect a very welcome kick in the guts).

Many Christians, and I would suggest many Muslims, and I *know* many Jews, are quite sure that there is no god, but are happy within a community of “believers”, getting into that sort of vicarious belief that Pete mentioned with the Tooth Fairy & Santa. I completely buy into the “New Atheist” movement, and folks like PZ and The Dawk and The Hitch are heroes, but I do still wonder whether there is something that can be done with “believers” – to even just open the possibility to them that doubting the existence of god is a *good* thing, and not to be feared, from *within* a Christian community.

I was intrigued by the Ernst Bloch quotation, “Only a Christian can be a good Atheist, and only an Atheist can be a good Christian” – I’m not sure I would be quite so exclusivist, but it’s an interesting thought, and ties in at least a *bit* with the Church of Jesus Christ Atheist. (I know a lot of people think this is a crap idea, but I think there are some people who may find it useful).

I utterly reject the notion that people’s minds are not changed by rigorous confrontational debate – just speaking for myself, listening to people like Richard Dawkins was instrumental in my own “faith journey” from fairly evangelical Christianity to assertive atheism, and I know this has been the case for many other people. But Pete is right, I think, in saying that there is something deeply atheistic buried in the Jesus narrative, and pulling those themes out has at *least* as much validity as what passes for “normal” Christianity.

So, while Pete does talk a lot of old pomo cobblers, I think these ideas are potentially more constructive in the Atheist Christian relationships than they at first appear… (or maybe I’m talking crap – that happens occasionally). I’d still be interested in what proper thinking atheists think of the CJCA


Keith January 28, 2011 at 12:35 pm

When I listen to the likes of Rollins (and Karen Armstrong, say), I can’t help feeling they’re trying to have it both ways. They realize that traditional Christianity is an intellectually bankrupt hangover from the ancient superstitious past, and that atheism is much more in tune with the findings of modern science, but they’re just not ready to let Christianity go.

Their approach is to dress atheism up in religious language in order to avoid having to admit that they are really atheists. The sum effect of this enterprise is the sort of fuzzy “deepities” that Rollins uses in this podcast. As the rather silly phrase goes, there’s no “there” there.


Garren February 16, 2011 at 12:10 am

Every time I try giving progressive Christianity a chance, I just feel frustrated.


thepowerofmeow March 11, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Perhaps one divide here is the use of language in the different traditions.

The analytic tradition tries to nail things down, using language and concepts as a way to create clear representations of something “real”. Language is a net.

The continental tradition uses language and concepts to stimulate a move into a different level of awareness. Language is a tool for creating different “modes” of being, as Pete said. So language is about putting aside the net and jumping in.

they are both invaluable. As Alan Watts said – the world isn’t prickly and it isn’t gooey – it’s prickly goo.


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