(The following is based on a talk I gave two weeks ago to a Thinking Matters event and also at a church camp, which is why it’s not written like an essay or article. It was presented as the last in a series of talks on faith and reason.)
If I’m right, then faith in God – belief that God is real and trust that God makes a difference through Christ – is reasonable. There really are good reasons to believe. God makes best sense of moral facts. God best explains the origin and fine-tuning of the Universe. The historical facts surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth point us to God, and not just any God, but the God revealed to us in Jesus. As you know, there are other arguments. And when a Christian first discovers that there’s a thing called “apologetics,” that all these arguments are there to be used, the response can be excitement and enthusiasm. These are great arguments! Who wouldn’t be impressed by them?
Over-enthusiasm, however, can quickly be reduced to disappointment. Not only do so many people not believe, but there are people who vocally, vehemently and at times obnoxiously, disbelieve. In spite of the very good reasons, intelligently explained by many people, there are those whose reaction to the Christian faith is not simply non-belief but open ridicule and sneering. I’m not talking here about the “average” person (supposing that there is such a thing). The fact is that when you step out of your comfort zone and – picking your opportunities and approach wisely – discuss the truth of what you believe with others, you may be surprised at how open a lot of people are to hearing you out. And yet there is always that fairly vocal element (I’ll refer to them here as the critics) that responds as though you’ve just told them the earth is flat.
Is this really what we should expect? Should people not respond to a reasonable case by taking it seriously, and in many cases accepting it? Is perhaps the case for our faith much weaker than we thought? Or is something else going on? Or maybe both?
What we are most often told by people who explicitly reject the Christian faith is that they are rejecting it for intelligent, rational reasons. They see that the arguments for the Christian faith are flawed, they maintain, and they have rational reasons of their own too. And let’s be fair, there are people who really, really think that somewhere in the objections there’s probably a lot of truth.
Without a doubt, the single most common objection that you’ll hear is that if our God existed, then he would do things differently. Which is really another way of saying, if I were God, and knew everything, and was perfectly good, and all powerful, I would do things differently. One rather tempting reply to this is to ask how exactly you know what an all-knowing and perfectly wise person would do, without supposing that you’re already all-knowing and perfectly wise, but I’ll ignore that. The way that critics typically suppose that they would do things differently if they were God is that they wouldn’t allow evil or suffering to occur – or perhaps just not as much evil or suffering as we have in the world, and they wouldn’t make themselves as hidden as God does. They would make their existence more obvious, giving more evidence so that more people would believe.
These two issues are called the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on them, because my purpose here is actually to explain that most of the reasons that people don’t believe aren’t rational reasons at all. So very briefly I’ll just observe that there’s a lot of very stimulating reading on the problem of evil and of divine hiddenness, where a number of theodicies have been offered – a theodicy is a defence of God. Among those defences are the following:
- The free will defence. In order for it to be possible for anyone to really love God in a way that matters, people need to have free will. But if they have free will, some of them will freely choose to do evil. However the value of having people freely know and love God is greater than the negative value of the evil that people do.
- The soul-building defence. Have you ever heard the expression – whatever does not kill us makes us stronger? That’s the soul-building defence. The idea here is that by undergoing suffering, our character is strengthened.
- The second-order goods defence. There are certain kinds of evil that must exist if some great goods can exist. For example, compassion can only exist if there is a certain amount of unhappiness in the world. And so the existence of at least some of the evil and suffering in the world enables human beings to develop moral character.
- The appeal to mystery. Why on earth should any of us think that we can know everything that God knows? And isn’t it supremely arrogant to think that we are capable of assessing situations in the way that a perfectly wise and good person would assess them. This is just to assume that we are able to think like a perfectly good and wise – not to mention all-knowing – person, when clearly we cannot. So we have to accept that we are not in a position to know why God allows or does the things that God does.
In regard to the issue of divine hiddenness – the concern here is that if God is really loving, then God would want as many people as possible to believe in him. Yet there are a lot of reasonable people who don’t believe in him, so either God isn’t really loving, or else he doesn’t exist. I think this is a more interesting argument, but it’s also more complex and really deserves a talk all of its own. In answering it we would point out that actually the capacity to doubt is something that God wants people – even his own followers – to have and which is genuinely good for us.
