Religion in Decline – finding the reasons why

Survey after survey has indicated that religious affiliation and practice are in decline in much of the western world. Over the last twenty years the statistics are quite dramatic.

Responses to this in churchland vary. Some are in denial (‘My church is doing fine, so I can’t see how it can be true’). Some are pointing fingers at changes (or lack of changes) in the church (‘We’re too homophobic’, ‘We don’t believe in the Bible any more’, ‘We gave up the old prayer book’ etc. etc.). Some think we should just retreat into our ghetto and accept that this is just the way things are.

It seems to me that we need some hard data as to why people are either dropping away, or (in the case of the young) not joining in the first place. I don’t know if we have that data.

In the absence of it, all kinds of solutions are being floated. We should bring contemporary music into the church (actually, we’ve been doing that since the 1970s). We should make the church more seeker-friendly. We should make it more like Starbucks. We should have more invitation Sundays. We should get out in mission more etc. etc.

None of these ideas are necessarily bad, but are they addressing the actual reasons for decline and disinterest? I suspect not.

I have no statistical evidence for the idea I’m about to float, but conversations with lapsed churchgoers and with people outside the church lead me to believe it’s a bigger factor than we would like to admit. I would suggest that one of the major reasons for the decline in religious faith and practice is that people are actually finding it a lot harder to believe in Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism, etc. etc.) these days.

People are steeped in science from their early school days. Science purports to have a totally satisfactory answer to the universe that doesn’t require the God hypothesis. And as Isaac Asimov observed years ago in his Foundation novels, science has this huge advantage: it obviously works. Planes fly. Computers buzz. Cells divide. Medicine heals (way more effectively than it did fifty years ago). You don’t have to take science on faith; it’s empirically provable.

People are also very aware of all the crap that’s going on in the world. Natural disasters are proliferating. We just conquer one deadly disease and another one comes along. Wars and rumours of wars continue, with ever more deadly weapons. Terrorism spreads. Human beings kill and exploit and oppress one another. And God seems to do nothing. People cry to God, but there seems to be no answer. Hurricanes don’t appear to change course in answer to prayer. People continue to die because of diseases based on genetic factors (‘they were made that way’). All of this is a huge challenge to faith.

And, quite frankly, people outside the Christian community don’t seem to notice an obvious difference in the quality of lives being lived by Christians. Divorce and family breakup seem just as prevalent among people of faith. Greed and materialism and racism and support for war and violence don’t seem to be seriously impacted by faith.

For these and other reasons, people are finding it harder to believe the religious view of the universe these days. If there is a God, why would he choose to work through such a weird system as evolution (which works by genetic mutations, which lead to suffering way more often than they lead to positive changes)? If there is a loving and powerful God, how come he isn’t rescuing us from the various kinds of mess we’re in? And if there’s a God, how come his followers don’t seem to be actually putting his teachings into practice (you know: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”, “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you”, “Do not refuse one who asks for help” etc. etc.)?

If I’m right, we surely have to address this. And I think there are a number of avenues we can explore.

First, we need smart people who can engage with the arguments raised by atheists and agnostics. A strong case can be made for the existence of a powerful and loving creator God, and many intelligent writers over the years have made it and continue to make it (C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Tim Keller, Francis Collins, to name just a few). Some of these people have also investigated the intellectual foundations of atheism and secularism and found them just as wanting (I think especially of Tim Keller’s ‘Making Sense of God’, which he said was not so much answering people’s questions as questioning people’s answers). And in order for these discussions to be fruitful, they can’t be belligerent; people of faith need to make friends with atheists and agnostics, find out why they believe what they believe and how the world looks from their point of view. This is a risk, but we have to do it.

Second, we have to be quite clear that the point of the whole thing is to help people meet God – the real God, the creator of the universe, the one who is far above our understanding, who we can’t control or get to know in three easy steps because he’s always the senior partner in the relationship. People can’t share what they don’t have, and if we can’t share a relationship with the living God, why would people bother with us? They can get everything we’re offering somewhere else, at a much cheaper price! Unless we can say, “Yes, it is possible to meet with the living God, and I can help you do that”, what do we have to offer?

