Thursday, March 14, 2013

The New Atheism

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time you are probably aware that I believe we are in a crisis of faith here in the United States.  And, I believe that the Church -- that is, the Body of Christ -- is ill-equipped to speak into a generation that is literally being bombarded with an anti-Christian, anti-faith worldview at every turn.

You will notice that the blog today is a bit longer than normal, and perhaps a bit more in depth.  But, I need to ask for your indulgence today.  I really think the Church needs a wake up call on this.  So, here we go.

In a 2012 article appearing in the Huffington Post titled “Atheism to Defeat Religion by 2038,” Nigel Barber, biopsychologist, blogger and atheist, proclaimed the victory of atheism over faith in the United States by 2038.  Unfortunately, the numbers may well support Barber’s assertion.  According to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, there continues to be a stunning rise in the percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation (which includes self-identified atheists).  (See Cary Funk and Greg Smith, “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (Report released October 9, 2012)). The trend is particularly pronounced among young people.

“Atheism,” of course, refers to a worldview that denies the existence of God.  The term “atheist” derives from the Greek word theos, meaning “god,” and the prefix a, “which in Greek negates the preceding statement.  It has been suggested that atheists may be divided into three basic categories: (1) “practical atheists” – people who live as if there were no God; (2) dogmatic atheists – people who openly deny God; and (3) virtual atheists – people who reject God through their terminology.  

