Monday, January 09, 2012

January 8, 2012 - Answering the Skeptics - Do Beliefs Matter?

Mark 9:14-24

Our Scripture reading for this morning ends with an odd statement – I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! How do you affirm your belief in one moment while in the next proclaiming your need to overcome your unbelief? That’s quite a paradox, isn’t it?

We live in a world that doesn’t much understand the paradox. We live in an either/or world, especially when it comes to belief, and in particular, religious belief. You either believe or you don’t, right? But this father both believed and struggled to believe.

The inability to accept and live with a paradox is what drives some people, I think, to disbelief.

I received an email the other day that contained an article titled Why I Stopped Believing In God. Listen to a few excerpts –

After my sister was born, my mom was told she couldn’t have any more kids. Six years later, I was her miracle. She always told me I wouldn’t be here if God hadn’t intervened. So I guess it’s kind of ironic that I no longer believe in God.

More and more I began to see that pastors and leaders in all faiths are simply people hungry for power. They like to preach that if you love God, you will get rich. But if bad things do happen, never question God, and never question the pastor because his words come from God.

It seems lazy to never question religion, or explore all the evidence against it. But it has more to do with fear.

Religion is only made real by the minds that believe it is real. And religion will exist as long as there is fear - fear of ourselves, fear of death, fear of each other. Religion thrives on fear. And powerful people take advantage of this. They have always done their best to silence anyone who questions.

The claim of all religions is that you will be freed from pain and suffering if you believe. But I have not found this to be true. …my experience with Christians was always just the opposite. Repression equals depression. And as Christians look down on other people, it makes them feel just a little bit better.

Life after religion is a gift of happiness…made even more amazing without the existence of a man-made God and dictator. I am at peace with the unknown.


The author of that piece recognizes some of the paradoxes that we find in life. Sometimes, good people do bad things. Sometimes, churches hurt rather than help people. Does that mean all people are bad or that some people are all bad? I don’t think so. Does it mean all churches are bad because some churches hurt some people? I don’t think so.

The author of that piece also makes, I believe, several very questionable assumptions. Not every pastor or leader is hungry for power. Most aren’t, in my opinion. Most also don’t preach that you will get rich if you love God. Personally, I believe that if you love God you may have less money, as you find yourself giving it away. And plenty of people question God, and I think you shouldn’t be afraid of asking questions; I certainly don’t believe it is threatening to God. I would also question the statement that religion is based on fear. There is, I understand, fear involved for some people and some leaders do prey upon that fear, but that is not the majority. And neither is it true that religion is only made real by those who believe it to be real. God is either real or is not real, regardless of what we believe. And no religion of which I am aware claims that belief will keep you free from pain and suffering. A few people may make that claim, but it is certainly not a claim that can be verified in light of Scripture.

This morning we begin a new series of messages titled Answering the Skeptics.

Why do some people believe in God, while others do not? The reasons, I’m sure, are complicated and numerous. Some researches have even put forth the theory that belief – or unbelief – is part of our genetic disposition.

One statistic I find troubling is the number of young people who drift away from faith when they leave home to begin their adult lives. Part of the reason, I think is the failure to develop a faith that can stand the rigors and challenges of a college classroom or the work place. Some people are given a set of beliefs – or perhaps more correctly, interpretations – and are told that if you doubt a single one of them then the entire system of belief must all be discarded. So they hear something that is in conflict with what they have been told to believe and decide to do just what they have been told – they set belief aside, believing it to be incompatible with the world around them. What a tragedy!

How would you answer someone who asks why you believe in God? How would you answer someone who says they do not believe in God and they want to know why you believe? How do you deal with the relationship of science and faith? How do you respond when someone asks you to prove that God exists? How do you respond when someone says they cannot believe in God because of the evil and suffering in the world?

Does it matter if we believe in God? Some people would say that it does not matter what we believe. Nothing could be further from the truth. It matters a great deal what we believe. Life is driven by beliefs. Some people believe that strapping on a belt of explosives and detonating it in a public place to kill as many people as possible will guarantee they and their family will be given a place in paradise. It matters what suicide bombers believe. It mattered what Stalin believed. It matters if someone tells you that you are worthless and you believe it and the belief of worthlessness leads to self-destructive behavior. And it matters what a person believes about God. People who believe God is angry and vindictive hold up signs with terrible slogans at military funerals, such as the Westboro Baptist Church.