Third, we need to address the quality of our lives. Quite frankly, we are the only Sermon on the Mount our friends are reading. Is the Sermon clear in our behaviour? If not, why would they bother to read the original for themselves? Unless we Christians (individually and as a community) are living lives that surprise our neighbours, those neighbours aren’t going to be interested in hearing about our weird religious theories. Billy Bragg (no friend to organized religion) has said many times that the reason he doesn’t dismiss religion is because of all the people of faith he sees volunteering at the local food bank. Boom! There it is!

In this blog post I’m not proposing exact answers; I’m just attempting to identify the major issues. Quite honestly, I don’t think changing the church’s music or running invitation Sundays or – well, add your favourite solution here – is going to have much of a long term effect. Why? Because we’re still assuming that our neighbours are basically lapsed Christians who still believe the basics of the Christian faith, and would still attend if… (we invited them, or our music was better, or the pastor wore jeans and had a goatee, etc. etc.).

This may be true of some of our neighbours, but for a growing number of them, it’s not true at all. They aren’t lapsed Christians; they’re people for whom Christianity doesn’t make sense. They may believe in a vague god out there somewhere; they may not believe in a god at all, or they may think it’s not possible to know one way or the other.

What they are not is Christian believers; they find Christianity too hard to believe. And I think we have to accept that, and find a way to address it.


Christopher Hitchens

I was saddened to read this morning of the death of Christopher Hitchens.

WASHINGTON — British-born journalist and atheist intellectual Christopher Hitchens, who made the United States his home and backed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, died on Thursday at the age of 62.

Hitchens died in Houston of pneumonia, a complication of cancer of the esophagus, Vanity Fair magazine said.

“Christopher Hitchens – the incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant – died today at the age of 62,” Vanity Fair said.

A heavy smoker and drinker, Hitchens cut short a book tour for his memoir “Hitch 22” last year to undergo chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer.

As a journalist, war correspondent and literary critic, Hitchens carved out a reputation for barbed repartee, scathing critiques of public figures and a fierce intelligence.

In his 2007 book “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” Hitchens took on major religions with his trenchant atheism. He argued that religion was the source of all tyranny and that many of the world’s evils have been done in the name of religion.

A year and a half ago I read Hitchens’ ‘God is not Great, and as a Christian I found it oddly comforting. Not that I enjoyed his anger, of course. The subtitle tells it all: ‘How religion poisons everything’. Really?Everything? I mean, I’m quite prepared to concede that some religion poisons some things, but ‘religion poisons everything‘?

No, what I found oddly comforting was the weakness of the arguments (well exposed in Hitchens’ brother Peter’s book The Rage Against God). As I said at the time, I’m not an expert in many of the areas Hitchens writes about, but I do know a fair bit about New Testament scholarship. In his chapter on the New Testament I identified at least fifteen glaring errors. This does not bode well for the accuracy of the rest of the book. Hitchens was a journalist dabbling in science, philosophy, theology, biblical scholarship etc., but he definitely needed to do his homework better.

Still, he was a formidable opponent for Christians and a brilliant debater, and he skillfully raised the big questions that we Christians need to face. I will never forget hearing him in debate once answering the ‘argument from design’ by pointing out that there is visible in the night sky a galaxy that is presently on a collision course with our own; some time in the future, there will be an almighty crash. ‘If this is design’, he said, ‘there’s a serious flaw in it’. Indeed; where does a fact like that fit into our theology of creation?

I’m not going to indulge in the vain wish that Hitchens had a deathbed conversion; far from it:

Hitchens gave short shrift to the “insulting” suggestion that cancer might persuade him to change his position where reason had not, arguing that to ditch principles “held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favour at the last minute” would be a “hucksterish choice”, and urging those who had taken it upon themselves to pray for him not to “trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries”.

I simply hope that he finds that the God he never expected to meet is more patient and merciful than he is often made out to be.

