Anders Breivik as a Pragmatic Agnostic

Stephen Prothero writes at CNN that when ideas accomplish positive change, we speak of the power of ideas, but when ideas “do things we do not want them to do, as in Oslo,” then we pretend that ideas are powerless.  The contention that Anders Behring Breivik’s actions “had nothing to do with his Christian faith or his anti-Islamic ideology” is, according to Prothero, “wishful thinking of the most dangerous sort.”

I agree with Prothero that Christians should be mindful of the uses to which their ideas will be be put, and should examine the resources within the Christian tradition – its scriptures, its history, its thought – that can be assembled into a case for violence against the innocent.  Christians should have the humility to confess that they are not immune to criticism and to look for faults within themselves and their tradition.

The problem, in this case, as Prothero would have seen with a careful reading of Breivik’s manifesto, is that Breivik had no Christian “faith” to speak of, and the “ideas” that most influenced him were not Christian in any sense of the term.  Prothero makes no reference to Breivik’s insistence that he is not a “religious Christian” with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or to Breivik’s confession that he has no confidence that God exists but chooses to believe in God and the afterlife in order to give himself the courage for action.  Yes, Breivik appropriated the title of the Knights Templar, but it’s to Christianity’s credit that he could not find modern Christian precedents for the kinds of acts he wanted to commit, but had to reach back over seven centuries to a repudiated series of military ventures in which Christian Europeans sought to secure the safety of Christians and ultimately recapture the territory of the Holy Land.

This is one critical difference that explodes any simplistic moral equivalency between “extremist Christians” like Breivik and Islamic Jihadists.  While Breivik cites numerous Bible verses in his manifesto, he employs those verses in a way that no significant theologian or church authority has approved for centuries.  There is a kind of liberal Christian who is deeply committed to the proposition that conservative Christians are just as dangerous as al-Qaeda, but when they are pressed for equivalents to 9/11 they have to reach back centuries to the Inquisition and the Crusades (which they portray in exaggerated and decontextualized forms), or else they refer to the actions of Timothy McVeigh, or the Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, or the Holocaust Museum shooter James von Brunn, who are all expressly non-Christian.

My point here is not to indict Islam, but to note how the liberal illuminati seem incapable of distinguishing between ancient military conquests that were justified by a pre-modern way of thinking abandoned centuries ago, or individual madmen who resided in Christian cultures but were the opposite of devout believers, and (alas) the legions of pious Muslims whose acts of terrorism are supported by a vast infrastructure and celebrated by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Imams throughout the Muslim world.

So, yes, as I noted yesterday, Christians should be the first to self-examine and self-criticize when someone perpetrates a terrorist act in the name of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”  But this does not mean that they should allow themselves to be slandered or lumped in with Imams who use their Mosques to recruit young men for the Jihad against the Great Satan.  Christians should present the facts.

And the facts in this case are pretty compelling.  So compelling, in fact, that the attempt to smear conservative Christians with the blood of the 85 children (at last count) that Breivik slaughtered is morally appalling.

Breivik explicitly denies that he is a “religious Christian.”  He admits that he does not possess what most evangelicals consider essential to faith: a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which means a life of devotion, a life of seeking Christ and seeking to be like Christ, a life that honors what God revealed in and through Christ and accepts and celebrates the grace of God and forgiveness of sin that were made available to any person who would trust in them.  Rather, Breivik possesses the husk without the kernel, the cultural residue of faith and piety without the faith and piety that gave them life and direction.  He is not even sure that God exists, but chooses to believe in God and the afterlife (if this is any kind of belief at all) in order to give himself courage in the face of the dangers of his terrorist act.

What exactly, then, is Breivik’s “Christianity”?  He cares not for Christ or Christianity, but for Christendom.  Rod Dreher gave perhaps the best definition I’ve seen so far.  Breivik, he says, “sees the faith much as the Nazi leadership did: as a European tribal religion that can be instrumentalized to provide the basis for an ethno-cultural war against the Other.”  The Nazis were not fond of what Breivik calls “religious Christianity.”  Hitler, rightly, did not believe that “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” would suit his purposes.  Personal devotion, a living and breathing relationship with a God who is Love and a Son of God who teaches the love of enemies, does not “instrumentalize” well into the wholesale slaughter of Jews, gypsies, political prisoners and Christian resisters.  Neither does it instrumentalize into the murder of 85 innocent children.