We should also look at the answer offered by Blaise Pascal: “What can be seen on earth indicates neither the total absence, nor the manifest presence of divinity, but the presence of a hidden God. Everything bears this stamp.” In other words, what we actually see is evidence of a God who exists but who also wants us to seek him. The evidence that exists is not so overpowering that people don’t even have to think about it, but it is clear enough that those who earnestly and with an open mind seek for God will find him.
All of these arguments are worth knowing about, worth reading up on and worth understanding so that you can discuss them with those who raise them. But in spite of the existence of these arguments, I put it to you that actually, if you rank the real reasons that the vocal critics of the Christian faith don’t accept the reasons for believing from the most influential to the least influential, “intellectual” reasons will rank way down the bottom of the list, and the rest of this presentation is about what I think are more fundamental reasons why critics reject to believe.
Notice again, I’m talking about critics. I’m constantly impressed by the fact of how open minded a lot of people are when they didn’t set out to be critics, and again, we mustn’t expect the worst when we decide that we’re going to “cross that line” and discuss our faith. I can only wonder about how many of us (including me) have missed golden opportunities because of a mistaken fear that people wouldn’t listen.
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. The ancient philosophers described the human being as the rational animal. Especially if you’re a man, you may not like to think of your intellect as governed by emotion. But it is.
In an article on “Verbal Self-Defense,” linguist Suzette Haden Elgin explains:
One of the parts of your brain (the amygdala) is on constant duty, and one of its primary tasks is to scan for danger. When it spots an incoming perception that meets its criteria for danger, it has the ability to send a message that provokes an immediate fight-or-flight reaction, and it can do that without first going through the reasoning part of your brain. It can literally short-circuit your thinking process. In the sabertooth tiger days this was a good thing. You saw something vaguely big and furry, and you either left the scene fast or threw your club. You acted first, and then you thought about it, which increased your odds of survival a good deal.
The problem is, the amygdala also kicks in when it perceives all kinds of other threats – including someone who has just lobbed an argument at you to say that your whole worldview is false and you’re going to hell.
And so without even rationally processing the argument you’ve just given, the response is immediately determined before the thoughts have even been digested – that response is to fight off the threat, and what we say and do – on a rational level at least, is a response hugely out of proportion to the situation we’re dealing with. Sure, if you’re running away from a dangerous predator then the faster you go, the better. But when you go into defence (or attack) mode when you’re reacting to a challenge to your beliefs, you may want to slow down a little. It’s what’s been dubbed the “amygdala hijack.” At the time somebody’s fighting off the threat, if you ask them why they’re doing it and they stop to give you an answer – they may well tell you “it’s because I’m rational and I’m responding to nonsense.” So in response to a pretty modest argument for God’s existence you’ll get what’s almost an angry rant about how religion poisons everything, the clergy abuse children, and you worship a magic fairly and a zombie who rose from the dead. Or if the person reacting is a Christian whose doctrine has just been challenged and they’re firing back a comment on Facebook to tell the other person how “desperate” or “heretical” their comments sound, they might tell you instinctively “It’s because I stand for God and his word and I’m responding to serious error.” We flatter ourselves into thinking that we would never respond on gut, instinctively, non-rationally. No, we think about what we say and weigh what we’ve heard. Well, maybe sometimes. That’s self-control, and it doesn’t always come naturally, we have to practice it. But when we perceive a threat, our amygdala notices, and the reaction is just like the response to a physical threat – we fight back or try to escape.
I’ve seen this play out many times.
Christian: “You sir, in the red hat. Yes you! Have you ever told a lie?”
Man on the street: “Me? Oh… uh, yeah, I guess I have.”
Christian: “What do you call a person who lies?”
Man: “A liar I suppose.”
Christian: “Ever stolen anything”
Man: “Now that I think about it, yes, this one time I-”
Christian: “Oh? And what do you call a person who steals?”
Man: “… a thief.”
Christian: “Right! And you know, lusting after a woman is like adultery. Have you ever-”
Man: “Yes, of course I have.”
