If only the church could name the enemy …
Turning the tide in the West
Everyone has a religion. When anthropologists investigate isolated tribes, they don’t find that they have no religion; they find they have their own religion (often animistic). This is what we would expect given the Bible’s teaching. Paul tells us that when people reject the true knowledge of God, they don’t become non-religious, but adopt false religions instead
If you define religion as a set of beliefs about God, then it is fairly obvious that everyone has a religion. Someone may say they don’t have any beliefs about God because you can’t believe anything with certainty. But this in turn is a belief about God (that He can’t be known with certainty) so they are religious after all, even though they may not describe themselves that way. This point is generally accepted (though often neglected) by evangelicals. I don’t know of any Christian academics (such as theologians or New Testament scholars) who would dispute the point.
What is the religion of the West?
Source: Operation World
Religious make-up of Australia. P=Protestant; A=Anglican; C=Catholic; U=Unaffiliated; N=Non-religious/other; Top white section=Non-Christian religions
Source: Operation World
Since people are essentially religious, it is impossible for a culture not to express that religion. What then is the religion of the Western world?
Amazingly, the church largely seems unable to answer this question. It usually describes the Western world as post-Christian, acknowledging that Christianity is no longer the culturally dominant religion. But the description is essentially negative; a description of what the West is not. It doesn’t tell us which religion is culturally dominant in the West.
If only the church could answer this question we could compete far more effectively. We could pray better. We would better understand the social and philosophical movements within Western society, be better able to ask the right questions and develop effective strategies for evangelism. We could then apply to our own situation the standard missionary tools that we insist cross cultural missionaries use. And we could search the Scriptures to see what they say about this particular religion.Working out what religion people are swapping to is not hard. Have a look at the Operation World graphs1 of the church in Australia (right). We see that all the growth is amongst the atheists (marked N on the first graph), and evangelicals are not holding their own as a percentage of the population (second graph). Similar trends operate in other Western countries.
Why hasn’t the church recognized the enemy?
Atheism is a barren religion, and for the atheist, it is the examined life which isn’t worth living2 (in contrast to Socrates’ famous dictum). Most people find it hard to accept the teachings of atheism that there is no purpose to life and their lives are ultimately meaningless. This barrenness means most people are not keen to think through their atheistic beliefs, and the average ‘lay’ atheist will not be an atheist by conviction, but by convenience. They won’t bother to distinguish between whether God is dead or just non-intervening. He is irrelevant either way. You would expect such folk to describe themselves as agnostic, as that is less confrontational and doesn’t require them to deal with the issues. But if someone is truly agnostic, then they have identity questions as profound and consuming as gender identity questions are for a transsexual. The fact that most people who describe themselves as agnostic are not consciously searching for answers gives them away as ‘lay atheists’.
Most people prefer to describe themselves in a positive manner, by what they believe in, rather than what they don’t. This makes it natural for atheists to describe themselves not as people who don’t believe in God, but as people who believe in the world, as secular people or as secular humanists.
The fact that atheism doesn’t have structured religious observances (such as church services) makes its expression less explicit and more implicit than other religions. Add to that the fact that atheists don’t self-identify in the same way as adherents of other religions (such as Muslims) do. So the church is left confused about atheism, ‘ever hearing but never understanding, ever seeing but never perceiving’.
You would expect our theological colleges to affirm that everyone has a religion. And yes, they do. They will also affirm that people don’t lose religion, they merely swap religions. But they don’t seem to give much prominence to dealing with the religion Westerners have swapped to. The Australian College of Theology (ACT) is the accrediting body used by many evangelical colleges in Australia, many of which will be teaching to the ACT syllabus. When you review the ACT syllabus, atheism turns up in three subjects (one of which is not offered by any colleges), whilst post modernism turns up in 19 subjects, and sociology turns up in 13 subjects (plus all the times it is used to understand the biblical texts). Our Bible colleges are all very keen to equip their graduates to deal with the current philosophical and current sociological trends but these Christian training institutions don’t seem to be equipping their students to deal with the largest and fastest growing competitor religion! Something is clearly wrong when Christian training institutions place more importance on a secular understanding of their current ministry environment, rather than a biblical understanding.3
What a difference it would make
If the church could name the dominant religion in the West it could then apply the standard missionary tools to the task at hand. It could ask the basic worldview questions of atheism, such as what is prime reality, and how can we know anything.
Once we start to consider these issues, the evolution issue stands out. The evolution story plays a similar role in the atheistic worldview as the story of Creation-Fall-Redemption in Christ plays in our Christian worldview. As Richard Dawkins famously pointed out, ‘Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.’
The church cannot claim to have the true meaning of life if it does not have the true story of life.
If the church could see the atheism of Western culture, major cultural developments would make more sense to it.
