Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Is theism getting a bad press?

I'm not very sure how to phrase this post correctly. I have been musing for a while about a change I've observed over the time I have been ordained. It seems that there are now significantly more atheist voices who are more vocal and critical of belief in God, especially in the media and in public life. The question is: why?

Looking at the kinds of digs atheists make online, they're not always very sophisticated or original. Some atheists even seem to mirror religious fundamentalists in their absolutism. Even when the critique is more considered, it's usually the case that Christians have been struggling with the same issues for centuries. Suffering, theodicy, Old Testament wrath vs New testament compassion, etc are all there in theology textbooks (but not any neat answers). Maybe that's the problem: people who want neat answers find a messy God difficult.

If there is a trend, my first hunch is that the percentage of people who don't believe in God may not have changed as much as we think; it's just that their presence is felt more now. It's not as if atheism was invented when Richard Dawkins started selling books about it - people who didn't believe have been around for a long time.

I also suspect that quite a lot of the British never really believed in God in any very specific way, if at all. However, at most they described themselves as agnostic. Not a few of them probably went along to church, because it was a 'good thing' and saw it as supporting community and family. The 'supernatural' bit passed them by, and there are still churchgoers for whom that is true. The stronger  tag  of atheist probably seemed a bit definite for those 20th century sensibilities.

What's become clear in recent years is that attitudes to organised faith/religion have changed. The Church of England was once seen as basically benign, if rather odd, eccentric, ineffectual and from a different era. Church of England schools and colleges would be seen as 'nice' places to study, even by those who didn't practise the faith in any committed way. There is now a debate as to whether these institutions should receive any public support at all, or even whether churches and faith groups qualify as charities.

So why isn't theism seen as benign for wider society any more? Religious conflicts must be part of the picture. These aren't new, either, and nor is sectarian terrorism. There was plenty of that during the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland. However, more recent developments such as suicide bombing and the description of such as martyrdoms has pointed to a difficult question. If it is believed that human existence doesn't depend on this material world, but upon a relationship with the divine, then someone can acquire an attitude that says this life doesn't really matter. And in case Christians start getting superior at this point, that tradition is there in our faith too. It hasn't worked itself out in suicide bombing, but in medieval times, being killed on the Crusades was regarded as tantamount to martyrdom. How do we hold that 'this isn't everything', yet still value the material world as real and precious?

Ethics and values have changed the goalposts too. Churches are often seen as maintaining sexist and homophobic values in an era when society's norms and the laws of the land have moved on from traditional standpoints. If the perception out there is growing that theism = prejudice and discrimination, then it's hardly surprising to hear a more vocal critique from theosceptics. (Have I just invented that word? Must look it up later)

If my hunches bear any relation to reality, I'm not particularly worried about these shifts in attitude. One the one hand, Christians should expect opposition if they are being true to the teaching of Jesus - it certainly came his way. I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't be a lot more unpopular about poverty, economic exploitation and injustice.

On the other hand, we also need to listen. The Bible and the Christian tradition are complex, and it's easy to confirm our own pet prejudices with careful selection of our sources. Sometimes a radical challenge from outside our comfortable circle of like-minded can jolt us into re-examining what we think and why we think it.

Perhaps most of all we need to be more willing to live more radical lives. Maybe the reason more people openly say they don't believe any more is that they can see precious little reason for belief in the lives of those who say they do.

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Fr Matthew McMurray said...

I enjoyed this post, Mike. I have been thinking about similar things recently. I will think a bit more and respond on my blog sometime soon--another blog which needs resurrecting.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike, great post, glad to have you back. Very pertinent as I have received nothing but positive feedback to my blog except from a very small percentage within the church worried that people outside will react to it - and they have, positively!

I sometimes wonder if we've become so afraid for our 'reputation' and *like* factor that we shoot ourselves in the foot thus losing the very thing we are fearful of losing by being true to our calling, uncomfortable though it may be.

Thought you might like to know you are listed on my blog, too, so keep posting!


Bishop Alan Wilson said...

The challenge for me, Mike, is that Jesus said "by their fruits you shall know them." When people find the Church to be benign, they are usually more than willing to suspend disbelief and open their hearts to theistic possibilities. Desmond Tutu type religion is respected. The feedback that worries me is where people find the Church not to be benign but discriminatory about gender and sexuality, inequality and injustice. The score for the local Church is usually quite good — everybody knows somebody who's been loved, accepted and helped by a Christian community. The higher you get up the tree the more problematic it all becomes... an especially challenging thought for people in jobs like mine.