Tag Archives: atheism

God is Winning in 2015: The Continued Failure of Secularization

The now infamous 1966 cover.  And no, He is very much alive.  I talked to Him this morning.
The now infamous 1966 cover. And no, He is very much alive. I talked to Him this morning.

In 1966, Time magazine famously asked, “Is God Dead?”  For almost 50 years, the geopolitics of the world has indicated a strong and loud “no” to this question.  So argue the editors of a great volume, intended for journalists but a worthwhile read for anyone interested in faith or politics, entitled Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.  At the conclusion of their background article, “God is Winning,” Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft argue,

“Contrary to the influential scholarly theories of the 1950s and 1960s, religion is not dying with modernization. Contrary to conventional wisdom, religion plays an independent and powerful role in how people view themselves and how states conduct their affairs. And, contrary to the assumptions of recent U.S. foreign policy, democracy promotion may only increase the political role of religion – including radical religion – throughout the world, most immediately in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. God is winning in global politics. And modernization, democratization, and globalization have only made him stronger.”

The chorus of New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens [RIP], Harris, Dennett, etc.) continues to argue that religion either will or should go away with advances in modernity and science.  And yet, the exact opposite is happening.  There is a message here for all of us, religious and nonreligious: to understand the world around us, we had best understand our religious neighbors on their own terms, lest we are fated to be ignorant of our world and one of its indefatigable factors.  This has been true since Time‘s infamous cover, and will, in all probability, remain true in this new year – despite what the cultured despisers happen to feel about it.

blind spot book

Source: “God is Winning,” in Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 28.

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Following Jesus Alone is Impossible

More like your own personal idol.
More like your own personal idol.

In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community.  There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston.  Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son.  And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends.  Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.

Will Willimon reflects,

Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances.  Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)

I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage.   But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone.  Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel.  We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them.  Willimon goes on to say,

The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus.  The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people.  The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)

I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths.  But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself.  If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love.  How does that apply to Christian discipleship?

You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride.  He never intended that to be an option.

An oldie but a goodie.
An oldie but a goodie.

[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]

Science Vs. Religion: Once More, With Feeling

Despite it’s antiquity and the recycled, warmed-over arguments, we just can’t seem to get away from the science vs. religion debate.  Here is a trailer for a new film (documentary?) in which Richard Dawkins and another guy go around the country talking about how awesome science is and, as a corollary, how illogical and silly religion must be…

It seems that neither religious folks nor science folks (or, more accurately, people who have traded faith in a higher power for faith in the scientific method) can get away from this unnecessarily binary view of the search for truth.  We’ve been doing it a couple of hundred years and many on both sides seem unable to find a bridge.  Even the most crusty scientist should be able to admit that science cannot tell us everything – especially the deep questions, the questions about being, about why (which are much more interesting to me than the “how?” questions on which these debates so often focus).  And for Christians – here I must admit no faculty for speaking as a general “religious” person as if such a category existed – we have no need to fear science.  The search for truth is ultimately a search for the One who is the way, truth, and life.  Many scientists of the early modern period understood their work as seeking to understand God’s ordering of the universe.  There is no reason science should not still be viewed as such a helpful discipline.  In our day, few have bridged the gap between legitimate science and faithful Christianity.  One who has done it well is Alister McGrath, and we should hope that his tribe increases.

I hope that the brilliant Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart takes the time to review this film.  He has been one of the most vociferous interlocutors with the whole “New Atheism” phenomenon, and his critiques are withering.  Take, for instance, this bit from a First Things piece:

“What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel.”

Such words can only be written by someone who has taken the time to read, appreciate, and understand that which he critiques.  One can only hope that the evangelically-inclined atheists will one day stop navel-gazing enough to actually encounter faith with honesty and integrity.  We should hope for the same among believers, for we have nothing to fear.

For now, here is a good, civil dialogue between Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal and Chief Inquisitor of the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins.  It’s worth your time, regardless of where you fall in these debates:

All Religion is in Trouble…Even Atheism

It is commonplace in the rubble of the mainline denominations these days to drone on and on about the sorry state of the church in the West.  We go to workshops, blog, read books, and wallow in anxious conversation all with the same subtitle: “How do we not die?”  Not exactly a vivifying conversation.  We think the non-religious forces are winning; that secularism is successful and popular “New” Atheism is ascendant.  But is atheism doing so well?

If you actually listen to the things that atheists are saying, there is little here that is a challenge to faith of any brand, much less that of Christians.  Indeed, atheist literature and public discourse tends to be just as vain as popular Christian discourse.  So laments Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:

…it seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike. In part, of course, this is because the modern media encourage only fragmentary, sloganeering, and emotive debates, but it is also because centuries of the incremental secularization of society have left us with a shared grammar that is perhaps no longer adequate to the kinds of claims that either reflective faith or reflective faithlessness makes.

