Most churches these days are not doing a good job of helping Christians to understand how to explain and defend Christianity to non-Christians. They tend to be focused on providing comfort and entertainment, which is why so much of the focus is on compassion, singing and being “nice”. Logical arguments are out. Scientific evidence is out. Historical evidence is out. There is a terrible fear of disagreeing with anyone. Everyone is focused on being “nice” and being “liked” by non-Christians. Instead of teaching people what Christians think is true, we teach people how to recycle cans and how to color pictures of Jesus.
Church is typically a mishmash of mysticism, piety and emotivism. Pastors in particular are often opposed to connecting anything the Bible says to evidence outside the Bible, whether it be research or experiments or philosophical arguments. Even the very best preaching pastors just assert things and then expect people to accept it because “the Bible says so”. It’s almost as if it dirties up Christianity to test it against what we know from other disciplines like cosmology and ancient history. People who are regarded as Christian leaders seem to never get around to explaining why anyone should accept the Bible as true.Accepting the Bible is just left up to your feelings, or maybe whether you think the pastor is “nice”. That’s it.
Now how well does this simple, blind-faith be-nice approach work on a real non-Christian?
Mary sent me this article from the New Statesman that explains how it works.
It’s 7.30pm on a Tuesday evening and I’m at a small church in East London. A man called Adam* hands me a name label, pours me a plastic cup of squash and says dinner won’t be long. I pull up a seat and introduce myself to ten strangers. It’s all rather awkward.
The reason I’m at church isn’t because I’m religious (I’m not) or because my fridge is empty (it is). It’s because I’ve signed up to Alpha, a weekly course run by churches all over the world in order to spread the Christian message. Although I’m an atheist, I don’t have a problem with people who subscribe to religion. I am, however, wary of brainwashing, I think most religious beliefs are kind of stupid and I strongly suspect that organised religion is a horrible thing.
[...]Adam, the course leader, is wearing a Superdry shirt. After dinner, he explains that it’s customary to sing. Rebecca plays the acoustic guitar and Adam mans the PowerPoint presentation, which would have got an A* if it was a piece of ICT GCSE coursework because the lyrics make noises when they appear on the screen.
Now, why on Earth would you make a non-Christian sing?? That makes no sense. If they don’t accept Christianity, why would they sing about it?
After singing comes talking. Specifically, Adam talking. Over the next six weeks, his talks will cover: “Is there more to life than this?”; “Who is Jesus and why did he die?”; “How can we have faith?”; “How can we read the Bible?”; “Why and how do I pray”; and “What about the Church?”. After each talk, we’ll break off into groups and discuss what we’ve learnt.
The first couple of sessions are similar. They involve Adam handing out copies of the Bible and saying things like, “So let’s assume Jesus does exist and came to Earth to save us…” I’m genuinely the only person who is annoyed that Adam makes no attempt to prove Jesus’s existence.
The first questions to address are thing like “Does God Exist?” and “Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?” and “Why Should People Think the Bible is Historically Reliable?”. But those questions cannot be asked by Christians, because they are totally unaware, thanks to years and years of avoiding apologetics, that those questions come before praise hymns and Bible study and prayer. Christians are so unaware that they don’t even realize how to discuss Christianity with a non-Christian, using authorities like logic, science and history, which non-Christians accept.
Adam’s big points in the first two weeks are that we should love Jesus because he loves us in spite of our tendency to sin and that we should try to emulate his behaviour, because it’s nice to have a role model.
Discussion time isn’t fruitful. Natalie asks me how I’m able to distinguish between moral and immoral behaviour if I don’t base my actions on Jesus’ example. I explain that I work out what makes my peers happy and try to do those things. Everyone laughs, which I find confusing because I’m not joking. I agree that having a role model can be helpful, but ask how they know Jesus is the best one. Anna and Will, who are married, tell me that it’s because the Bible said so. But how do they know the Bible is right? “No offence, Tabatha,” replies Louise, “but the Bible is quite far-fetched. I don’t get why someone would have made that stuff up if it weren’t true.” It sounds like I’m lying, but I’m not.
[...]This week, Adam’s main point is that Christianity isn’t about rules. Fine, but there’s still no attempt to prove God’s existence.
