MY CHALLENGE TO CHRISTIANS
by Shane Hayes
Shake off your complacency. Christianity has fallen on hard times. In highly developed nations it‘s under vicious attack. The Great Persecution under Diocletian in the fourth century was more violent but less lethal. The new threat is not from breast-plated Roman soldiers who would dismember us with a cutlass or throw us to the lions. It comes from genteel highly educated fellow citizens.
They don’t question our right to believe -- they would even defend it. Their polemic spears aim not at believers but at faith. They see religion as a preposterous relic, one no modern mind can take seriously. In their view it is not a harmless fiction, but a societal cancer that needs to be excised, a narcotic that is addictive and disabling. In charity and compassion they would cure us of that illness.
Christian doctrines are not their main target. They would pierce the very heart of religion – a personal God. They know that if they kill God, Christ will die. He can’t be divine if there is no God. Some call themselves the New Atheists – or “the brights” because they’re so bright and we’re so benighted. They write books called The End of Faith; The God Delusion; God The Failed Hypothesis; and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
Gripping the Levers of Power
They’re carrying the power centers of Western intellectual culture with them. The most acclaimed university professors, philosophers, psychologists, scientists, novelists, playwrights, TV talking heads, and print-media journalists tend to be in sympathy with their worldview – and to see ours as quaint and antiquated, laughable at best, evil and pernicious at worst.
They are at the forefront of a movement that began in seventeenth century England (John Locke and the deists), gathered force in eighteenth century France (Voltaire and Diderot), was joined by Darwinism and Marxism in the nineteenth century, existentialism (Sartre and de Beauvoir) in the twentieth, and the New Atheism in the twenty-first. Some call it secular humanism and speak of the secularization of our culture.
In the simplest terms it holds that the natural world is all there is, that nothing supernatural exists. The God of the Bible is a pious fantasy. Christ was an admirable teacher and altruist, but he died as unalterably as the rest of us do, and he rose only in the fevered minds of bereaved followers. The evangelists either fabricated his miracles and his Resurrection or meant them as metaphors for an interior “truth,” a sense of moral exaltation that had nothing to do with healing physical blindness, walking on real water, or making dead bodies breathe again.
These views – some or all of them -- are held not only by people who call themselves agnostic or atheist. They are held by Episcopal bishops in good standing, by professors in liberal seminaries, by “progressive” Catholic priests, and by liberated nuns who lead spiritual reading groups. The secularizing threat is not just from outside the church but also from within it. These are separate problems, though, and call for separate strategies. I will focus here on those who make no pretense of religious affiliation.
Large Numbers Obscure a Sinister Trend
Yes, believing Christians are still a large majority in this country. So large that we can easily feel a safety in our numbers that lets us ignore the ominous trend. The number of American adults with no religion doubled between 1990 and 2008. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) estimated that the 14.3 million who said they had no religion in 1990 had grown to 34.2 million by 2008. That represents 15% of the U. S. adult population (up from 8% in 1990), and indications are that it’s still growing. It could easily double again in the next eighteen years. Such trends tend to accelerate, as they gain momentum.
What can we do? First, shed the illusion that because your church is filled Sunday morning Christianity is doing fine. Most people will keep nurturing that mirage. You and I -- and many others -- must be undeceived. We are called to take a large unparochial view. Jesus did. He urged his followers to be concerned not just about their own little region, Galilee and Judea, but to expand their minds and hearts and think globally. “Go forth and teach all nations.”
We too should think about the fate of his church as a whole, not just of our own congregation or parish. Christianity in America and Europe is shrinking in numbers, weakening in fervor and conviction, declining in societal influence, and waning as a cultural and historical force.
The ARIS Summary Report dated March 2009 contains this disturbing observation: “The 2008 findings confirm the conclusions we came to in our earlier studies that Americans are slowly becoming less Christian and that in recent decades the challenge to Christianity in American society does not come from other world religions or new religious movements… but rather from a rejection of all organized religions.” (Emphasis added.)
“A rejection of all organized religions” in most cases means a rejection of belief in a personal God. Stating its findings differently, to include those who don’t know their religious identification or refuse to say, ARIS observed that “in 2008 one in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind compared with one in ten in 1990.” (Emphasis added.)
“Devangelism” and “the Post-Christian Era”
Atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of unbelief may be growing as rapidly in Western culture as Christianity grew in the first four centuries A. D. In an amazingly short time, by historical standards, it became the dominant worldview. Secularism is in the process of doing exactly that, if it hasn’t already. For the last four centuries it has been gathering force, and Christianity has been losing ground, not in gross population, but in those social institutions that determine the shape of a nation, its ideas, its mores, its worldview. Even religious leaders ruefully refer to this as “the post-Christian era” (e. g., Catholic Thomas Merton did in 1962; Baptist R. Albert Mohler Jr. did in 2009).