Yes, reading Hart for long periods of time will hurt your brain.  He is as acerbic as he is brilliant, which is a feat.  Nonetheless, I think his premise is hard to argue against.  Case in point: an interview I read over on MMA Weekly with Seth Petruzelli, an MMA fighter (most famous for knocking Kimbo Slice off of any serious fan’s radar) who happens to be an outspoken atheist.  He explains how his first conflict with religious members of the MMA community came on the set of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter:

The first time it actually came up was in season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter in the house. Marcus Davis, he’s a pretty hardcore Christian and a lot of the guys in the house were the same way, especially with Matt Hughes being one of the coaches. There’s a scene actually in The Ultimate Fighter house where me and Matt kind of get into an argument for about 15 minutes or so about the bible, and obviously I think the bible [sic] is a bunch of BS, and that obviously struck a nerve with him.

To be an atheist is to – “obviously” – believe that the Bible is “BS”?  That is a stronger claim than many Christians would make about the holy books of other communities.  I have certainly never taught my people that the Koran or the Vedas are “BS,” even though I would not say that these words are inspired of the Triune God.  And yes, if you dismiss the word of God as BS, them’s probably going to be fighting words (unless you’ve been reading a lot of John Howard Yoder).  Petruzelli further describes the conflict with an outspoken Christian fighter:

We kind of had an argument back and forth, with me coming out on top obviously cause you can’t argue with science. Science trumps faith in all aspects of everything. But they had group bible sessions in the house and I just kind of had a little dialogue obviously with Marcus Davis too about it, all kinds of stuff in the bible [sic].

Is this the kind of reflection that the supposedly super-rational New Atheism is producing?  At what point will the hackneyed ‘science vs. faith’ thesis be done with?  Granted, there are Christians that still have not gotten the memo that science is not something to fear.  But we’re working on it.  There are plenty of Christians working in scientific fields who are faithful people.  Christians need not shun the search for truth in whatever form.  Thoughtful atheists should see the dialogue not as science vs. faith but atheism vs. various kinds of theism, Christianity among them.  The scientific method, which, if my high school biology class was right, deals with observable, verifiable, and repeatable phenomena, can neither confirm nor deny the presence of a deity.  Even psuedo-scientific work that purports to “prove” a divine intelligence can only get us to a vaguely theistic being, not the Triune God revealed in the Bible.  Neither faith nor non-faith should claim to be provable by science.  Doing so, whether one is a Christian or an atheist, belies a fundamental perversion of what faith actually is.  To whit:

Faith to me is intellectual bankruptcy…I have faith in my fighting ability because there’s facts to back it up and that I can fight. Blind faith? Like I said, it’s intellectual bankruptcy, it’s a cop out. Tim Minchin has a great quote about this. ‘Science adjusts its views on what is observed, and faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.’

Intellectual bankruptcy?  Ouch.  That aside, Petruzelli confuses confidence with faith.  “I have faith in my fighting ability because [there are] facts to back it up.”  If there are facts to back “it” up, then what you have is not faith.  As Hebrews 11:1 makes clear,  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  There may be evidence of faith, indeed, fruits of the Spirit, or the inner witness so important to Wesley and other spiritual writers, but this is not the kind of evidence that will be observable under a microscope.  It’s also just barely worth pointing out that there is no monolithic “science,” and that the work of Thomas Kuhn and others shows how often scientists disagree on, willfully distort, and ignore supposed facts.  Scientific revolutions often only occur after a long, hard fight about what indeed the science is saying.

It seems somewhat unfair to criticize Petruzelli, who, as far as I know, has no theological training.  I don’t mean to be unnecessarily harsh, and I like to think that I’m equally critical of poor arguments made by Christians.  He is, however, making some striking claims in a very public space, and I think that makes confrontation both fair and necessary.  The Church must have answers to such arguments, for in the years to come they will only get louder.

If only a serious dialogue with atheists was possible.  When I read folks like Nietzche, I am challenged to think about my faith, to really question its basics.  This is a service to the faithful, for our critics really are our friends.  To return to a fighting metaphor: if Nietzche’s arguments are useful sparring partners, then, by comparison, the shallow vitriol of the New Atheists can only be described as the vain thrashing of an infant fighting off a clean diaper.

We’ll let a more skilled combatant fight the closing round.  Hart expresses disdain for such a-thinking (see what i did there?) with adroitness, arguing that today’s atheists

 …lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap)…A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

May God grant us the blessing of able conversation partners, and save us from shallow faith, whether it is our own, or that of others.

P.S.  For the record, I think Damon Martin’s piece drastically overstates the place of religion in the fight game.  Atheists may be offended that there are so many nods to Jesus in the cage, but beyond post-fight shout-outs and mildly offensive clothing, I don’t think there is much substantive Christianity there.  More likely is that, in an increasingly secularized world, many folks in the media are frankly caught off guard when someone like Benson Henderson (or Tim Tebow) makes public statements of faith.  Rather like the pagans of bygone (?) eras, cultural observers and elites are surprised to find a small cadre of men and women who will not sacrifice to the official cultus and, rather offensively, talk about God beyond the privacy of their own closet.