Christian: “Then by your own admission, you sir, a perfect stranger who I’ve never met before and who had no inclination to fight against the Christian faith ten minutes ago, you are a LYING, THIEVING ADULTERER! Where would a person like that go if they died right now? That’s right! HELL!”
Sit there for a moment and think: What does any socially capable person really think is going to happen in a situation like that? If you encounter someone with very well developed self-control, maybe they will hear you. Maybe. But that’s not the way I see people reacting. You’ve attacked me. I didn’t even know what your arguments were a minute ago, but now I’ve gotta fight back. Where are your arguments, I’ll tear them apart!
We’ve got to be careful. In addition to understanding how to set forth the reasonableness of what we believe in a way that is articulate and intelligent, we need what has been called “emotional intelligence.” This is where we’ve got a good understanding not just of the ideas that we want to convey, but we’re got a good awareness of how our feelings are affecting what we’re doing, and how what we say and do is likely to affect the feelings of others. It does not good if we approach a real opportunity to engage in apologetics as though it were a fight, the other person responds by telling us what a jerk we are (because we totally misjudged how to address them), and then we make things even worse by saying “Ah, they are just sinners, they can’t handle the truth and they can’t handle my great arguments, so they’re getting angry,” which of course is going to make them angry. And really the whole mess was your fault or my fault, because we invested all our mental and emotional energy into winning the argument on paper, and not coming alongside the person and actually trying to help them see that what we believe has truth value.
Incidentally, the internet is perhaps the best place to find out how little emotional intelligence you have. Get into an argument with another Christian about theology and you’ll see what I mean.
I don’t want to say that bad reactions are always your fault. Of course they’re not. But we need to be very aware of the fact that the way people respond isn’t always going to be driven by rational or intellectual forces, and we have to ensure that as best we can, we don’t provide the opportunity for someone to react in defence mode. Maybe they will anyway – fine, you can’t help that. But remember Peter’s comment about always being ready to give a defence of the faith that is in you to anyone who asks, and then he adds, almost as a warning, “but do it with gentleness and respect.” Jesus never called people with the promise “I will make you winners of argument.” The call was to be “Fishers of people.” You may want to win the argument, but even more than that, you want to win over the person.
Here is where we start to say some things that are offensive – not for the sake of being offensive, but only because I think it represents a biblical view of reality and because I think there’s enough plausible evidence in the world around us that it’s true – but I’m very aware that we have to be wise in how we say it. In the Bible, in the Old Testament as well as in the New, the rejection or the denial of God is always associated – not with intellectual slowness – but with immortality.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
there is none who does good.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
This sounds like propaganda though, right? People who aren’t believers are bad, and you don’t want to be bad, so you should be a believer. But that’s not really the point – I can be pretty bad too. The point here is not an argument for or against any sort of religious belief. It’s a partial attempt to explain the rejection of religious belief in some cases. In a fascinating study from 2007 called “losing my religion,” researchers looked at young adults who stop attending public worship or whose religion starts to play a less important role in their lives. The study is important for a number of reasons (not least because it debunks the widely-held misconception that those with more education are more likely to give up religious belief), but one of the things it showed is that the rate of giving up faith increased for those who cohabit or began to drink heavily in young adulthood – doing things that, had the subjects remained committed Christians, would have created an internal tension. The fact is – human beings have a tendency to rationalise. We will find ourselves justifying, defending, and heck, just liking the outlook on life that suits the way we wish to live, and this can override the fact that there may or may not be good intellectual reasons to accept or reject the view in question.
The eminent twentieth century historian Paul Johnson, in his book Intellectuals, provided what he called “an examination of the moral and judgemental credentials of leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.” He notes that leading intellectuals of the modern world on the forefront of cultural and moral revolution are often people whose own lives betray the desire to live as though the moralism against which they rail is false. Bertrand Russell, known for a number of reasons, one of which is that he was both a philosophical critic of the Christian faith and another is that he denied the existence of objective moral duties. And so when writing on marriage and morals, he was open in saying that adultery isn’t wrong (for nothing really is), and people should just grow up and accept that it’s normal for married men to spread their affection, as long as they’re not raising multiple families. Russell himself had numerous extra marital affairs, a fact he was very open about, and what he was basically arguing for was that people should approve of those who live as he did.
