Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Atheism

Are the New Atheists the new outcasts?

outcastsThe New Atheists have been around for quite a few years now. They have been pilloried by Christians of many persuasions. Often the criticism has been justified because of the generally misinformed commentary they have made on issues of Christian faith.

For a long time though, many atheists have felt pilloried by society as well. They have felt left out and misunderstood by much of society. Atheists of a more mild persuasion – as many are – have been tarred with the same brush that has been applied to Richard Dawkins and other outspoken atheists like him.

How would Jesus respond to the New Atheists today? I certainly don’t think his first priority would be to organise a debate about whether or not God exists. As has been mentioned elsewhere, Jesus had no need of an apologetic. His apologetic was the “greatest of these”: love. How did Jesus love the pilloried ones? He ate and rank with them. He accepted them just for who they were. It goes without saying then that the approach of Jesus is the approach that we best take.

It is perhaps an indictment on the church in Australia that some atheists have started mimicking the church and organising their own meetings. When NT Wright was in Australia recently, he made the point that the church is possibly the only organised group in society that meets together regularly for the purpose of mutual edification and the promotion of the common good. In our individualised culture, such fellowship is sorely needed. I believe it is hugely enhanced when there is a sense of acknowledging a transcendant power that is greater than ourselves. That is not to take away though from the need for community generally. We are relational creatures, and it is in relationship that we find our true sense of self.

What would a Christlike response to the atheist movement look like? Well, it certainly wouldn’t criticise or mock them for copying the Christian church. It would love by welcoming without any ulterior agenda. It wouldn’t welcome solely for the purpose of trying to convert. It would welcome and show the love of Christ regardless of the response. And if one wanted to commit to the way of Jesus, then great.

The Jesus of the gospels is always our example, inspiration and empowerment when seeking what an appropriate act of love looks like. The atheist movement is possibly one of the equivalents in our society of tax collectors, publicans and sinners. A response of Christlikeness is the way to love them.

What do you think of this?

What do you think of this?


The good people over at CASE magazine make the point that the pic rankles with them but that, more importantly, it highlights the need to be ready to give a response that is Christ-like.

My first reaction when looking at the image was that it (prophetically) highlights the fact that many Christians are quick to pray and thank God for such trivial things as finding your car keys, but that we don’t think to pray about the weightier matters of justice and mercy. God help me to do that.

Of course the point of the pic is that Christians are silly enough to believe in a God who lets people find their car keys while sitting back and watching millions die of starvation. To me that just reveals the improvement we need to make to be more Christlike, like the early church was, and the ignorance of many atheists about the amazing good work that is done by many faithful Christians around the world.

God is a materialist – 3

kangaroosThis is the final in a 3-part series on how many – if not most – Christians have a deficient view of heaven and of what our eternal destiny is.

This is where the Gospel touches something deep within us, something that tells us that there really is hope, that what we are doing really is worthwhile in the end, that there really will be a day when everything will be put right. And it is not a hope in the sense of ‘gee I hope it happens.’ It is a hope based on historical fact. If we don’t believe that, it would ultimately be empty and unfulfilling and wouldn’t be real hope.

If God hasn’t come to earth in the physical person of Jesus, and if that Jesus wasn’t physically resurrected, then nothing really matters. We can make our own meaning and do all we can to bring justice while people are here. But if deep down we still know that it is not everlasting – that in the end everyone still dies and rots in the ground – then there is ultimately no justice, and no hope, and we come back to this sort of philosophy of a Richard Dawkins which says,

“In a universe of blind forces and physical replication, some people are going to get hurt, others are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Another Richard, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, says that the human soul can live without success but it can’t live without meaning. Deep down we all crave significance. We all want to be part of something that matters, something that lasts. Rohr quotes Albert Einstein who said,

“The only important question is this: Is the universe friendly or not?” Can it all be trusted? Is the final chapter of history victory and resurrection or a dying whimper?”

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The God-shaped hole

“There’s a void in my heart that I can’t seem to fill. I do charity work when I believe in a cause, but my soul it bothers me still.
John Mellencamp, Void in My Heart

In the heart of every human being is a God-shaped hole. A saying that has been mostly attributed to Augustine is that humanity was made to worship God, and we are restless until we do.

20120710-213309.jpgIf we are able to grasp this truth, we will see more clearly that everything we do in life is done in search of meaning. Despite the decline of faith in Australia and the media coverage of the ‘New Atheism’ over the years, the search for meaning never goes away, even if it might be drowned out by our lifestyle of endless consumption.

One of the signs of this search is the rapid increase in recent decades in the tide of addiction. When the alcoholic takes another drink, thinking this one will be different; when the drug addict injects again honestly believing this time it will give him what he needs; or when the sex addict settles on what he believes is finally the perfect porn clip, they are all actually searching for something deeper. They are searching for God.

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Chris Berg on the contribution of Christianity to Western culture

I don’t often agree with very much at all that Chris Berg says. In fact, most points of view propagated by the Institute of Public Affairs, of which Berg is a member, are not ones I subscribe to. However in yesterday’s Age, Berg wrote an excellent piece on the contribution of Christianity to Western civilisation through the centuries.