‘Aren’t Right and Wrong Just a Matter of Opinion?’ (a sermon for October 3rd)

Nine Big Questions #2: ‘Aren’t Right and Wrong Just a Matter of Opinion?’

“There’s no such thing as an objective standard of right and wrong”, my friend said to me; “There really are no absolutes. If you think something is wrong, that’s fine for you, but I don’t have to measure up to your standard. We all have the right to choose the code of conduct we’re going to live by, and no one has the right to impose their code on anyone else. We all need to respect one another’s values and understand that in a pluralistic society we don’t all agree about these things”.

That’s a pretty common point of view these days, but when people say that’s what they believe, do they actually live by that philosophy? I would argue that many people are inconsistent here. They say that ‘right and wrong is just a matter of opinion’, and that everyone should respect other people’s choices in this. And in some areas – sexual morality, for instance – they live consistently with this belief. But not in all areas.

(Read the rest here)

Why is My Life Important? (sermon for Back to Church Sunday)

A minister friend of mine was once leading a group for people who were inquiring into the Christian faith, and at some point early in the first meeting of the group he asked them about the role that God played in their lives. One of the members made this reply: “The way I figure it, God’s got a lot of things to worry about – earthquakes, and famines, and wars, and AIDS, and global warming and all that stuff. My little concerns probably aren’t very significant to him. In fact, the best thing I can do for God is probably to stay out of his way”.

The man was not being facetious; he genuinely had difficulty believing that, in the great big scheme of things, the mundane concerns of his life were all that important. And if that is the case for a person who believes in the existence of God, how much more for a person who has no such faith? Why is their life important? Why is my life important?

Until fairly recently in human history, we human beings have believed that we were the point of the story of our planet; the whole story of life on earth was leading up to us, and we had the manifest destiny of subduing the earth and using it to better our own lives. But the advances in scientific knowledge over the past two centuries have given us a very different view. Most scientists now believe that the universe came into existence as the result of a big bang over fourteen billion years ago, and that our earth did not come into existence until about nine billion years later. Our earth appears to be about 4.5 billion years old, and we human beings have been around for a tiny fraction of that time.

Sometimes this is illustrated in terms of a twenty-four hour clock. Suppose the entire 4.5 billion year history of our planet had been compressed into one twenty-four hour day? What would the proportions be like? Well, if the earth was formed at 12.01 a.m., then the earliest forms of life would appear at about 3.30 a.m. After a long day of slow progression to multicellular organisms, the enormous diversification of life that scientists call the Cambrian explosion would finally occur at about 9 p.m. – twenty-one hours into the twenty-four hour day. A bit later on, dinosaurs would appear and would roam the earth until they became extinct at 11.40 p.m., with twenty minutes left in the day, at which time mammals would start to become dominant.

The divergence of the evolutionary branches leading to chimpanzees and humans would occur at one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. Anatomically modern humans would arrive with just three seconds left, and the life of a middle-aged human today would occupy only the last one thousandth of a second.

In this scheme of things, how can my little life possibly be of any significance?

(Read the rest here).

Richard Dawkins and Memes

Over at Stranger in an Even Stranger Land, Gurdur has started a series on Richard Dawkins and his idea of ‘memes’; you’ll find the first post here. If you’ve read Dawkins and pondered his ‘meme’ idea, you’ll want to read what Gurdur has to say (and he has some very useful links, too). When I first read Dawkins (and Daniel Dennett), I assumed that all atheists were on board with him regarding memes, but Gurdur is an atheist and he doesn’t have much time for this idea at all.

Christians and atheists – towards a better understanding

It’s no secret that the cold war between Christianity and atheism has been heating up a little in the past decade or so. Some high profile atheists have written rather scathing books about religion in general and (in most cases) Christianity in particular, some of them well researched and well argued, some less so. A whole host of Christians have responded, some carefully and persuasively, some abusively, some with several rounds of scripture fired from the hip.