The attempt by atheists and agnostics to convert Christians (and other theists) to the doctrine of No God is an inverted evangelism that skeptics wryly term devangelism. We should add it to our vocabulary. It describes a program and a process that is ardently promoted in centers of high civilization throughout America and Europe.
Devangelists are passionate Sauls on the road to Damascus. They scoff at the original Saul’s report of a divine apparition, and they’re converging in large numbers on the great cities of the Western world. Since this is not the age of miracles the Lord is unlikely to knock them off their horse. It’s for us, then, to propose that they dismount and discuss the merits of our case.
A New Kind of Mission
We need a revised concept of Christ’s missionary imperative. Yes, we must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. Yes, we must reach out to those in remote places who have not heard the gospel – and to the apathetic in our communities who don’t bother going to church but “know they should.” Nearly all churches support aid to the poor and to foreign missions. A small percentage have programs to invite what Protestants call “the unchurched” (those who haven’t been to church for six months or more) to attend services.
But I don’t know of one that has a systematic, organized, and effective program to reach hardcore unbelievers (atheists, agnostics, and other nontheists). So this first challenge is to individual Christians, who should respond even if church bureaucracies don’t. I hope ministers and priests will too.
God knows how to arrest the trend away from faith. I don’t. But I have some ideas.
1. Face the magnitude of the problem. Every year millions who once believed in God are becoming unbelievers. A hundred years ago, even fifty, calling oneself atheist or agnostic was rare and incurred a social stigma. Now it’s common, a badge of sophistication and advanced thinking worn proudly and publicly. Beside the religion section in large bookstores there’s a substantial section of atheist literature, many of them best sellers. There are atheist blogs and atheist websites with large followings. Atheist magazines are becoming more numerous and successful.
An example of how American youth are being swept into the secular camp – in a highly organized way -- is cited in an article published in the New York Times on April 7, 2009 entitled “More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops.” Reporter Laurie Goodman observes that: “Part of what is giving the movement momentum is the proliferation of groups on college campuses. The Secular Student Alliance has now 146 chapters, up from 42 in 2003.”
In November of 2011 the Secular Student Alliance website stated that there are 320 campus chapters. Most are at colleges, but a growing number (dozens) are on high school campuses. Picture the growth: from 42 chapters to 320 in eight years! That’s devangelism.
Distinct Problems: The Apathetic… and Hardcore Unbelievers
2. I see those who have broken with religion or drifted away from it as falling into two contrasting categories. By far the largest and most approachable group are the Apathetic. They’re the indifferent believers, those who in a vague sense “have religion” but really don’t care about it. “Yes, we know we should go to church but it’s boring, we’re busy, and we don’t have time for it. We go Christmas and Easter.” The churches have dealt with them for two thousand years. We have sound ways of pricking their conscience and calling them back. It’s not easy and we don’t do it nearly enough. Yet our techniques are refined and effective, and a fair number respond.
Then there's a smaller much pricklier group who are growing so rapidly, and wield so much influence, they threaten to be the wave of the future. Those who have consciously decided that they don’t believe in God – the atheist, the creedless agnostic – are hardcore unbelievers. Let’s just call them Skeptics. Their rejection of faith is not a casual thing but the culmination of much thinking, reading, and grappling with ideas about the universe. They feel they’ve emerged from the fog of medieval superstition, which still envelops us, to the light of reason and modern science, a higher intellectual plane.
We are the ones they think need conversion -- and they’re ready to puncture our claims with sharp dialectical weapons. Very few Christians, including our clergy, can parry their thrusts, much less score with our own. They represent a starkly different mindset from the Apathetic, yet churches generally make no distinction between the two groups, lump them together, and assume the same evangelizing techniques will work with both. They don’t.
3. Most Christians have at least one friend, relative, or acquaintance who has rejected religion and become a Skeptic. Many have several skeptics in their lives whom they would reach out to and influence if they could. But they don’t know how, and their priests and ministers don’t either. When at age twenty (in 1958) I renounced Catholicism and became an atheist my distressed mother talked to the parish priests about it, but none of them made the slightest effort to challenge my thinking or win me back.
Do a Small Thing – or Do Nothing?
My father, on the other hand, a Catholic who admired Protestant preaching, never stopped sending me printed sermons and other literature, most of which I discarded unread, but some of which I perused and pondered. The things he sent me, and a suggestion he once made at a critical point in my life, were seeds of a slow evolution in my thinking – and finally a revolution. I tell the story in a book I describe below. The point here is that doing something – however small -- to influence a skeptic you care about is infinitely better than doing nothing.