If you think this is an unfair way to try to get behind people’s motives or that I am just trying to rationalise people’s expressed point of view and ignore it by attacking their character, have a listen to another example, this time the atheist writer Aldous Huxley. Christians are sometimes (incorrectly) accused of taking Huxley out of context, so here he is in his own words from his book Ends and Means, and you can see quite clearly what the whole paragraph is saying. He is discussing his own philosophy that there is no ultimate meaning to existence:
“For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotical revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.”
And again, very candidly admitting what’s going on beneath the surface of his thinking:
Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless.
Denying that there is a moral lawgiver or a moral law is precisely what you’d want to do if you didn’t want to be bound by those supposed laws.
In a very provocative book, The making of an Atheist, Professor James Spiegel looks at this issue from an historical, philosophical and biblical perspective. He draws together some pretty stirring observations from scholars in a number of fields: Paul Johnson as already noted, Psychologist Paul Vitz who noted a striking connection between leading intellectuals who attack faith in God, leading intellectuals who defend faith in God, and either the absence of a father figure or a dysfunctional relationship with their father in the case of those who attack faith in God, and a healthy father relationship among those who embrace faith: Not a universal pattern, but a very clear trend – so much for Sigmund Freud’s claim that those who turn to God do so because they lack a loving earthly father so they invent a loving heavenly father. He looked at examples where anthropologists had seriously misrepresented the moral and sexual practices of cultures that people in their Western context new little about, making them sound promiscuous and nonchalant about sexuality, only for it to be discovered that not only was that representation totally untrue (a striking example was the way that Samoa was misrepresented by Margaret Mead), but that the fictional version of that culture coincidentally aligned nicely with the moral outlook of the anthropologist in question – in this case somebody who was herself very promiscuous outside of her own marriage. What Dr Spiegel proposed is that it is not intellectual reasoning that most strongly drives a person to reject God and to re-write the moral landscape as not laying any obligations on them that they find oppressive and don’t want to live up to. It is instead what Christians and others regularly refer to with one short word: sin.
It’s becoming a bit of a trend in some academic circles to talk about a “cognitive science of religion,” that is, to use the behavioural sciences to explain why people embrace religion – because really know they couldn’t be embracing it because it’s intellectually credible. This method comes back to bite the critics of religion, because what we may actually be seeing when we turn the tables and ask similar questions of strong atheism is that there are very strong non-intellectual causes of unbelief, and one of them, rather uncomfortably, may be that people quite frankly love what God regards as sin, and if embracing God means giving up the sin that we love, then let us arm ourselves to the teeth and do battle with belief in God.
This is not a case of sneering at atheists or people who give up faith in God or trying to look down on them. As I look around in my own life at people I know of who have made the conscious decision to abandon Christianity, I do not see people who started discovering on good intellectual reason after another to think that this was untrue, until finally they gave in to reason. What I see is genuinely tragic – people who faced a moral crisis. They wanted to pursue a life that they knew was contrary to what God called them to – to give up a marriage, to have an affair, to indulge the party life and so on – you may know people who this has happened to as well. My heart breaks for them. The point here is not that everyone who doesn’t accept your reasons for believing is like this or is deliberately ignoring you because they consciously desire to rush off and do evil. That’s not the case. The point is that this moral drive is one among several reasons that people do not accept what you have to say, even though what you say in defence of the truth of Christianity may be perfectly reasonable.
That brings us right to the last reason. And to be honest, it’s not always easy to pin down exactly what we mean when someone says that something is a spiritual issue. Are we saying that it’s an issue that primarily affects an invisible part of them called their spirit? That’s certainly not what I mean and that’s not how the Bible uses the word “spiritual.” Does “spiritual” means religious or perhaps mysterious?
To say that we have a spiritual problem is to say that something is wrong with our relationship with God. And the truth is, it’s impossible to separate spiritual issues from psychological and moral issues, because all of that is part of our relationship with God – the habits of thinking that we get into, whether we’re open to God, and whether we place the satisfaction of our own desires above our love of God.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
The spiritual problem runs through all of this. The spiritual problem is why we desire to live our lives without reference to God above us. The spiritual problem, that hardness of heart to God, is what makes some of us react against the presentation or defence of the truth about Christ as though we’re being attacked. And ultimately, so much of the time, among those who rail against their creator, the spiritual problem, that alienation from God and that broken relationship with him, is the real driver behind our confidence that we’ve outsmarted him with our arguments.