There are gentler voices out there, working to build bridges and increase mutual understanding, but they tend to get shouted down. I for one have appreciated the more eirenic tone taken by Gurdur, who, while a committed atheist, has also taken the initiative to reach out to us Christians and engage us in civil discourse. On a much higher academic level, philosophers J. Haldane and J.J. Smart have demonstrated in their book Atheism and Theism that it is possible for the two sides to engage with each other’s arguments in a respectful way, without resorting to caricature, abuse, or character assassination.

I do not consider myself to be an intellectual, but I have spent the summer trying to engage with the books and ideas of the new atheists and I would like to think that I have some helpful suggestions to make to improve the relationship between us.

First, let’s make friends with each other. I’ve been rather fortunate here in that I know a couple of atheists personally (in the flesh, not on the internet), and find them to be excellent (and highly ethical) people, so when I read the abuse that some atheists dish out to Christians in general, I can stop and think “I’m sure that so-and-so would be a bit embarrassed by the tone these people are taking”. Relationship makes all the difference.

Second, let’s accept the fact that neither side has arguments that are entirely compelling to the other. For example, the brilliant geneticist and former atheist Dr. Francis Collins became a Christian through reading the works of C.S. Lewis, but other atheists (Christopher Hitchens, for example) find Lewis’ arguments entirely unconvincing. We Christians need to be honest and admit that very few of us were argued into the faith; reason is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t take us the whole way. And at this stage of the game, the chances that one side is finally going to find the one utterly convincing argument that will irrevocably demolish the other are very slim.

Third, let’s engage with the best of the other side’s thinking, not the worst. I have to say that, after a couple of months of reading the new atheists, I was getting a little tired of having arguments against fundamentalism lobbed at the entire Christian church. Quite frankly, I know that large parts of the Old Testament fall short of the teaching and example of Jesus, and Christian  theologians have developed a fairly sophisticated biblical hermeneutic to deal with this fact. I expect atheists to do their homework here. And in the same vein, perhaps Christians who want to argue about Darwin should actually bother to read The Origin of Species?

Fourth (and this follows on from the third), let’s listen before we speak. And perhaps we can help each other here. Perhaps we Christians can go to our atheist friends and ask, ‘Can you point us in the direction of the people who you see as being the best and most important exponents of atheist positions, so that we can read and try to understand what they say? And when we’ve read their books, would you be willing to sit down with us, answer questions and discuss their ideas together?’ And perhaps atheists would come to us and say, ‘Okay, you want us to engage with the best thinkers in Christianity today – who are they? What have they written, and why are they so important to you?’

Fifth, let’s agree that all coercion is entirely inappropriate. I think we should enthusiastically embrace the difference between pluralism and relativism. Pluralism says that in a modern society everyone is free to choose their own beliefs and not have someone else’s ideas imposed on them by force. Relativism says that all beliefs are equally valid and it doesn’t matter what you believe. No atheist that I know is a relativist (they all think that religion is mistaken), and as a Christian I certainly think atheists are mistaken. However, I rejoice that in a pluralistic society I am free to be a Christian and they are free to be atheists, and if one of us wants to change our position we can do so on the basis of thought and conversation, without worrying about (for instance) state-imposed laws against apostasy.

Finally, let’s accept the fact that, within the parameters of pluralism, it is entirely appropriate that each of us should attempt to change the minds of the others. Atheists believe that their position is true to science and reality, and they believe that truth matters. I as a Christian believe that the existence of God and the revelation of his nature in Jesus is the ultimate reality. It is entirely consistent with each of our philosophies of life that we should advance arguments in favour of our views. But we will do so in the context of genuine relationships, after careful listening, and without a hint of coercion.

I’m sure there’s more to be said, but that’s it for now!

More on Stephen Hawking and the beginning of the universe

Further to the recent news about Stephen Hawking’s views on the origin of the universe, Paul Davies has written a column for the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ feature entitled ‘Stephen Hawking’s Big Bang Gaps’. In it, he makes some interesting points.

First, he points out that it was probably not only the universe, but also time itself, that began at the Big Bang:

Cosmologists are agreed that the universe began with a big bang 13.7 billion years ago. People naturally want to know what caused it. A simple answer is nothing: not because there was a mysterious state of nothing before the big bang, but because time itself began then – that is, there was no time “before” the big bang.

