Sunday, June 23, 2013

Matt 24 Watch, 212: A recent profile of young, former church-goers turned atheists, tells us much about what we need to do to reach our civilisation with the gospel

Larry Alex Taunton, writing recently in the Atlantic Monthly, gives us a profile -- based on a survey -- of why young people in the USA leave the church to become atheists. (It is important to note as WK does, that "[most] participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity.")

This is of course relevant to us because of the influence of the US-dominated Internet, popular media and the general trend that if America sneezes, we here in the Caribbean often get flu. That is, we are again looking at the onrushing cultural and spiritual tidal waves challenge to our region, and our need to be adequately equipped to respond.

Excerpting the list that profiles these young skeptics:
  • They had attended church
  • The mission and message of their churches was vague
  • They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life's difficult questions
  • They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously
  • Ages 14-17 were decisive
  • The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one
  • The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism
It is worth noting more on this last point:
When our participants were asked to cite key influences in their conversion to atheism--people, books, seminars, etc. -- we expected to hear frequent references to the names of the "New Atheists." We did not. Not once. Instead, we heard vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums.
This actually means the New Atheists are having their planned cultural buzz and momentum effect. 

For, because people are influenced by and are boldly carrying their talking points far and wide in Internet fora of various kinds, and doubtless on College and High School campuses as well as the street and wider culture, it is having a word of mouth multiplier effect. 

By contrast, the many technically correct but not so hip or glib correctives have not had the cultural legs to gain a similar buzz. 

And of course when one or two -- even, well informed -- people try to intervene in the skepticism dominated fora, there is a swarming down as all sorts of attacks (mostly fallacious) are made. So there is a domination of clearly influential spaces, often based on groups that organise themselves informally and play team-tag to bait and beat down anyone who tries to correct the record. A capital example of this is of course YouTube, but something like Wikipedia is another, and there are ever so many like this.

Worse, because much of the rhetoric we are dealing with is deliberately toxic, stereotyping and scapegoating, it multiplies a mind-closing hostility.

Immediately, such needs to be decisively answered, in visually attractive and well organised ways, that can then be easily memorised and carried to countering fora on the Internet, street and campus.

However, there is a deeper pattern as well, noted by
We have a problem in America
  • 70-75% of Christian youth leave the church after high school (see survey data at Barna and USA Today).
  • Intellectual skepticism is one of the major reasons they walk away.
  • Most Christian students are not equipped to resist rabidly anti-Christian college professors who are intent on converting their students to atheism.
  • College professors are five times more likely to identify themselves as atheists than the general public.[--> i.e. about 75%; yes, three out of four professors in the USA are explicitly atheistical]
  • More than half of all college professors view evangelical Christian students unfavorably (see article
    at Free Republic).
  • The “new atheists” — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens — are writing books and are growing in popularity.
The reason for this exodus is that Christian youth in America are not being taught to cross examine the skeptical and atheistic views they encounter when they leave home.
This pattern is actually fairly obvious to an attentive person, and indeed in a comment on the Atlantic article as presented at WK blog, Lindsay Harold writes:
None of this surprises me. It’s exactly what my husband and I have gathered from talking to atheists and reading deconversions stories. It’s exactly the sort of thing that happened to my brother-in-law (and would have happened to my husband if he hadn’t waited until college to make a decision and then gotten the answers he needed there).

The typical church isn’t answering the questions young people have about life. It doesn’t teach a comprehensive Biblical worldview and barely addresses apologetics. So when young people reach the age where they wrestle with the big questions of life, the church isn’t giving answers, and thus these young people come to see the church as irrelevant.

In seeking to become more friendly and non-combative (in order to attract more people), the church has given up on the “difficult” parts of Christianity (like apologetics) and left many without the answers they are seeking. What the church fails to understand is that those who think deeply can’t believe the core teachings of Christianity (sin, faith, redemption, heaven, etc.) in a vacuum. They need a complete, comprehensive worldview that is internally and externally consistent. The “non-essential” stuff (like creation, Biblical inerrancy, God’s plan for sexuality, Biblical apologetics, and more) is essential to these people if they are to believe any of it.
 In short, you cannot bring a teddy bear to a cultural knife-fight, dominated by angry, ruthless people, whether the hot anger of youth spewing Internet Atheism talking points, or College profs putting a smooth veneer on similar, but far more calculated hostility.

 So, we have a challenge.

Bringing a Teddy bear to a cultural
knife fight is a losing proposition
On the one hand we want to be winsome, and fear that "hard to understand" academic sounding topics may be a turnoff to a lot of people who will struggle with the topics, as well as there will be a concern about falling into cultural stereotypes about being "angry, irrational, stupid and dangerous right wing fundy theocrats and would be terrorists and tyrants," or the like. On the other, we cannot expect to be successful if we bring a teddy bear to a vicious cultural knife fight, hoping to make friends.

