October 24, 2010
Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way
The Challenge of Unbelief
Several years ago I was selected to be a member of a panel. On the morning of our first gathering I arrived at our meeting place and sat down in the lobby to wait on the person who was escorting us to the meeting room. While waiting, another person on the panel came in and sat down next to me. We introduced ourselves, and as is usually the case when you have an introductory conversation, she asked me what kind of work do you do? I said I’m a minister, which seemed to cause her some distress. She immediately replied I’m not a religious person. She was, actually, an atheist, and it led us to some very interesting conversations in the course of our time together.
As we continue our series Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, this morning we come to The Challenge of Unbelief. Unbelief seems to be all around us these days. Several years ago a survey about the religious beliefs and practices of the American public generated quite a few headlines, mostly because of its finding that people unaffiliated with any religion or religious group had doubled in a relatively short period of time.
If you have been doing any reading or paying attention to current events in the past few years it would indeed seem that the tide of unbelief is turning into a tsunami. The bestseller lists contain books written by atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Advertising campaigns by atheist groups are becoming more common, inviting people to leave faith and to embrace unbelief. People who have no religious belief are speaking more freely and openly about their lack of belief. All of this leads us to ask, what is the state of belief in today’s world? Is there a crisis of faith in our world? Is religious belief in decline and unbelief on the rise?
Those questions lead to other questions. Are any of the objections to religious belief valid? How do we answer the challenges of unbelief? Can we answer those questions?
This morning we will answer all those questions and solve the question of belief versus unbelief once and for all. If only it were that simple. What I want to do this morning, in a completely and totally inadequate amount of time, is to give some very general answers to some of the most common questions and issues related to belief and unbelief.
1. Unseen does not mean nonexistent.
Victor Stegner represents one of the favorite arguments of the unbeliever. In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, he often uses a phrase that I’m sure he finds very convincing. He writes that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Of course to him, evidence is anything that can be measured in a laboratory, or seen, or touched, or studied, or examined in a material manner.
This is not a new argument. In fact, the disciple Thomas had his own struggle with a desire for evidence. Our Scripture reading for this morning tells his story and his struggle to believe that Jesus was resurrected. Jesus says to Thomas, Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (verse 29). Some are like Thomas, desiring to see some absolute truth that will remove any amount of doubt.
What some consider a lack of empirical evidence is not a weakness to faith though, but actually is the very definition of faith. Hebrews 11:1, perhaps the most famous passage about belief, says that faith is being sure of what he hope for and certain of what we do not see.
Which is exactly where this intersection of belief and unbelief turns – can you really believe in something you do not see? Those on the side of unbelief tell us there is no scientific way to prove the existence of God, thus God cannot be real.
The question really is how do we see? How is it that one person can look at the world and say everything is here by chance while another person looks at it all and says it is here by the creation and intent of God? Why does it seem so clear to some while so unclear to others? Why do some find it so easy to believe while others find it so difficult to believe?
William James, in his classic book Varieties of Religious Experience, writes that nothing can be more stupid than to bar out phenomena from our notice, because we are incapable of taking part in anything like them ourselves. (Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, p. 24).
Absence of evidence is not really absence of evidence at all, but an evidence that cannot be measured or quantified in any kind of scientific or empirical manner.
2. Religion is not, as many unbelievers claim, the root of all the problems in the world.
Christopher Hitchens has written a book titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens is one in a long list of those who like to blame religion for all of the world’s ills and all the terrible things that have happened throughout history. The problem with that line of reasoning is, it’s simply not true, but it is stated so often that many people believe it to be true.
There is no doubt that people acting in the name of religion have committed some unconscionable acts. This is true of Christianity as well as other religions. The Crusades and the Inquisition are not positive marks on the history of faith.
But it is simply wrong to say that every problem in history is the fault of religion. One of the oft-repeated claims, for example, is that religion has killed more people in history because religion is at the root of most, if not all, wars. That is simply not the truth. It is, at best, only a partial truth. Some wars have certainly had religious overtones, but even those have other factors. Northern Ireland, for instance, has often been cited as an example of a religious war. That conflict was really more about whether or not one wanted to be a subject of the British crown than it wa about religion. Religion was simply a way to identify with one side or the other.
