Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and an atheist, offers some advice to his fellow atheists in The Huffington Post entitled, "The Top Mistakes Atheists Make." It is a very interesting read. I certainly agree with much of his critique of his "God-denying brothers and sisters." Since I am not an atheist I disagree with several of the details of his critique. But what caught my attention was what he wrote in reference to mistake #6:
Focusing on arguments against the existence of God, rather than working to make the world a better, more just place. People who believe in irrational things will rarely change their minds by listening to rational arguments. And yet atheists expel so much sweat constructing philosophical, scientific, or logical arguments against the existence of God. Think this will change people's minds? Perhaps. But only rarely. What really lowers levels of religiosity, the world-over, is living in a society where life is decent and secure. When people have enough to eat, shelter, healthcare, elder-care, child-care, employment, peacefulness, democracy -- that's when religion really starts to lose its grip.
Let me narrow that quotation to the subject of my concern:
What really lowers levels of religiosity, the world-over, is living in a society where life is decent and secure. When people have enough to eat, shelter, healthcare, elder-care, child-care, employment, peacefulness, democracy -- that's when religion really starts to lose its grip.
Does Zuckerman have a point that we religious folk need to ponder? The secularization of Western Europe and the quickly encroaching secularization of Canada and the United States appear to confirm his point. In contrast, it appears that Christianity is spreading quickly in places that cannot be described as prosperous.
Of course, the Bible seems to indicate that the lack of religious devotion can develop from a safe, secure, and prosperous existence. In the Old Testament the Judges are raised up after the land "has rest" which appears to lead to everyone "doing what was right in their own eyes." The Bible also warns of riches not only because the poor suffer when resources are hoarded in only a few hands, but wealth tends to become the master we serve in the place of God. And it is obvious that in a culture filled with attractions and distractions and hobbies, more and more people seem to be devoting less and less time to the things of faith.
Zuckerman may indeed be on to something here, but what he may have missed is that from a Christian perspective the good life does not, as Jesus said, consist in possessions and in self-made security, but only in utter trust and dependence and devotion to God. As C.S. Lewis long ago observed,
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
I am not arguing in the least that poverty and hunger and a violent existence are good and Christians should not work to alleviate the terrible conditions in which many people find themselves. What I am saying is that prosperity brings its own challenges to the faithful. Indeed, the challenges of prosperity are much more subtle in the destruction of faith than the all-out ravages of war and starvation. I've often said that there is nothing wrong with the church in America that a good persecution won't fix.
It's as if we have become so comfortable and secure that we have forgotten who the enemy is. We are like the frog in the pot of water who dies from being so slowly cooked he has no idea what is happening.
It seems that where life is good, Christians have trouble remembering what truly makes life good.
I think it is Deuteronomy 8.
Thanks, John... that's an excellent reference.
This is an interesting post, and I was led here from your FB link. While I think there's a lot of merit to the idea that material comfort might decrease religious commitment, I would also posit that pain and suffering might be a greater risk to overall religious confidence and commitment. Material and physical comfort may make us feel like we need God les; but pain, suffering and senseless loss, especially when it occurs to those whom we consider largely innocent, may cause us to doubt God far more. The former causes apathy; the latter may cause active anger, bitterness, and disengagement. Thoughts?
@Matthew: I wonder if people who have a basic presupposition that life is basically easy and enjoyable get more angry with God when there is pain and suffering than those who believe that life is fundamentally difficult?
Which would suggest that Zuckerman has a point.
However, I'm not at all comfortable with the idea that we who believe in God should work to hold down the level of prosperity on the grounds that it will bring more people to God.
Matt, I was preparing to respond to your main insight, but I see that Pam has already said basically what I was going to write.
Of course, suffering and loss can raise the question of God, but my hunch is that the problem of evil is more of an issue in prosperous societies than non-prosperous ones. I know of no studies to draw on for this; just my own experiences in impoverished countries over the years.
Now having said that, I would never conclude that there are no exceptions to this, but I do not think it is an accident that, as John Polkinghorne has noted, the "God dilemma" of the West is the problem of suffering and evil. It seems that the greater a society's prosperity, the greater the perplexity over bad times.
You are certainly correct that prosperity can lead to apathy and outright suffering can lead to anger.
Great post, good questions.Part of the problem, of course, is that the American church has specifically sold God as a Bob Barker character. The reason we become less interested in God when we have all the material blessings is because we no longer have any use for the idol we created, and we finally recognize what a false God it is.
Jason Rosenhouse has a response from the atheist viewpoint here:
Anon, thanks for the link.
Interesting article... I often have the sensation when reading things written by atheists that they are trying to further convince themselves of their belief in their atheism, to try to justify their conclusion, rather than "evangelizing" potential converts. I had that sense again when reading Mr. Zuckerman's article. It seems almost without fail that somewhere in an atheist's discourse they will get to the rational/irrational argument; that the atheist reaches a point beyond which they have no understanding, and so by stopping their thoughts there, by saying that because they cannot conceive of any knowledge past this point of their understanding, they are making a "rational" choice that nothing else exists past that point. By contrast, the atheist claims, a Christian must be irrational because they believe there are things beyond their own personal understanding that the Christian chooses to accept on faith. Is not the Christian making the more rational choice by leaving their mind open to a broader understanding, by admitting there are things beyond their human comprehension, as opposed to the atheist who says this is all I know, therefore this is all there is? Is that not irrational? How is the atheist's view any different from the view of those who thought the world was flat, because that was all they could see, all that they could understand? Does Mr. Zuckerman think that a neurosurgeon is irrational because the doctor can do things, knows things, that Mr. Zuckerman does not? I think it comes down to control, which comes around to one of the underlying issues of Mr. Zuckerman's article. Atheists think they are in control of their lives, except for the natural obsolescence of the human body, and the impact that choices made by other humans might have on their life. If there is anything that they cannot control or explain, or makes no sense to them, then it is just the natural disorder of the universe; if they can't get it, no one can. In an affluent society like ours, it is enticingly easy to think that our lives are good because we have done such a good job controlling our lives. Somehow we "deserve" our affluence because we have been so effective in living our lives "right" or "well." It can be much harder to convince an unbeliever who is doing well that there is anything beyond what they know, or that they are actually in great need of Someone Else. When I was in elementary school, having heard a few people share their testimony about their lives of sin and debauchery that they had lived before accepting Christ, I remember wondering if that was a requirement--to go through such filth and despair--before you could accept Christ "properly." We do our society, our children, a huge disservice by only mentioning that God receives the repentant prodigal (as much a relief and a wonder as that is!), when He also receives the repentant dutiful child as well.
As a side note, it would be interesting to take an anonymous poll of people in our congregations, asking folks if they secretly think of themselves as prodigals, but present themselves as dutiful to the world, or vice versa, or if how they present themselves is how they truly see themselves... just curious!
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