Archive for the ‘Church’ Category
“Reconsidering Religion” at the AV Club is an illuminating group of perspectives on religion from AVC staff writers. An editor asked the writers what works from pop culture challenged their traditional religious beliefs:
Chalk me up on the “raised religious” side of the board; my family was Southern Baptist, which meant thrice-weekly church attendance, weeklong revivals and holiday church events, summer sessions at a Christian camp (where I was later a counselor-in-training as well), and eventually four years at a Christian high school. I’ve identified hugely with Todd’s periodic stories about growing up sheltered, indoctrinated, and scared of things that later became beloved hobbies. I was so sheltered, in fact, that it was a pretty serious shock to the system when I read Robert Heinlein’s JOB: A Comedy Of Justice, the first book I ever happened to encounter that treated Jehovah as just another god among many, and Satan as a pretty cool guy who’s more or less into freedom, choice, and self-actualization. I’d certainly read anti-Christianity screeds of various kinds, but anger and contempt against Christianity actually tends to strengthen a fundamentalist’s resolve, in that “They wouldn’t persecute us if they weren’t so afraid of our truths” kind of way. JOB, on the other hand, downplayed Christianity with humor (though a humor that seems more heavy-handed to me today than it did back in those inexperienced days), and presented an alternative to my enforced world with complete casualness, like it weren’t no thing. When I was a kid, it felt like the most dangerous, daringly sacrilegious thing I’d ever encountered.
The other testimonials are equally fascinating, and although this is only a small sample of apparently deconverted believers, these stories are probably reliable illustrations of bigger trends.
Two common features struck me as I read through these narratives. First, it’s interesting how many of these AV Club writers were raised Southern Baptist and now consider that tradition quaintly outdated. Second, it’s even more interesting how many of them were turned away from their faith by encountering science fiction, specifically the sci-fi novels of writers like Robert Heinlein, Douglas Adams, and Kurt Vonnegut.
Studies show that 60% of young people raised in the church are leaving it, for a variety of reasons given by young people themselves. Many bogeymen have arisen as candidates for the cause of this troubling exodus: watered-down theology, overly narrow theology, anti-intellectualism (particularly in regard to science), “culture war” style politics (particularly in regard to sexuality and gay marriage), over-emphasis on making church “fun”, over-emphasis on making church piously boring, and so on.
Since this is the internet, home of 350,000,000 websites and billions of unsolicited opinions, I feel comfortable offering an opinion on this topic here on my own humble sliver of this boundless sea of various persuasions created by Al Gore.
This billboard just showed up near one of the locations where I work:
I don’t imagine they’ll win many converts with this sort of message. In fact, I wonder if this massive atheist PR campaign is starting to wear a little thin with the public. When you’re getting lampooned by the unfunny Dane Cook, you’re probably doing something wrong:
But of course no one does bad PR like American evangelicals. Here’s a sign that’s been on the side of I-65 near Montgomery, Alabama for as long as I can remember:
Sigh. Sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
Nevertheless, there are things I like about the movement. Or perhaps I should say that the new atheism may have unintended consequences that I like. Here is a review for a new book that apparently makes the argument that at least one way Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al serve Christendom is by holding believers’ feet to the fire in regard to intellectual honesty. This is true and valuable, because I think many Christians tend to be intellectually lazy. From their perspective, they’re already in possession of “truth with a capital T”, and therefore they don’t think they need to think very much about their faith. When the new atheists point out that religious believers don’t have a solid intellectual foundation for their faith, they are partially correct. There are unfortunately very many Christians who are utterly incapable of giving a coherent reason for why they believe in Christianity (a fact that has no bearing on whether Christianity is true or rationally acceptable, however, a point I made to Uncle Skeptic on my old blog).
When an intellectually shallow Christian encounters the arguments of the new atheists, he must either (1) reevaluate the epistemic foundations of his faith and think critically about Christianity in a way he hasn’t done before, (2) stick his head in the sand and ignore their arguments, or (3) accept their arguments, leading to a crisis of faith and possibly unbelief. The new atheists want the results of their efforts to be (3), but I think they miscalculate that many Christians will take option (1). New atheist arguments, febrile as I find them to be, can have a strengthening effect on the church by driving individual Christians to a stronger and more rational intellectual position.
Likewise, although it’s certainly tragic when someone takes option (3) and apostasizes, it’s probably better for the church. Those who leave the faith because they read Richard Dawkins or develop an obsessive fascination with the mountain of atheist polemics online probably never had a very strong faith to begin with. If I read one more “deconversion” story where someone says they were a believer for 20 years but then started reading infidels.org and “realized” God was just a fantasy drilled into their head by pastors and Sunday School teachers, I just might puke. If your faith is this shallow and your cognitive capacities so susceptible to cheap rhetoric passing for logic, you probably have no business being in a church anyway. That’s not to say that there aren’t intelligent Christians who honestly wrestle with their faith and eventually leave it behind for intellectually respectable reasons (see here for a tragic and heartbreaking example), but there are plenty of gullible churchgoers who accept their newfound atheism for reasons that are probably just as unwarranted as the reasons they accepted Christianity to begin with. Hence the new atheism gives the church a bonus by separating the sheep from the goats.
[This post originally appeared at my old blog on September 4, 2009. The original is here.]
I’m currently reading through Harry Lee Poe’s Christianity in the Academy. Poe, a prof at Union University, tends to make claims about Christian academia that are over-generalized and under-documented, but here and there he makes some very wise observations. Here’s one:
Christians build institutions. Usually the result of a movement that emerges from a period of spiritual vitality or awakening, institutions are well intended as a means of carrying on the work or contribution of the genius of that period. It did not work with the monks of Cluny in the early Middle Ages, and it did not work with the YMCA. Spirituality cannot be institutionalized. This observation is central to the problem of maintaining a Christian college or university. If an organization with such a clearly defined purpose as the YMCA can go from being the leading organization for evangelizing young people in America to the largest franchised health club, then one should not expect that a college with such diverse interests can remain Christian for long. Institutions assume the character and agenda of the financial interests that support them.