Discussing the God question is one way to reach out, but many Christians feel it’s too direct, obtrusive, and discourteous. Moreover, few are equipped to engage a skeptic effectively in what amounts to philosophical discourse or debate. Even the skilled apologist rarely succeeds unless the skeptic is willing to read at least one article or book advocating the faith position in a way different from what he’s already rejected. For most Christians the literature has to do the arguing, since they can’t do it themselves. If you’re concerned about a skeptic, ask yourself two questions:
First, do I believe enough and care enough to hand or send the person a piece of literature that raises the God question and argues for faith? Will I do that even though it may seem intrusive and not be well received? Is God real enough in my life – in my mind and heart -- for me to take that risk? Is the person worth it?
Second, if I’m willing, what should I send and how should I present it? Here I will not pretend to be impartial. I have my own ideas about the most effective mode of persuasion. I’ve written a short book that uses agnosticism to make a pro-faith case to atheists. The working title is The End of Unbelief. My approach is unorthodox but uniquely effective because of that. The audience I aim at is notoriously unorthodox.
Standard Conversion Literature Won’t Work
Most hardcore unbelievers are so militantly anti-Christian that their minds are closed to a direct Christian appeal. Standard conversion literature – designed for the apathetic, not the militant -- can’t penetrate their defenses. Having been an atheist, I know how they think and feel, so I reach out to them in a nonstandard way, which neither Christian clergy nor Christian laymen are generally equipped to do.
Even C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, a true classic, is rejected out of hand by many skeptics because, as its title and preface reveal, it’s a defense of basic Christian doctrine. Hardened skeptics want no part of that.
The End of Unbelief is different, as the title conveys. The author identifies himself as The Agnostic Christian. The first page of Chapter 1 declares: “I am a Christian. And I am an agnostic. I hold as true what cannot yet be verified.” I argue throughout for the compatibility of philosophical agnosticism – as distinguished from personal agnosticism -- and a strong belief in God. They can coalesce. They coalesce in me.
Be Open to Bold Techniques!
Here is a crucial part of the challenge I’m issuing. Don’t be squeamish! Be ready to fight fire with fire. Let me make agnosticism a two-edged sword. Don’t insist that every appeal to skeptics be in conventional terms, urging them to become Protestant or Catholic. Welcome innovation!
The End of Unbelief is sharply different from other pro-faith books in several ways (see explanations on the The Unique Approaches page). To appreciate them you must be convinced of this: In choosing a book for hardcore unbelievers, the test of its value is not what pleases us, who love to hear the Gospel proclaimed, but what is most likely to reach hardened skeptics and draw them toward God. That principle informs the design of my book –makes it new, different, intriguing.
I give a Christian witness in stories about my own life – and a capsulized story of Christ’s life (Part 5, How an Agnostic Sees Christ and His Mission). But I argue only for belief in a personal and loving God -- a much smaller and easier pill for the Skeptic to swallow than the whole of Christian doctrine. Connecting an unbeliever with God works no small transformation in his life. When that spiritual medicine does its work resistance to the Gospel may diminish, even vanish. A willingness to read Mere Christianity – and perhaps the New Testament -- may be one of its effects.
You can present powerful and sophisticated arguments to the people you want to reach, merely by handing them a short book that bears no resemblance to a religious tract. Its cover assures skeptics that the author understands their skepticism, and shares it, yet believes.
Excerpts of the book appear under the tab “The Believing Agnostic” and each of the five tabs following that, ending with "Profile of Christ." The book is short, as I want it to be – 160 pages in double-spaced manuscript. It will be published by Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press, in September of 2014.
The Seed Parable and Our New Mission
A final word. A person’s worldview doesn’t turn on a dime. Most skeptics like being skeptical and are proud of it. They don’t want to revise their thoughts on the God question, any more than you and I do. They read and hear things on a regular basis that reinforce their conviction. And they have a right to think as they do. We are, nevertheless, prompted by faith, hope, and love – all three -- to act. To be instruments through which the God we believe in might touch them.
It took St. Monica seventeen years of impassioned prayer before her son St. Augustine converted to Christianity. It took my father eight years of prayer, verbal nudges, and sending me literature before a seed or two germinated. The Parable of the Sower is relevant here, but let me give it a slight twist. Basic parable: Some people are rocky infertile ground and always will be. Some are so immersed in the secular culture that any growth of our seeds will always be choked by its thorns. And some are good soil in which our faith seeds will take root and flourish.
But consider this: One person may pass through all three states, one after the other, at different times in her life. Rocky at the start of her skepticism, shallow and thorny in its middle years, but good soil when some crisis -- illness, tragedy, depression, or the menace of death -- grips and shakes her secular certitudes. That kind of metamorphosis needn’t take a lifetime. I passed through it and had a rekindling of faith at twenty-eight. “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,” a sage remarked.
Think of it this way. Giving a person a book like mine is sowing a seed. We toss it toward him; then it’s out of our hands. We’ve done our part. The rest is up to God and the free will of another. Reflect, then, on the wisdom of T. S. Eliot (from his poem The Rock):
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.