Never fall into the trap of thinking that putting together a smart argument is going to win people to Christ. My experience is that the better an argument and its clear, polished presentation, the more anger and the stronger the reaction you’re likely to see. That, in my experience, is when you’ll see more clearly than ever how much some people don’t want this to be true.
So what do you do? You do what I did before coming here to give these talks, and what a number of friends are doing for me right now. You pray.
- You pray, as I did and do, for your own inadequacy. Saying a word wrong, forgetting a point, coming across too harsh, misunderstanding what the other person has to say – it happens.
- Pray for your attitude. Not arrogance, but love for a lost child of God.
- Pray for the other person. You don’t know what God has in store or what God will do, but pray that God will prepare their heart for what you have to say.
- Pray for them as you part ways. Pray that God will bring people across their path and circumstances to their life that will prompt them and remind them of what you’ve said.
Intellectual Christians often don’t like to talk about the devil – he’s sort of an embarrassing character who we would sooner avoid, as though there’s no such thing. I don’t profess to be an expert on the devil, I leave that up to the people who run this country, but the Bible tells us that there are things going on that we can’t see, and there are spiritual forces at work that are very real. The book of James tells us that the devil is a bit like a predatory lion, looking for someone to devour. James also tells us what to do about that – resist the devil by drawing near to God – and God will draw near to you. I’ll say it again – you need to pray. We should be praying anyway, but especially if you’re going to speak directly to unbelievers about their unbelief.
Have you ever heard of Charles Spurgeon’s boiler room? Here’s a widely circulated explanation of what that reference is about:
Five young college students were spending a Sunday in London, so they went to hear the famed C.H. Spurgeon preach. While waiting for the doors to open, the students were greeted by a man who asked, “Gentlemen, let me show you around. Would you like to see the heating plant of this church?” They were not particularly interested, for it was a hot day in July. But they didn’t want to offend the stranger, so they consented. The young men were taken down a stairway, a door was quietly opened, and their guide whispered, “This is our heating plant.” Surprised, the students saw 700 people bowed in prayer, seeking a blessing on the service that was soon to begin in the auditorium above. Softly closing the door, the gentleman then introduced himself. It was none other than Charles Spurgeon.
I sometimes look back at Spurgeon’s sermons with a critical eye. He and I wouldn’t have seen eye to eye on some things. I wouldn’t have said some of the things he said. As I thumb through his published sermons I sometimes think “Well said!” Other times I’m saying “Oh, no, you should have said that!” Or even “No! That passage simply can’t mean that!” But here’s the thing – and Spurgeon knew this well: The success of his ministry was not ultimately due to the brilliance Charles Haddon Spurgeon. If this was going to happen, it was only going to happen, to borrow from the master (Jesus, not Spurgeon), “with much prayer.” Spurgeon knew that ultimately he was part of a spiritual arena in which people were being brought, by the power of God, into a relationship with God, and he was blessed to be a part of it.
What was true of Spurgeon is true of us as well. Yes it’s nice when people respond positively and we were the one who presented the case. It’s a good feeling. But that conversation was only a part – maybe even a miniscule part – of what is going on. After you’ve had that conversation, just like before you had it, you should be praying.
So, where are we? Here’s the summary:
- If there are such good reasons to embrace God – and Christ – why do we have the critics we do?
- Rational reasons? Sure, maybe in some cases.
- Psychological reasons? Absolutely. Like it or not, non-rational forces are at work in all of us and in those to whom we, so we’ve got to be wise in our approach, and we’ve got to have our eyes open to what is happening in people’s response. Ask yourself sometimes whether or not it’s wise to continue that conversation. Sometimes coming back to it later when we’re all a bit cooler under the collar may be wise.
- Moral reasons – the truth is, we don’t want a God who has better ideas, we know what we want to do
- Spiritual reasons – the truth is that we’re in enmity with God, and we need revival. And we need to spend much time in prayer about presenting the truth of Christianity.