Cheap Grace… Plus Postscript


Having been accused of “faitheism” by more than one reader of this blog, let me offer the following:

I have been a fairly vigourous opponent of the new atheism, manifesto-atheism, organized secular humanism (if that is not an oxymoron) and the quaintness of the term “freethought.” (Send it to the attic, it doesn’t apply to anything on the contemporary scene).

But you need to know why I am critical, and to understand that, you need to understand a bit of history–especially the history of men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a victim of German-style National Socialism.

To my twenty-something readers who have just come out as atheist, or gay, or something, at Oberlin, or somewhere. Good for you: if you mean it. But please mean it. Because if this is just to irritate your parents, it’s hardly worth the trouble. It’s true that gays and blacks and resolute women have been a persecuted and marginalized class in American society.

But two things are not true: (a) That atheism is the last buttress against the know-nothings of American democracy (“A Mighty Fortress is No God”?) and (b) that there has been a consistent “persecution” of atheists in American history. Not getting elected to office because you do not believe in God is not, I am sad to report, persecution.


The fact is, atheists have seldom taken a moral stance about anything. Their core position–that religion is immoral and that they are therefore opposed to its influence and its effects–is not a moral position but a dog satisfied to have caught its own tail.

Perhaps that’s why years ago at Harvard I spent my spare time reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer. No atheist, clearly, but an ardent believer in the improvability of the human race, a race that for all intents and purposes God had deserted. Naturally critical, he floated between theological positions and even spent a year at Union Theological Seminary in 1930.

After studying with the best we had to offer– Reinhold Niebuhr–he concluded, “There is no theology in America.” He meant, of course, that there was no rigorous inquiry into the sources of belief nor any critical examination of Christian theology in general, the sort of thing the German faculties had developed as Wissenschaft –serious scholarship. In fairness to the softness of the American cultural landscape, however, we also had no Hitler.

For Bonhoeffer, “serious” theology had consequences, and these led him through an almost unimaginable circuit of events to being arrested, condemned and executed for his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracy.

Bonhoeffer was hanged at dawn on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the capitulation of Nazi Germany. By decree of the SS and with Hitler’s explicit instructions, the execution was particularly brutal. He was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard, where he was hanged with piano wire. An odd fate for an academic, a poet, a pastor and someone who saw the Church’s mission as entirely compatible with humanist ends.

I am beginning to dislike atheism. I dislike it because it is historically illiterate, and because it sees its crusade against the “powers of darkness” as a crusade against a record that all the blasphemy and all the parody in the world cannot change. I mean those moments of sanctity, light and grace where for reasons beyond the normal course of political events men like Bonhoeffer stood down the real powers of darkness.

For reasons different from the philosophical messiness of religion, atheism is a mess.

In making religion its sworn enemy atheism–organized atheism and secularism especially–ignores the religionless elements that transfused both the Nazi and Soviet movements. When will atheism have the will and the confidence to admit that a world without God is no better than a world with God? If the twentieth century proved anything, it is that.

Bonhoeffer used the phrase “cheap grace” in his most eloquent meditation, The Cost of Discipleship, to describe the Christianity of his day–an idea he derived from Kierkegaard. In contrast to the energy and vision that had inspired the early Christians as a religious minority, European Christianity had become fat, lazy, and politically malleable. It required neither risk nor affirmation: to be German and Christian was equivalent to what it once was to be Roman and pagan. (The Jews got the short end of the equation in both cases).

His premise was simple: any intellectual position comes at some expense. At one extreme, it is worth lying for, conspiring for, and if all else fails, dying for. “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….”