Atheism itself, in fact, has a very violent history. Joseph Stalin was directly responsible for the deaths of so many people that historians find it difficult to even make an estimate. His systematic executions of religious people as well as his opponents were ruthless and number in the hundreds of thousands. Pol Pot, leader of the ruthless atheist regime in Cambodia, was responsible for the deaths of as many as one-fourth of the population.
This does not excuse the way religion has been used by some to justify violence, oppression, or any other abuse. When religion is used to justify violence, oppression, or any abuse of humanity it is a distortion of religion, not a true expression of religion.
3. Religious faith is not diminishing.
The study I referenced at the beginning of this message has been used to prove that religious faith is diminishing in our society. The study did not actually indicate that at all. In fact, follow up studies have shown that of people who claim no religion or religious affiliation, a majority will affiliate with religious belief at a later point in their life. And further, those who claim no religious affiliation aren’t necessarily rejecting religion. Most of the people who fall into that category could best be described by the oft-used phrase spiritual but not religious. That is, they have religious beliefs but are not currently affiliated with any institutional expression of religion.
Alister McGrath, who is a professor at Oxford University and a colleague of Richard Dawkins, is himself a former atheist and has written a very interesting book titled The Twilight of Atheism. The thesis of his book is that rather than diminishing, religious faith is growing throughout the world and what we are experiencing is not a growing level of unbelief but the dying gasp of atheism as a mass movement. Time will tell if he is correct on the future of atheism, but he correctly points out how religious belief is growing so quickly in areas that have been under the thumb of atheism. China, for example, is seeing faith growing in incredible numbers and it is growing so fast that in some areas of the country the governmental authorities have stopped trying to discourage its growth. In recent weeks we have seen Cuba relax some of their restrictions against religion in recognition of its growth in that country as well.
Belief in God has not gone away, no matter how secular society has become or how much effort reductionist science has exerted to banish Him. God has not gone away because people keep encountering Him, in unexplainable, intensely spiritual moments (Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, p. 15).
4. Religious people are not automatically ignorant, anti-scientific, arrogant, or intolerant.
Some are, but many are not. Many in the unbelieving community make continual reference to their belief that religious belief equates attitudes such as ignorance, opposition to science, arrogance, and intolerance. No one can deny some of that exists, but there are far more believers who represent just the opposite of those qualities. There is, actually some of those same qualities on the side of unbelief.
Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, wrote about Francis Collins in an OpEd in the New York Times last year. Francis Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project, which sequenced the human genome and he is also a very devout Christian, who was once an atheist. Harris wrote about his opposition to the appointment of Collins as the director of the National Institute of Health because of Collins’ religious faith and even implied that his outspoken faith could be a sign of dementia. Harris wrote, Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?
(Sam Harris, writing in an OpEd in The New York Times, July 26, 2009).
The bottom line to all of this is the affirmation of faith in Hebrew 11:1 – faith is being sure of what he hope for and certain of what we do not see.
There are many stories I could tell that express that in dramatic ways, but I’ll close with an experience I witnessed many years ago. I was at Suburban Hospital in Louisville, visiting with a terminal cancer patient. The family was in the room and as we were talking the patient suddenly began to say that they were waiting on her. Her mom asked who was waiting. She pointed to the corner of the room, where I was standing, and said they had come to take her home. I moved away from that corner – just in case of mistaken identity – and she asked her parents whether she should go or stay. She was not under the influence of any medications at that point, certainly not to cause that kind of experience. She was as lucid as you or I, but at that moment it was as if a doorway to eternity had opened in that room that she was capable of seeing and experiencing. The rest of us saw nothing, but it was as real to her as this moment is to you and I.
In that moment is the entire question of belief – is there something more that we cannot see with our eyes, but we can sense with our spirit? Is this all there is? Is life nothing more than what we can see and touch or measure in a laboratory? I cannot answer that question for you and you cannot answer it for me; each person must answer that question personally, but we come together this day, as the body of Christ, and affirm that faith is being sure of what he hope for and certain of what we do not see.