Atheists idolise the atom as the foundation of all being. Thus atheism is hard on the arts. Why spend your life in pursuit of an elusive quality, beauty, when it is an illusion, a trick of our minds? (Not surprisingly, new art looks very different from the art of previous generations that had a biblical worldview.) It has also been hard on the arts faculties. (No doubt you have heard people describe arts degrees as useless.) Post-modernism emerged from the arts, and a cogent argument can be made that post-modernism is the revenge of the arts.
Similarly, growth of the New Age movement is driven by the barrenness of atheism. Few people can look into the void of atheism and be satisfied with it. These people would be coming to the church in ages past, and we would all be talking about revival. But they look elsewhere because they feel that the biblical story of life has been discredited by science and evolution (although ironically they may at the same time despise science as a way of knowing). After all, many Christians don’t believe the biblical story is literally true, only poetically so!
If the church could but name its enemy, not only would it focus its attention on evolution, but it would also transform the debate. For instance, over ten years ago, there was a push for values-free education. The Roman Catholics, with all their schools, were unhappy with it. They won the debate by pointing out that when a person says they have no values, they mean either they have very bad values or they are blind to their values. So it is with religion. When a person says they have no religion, they mean either they have a very bad religion or they are blind to it. If the church applied this insight to the evolution debate, it would see through the ‘science verses religion’ line that evolutionists use to put themselves beyond criticism. Making this point would free people to start looking at the scientific merits of evolution and see that the emperor has no clothes. Dawkins’ confession that there is no direct observational evidence for evolution4 would then get the prominence it deserves.
If the church could see that atheism is the dominant Western religion, it would also ask ‘what does the Bible say about this religion?’ As we would expect, the Bible directly addresses this religion, and lays out an approach for overcoming it.
Strategy for retaking the ground
Atheism is addressed in the book of Romans, which presents the case for Christ. Paul makes his first point in
But people who proclaim Paul’s first point are regarded as dangerous fundamentalists by the world. Even these stereotypes should alert the church and point it in the right direction!
Paul’s first point is about God’s working in the lives of every person. Surely that makes this passage of great significance to anyone who is interested in relevant evangelism, to anyone who wants to plug into what God has been doing in the lives of people they are trying to evangelize!
A nineteenth century depiction of Paul of Tarsus
In this passage, Paul is building to his declaration in
Paul is not saying that atheists are unconvinced in their belief that the world was made by itself. After all, people can only hold to their worldview belief because they believe it is true. Paul is saying that people who believe the world made itself do so in spite of the evidence, not because of it. Paul is telling us we can’t have an atheistic culture without it being dishonest in the area of origins.
Paul points out that (left to themselves) people reject this general revelation of God and it results in their condemnation (just like the Law condemns). That doesn’t mean God’s purpose in this revelation is to condemn people. The job of general revelation is to point us to the special revelation; to whet the appetite; to say there is some substance in these God issues and they deserve further investigation. As Calvin expresses it: ‘The Lord invites us to himself by means of created things.’5
Since science is the formal study of that which has been made, Paul is saying that science should make it obvious that God is the Creator, and that science that denies this is intellectually dishonest. Science is far from the faithful friend of the atheist, it is his whistle blower.6
If the church is to overcome the atheists, it needs to follow the pattern of the Apostle Paul and focus on this area of dishonesty, especially since Paul tells that our atheistic competitors are here and now suffering God’s wrath
- Johnson, P. & Mandryk, J., Operation World, 6th Ed., International Research Office, WEC International, p. 84, 2001. Return to Text
- Sire, J., The Universe Next Door, IVP, p. 107, 2004. Return to Text
- When I studied ‘Church in Australian Society’ and ‘Evangelism’ at one of our prominent, well-respected Bible colleges, not once was atheism mentioned. Instead, we were presented with such theories as: The bad witness of one of our early pastors, Samuel Marsden, the flogging parson, so damaged the witness of the church that over 150 years of good witness has not been able to overcome it. (Some students rightly dismiss this idea by pointing out that Samuel Marsden did not hack off the arm of the Lord so that He is no longer mighty to save Australians.) When I went from Bible college to a well-respected theological college, the situation did not improve. Return to Text
- Dawkins said, ‘Evolution has been observed, it just hasn’t been observed while it is happening’. ‘Battle over evolution’ Bill Moyers interviews Richard Dawkins, ‘Now’, 3 December 2004, PBS network. Return to Text
- Calvin, Preface to Commentary on Genesis. Return to Text
- Lest you think this is natural theology, let me make the following points:
First, no one argues that God’s general revelation is immediate in the sense of happening directly in a person without an external means. Instead Paul tells us that revelation comes through the external means of creation. I.e. God’s invisible qualities are clearly seen, being understood from that which has been made.
Second, scientific study can never offer proof, but only at best an obvious inference to the truth of creation.
Third, Paul is very clear about God’s agency in general revelation: God has made it plain to them. God’s general revelation can be experienced as our discoveries, when in fact He is making things plain to us. Return to Text