Hitler’s enemies were not atheists. They were his co-religionists, Catholic priests and confessing protestants like Martin Niemoeller. They were his religious Others–the Jews, and had Europe then had a substantial Muslim population (I am sorry to disappoint my pro-Teutonic Muslim friends with this information) they would have joined the inmates at Buchenwald and Auschwitz as outsiders as well. The early anti-secular noises made by the Nazi party to pacify the churchly despisers of Adolph Hoffmann, whose picture appears in my family album, were decisively exposed as political by Hitler’s closest mentor, Martin Borman, in 1941:

When we [National Socialists] speak of belief in God, we do not mean, like the naive Christians and their spiritual exploiters, a man-like being sitting around somewhere in the universe. The force governed by natural law by which all these countless planets move in the universe, we call omnipotence or God. The assertion that this universal force can trouble itself about the destiny of each individual being, every smallest earthly bacillus, can be influenced by so-called prayers or other surprising things, depends upon a requisite dose of naivety or else upon shameless professional self-interest

Borman followed this with a 1942 memo to Gauleiters, that the Christian Churches “must absolutely and finally be broken,” as their views were fundamentally opposed to the total world view of democratic socialism.

Bonhoeffer’s reaction was not against proposals that (among others) would have banned the teaching of theology in the universities or removed the Old Testament from the Bible, or eliminated subsidies for churches and religious schools, or forbidden school prayer. The total menu of punitive actions against religion was much larger than this–and similar proposals have been the staple of democratic socialism in both Europe and America for more than a century.

Bonhoeffer’s nausea was evoked by the quasi-religious and spiritual trends of the Nazi inner circle: Germanic pagan imagery mixed with ancient Roman symbolism and emotion in propaganda for the German public, the naive acceptance of social Darwinism, a strong belief in the providential role of science, as Science, and a commitment to the idea of German intellectual supremacy. He saw forming behind the scenes a new myth, fashioned to replace the old one by summoning the tribalism of an ancient imperial past, and a Church so naive that it believed it could accommodate the “new ideas.”

Bonhoeffer died as a Christian, as someone opposed to the symbols and reality of the state-produced Man. If you want to see the most effective and still chilling visualization of this, watch the first fifteen minutes of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film, Triumph of the Will–Hitler descending like Woden or Jesus (either is correct) as the expectant people (sitting in darkness, awaiting the light) clamour for the landing of his aircraft.

So the question arises, why in a world so allegedly hostile to their ideas have atheists never been held to account? Why are there no illustrious atheist martyrs, no equivalents to Socrates and Jesus–and Bonhoeffer? Given the insistence of the atheist and secular humanist movement that their position is heroic simply because it is (as yet) unusual in the world–perhaps especially in salvation-starved America–
what approaching army advances? What hideous penalties do they threaten? Do any involve being strung up at dawn by piano wire? And who will be the first to lay his life on the line for the glory of Unbelief.

In fact, modern atheism is the moral equivalent of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Just as the comfortable Christian could count on the fact that the price of his sins had been paid for in advance by a God who operates as an endless source of moral credit, atheists know that the cost of their rage is slight. They count on the fact that the free speech they savor has been underwritten in constitutions and codes dating back two centuries–just as the Protestants of Bonhoeffer’s Germany counted on the fact that their greed had been atoned for in advance. They follow a narrow orthodoxy that punishes nuanced, critical and accommodationist views–just as the Churches of Bonhoeffer’s day embraced a gospel that perfectly reflected their social values and political lassitude.

Kishinew Pogrom

In other words, the cost of being an atheist is simply to proclaim being an atheist, with a wink to the atheist at your side. What, no applause? No police force, no secret agents are going to round you up for that. For that to happen, there would have to be something more to atheism than the purely negative impact of not believing in God or believing that religion is evil.

It would have to develop real ideas, agendas, and principles–preferably different from the ones that emanated from the first great organized wave of atheist ideology, Soviet communism.

And since atheists often adopt a Missouri posture in such matters: Show me your martyrs. Show me the principles for which they died. Show me the agenda that naturally flows from unbelief, and the positive consequences of taking that position. Show me the future of the world you believe in when the world no longer believes in God.

Otherwise, atheism is simply the additive inverse of cheap grace.