Berg probably mentions a bit much the contributions of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, but the overall gist of his article is excellently researched and complies with the best research put forward by historians such as Rodney Stark on the contributions of Christian faith to the very foundation of our society. Even moreso, it is the consequences of the atheist desire to rid the world of religious faith that Berg, a non-believer, explains best. Here are some of his quotes:

  • “Virtually all the secular ideas that non-believers value have Christian origins. To pretend otherwise is to toss the substance of those ideas away.”
  • “It was theologians and religiously minded philosophers who developed the concepts of individual and human rights. Same with progress, reason and equality before the law: it is fantasy to suggest these values emerged out of thin air once people started questioning God.”
  • “For most of our history, all the great thinkers have been religious. So our secular liberalism will inevitably owe a huge amount to its Christian origins.”
  • “Ideas do not exist in a vacuum. If we imagine they were invented yesterday, they will be easy to discard tomorrow.”
  • “If atheists feel they must rip up everything that came before them, they will destroy the very foundations of that secularism.”

It is that last point that has implications for society as a whole. Let’s just see where we end up if we have a society without the contributions of Christian faith.

Everyday faith

I was talking to a friend last night about faith. We touched on different aspects related to faith, including doubt, atheism, and agnosticism. On my way home I got to thinking about it a bit more and I realised again that everyone of us lives by faith every day of our lives. Faith is not something that believers in God live by; that’s just a different aspect of faith. As I sit on my chair writing this post, I’m exercising faith that the chair won’t collapse under me. When you eat your cereal tomorrow morning, you will be exercising faith that there is nothing poisonous in it and that it won’t kill you. And so it goes on. Everything we do in life requires the exercise of faith. We are not consciously aware that all of what we do is done by faith, but it most definitely is.

In thinking about this and how it relates to what we normally call faith, that is, faith in God and its manifestation in our lives, I soon realised that a position of agnosticism is not enough. Someone told me years ago that agnosticism is not just sitting on the fence, it is taking a position. I believe life is to be lived to its full. I believe that life was actually designed to be lived to its full, and that means to go further in our exercise of faith than we have previously.

To that end, I believe that faith in a God I cannot see is the ultimate act of faith. It is not blind faith. That would be superstition. It is a reasonable faith, a rational faith if you like. It is a faith that is based on what someone has deduced as the evidence. It is thought through and then, having made a decision about it, it is lived out. We become more human the more we live by faith. As St Paul said long ago, ‘this life I live, I live by faith in the Son of God’.

The more we live by faith, the more we jump into the arms of a loving God, the more like Christ we become. It is said that we become like that which we worship. Our lives are a worship of something. When our lives are a worship of Jesus, we become more like him. It was Irenaeus who said “the glory of God is a human being fully alive”. When we exercise faith in Christ, when we live this out in our lives each day, we love more. We live out what St Paul called ‘the most excellent way’.

Faith allows us to become more human. It is a risk, it can be frightening, but it is life. We either move forward into it or we retreat into our cocoons. C.S Lewis said it brilliantly:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

This is what living by faith is. This is the adventure, not just of a lifetime, but of an eternity.

Hitchens v. Craig debate

A recent debate on the existence of God between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian apologist William Lane Craig is reported with glee in Lee Strobel’s latest newsletter with the headline ‘Hitchens gets spanked!’. I don’t mind Strobel. I have been impressed with the books of his I have read, books such as The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. He makes his case well by asking questions that a reasonable skeptic and/or seeker would ask. However it comes across as pretty severe gloating to me to say that Hitchens got ‘spanked’. Whilst I acknowledge that an atheist website that reported on the debate also used these terms in describing the debate, I still see a strong sense of gloating on the part of Strobel.

As long as there remains a sense of gloating each time one side wins a battle in this war of beliefs, each side will remain entrenched in its beliefs, and probably become more entrenched. If the Christian side of a debate like this is to show people that God exists and therefore you are invited into a relationship of life with God, I don’t think gloating over winning another debate is going to impress anyone. I am reminded of what Rikk Watts has said about this. He has made the point that some of the early Christians were actually not able to answer some of the philosophical attacks thrown at them by pagans. Yet still they turned the Roman Empire upside down and drew millions into faith in Christ. They did not win the empire by arguments; they won the empire through the quality of their lives. If I won an argument against an atheist and I gloated about it, other atheists would be fully justified in being repelled by the faith that I proclaim. They would be justified in saying “well, he had some great arguments but I sure wouldn’t want to be like him”.

As I stated in my previous post about debates over climate change, it is crucial that we listen with respect to those we disagree with. As St Peter says, let us respond with gentleness and respect to the allegations of people we disagree with. May this be so in our debates with our atheist friends.

One of the problems of atheism

One thing that I struggle with that alot of Christians say is that there is no such thing as an atheist. I think there is, but where atheists have it wrong is that they generally denounce the idea of faith as being flawed. What they fail to see is that they live by as much faith as believers. The believer has faith that there is a God who made the universe and everything in it, while the atheist has faith in the idea that there is a purely naturalistic explanation for everything that exists. As far as rational logic goes, agnosticism is a truer position. However agnosticism is also a position. It is not sitting on the fence.

A good book I have read about this is ‘Finding Faith’ by Brian McLaren. McLaren is a Christian, however he consulted with many of his atheist and agnostic friends before writing the book, and ran transcripts by them as he was writing. The result is a very balanced book, as shown by the reviews it gets on Amazon.

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