Here are some of the topics we will study during this series.

Faith and Reason – is it reasonable to belief in God? Does it make sense? Why do some believe that faith and intellectualism are incompatible?

Faith and Science – are faith and science incompatible, as some claim? Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, wrote an OpEd claiming that Francis Collins was not qualified to head the National Institute of Health because he is a person of deep religious faith. Dr. Collins headed the Human Genome Project and has a world class scientific mind, and yet Harris would disqualify him from service because of religious faith.

Why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? Why doesn’t God do more about this suffering and evil?

What about the wrong that has been done in the name of God?

Can the existence of God be proved, or disproved?

I will be making some assumptions as we move through this series.

*People are increasingly identifying themselves as spiritual rather than religious because they do not want to be associated with institutional expressions of religion. Just because people don’t belong to a church or attend church doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God. Many people, turned off by things such as the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church or televangelist scandals don’t want to be associated with institutional religion. People are also tired of the culture wars, and they most people aren’t interested in the politicizing of religion.

*People want their beliefs and their worldview affirmed. Some people are very threatened by the trend of less religious belief in our society. They fear their way of life, their worldview – all the things they hold dear and cherish – will be minimized or threatened. We see this dynamic in politics. People turn to some candidates because they affirm the same values and are fearful of other candidates because they threaten their values.

*People are very influenced by faith – especially the Christian faith – in ways they may not understand or recognize. Anyone who lives in Western society has been deeply influenced by the Christian faith; it frames our entire way of life. The emphasis on having a life of meaning and purpose and the charitable spirit of our society are just a few of the ways the Christian faith has so deeply influenced who we are as a people. It has also shaped our music, art, education, medicine, and politics.

*Religious faith is not diminishing in our world. It is shifting, but not diminishing. Research released at the end of the year gave the interesting results that the percentages of religious people worldwide have not changed since a century ago. Where those religious people are located, though, has changed. A hundred years ago, Western Europe was the center of the Christian faith. Western Europe is certainly not the center of the Christian faith today, although countries such as England are seeing an increase in church attendance and religious activity. Faith is exploding in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. China, officially atheist in their governance, is seeing a huge growth in faith.

*You don’t have to check your brain at the door when you come into a church, at least not all churches. I would be greatly disappointed if you checked your brain at the door when you walked into this church.

*We are spiritual beings – all people, regardless of belief or unbelief. Jesus said man does not live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4), which is a statement underscoring the truth that we are spiritual beings. We are more than just flesh and blood, more than our genes and DNA. Put on some great music, observe a beautiful sunset, look at a baby, or sit on a beach and try and deny that those experiences speak to something much deeper and greater in us.

*There are fundamentalists on both sides of the belief/unbelief argument. Richard Dawkins is just as much a fundamentalist as was Jerry Falwell. The fundamentalists on both sides of the divide do not add anything constructive to the debate, in my opinion. Both sides set up nothing but caricatures of the other side and distort the positions of the other. They make sweeping generalizations of the opposite side, and are basically speaking to those who already agree with them.

*We argue over how we got here, but we are here, and the critical question, I think, is where do we go from hear and how do we get there?

*Our focus should be on love, not in toeing a particular line of theology. Too many churches focus on right thinking to the exclusion of love. There are a lot of people who would take great issue with that statement, but Jesus never gave his followers a belief test. His test had one element – love.

When I was in seminary I took a class in Systematic Theology (it was actually more interesting than it sounds) and Dr. Frank Tupper was the professor. Dr. Tupper could be very provocative in attempting to get us to think, and sometimes members of the class were upset by his comments. One day, a student became so upset by one of Dr. Tupper’s comments that he jumped up, and with tears in his eyes shouted Dr. Tupper, why are you trying to destroy my faith? Dr. Tupper’s response was so memorable I can replay it in my mind as clearly as if it happened yesterday. Dr. Tupper walked over to the student and placed his hand on his shoulder and had him sit back down. Then he sat on the edge of the student’s desk and said Son, I’m not trying to destroy your faith. I want to make sure your faith is strong. If it cannot survive this classroom, it will never survive outside of this classroom.

I believe Dr. Tupper was exactly right. We must develop a healthy and vibrant faith, understanding the challenges to faith and how we will answer them. While in this sanctuary we are in a bubble, a bubble where faith is encouraged and nurtured. Things change when we leave this place, and we must develop a faith that does not fade in face of the challenges that come our way.

May we pray.

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