Way back over a week ago in my previous post I was looking at Paula Kirby’s fascinating article ‘Atheism is the True Embrace of Reality’. Sorry for the delay in posting – work has a terrible habit of getting in the way.
This time I’m looking at Paula’s follow-up piece ‘Breaking out from the Prison of Religion’, which I found far less convincing and helpful. In it, Paula goes through the reasons why (in her view) many Christians don’t question their beliefs as she did – the assumption being that if they did, they like her would ultimately discard their faith and embrace atheism. Her main reasons boil down to comfort, science, faith, ritual and hell.
I totally agree with Paula that unhealthy religion can indeed be a prison which needs to be broken out of. I also agree that those trapped in such an unhealthy religious outlook or system can find it very hard to question it for fear of punishment, even of hell, or for a range of other psychological reasons. In this we’re both happily backed up by psychologists M. Scott Peck and Robin Skinner among others.
However, I strongly disagree that you can apply any of this to what I would term normal or ‘healthy’ religion – the religious aspect of humanity in its proper form, rather than as warped by psychological ill-health, guilt, fear, the need for control etc. (NB all of these warping factors are simply aspects of emotionally unhealthy humanity, rather than religiously-imposed or religiously-inspired phenomena.) Healthy religion is, in my experience and that of countless others, not a prison at all but rather the greatest freedom.
Of course, committed atheists will not acknowledge any such phenomena as ‘healthy religion’, but this post isn’t primarily intended to convince them. I’ll devote a separate post to looking at healthy and unhealthy religion in more depth.
Secondly, I strongly disagree that (relatively healthy) Christians don’t question their faith, and that if they do they will inevitably, like Paula, reject it. In my experience most reasonably healthy and mature Christians continually question their faith and re-shape it in the light of new experiences and new evidence. The fact that they don’t all ultimately lose their faith does not mean they haven’t subjected it to thorough and critical examination. (Of course, some do lose their faith; I’m not denying that – several of my friends who comment on this blog are among them.)
Finally, I disagree with the specific reasons Paula puts forth for why people don’t (in her view) question their religious beliefs, which are as follows…
Religion is a comfort
Firstly then, the idea that people don’t want to question their faith because they find it comforting or consoling. This may be true to an extent for some people; but I think a great many more find their faith challenging, demanding and difficult as much as they find it comforting. As Chesterton commented, ‘Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried’.
Even when religious belief is a source of comfort, I just don’t see that the majority of Christians are so weak or dishonest as to stick with what deep down they suspect to be false just because it’s comforting. I personally would far rather have an unpalatable truth than a false hope; the apostle Paul said much the same thing (‘if Christ has not been raised, we are to be pitied above all men’). It’s hard to see how Christianity would have ever got going if those first believers had merely been following a consoling piece of self-delusion; in general, people tend not to let themselves get stoned to death or eaten by lions for the sake of comforting falsehoods.
Paula also mentions group identity and the pressure to conform; of course this could apply to atheists as much as religious believers. I suspect that more than a few atheists refuse even to consider thoughts of God simply because to change their views would make them look stupid in the eyes of their peers and would lead to ostracization. Group pressure is always a potential problem, whatever group you belong to.
The next reason Paula mentions is science, and the woeful lack of scientific understanding she thinks most Christians have. This is such a big one I’m going to have to leave it to another post. But my broad thesis is that science has in large measure depended on Christian theism and that the two have in no way been enemies, despite popular myths about Galileo and Darwin. Modern science began with Christians like Kepler, Copernicus and Newton, and there continue to be many who practice science and faith side by side with mutual benefit to each discipline.
Faith and evidence
Paula, following the New Atheist credo, sees faith as antithetical to evidence, reason and science. She writes, “Faith is the acceptance of claims for which there is no good evidence”. She further believes that “accepting it on [the Church’s] say-so” is at the heart of Christianity and that “Faith is incompatible with genuine questioning”.
All this bears no relation whatsoever to a genuinely Christian understanding of faith, and I’m saddened that Paula’s experiences with religion led her to such a tragic set of misunderstandings. Of course there are churches and believers who do sadly approach faith in this mistaken way, and I wish this were not the case.
Authentically Christian faith is above all faith in a person – Jesus of Nazareth. Its essence is trust or confidence in Jesus’ character and words, in his actions and teachings and in the vision of God revealed in and by him. And this trust is born out of relationship and experience, rather than ‘blind faith’ in the face of evidence.