After warning us against ‘God-of-the’gaps’ approaches to science and apologetics (the origin of the universe being the biggest ‘gap’ that we like to take advantage of to prove the existence of God), he sets out Hawking’s view that the origin of the universe is not, after all, a gap for God to fill, as God is not necessary in order for the universe to come into existence:

The laws of physics can explain, (Hawking) says, how a universe of space, time and matter could emerge spontaneously, without the need for God. And most cosmologists agree: we don’t need a god-of-the-gaps to make the big bang go bang. It can happen as part of a natural process.

This however presents us with a further problem, as I mentioned in my earlier post on Hawking, and Davies seems to agree:

A much tougher problem now looms, however. What is the source of those ingenious laws that enable a universe to pop into being from nothing?

Indeed. And what do we mean by saying ‘It can happen as part of a natural process’, when the big bang is supposed to be the beginning of the process? How can the natural process cause anything before it has itself been initiated?

But this is where things get even more interesting (and – it must be added – speculative). Having told us that not only the universe, but also time itself, began with the big bang, Davies then goes on to talk about the possibility of the existence of a ‘multiverse’ – many universes, that is – the feeling being that if the laws of physics could produce one universe spontaneously, presumably they could do it with many more.

The favoured view now, and the one that Hawking shares, is that there were in fact many bangs, scattered through space and time, and many universes emerging therefrom, all perfectly naturally. The entire assemblage goes by the name of the multiverse.

Our universe is just one infinitesimal component amid this vast – probably infinite – multiverse, that itself had no origin in time. So according to this new cosmological theory, there was something before the big bang after all – a region of the multiverse pregnant with universe-sprouting potential.

This might have the added benefit (to an atheist, that is) of providing an alternative explanation for the fact that the laws of physics seem oh-so-carefully tuned to make possible the emergence of life as we know it. That might not be the case in the multiverse; each universe might have slightly different laws, and in the vast majority of them, our existence would not be possible.

An appealing feature of variegated bylaws is that they explain why our particular universe is uncannily bio-friendly; change our bylaws just a little bit and life would probably be impossible. The fact that we observe a universe “fine-tuned” for life is then no surprise: the more numerous bio-hostile universes are sterile and so go unseen.

But Davies is well aware that this theory does not, in fact, answer all the questions:

The multiverse comes with a lot of baggage, such as an overarching space and time to host all those bangs, a universe-generating mechanism to trigger them, physical fields to populate the universes with material stuff, and a selection of forces to make things happen. Cosmologists embrace these features by envisaging sweeping “meta-laws” that pervade the multiverse and spawn specific bylaws on a universe-by-universe basis. The meta-laws themselves remain unexplained – eternal, immutable transcendent entities that just happen to exist and must simply be accepted as given. In that respect the meta-laws have a similar status to an unexplained transcendent god.

I would agree with that assessment, with a further observation that the meta-laws share this further characteristic with God: there is no thoroughly conclusive proof of their existence. This, by the way, goes for a few other items in this discussion as well. As a commentator on another site put it:

What’s rather slipped by unnoticed with all this is that there’s absolutely no scientific evidence for M-theory, the anthropic principle or the multiverse…Compare and contrast with general relativity, which predicted the double-Newtonian deflection of light, and was vindicated within three years. String theory has been going for forty years now, and there’s still no evidence…

The “law” of gravity has got nothing to do with the early universe. Gravity occurs when there’s a variation in spatial energy density, usually caused by a concentration of energy tied up as matter. In the early universe there was no such inhomegeneity, and gravity didn’t stop the expansion of the universe. And what’s with this spontaneous creation? That’s just another non-answer. It reminds me of the old recipe for the spontaneous generation of mice. A piece of soiled cloth plus wheat and 21 days, and voila!

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m certainly no scientist, but it seems to me that, despite the claims of Hawking, Dawkins, and others to have found perfectly satisfactory scientific answers to the question of existence, there are still a few outstanding items.