It’s hard to imagine that I managed to get through this whole piece without using the word “complacency” even once. One reader awoke me to the fact when he asked whether Jesus and Socrates had died for their religious opinions or were victims of political circumstance. The flippant response is that most people who die for religious reasons were victims of circumstance, including the heretics. Atheism as we use the term today is really an intellectual fashion of the seventeenth century when the Church in the west no longer had the power to roast people for their apostasy: Around 1650 an anonymous manuscript appeared (probably in France) entitled Theophrastus redivivus which appears to be the oldest extant atheistic document. But, of course, there was classical precedent for denial of the gods, as well as satire of their behavior and trivialization of their role.

The atheist “heresy” is in creating an apostolic succession of unbelievers (Socrates and Galileo are, somewhat ludicrously, often numbered among them) that never existed, but put forth on the premise that very bright people must (at least privately) have been unbelievers. The religious heresy is the complacent belief that unbelievers are beyond the help of the church and thus, as Anselm regarded atheism, a form of insanity or “foolishness” (Psalm 14.1).

But my real quibble with redivivus atheism is that it has taken a sideshow approach to a subject that ought to be viewed and debated seriously. Atheism, as such, is an intellectual position, not a moral philosophy. But sideshow atheism is neither. Blasphemy Days, sloganeering, bus campaigns, unbaptisms, video challenges, cartoon contests–whatever motivates this activity (bonding, boredom, or the lust to be noticed?), it is not of a kind nor quality that does atheists any good. If instead of arguing their case, the atheist strategy for growth was to build the world’s most repulsive bogeyman, they have done a good job.

I am not even certain why atheists feel they have the right to feel more agitated and annoyed by the noise of the religious right, which after all is simply a bigger and more influential sideshow, than liberally religious, studiously ethical, or indifferent men and women–where I think the real and growing numbers of “converts” are. Most absurd of all is the persistent effort of younger new atheists, the Dawkinsians and Flying Spaghetti Monstratarians, to see their “cause” as equivalent to the civil and sexual rights movements of the twentieth century.

For the sort of serious approach to the subject that American atheists (chiefly) might want to know about and would surely benefit from reading, Cambridge University’s “Investigating Atheism Project” will repay the effort of a little historical homework a thousand times over.

12 thoughts on “Cheap Grace… Plus Postscript

  1. Is supporting your position with this article cheap grace? If so, fine. If not, consider that most, bordering on all, articles you oppose are written in the same spirit.

    “When will atheism have the will and the confidence to admit that a world without God is no better than a world with God?”

    Umm…it’s clearly only one factor, but a factor. Is that so hard? Try this on for size: When will you have the will and the confidence to admit that a world without smoking is no better than a world with smoking? Look at all the evils done before smoking was invented! Alternatively, insert any problem that isn’t the only problem in the world…Just learn the difference between a necessary and a sufficient condition and think about it for a few minutes and you should be fine.

  2. So precious, so persecuted, poor atheists. Yes exactly, the additive inverse of cheap grace. (and of course organised s. h. is an oxymoron but that’s obvious)

    I don’t understand how you could be accused of being a ‘faitheist’… isn’t that the most extreme sort of fungusmentalist?


  3. I have absolutely no idea what ‘faitheism’ is and I’ve never heard of it before. I can only imagine that it is a more definitive noun applied to atheist’s faith, faith which they do have in themselves, because they ‘know’ with a ‘knowing’ like theists, that there are no gods.


  4. Brian, your comment is food for thought. You could also argue that most religion today is cheap grace, and maybe with the death of the communist movement there are no equivalent intellectual movements that would require “cost.” I don’t see fundamentalism as costly except for its extreme suicide fringes in Islam. But I still maintain that the value of Bonhoeffer was in calling attention to self-satisfaction and then naming that position Christianity. Surely a self-satisfied atheism with no vision beyond what your atheist comrades believe is the same sort of thing. And I think the smoking analogy does not work.

  5. Okay, I’ll admit that the world without God is no better than the world with God. Happy? In fact that is my default position, unlike the so-called New Atheists. I will also agree that atheism does not present any ideals worth dying for. That is not what it is for. That is why Secular Humanism has been trying to fill the void. I don;t know that they will succeed.

