Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Richard Dawkins Is Partly Right

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason (you couldn't make it up) has revealed that not all Christians are Christian (ditto).

I have so many jokes going around my head right now - but actually I want to stop and take this seriously. Because Richard Dawkins is partly right, and there is stuff here that we Christians need to recognise.

When, in his Radio 4 interview, Dawkins made a colossal ass of himself by not being able to give the full name of the Origin of the Species, he could have sidestepped the whole problem by being charming and self-deprecating & honest. Giles Fraser asked if he knew the whole title (in order to show that fact based knowledge about detail wasn't the be-all-and-end-all as presented in Dawkins' report about Christians) and Dawkins said "of course" he knew the title. "Go on" said Fraser, or words to that effect, and then we had umming and erring and a glorious "Oh God" & a wrong answer.

If Dawkins had said, "I hope so, but I don't look at it with religious fervour so I might get this wrong" then he would've come out with no problem. Pride made him look stupid and lost him the whole debate.

This is my point.

We as Christians have a lot of pride here, and Dawkins has a lot that we need to hear. He is partly right.

The 2001 Census says 72% of people in the UK self-identify as Christian: they say they are Christians. Dawkins did a big survey in 2011 and says that number is down to 54%, though the census figure is not yet available. Straight away, we fight him - ridiculous, how dare he say it's so low!

But isn't our evangelism based on the presumption that the reality is far lower? Indeed, isn't it actually based on the very things Dawkins looks at?

For example, only 15% of the population (according to Dawkins) call themselves Christian because they believe in the teachings of Jesus. Most people in the survey say they are Christian cos they want to try to be good. Don't we actually agree with this? How many of us have said something like: "You think you're a Christian just because you're trying to be good? All your good deeds are filthy rags next to Jesus. Imagine trying to be that good - he's the standard!" What's the difference between us & Dawkins here?

I suppose one difference is the point we are making.

His point is not to show that something better is available, but rather that with so few "real" Christians around, how can Christians expect to have a special place in society, expect Bishops in Parliament, expect special treatment in law, expect to have their opinions listened to in the public arena any more etc etc etc. And that's why we get all defensive, why we claim he's wrong, wrong, wrong, and why we delight in making fun of his mistakes. But there's more here we need to see. We need to move away from being defensive. He's partly right, and we can gain from this if we will stop being so aggressive.

He goes on: Dawkins says only 40% of Census Christians read the Bible without being forced to. The remaining 60% clearly aren't proper Christians. He says two-thirds don't believe in the physical resurrection so are obviously fake, and that over half don't think Jesus is the Son of God. Christians aren't Christian!

And what is our reply?

We say: who is Richard Dawkins to judge people's souls? Who is this atheist to make such a call on other Christian people's lives? If they want to self-identify like this, let them. We tell stories of how we ourselves came to faith, knowing nothing, but how it was real none the less. We embrace those newspaper columnists (in the Mail & the Guardian!) who make fun of Dawkins & who ridicule secular extremists as "un-British" and find in them new friends. We see (suddenly) a great British hinterland of positive, if gooey, Christianity.

And then next Sunday many of us will go into our pulpits and say  - it's not enough just to come to church, it's not enough if you don't believe in a physical Resurrection, it's not enough to leave your Bible on the shelf through the week, it's not enough to call yourself a Christian but never darken the doors of a church... Make these choices and you aren't a proper Christian! And we will say this without a hint of irony. We will judge people just as cheaply and because we hope we are doing it in order to offer something better we will think it's OK.

Is it?

What if Dawkins' figures can help shake us from complacency and help us be better at helping others? What is these figures show us that there are loads of people who - for whatever reason - self-identify in some way as Christian, even if there are 'gaps'. Let's embrace them warts & all, and help bring about a deeper knowing.

Dawkins says only 25% of the population have been to church in the last year outside of a wedding or a funeral. That's less than half of the self-defined "Christians" out there.

Well - I'm amazed 25% of people have been to church this year. Fantastic! Long may that continue! That Dawkins sees half the Christians not going to Church & therefore calls them not proper Christians - here he fails to understand something that has always been a cornerstone of Reformation theology.

There is the Church visible, and the Church invisible. The Church as it is seen on earth - the people who attend; and the true believers, whose identity is known for sure only to God, though we get a pretty good idea from the fruit that comes from their lives. I'd say I've known people who show up & show very little sign of any real faith; but I'm not their judge. I also know people of real faith who have been damaged by the institution & aren't part of any fellowship right now. Dawkins doesn't get this. It's a bit subtle.

Our challenge is to build on this, to embrace everyone who comes so that what they find is both sort of what they expect (so there's no alienation) and better than they expect (so that they might come again). This is the hard work of every parish. It's adoring the Baby and finding new, warmer bathwater.

Dawkins says that socially most people - most Christians in his survey - have secular moral attitudes. He cites morality around marriage, around abortion, around gay rights. How has the church become the enemy here? As a card-carrying evangelical I upset many people with my attitude on gay rights, but I'll do it again. I think people have this right, and the church wrong - I think the church is pretty much unchristian on this and needs to sort itself out; when did Jesus back the religious texts against outsiders, oppressed people, those hurt by rules & priests & the orthodox powers of the day? He loves people and makes all people equal. We have to work that out, and if we don't we aren't working Christianly. That's not a secular agenda, Dawkins is wrong, it is the people understanding something fundamentally right. And marriage - we have a problem because for 200 years the state has given us one version of what this is & the church has colluded. What the church ought to be fighting for is not "marriage is for straights" but "marriage is for life", and pushing that agenda time & time & time again. Relentlessly & compassionately and positively in a world that throws every second person in the garbage can every ten seconds. And the church should never make life political - love stops at that point. Abortion is painful on seventy two levels. Of course I am pro-life, I am pro-people. I am pro-love. I am pro-everybody, and so should be the church. Or we make some less than us and us more than others and at that point we have lost what makes us Christian, we have lost Jesus.