What is going on here? It’s that Christians are basically no different than cultists. We think that it’s our jobs to just tell people things without ever proving anything with science or history. We don’t know how to construct logical arguments. All we do is say what we believe and then hope that the person listening will accept it because “the Bible says so” or maybe because it makes the person feel like a nice person to accept it.
Then we talk about which bits of the Bible we should take literally. Louise tells me I’ll work it out if I read the Bible. I tell her I’ve read it. She says I will never develop a full understanding because I’m not God so I can’t understand everything. This is becoming a recurring theme. These people have answers to some problems, but as soon as they hit a brick wall they settle for not understanding God and refuse to think through alternatives.
Wow, how do Christians handle questions that they don’t know the answer to? By going and finding the answer? NO! We think that it’s not our job to find answers to this skeptic’s questions, it’s the skeptic’s job to find answers. We hand the work to the skeptic to do, instead of doing the work for them. Finding answers is work, and if Christianity is about anything, it’s apparently about avoiding work. That’s what we learn in church, anyway.
This week, Leslie, a priest from the church, speaks about evolution, which has to be our most interesting topic to date. “How do I know evolution isn’t true?” he begins, continuing: “Because God revealed himself to me through scripture.” This annoys me: these people keep saying really obscure things and not explaining them. Leslie explains that scripture is “God-breathed,” so when you read the Bible, God is speaking directly to you. I’m not an idiot but I have absolutely no conception of what that means.
This is pretty much the answer you’re going to get from most pastors and church people, even in a time where we have amazing arguments coming out of the intelligent design community about the origin of life and the Cambrian explosion. And even without talking about evolution, we could be talking about the Big Bang cosmology and the cosmic fine-tuning. But those things can’t be talked about because they are just too “real” and we want to keep religion in the realm of try-it-and-see-if-you-like-it bromides.
Leslie goes on to offer practical Bible-reading advice: you should read it for 15 minutes a day and ask God questions by verbalising your thoughts. By this stage, I’m annoyed. I want to know why we should read the Bible, how they know it’s true, what God sounds like and how He chooses which prayers to listen to. Instead, Leslie says things like, “If we pray, we become trees. Trees grow fruit, so we will live fruitful lives.” This kind of obscure, metaphorical chat is driving me mad.
[...]In discussion time, it becomes clear that although these people are interested in religion, they’re uncritical of it. It’s really starting to bother me that this institution encourages blind faith at the expense of scientific enquiry.
Again, Christians are incapable of understanding that they have to prove claims using arguments and evidence. They just want to state their beliefs, like cultists do when they knock on your door. What exactly is the difference between us and the cults if it’s not that we are able to make a case for our views based on evidence, not feelings?
Adam tells a story about his wedding ring. It’s a more elaborate version of this: Adam went to Costa. He left his wedding ring behind. He realised what he’d done. He said a quick prayer. He went back to Costa. He found his ring. He reckons God answered his prayer.
[...]Louise claims that God once answered her prayer to get her to the airport on time. Alasdair thinks God stopped a wave breaking on him when he went surfing as a teenager. Robin tells us that God warned him to wear a helmet when he snowboards.
[...]“Anyone feel unconvinced by the power of prayer?” Natalie asks. “YES,” I feel like shouting. “YOU’RE IDIOTS. ALL OF THOSE THINGS WERE PROBABLY COINCIDENCES THAT YOU’RE READING TOO MUCH INTO.”
Sigh. Well I hope that this is helpful so that everyone understands what non-Christians really need from us. I think we need to focus on studying apologetics, so that we can answer questions. Instead of focusing on telling people weird things, we should just focus on the basics: God’s existence, the minimal facts case for the resurrection, intelligent design in nature, the moral argument, the problems of evil and suffering. The basics. And stop trying to talk about our own lives or our own weird experiences, because you can’t prove anything by telling stories or mystical experiences or pious feelings. We really need to stop treating religion as something different from practical things. We don’t hire employees or pick stocks or buy medicine on the basis of how we feel about them. We study things carefully, we look at evidence, we use reason. Truth is the point of religion, not feelings, and when we focus on feelings when talking to non-Christians, we look like idiots. And rightly so.