How can we answer to the two horns of the apparent dilemma? 

First, we must recognise that we are in the business of calling people to repentance in light of the truth of the gospel, thence to renewal, revival and reformation through the power of the God of Truth and Right, who stands behind the gospel and who is our creator, redeemer and merciful but just Lord. That is a non-negotiable.

Indeed, the scriptures that lay out the fullness of Christ vision theme are plain on the breadth and depth of the mandate of the church:
Eph 4: 10 He [Jesus], the very one who descended, is also the one who ascended above all the heavens, in order to fill all things.

11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature.

14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head.

16 From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love. [NET]
It would be hard to be plainer than that. Christ came, descending, serving, loving, dying for our sins, rising, being exalted, pouring out his Spirit to equip us for works of service, to grow up in all things into his fulness. Particularly, as we mature as disciples through learning and living the truth in love, we are to escape the wiles of a deceitful culture and so we will be saved from winds and waves of deception and crafty schemes.

This brings to bear Peter's closely related remarks:
1Peter 3: 15 But in your hearts set Christ apart as holy [and acknowledge Him] as Lord. Always be ready to give a logical defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is in you, but do it courteously and respectfully.

16 [And see to it that] your conscience is entirely clear ([e]unimpaired), so that, when you are falsely accused as evildoers, those who threaten you abusively and revile your right behavior in Christ may come to be ashamed [of slandering your good lives]. [AMP]
So, we are to be specifically trained to be able to answer to those who ask us the reason for our hope in the gospel. In so answering, we need to be careful that we do not become actually abusive -- though we should expect to be unfairly accused of that as part of the cultural knife fight attitude and the ad hominem attack rhetorical game.

Poof! A squid ink- cloud
getaway tactic in progress
Which, we will need to expose for what it is, an atmosphere-poisoning distraction that poofs out a toxic, confusing and polarising squid ink cloud behind which our accusers hope to escape without having to account for the fallacious assertions, smears, bigoted stereotypes and polarising slanders they have resorted to. Then, focus can duly be returned to the matters on the merits.

One probably will have to be patient with this, as it is likely that abuse will have become habitual, and the self-reinforcing cycle of anti_Christian bigotry will make it seem to the toxic objector that he is justified in his polarising and abusive behaviour. 

But after a few cycles, the message will begin to get through that such behaviour is unacceptable and indicates that the objector has little to say on the merits but is willing to vent his spleen by resorting to unsubstantiated accusations, fallacious talking points and attacks to the man.

Then, I believe in first things first, as the most direct and powerful demonstration of God to us is the gospel and its underlying facts of Jesus' prophesied salvific death, burial and witnessed resurrection that unstoppably launched the church as are summarised in 1 Cor 15:
1 Cor 15: 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. [ESV]
Here we have God acting on the stage of history in the figure of Messiah, fulfilling prophecy (showing who is in charge of history), being the redemption for our sins, and rising from death in demonstration of the new day that has come to us. Thus unstoppably launching the church.

This core message needs to be burned home, into our hearts and minds, again and again, as that solid pillar of truth which stands above all failings, real or imagined of the church and Christians, who are indeed finite, fallible and at best growing in grace. 

I think Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ video is a very useful tool, and is one that is attractive and stimulative to further discussion and reading:

The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel from Slaves4Christ on Vimeo.

In this context, we can then begin to address discipleship and transformation of our own lives, families, studies, work, community service and more through the power of the gospel. 

In this context, it is worth noting Peter's farewell remarks as he faced martyrdom at Nero's hands, as being a ringleader of the alleged destructive cult he held responsible for the notorious fire of Rome (64 AD), as a distraction from the suspicion that was focussing on his own person:
Slander has consequences. Fire at Rome, July 18, 64 AD.
Christians were unjustly blamed for setting it, and many
paid with their lives, including the apostle Peter. It should have
been obvious that a fire starting two days after full Moon
was unlikely to be the work of arsonists. (Source)

2 Peter 1: 16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty . . .

19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. [ESV]

 Worth the pondering. END 

PS: You will see how, early in the above video, a young miss says she does not believe in God as she grew up in an age of science. This reflects how the worldview of atheistical evolutionary materialism has been allowed to dress itself up in a lab coat and pass itself off as "Science." It is intended to take this up further, but it may be worth the while to look at Strobel's The Case for a Creator as a good first thought or two:

The Case For A Creator from JD Pilgrim on Vimeo.

Further food for thought.