We have lost humility - the humility that says: "I ought to pray more; thanks Richard for the reminder."

"I don't read the Bible as much as I should, no. You've made me think. Thanks, Richard."

"I do disagree with the church on gay rights. We'll sort this out; people are precious - God loves us you know. Thanks, Richard."

"Name the first book in the New Testament? I'm on the spot now - gosh, Richard, you're making me look stupid! But that's OK."

Humility that says: I want to help people come to know Jesus more. How can I learn from Dawkins & make this more inviting, instead of saying always "You don't make the grade yet do you, you aren't quite the real deal?" or some variation of that? That's hardly a loving way in, is it?

Because if we can find such humility, it's not just us that win. If more people get a better sight of Jesus, it's everyone.


Marcus Green said... Again, I think HMQ gets it just about right, as usual.

albaniana said...

Hi Marcus. We haven't met, but I come to your blog through mutual (Exiled) friends.

I enjoy reading your thoughts. I am not a person of faith myself, but not a militant secularist either. I like to learn from other people's journeys, even though we may not be following the same road-map or guidebooks.

I hesitate to throw this at you because I know you are convalescing
(with Big Band sound, good choice! I hope you feel much better soon), but...oh, here goes. Respond if/when you want to.

This post is an interesting addition to the current "secular vs faith" debate, and I realise I'm just singling out one remark from it which is almost an aside. But you throw out "Of course I am pro-life, I am pro-people" apparently with ease, and I find that a very tricky assertion.

For how do you weigh potential people against existing ones? If a woman's life is at risk through pregnancy; if the pregnancy is a result of rape, or incest; if the woman is, in fact, still a child... where do you stand? I know these are all extreme circumstances, but in much of the world probably not as extreme or unusual as we would wish. It seems to me that in considering such situations, it's difficult - impossible even - to be "pro-everybody", if the choice is to ruin or end one life to protect another (as yet unrealised) life.

I live in the States, where the abortion debate goes round in an endless, impossible-to-square circle. "Pro-lifers" here seem to imply that the rest of us are "pro-abortion", which simply isn't true. We just don't see this as a black and white issue.

On other topics, Marcus, you seem to have a great sensitivity to the shades of grey, and I'm guessing you may do here, too. If you are willing to address this one, I'd be interested to know your further thoughts.

Marcus Green said...

Hi Albaniana - thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

When I put that line in, I did so absolutely intentionally, and with debates in your country rather than mine in mind, though we have them too.

I wondered about unpacking it a bit, and decided against it - so thanks for the opportunity.

First - I'm no authority on this. It isn't an issue I've ever really worked on, but the principles at hand are pretty similar to lots of the other ones that we face.

Yes, I'm going to deal in greys.


Because throughout the issue there are people. My basic understanding of Jesus (and you get from reading my stuff that above all I try to work out his principles & follow those) is that he loves everyone. The good, the bad & the ugly.

In a debate like this, I am not most concerned with "who is right". That's worrying for some people, right there. My reasoning is - ethics is tough. It deals with real people in real situations, and too many ethics rules that become hard & fast, when they are actually applications of Bible rather than pure Bible risk making great rules that can never work.

It's right to say abortion is a bad choice; until faced with an equally bad choice. Then what? If the baby comes to term, the mother will die... Modern science allows us to play God. Ethics is tough. People need guidance, and help, and love - and a church which is not political and one-sided but genuinely understanding of real life and real people whilst still positively (non-judgementally) offering ideals as ideals.

So working out "who is right" is less of a concern to me than working out that everything we do, we do rightly.

We need great thinkers to lead us through difficult paths, and great pastors to walk us down those roads when they get personal, and the last thing we need is battlements & trenches & people fighting when those most touched by these issues need healing not more wounds.

So my point, in the few words I used here was to say that in the great issues of the day on which we take sides, I think we shouldn't take sides, or we should take all sides, because I believe in a God who loves people, not sides.

You can't reason with everyone. It doesn't mean you should stop being reasonable.

Hope this explains a bit - thanks again for writing.

Albaniana said...

Thanks Marcus, I appreciate this response. So many people argue passionately on either side of this subject. You argue for compassion, and I like the sound of that.

On the broader "secular vs faith" topic, it feels like the best way forward is first to strive for mutual respect and to seek ways to enable both sides to recognise each others' sincerity. I hate to hear secularists dismiss believers as foolish or misguided as much as I can't take those of faith implying that atheists are, at best, stubbornly declining faith for the sake of being awkward (if they are not actually the devil's envoys). Whereas both hold equally sincere beliefs, or non-beliefs, and that needs to be respected in order to move on and find common ground.

But then, how to find that common ground where none is perceived? Maybe we need to create it? Maybe we need to create situations where people from opposing sides can be invited to work together on some challenge that is not related to their arguments? A philanthropic project? Whitewater rafting - being literally "all in the same boat"? And THEN sit them down to talk, once they have a positive shared experience to unite them on some level.

Gotta go, Marcus - my mind is getting busy. We're travelling with different guidebooks, but in many ways seem to be moving in a similar direction. I hope to stop and chat with you again along the route...