In recent years, however, atheists have become more radical – as a new breed of atheists not only deny God but have become militant in their efforts to remove references to God from the public eye.   We all are hopefully familiar with the efforts of atheists to remove God from everything from public schools, to our currency, to long-standing national monuments.  Indeed, atheism itself has arguably become a religion.
In his book “The God Delusion,” noted evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins surmises that atheists are “a lot more numerous, especially among the educated elite, than many realize.”   He then calls for atheists to “come out” – comparing atheism to the homosexual movement of the past several decades.  Atheism is, indeed, on the rise, as is a corresponding anti-Christian militantism.
The Allure of Atheism.
There are no doubt a number of reasons why atheism and lack of religious affiliation are on the rise.  Consequently, we need first to come to grips with the idea that atheism is attractive.  Two of the more significant reasons atheism has become attractive are likely what I would call “cultural incompatibility” and perceived “scientific incompatibility.”  
Bycultural incompatibility” I mean changing American attitudes on a variety of social and moral issues such homosexuality and abortion.  As this cultural shift takes place, it is not surprising that the attitudes of young people in particular about Christianity and the church are shifting as well.  To be sure, young people increasingly perceive Christians as being “anti-homosexual” and “judgmental” – among other things.   If you have not already read it, you should check out a book by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons called UnChristian, which takes a close look at the attitudes of young people toward the church.
By perceived “scientific incompatibility,” I mean skepticism that naturally flows from direct and implicit hostility toward faith in the scientific community and in public education.  The most obvious example of this is Darwinism, which is presented as scientific fact to American public school children.  However, evolutionary theory is just the tip of the iceberg -- it would be a gross mistake to underestimate the full impact of secular education on religious beliefs in the United States.
And, the shifting religious beliefs -- the turn of our culture away from Christianity -- has profound implications for all Americans (whether you are a believer or not). 
 The Moral Implication. 
One of the more difficult problems for an atheist is the inevitable impossibility of mounting any reasonable claim to morality.  In Chapter 6 of The God Delusion, Dawkins struggles to reconcile his claim to be a moral person with his assumption that we are simply the product of evolution -- that is, the product of selfish genes.  Ultimately, the atheist must concede that given his worldview morality is at best relative and utilitarian.  “Relative” meaning that morality has no absolute, and “utilitarian” meaning that morality exists simply to facilitate community as a survival strategy.  In his book Dawkins speaks of what is “good” but with no possible point of reference.  Indeed, his failure even to attempt to define what is “good,” or even morality for the matter, speaks volumes on this point.
Faith and the Selfish Gene.
Further, I do not think that the radical atheist can reconcile evolutionary biology (the selfish gene) and the historical proliferation of faith.  What I mean by that is that the radical atheist’s hostility toward faith makes no logical sense.  
The atheist’s hostility toward faith is inherently self-defeating in the sense that even under their own worldview faith is, genetically speaking, a positive characteristic.  Given the historical survival and proliferation of people of faith, any admirer of the selfish gene would have to rationally conclude that genetic combinations which cause people to have faith in God are, from an evolutionary point of view, desirable.  By the same token, there is no rational basis for any believer in evolutionary biology to place any value judgment on any genetic survival strategy.
In other words, even from an evolutionary point of view faith works.  For thousands of years people of faith have endured.
Consequently, rather than attack Christianity, the atheist should applaud the evolutionary benefits of faith.   Indeed, given this aspect of the atheistic worldview atheists rationally should question the ultimate evolutionary efficacy of many of the cultural shifts that they typically defend (e.g., abortion). 
Turning The Tide.
In response to a recent national tragedy, a good friend of mine who is not a person of faith observed that the problem that led to the tragedy was not any of the myriad of ideas identified by the pundits on television, but rather the erosion of Judeo-Christian values in America.  And, of course, he could not be more right.  The bottom line is that the decline of Christianity -- regardless of your ultimate belief in God -- is not good for America.
In any event, again, we are in my view is a crisis of faith, and the Church must become better equipped to reach the younger generations.  There is, of course, no “one-size-fits-all” approach to sharing the gospel with people of different religious beliefs or with different worldviews, but here are a couple of thoughts.  
First, in my view we must be prepared to respond to the cultural objection.  The message here is simple – Christianity is neither about judging other people nor about telling them how to live their lives.  In other words, one should lead with a message about the love of God -- that God loves you no matter who you are or what you have done and wants to have a relationship with you.  Do we need to address sin?  Absolutely!!  But, the time to talk about sin will come soon enough!
Further, we must be prepared to demonstrate to this younger generation (and to the atheist) that faith in Christ is rational, or perhaps more to the point, that atheism is irrational.  A good beginning point is to express the view that there is a great deal of historical and archeological evidence to support the veracity of the Bible (e.g., the relatively close proximity between the time Christ died and the writing of the gospels).  But, this particular battle requires preparation and study.  Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ is a great book to recommend -- in fact, if you haven’t already done so you might want to read it yourself! 
And, finally, perhaps even more than being able to talk intelligently about the veracity to the Bible, I think we need to be able to speak candidly about the “disastrous consequences for human existence, society, and culture” – and indeed for the individual – “if Christianity should be false.”  (See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truths and Apologetics, 3rd ed., (Wheaton Ill.: Crossway Books 2008), 65).
Although we live in a world that increasingly tells us there are no absolutes, in reality it is simply not possible on a long term basis to go through life with a postmodern worldview.  There might be some advantage as a college student to a relativistic view of life, but it simply will not work as the reality of life sets in.
The Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias tells the story of speaking at a University in the northeast where his tour guide was anxious to show him the first postmodern building in the United States.  The building had pillars which held nothing up and stairs which lead nowhere.  After the guide proudly showed off the building Zacharias asked him one simple question:  “Is the foundation built the same way?”  
The point is that life cannot actually be lived with a postmodern, relativistic worldview.  We cannot really live life as if nothing really has meaning or purpose.  At some point, all men and women must decide (even if implicitly) what they actually believe.
The second, related point is that life is absurd without God and without morality.  Under the atheistic view, if pursued to its logical conclusion nothing one will do in life – nothing one can do in life – is of any consequence.  Find the cure for cancer?  It is meaningless.  Be elected President of the United Sates?  Meaningless.  Nothing one does can have ultimate value or meaning without God and without morality.
And, this view is exactly what is reflected in our cultural direction.  Without hope or meaning, each person is set adrift – meandering through a life devoid of ultimate meaning or purpose.  It is a very unsatisfying alternative indeed to a life of faith.  At the end of the day, it is an impossible way to live.
As William Lane Craig warns us, “[w]hat awaits us in North America, should our slide into secularism continue unchecked, is already evident in Europe.”  It is a world where a majority of people claim a nominal affiliation with Christianity, but where an extremely small segment of the population maintains any real belief, much less an evangelical theology.
Make no mistake about it -- we are in crisis in the United States today.  To stem the tide of atheism, agnosticism, lack of religious affiliation and nominal faith will require a combination of the courage and passion for evangelism and the intellectual discipline of apologetics.    
The question, I think, is whether the Church is up to the challenge.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps part of the reason young people are turning against the Church is atheism. But also perhaps part of the reason is so-called Christians. In the media these days, 'Christians' are typically represented by extremists with ultra right-wing political philosophies more concerned with regulating other people's behaviours than trying to make their own more Christ-like. And there are far too many 'Christians' ready to stand up and demonstrate this behaviour. So instead of seeing Christians as people who are loving, caring, and kind to everyone - including nonbelievers - they see angry, irrational, judgmental people. This is exactly parallel to the problem of Islam. You do not see the majority of Muslims; you only see the extremists. And the majority do not speak out to tell the world "We are not all like them, they are not representative of our religion." Why do we not see the same thing in Christianity? Why do we only allow the extremists to represent us? As long as we allow this one-sided view of Christians to dominate the MSM then we will continue to loose potential Christians who want to have nothing to do with a religion whose followers are so bigoted, self-righteous, judgmental, and holier-than-thou.

john crews said...

I agree with you, and tried to make that same point. If we want to attract people to the faith we need to stop acting UnChristian!

Chad said...

Nice article John.

Mary Sayler said...

John, this article may be longer than usual and uncomfortable, but, as the church Body of Christ, we need to wake up! Your focusing first on God's love works for the restoration of the church too - i.e., focus on loving and accepting one another in Christ and presenting that love to others through our writings. In hopes that other members of our Christian Poets & Writers group on Facebook will see this, I'll highlight your post on the Christian Poets & Writers blog - . May we be one in Christ!

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