One of the most revealing portions of the manifesto comes when Breivik’s imagined interlocutor asks him what a person must believe in order to take up arms alongside his reconstituted Knights Templar.  You must be, he says, “a practising Christian, a Christian agnostic or a Christian atheist (cultural Christian).”  Since he has already identified himself as a cultural Christian and not a Christian atheist, it may be inferred (though this is not entirely clear) that he is a “Christian agnostic.”  The “cultural factors,” he says, are “more important than your personal relationship with God, Jesus, or the holy spirit.”  In fact, Breivik speaks admiringly of “Odinists,” or Neo-Pagans who honor the ancient Norse gods, because this is a part of the Nordic cultural heritage.  One should prefer Christianity at least as a cultural matrix, he says, due to “pragmatic considerations.”  Only the the cross and only the Christian church (of which, in its present form, he is intensely critical) have the symbolic and ecclesial power to bind Europeans together in their battle against the Muslim threat.

As a cultural Christian, I believe Christendom is essential for cultural reasons. After all, Christianity is the ONLY cultural platform that can unite all Europeans…As for secularism, are there any strong uniting symbols at all? I think not. In order to protect your culture you need, at the very minimum, strong, uniting symbols representing your culture. In this context, the cross is the unrivalled [sic] as it is the most potent European symbol.

Being a Christian can mean many things, Breivik says.  It can mean that “you believe in and want to protect Europe’s Christian cultural heritage.”

It is not required that you have a personal relationship with God or Jesus in order to fight for our Christian cultural heritage and the European way. In many ways, our modern societies and European secularism is a result of European Christendom and the enlightenment. It is therefore essential to understand the difference between a “Christian fundamentalist theocracy” (everything we do not want) and a secular European society based on our Christian cultural heritage (what we do want).

So no, you don’t need to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus to fight for our Christian cultural heritage. It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian-atheist (an atheist who wants to preserve at least the basics of the European Christian cultural legacy (Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter).

Indeed, in his account of the secret meeting that reconstituted the Knights Templar, the largest contingent is “Christian atheist.”

Why the self-appointed guardians of nuance want to ignore these facts — that Breivik was no kind of Christian in the ordinary sense, but more like an agnostic committed to Christian symbols for pragmatic reasons — in their rush to portray Breivik as a “Christian fundamentalist” or “Christianist” (which Andrew Sullivan uses to associate Breivik with conservative American Christians), is a question well worth asking.

But one thing Breivik gets right.  Secularism is fragmenting and hard to hold together in any coherent or animating vision for life, and multiculturalism in its current form is failing both the immigrants and those who have been residents for generations.  Breivik sought to retain the most outward cultural forms but not the living essence of Christian faith.  His fundamental impulses are areligious.  He found no inward guidance or transformation in his cultural Christianity, only symbols and structures he thought he could repurpose for violent ends.

It’s not wrong to ask the question, “To what extent was Anders Breivik a Christian and to what extent did this shape his deeds?”  The answer is that he was not a Christian at all, unless we make Breivik the authority on what the term means.  But we should go on to ask, “To what extent was Breivik the inheritor of an inward secularism dressed up in the outward trappings of a long-since-abandoned Christian faith, and to what extent did this shape his actions?  If he had inherited not just the fossil of faith, but the living reality, would it have stopped his hand?”

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Laurie

    THANK YOU! This is brilliant and very helpful! Very thoughtful and well written!

  • John Haas

    “My point here is not to indict Islam, but to note how the liberal illuminati seem incapable of distinguishing between ancient military conquests that were justified by a pre-modern way of thinking abandoned centuries ago, or individual madmen who resided in Christian cultures but were the opposite of devout believers, . . .”