Indeed, there is plenty of available evidence to support the claims of historical Christianity – supporting evidence for the overall authenticity and reasonable accuracy of the four gospels, the actuality of the resurrection, etc. I’m very happy to go into this another time but it’s all out there in the public domain. Christians have never been expected to believe without reason. For the early Christians, the eyewitness evidence of the resurrection and their own experience of the Spirit were primary reasons for belief; both continue to be important to this day.
Incidentally Paula rather misunderstands Doubting Thomas, though it’s true that he’s suffered from some bad PR in sections of the church. In the biblical account, Jesus does not criticize Thomas for wanting evidence, but simply presents him with the required evidence – his own nail-wounded hands and feet.
It’s true that Jesus does say that those who believe in him without having to be shown are particularly blessed; but again that comes back to the relational definition of faith. Those who really trusted Jesus (based on evidence and experience) would believe that he was who he said he was and that he would do what he’d said he would do (i.e. rise from the dead); they wouldn’t need additional evidence to believe what he’d already promised.
We all rely on a working ‘faith’ for countless aspects of our everyday lives. We get on a train trusting that it will go where the departure board said it would. We sit down on chairs trusting that they will bear our weight. We commit to relationships trusting the character of the person we’ve fallen in love with. Sometimes our faith is misplaced or based on flimsy foundations; that’s a risk we take with life, but often we do have good grounds for our trust.
The whole of science rests ultimately on the faith that the universe is rationally intelligible, that it behaves according to consistent laws and that our brains are capable of producing valid assessments of its nature. None of these things are self-evident; there is no particular reason why they should be so, though of course they make perfect sense within the context of Christian theism.
So I would argue that we cannot live, love or do science without faith; but this faith need in no way be ‘blind’ or counter to the evidence.
Paula’s next target is ritual. She suggests that the minds of the faithful are dulled by endless, mindless liturgical repetition into an unthinking acceptance of a creed that they might otherwise realise to be ridiculous. I find this fairly insulting, not to mention plain wrong.
There certainly are churches which use highly repetitive ritual and liturgy, but these are far from the only variety – the church I grew up in fitted this stereotype, but the one I now belong to doesn’t. And even where such liturgy is used, it is often far from mindless or meaningless; many are able to enter into the symbolic actions and engage with the familiar words on a profound level. It’s certainly not some kind of doctrinal brainwashing exercise, except in rare and clearly unhealthy cases.
In any case, the thought-life and mental engagement of Christians is not limited to what happens in a Sunday-morning service, but continues throughout the week and through all the various situations of life. Our brains are not so dulled by Sunday ritual that we wouldn’t wake up on Monday morning and think ‘hang on a moment…’ if there were good reason to do so.
Fear of hell
Finally, Paula thinks that many Christians are kept from questioning their beliefs by the pernicious threat of hell-fire.
Now, I happen to believe quite strongly that the doctrine of hell as it has been taught in many evangelical churches is a monstrous mistake, a tragic misunderstanding of Jesus’ words and of the Bible’s whole record on the subject. I utterly repudiate the teaching of hell as a literal place of eternal conscious fiery torment for non-Christians, ‘sinners’ and backsliders.
So to this extent I agree with Paula. But what I’m not convinced about is that the fear of hell actually prevents people from questioning their faith. I suspect most Christians find the idea of hell deeply troubling, but in many cases either accept it as a necessary evil brought about by human free will and sin, or else simply choose to ignore it. Some, however, find it so terrifying or distasteful that they are forced to rethink. I know a number of such people; I’m one of them.
Of these who find hell untenable, many end up discarding their faith altogether – at least one of the fine people who comments on this blog is in this position. Others, like myself and like Rob Bell and Robin Parry, find that after much thought they are able to come to a new understanding of the doctrines of judgment and hell, one that seems far more reasonable and hopeful, and which fits far better with our core belief in a good and loving God.
Now, we may of course be deluding ourselves. But I’ve not known many Christians who remain forever locked in their faith through fear of hell; such terror is not sustainable for the long term and either faith or doctrine will usually in the end give way.
Paula concludes her article with the line “Abandoning religious faith is like waking after a deep sleep. Good morning! It’s a beautiful day…”
I’ve no doubt that stepping out of an unhealthy, imprisoning faith does feel this way, and I’m glad that Paula has found this liberation. Nonetheless, I still believe that the better and fuller waking is to a proper and healthy religious consciousness; that the greater and truer freedom is to be found within the love and acceptance of God revealed in Christ. The day is more beautiful and genuinely hopeful when it is lived in the participatory knowledge of ‘the love which moves the stars’.