    Cost of atheism? While my life is not in danger, I am forced to keep my own anti-faitheism largely a secret in order to live in my community and keep peace in my immediate family. It is a daily grinding away, especially as my children (raised by agreement in the church) become older and ask questions. A high price, maybe not, but real in the American South.

    Okay, your guy, Bonhoeffer was a hero. This smells just a bit of testimonialism where just finding a former atheist to speak at your church is supposed to end the argument. How many heroic atheists do I have to find in order to match yours?

    • Oops. Misunderstood “Faitheism”. Thanks for the link Qohelet. Bad habit on my part to assume that atheist-critical means religous-nut. Conditioning I suppose.

      That said, I assume that Mr Hoffmann may be carrying his argument too far and that martyrdom does not justify one’s beliefs. Furthermore, religious martyrdom is not always so clear cut, is it. Did Socrates and Jesus die for their religious beliefs or for the kind of socio-political reasons that would land your average democrat in trouble in China? After all, the Romans were not in the habit of crucifying the merely for being religious.

      Of course, this all atheist-denialism, right. It is apparently not enough to be a decent, law-abiding, socially-aware atheist who is trying to raise his kids to be productive and wrthy citizens. If only I could get myself killed…

      • Scott: I agree that religious martyrdom is never clear cut. And there must be millions of socially aware atheists out there who are just trying to do the right thing. And there are millions of religious families out there who are not very different.

        The Romans were, actually disposed to punishing religious dissent: the Christian persecutions get the most notice among historians, after Diocletian declared that the simple fact of professing Christianity was a crime. The Jews were always victims: the Temple was burnt in 70 because it was a center of Jewish religious gravity–not because it was a parliament. And the Bacchae were outlawed at least thrice. So you need to do a bit of background reading on the subject of the nexus between ancient politics and religion–not just assume contemporary separatist standards prevailed in antiquity.

  6. Thanks Q – a neologism that’s just had its first birthday. A faithiest still has to identify themselves as an atheist though before they’re branded as a contradiction. Although what is no-Godism (as opp0sed to ‘not-Godism’) if it isn’t a faith?

    Free thinking properly is independent thinking, independent from the masses controlled by religious or atheistic dogma. Mark Twain said something along the lines of ‘if you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.’ Free thinking comes at a cost, sometimes the cost is just having your readers getting cross and annoyed with you … sometimes it places one in the position of needing to extract oneself entirely from the masses and take oneself off to a desert island to live in isolation … which is a rather paradisical and worthwhile price to pay really. The position here is the result of free thinking, so I can’t see it as cheap grace. All arguments from analogy are false and smoking is always a cost. Nothing cheap there.

    As for getting oneself killed for a ’cause’, perhaps it’s unwise to read Joe’s posts so literally like a fundamentalist would.

    In Bonhoeffer’s words:

    “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

    “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (as my own Bonhoeffer trilogy – ie Letters, Ethics and, as quoted, The Cost of Discipleship – is on the other side of the world in a box, I cheated and wikied his words).

  7. Thank you for the article, and thank you for the direction to “Investigating Atheism Project”.

    It does seem to me to be deeply dangerous to elide the very clear distinction between lynching someone, and not voting for someone; not getting elected may be tough on the ego but at least the victim is still breathing.

    As for the dangers of the cult of reason, with or without capital letters, the legal position in England asserts that:

    “A mentally competent patient has an absolute right to refuse to consent to medical treatment for any reason, rational or irrational, or for no reason at all, even where that decision may lead to his or her own death”.

    This is a fundamental right; it enables us to direct our own lives, it asserts that we are free, not slaves. It is the foundation stone of our right to our personal autonomy.

    But should the glorious revolution ever come, when Sam Harris gets to practise what he preaches:

    ‘Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.’

    I can’t see it lasting long.

    It seems unlikely that we will be permitted to retain that right, since people convinced that they have Reason on their side wouldn’t put up with people who don’t do things which reasonable people think they should do…

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