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I thoroughly agree that we need to avoid simplistic equivalencies, but we can’t understand Christians’ relations to the use of violence unless we reckon with their beliefs about the nation-state and the (religious) legitimacy of its military actions. That doesn’t entail a judgment about right or wrong: its simply an empirical fact–the nation-state now plays a unique role in the Christian understanding of God’s rule in the world.

    As I’m sure you’re aware,most Muslims have not adopted a similar (ie, “modern”–with all that that term entails) attitude toward the nation-state. And that impacts their respective attitudes toward violence: Christians accept that the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence (Weber); Muslims have generally not gone down this modern, secular road.

    I also believe this–“and (alas) the legions of pious Muslims whose acts of terrorism are supported by a vast infrastructure and celebrated by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Imams throughout the Muslim world”–needs (forgive me) a little nuance.

    If you’re not familiar with who Reuel Marc Gerecht is, the following may mean little to you, but assuming you are, I’ll quote a few passages and recommend the article linked.

    “. . . few terrorists have had any proper clerical training. A rigorous Islamic education may make you a killjoy, but it doesn’t make you a terrorist. If the empirical record tells us anything, it’s that a skimpy Islamic education combined with a mediocre—even a decent—Western education seems much more likely to produce an explosive mix.”

    “. . . we should not make the great philosophical and historical mistake of seeing even the staunchly conservative clerical elite of the Muslim world as the handmaidens of Islamic terrorism. . . . we shouldn’t see enemies where they are not. The Holy Law is, as it’s always been, what Muslims make of it. In the titanic struggle within Islam between those who fear modernity and those who embrace it, we would do well not to make the clergy our foes.”

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I agree that conservative clerics, elite or non-elite, are not the handmaidens of Islamic terrorism. But it doesn’t change the fact that there are at least hundreds of Imams through the Muslim world who support acts of terrorism. Are you denying that, as an empirical statement? Or just saying it requires qualification? If the latter, I basically agree, although I grow weary of filling posts with the same qualifications (yes, most Muslims are not supporters of terrorism, etc.) time and again. Still, I can grant that this would have been a good spot for a qualification.

      • John Haas

        No, not denying it at all (as you say, “alas!”).

  • Erik

    One just has to look at the photos of a Nazi Christmas party in Munich years ago to see that Jesus is not “in” all things supposedly “christian”.

    • Jim

      Could you please provide a link to the picture you are speaking of? Thank you.

  • Steve

    As my old pastor used to preach “everything from a turkey buzzard to a hummingbird roosts in the branches of Christendom”.

  • Lynn

    The thing is, this type of violence is not far from Christians here in the US. Threats of violence from Christians is common place. One must just look at the mail sent to the Judge who presided over the Dover ID in schools trial, or a recent example of death threats against atheists on the Fox Facebook page.

    I have seen copies of the letters sent to the lawyer who defended evolution against the school board of KS back in the early 2000’s. Death threats and promises of violence were common. Are these people also not “Real” Christians? What about the Christian group that planned to kill police officers and then plant bombs at the funerals recently arrested by the FBI? The idea that Christians are not capable of violence is absurd

    This man’s Christian identity maybe of a weird amalgamation of agnostic and Christian thought, but he used US Christian blogs and websites to help write his manifesto, and that influence would suggest to me that he is just taking the US Christian hate and violent rhetoric that one last step.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I didn’t say that Christians are incapable of violence. Christians who are insane or deluded can be dangerous, just like non-Christians who are insane or deluded (consider the Unabomber, for instance). But this particular person, Anders Breivik, was not a Christian. He did not, to my knowledge, draw on Christian blogs for his manifesto. He drew on some secular anti-Islamist blogs.

      That said, death threats should not be overestimated. Anyone who does anything controversial in a public forum these days gets death threats (if you’re going to count vague threats on Facebook in particular). The vast, vast, vast majority of death threats are never acted upon. This doesn’t make them right, of course. They’re wrong. But I wouldn’t infer murderous intent from a death threat; in almost all cases they’re just people getting upset and trying to intimidate.