Is religion fading – and does it matter?

Click here to read Matt’s thoughts on chapter one of Making Sense of God

First of all, to our readers: no one promised that we were going to blog our way through this book quickly. It’s pretty obvious this will be a slow (but hopefully not boring) exercise. Please be patient with us, and please take the glacial pace of these posts not as a sign of our disinterest, but as a reflection of the fact that we’re two middle-aged men with young children, busy lives, and a big blue wobbly thing called the Pacific Ocean separating us.

I’ll offer a very quick overview of how I found the chapter, mixed with a few responses to points that you made. I’ll then come back to ask you a question (which you can answer next time, or leave as a rhetorical question).

The chapter seemed like a fairly gentle introduction, kind of priming the pump for more substantial stuff to follow. Nothing here really helps us figure out what’s true or false. As you rightly identified, Keller’s largely trying to give disinterested readers a good reason to keep going, and he’s open about his modest aims at the end of the chapter: “I have not addressed whether religion is true. I have only sought to make the case that it is by no means a dying force.” (p. 27)

I actually think he does more. Showing that religion isn’t dying would’ve been a simple matter of citing a few studies. But he went further and offered three suggestions on why religion isn’t dying:

  • Many people find secularism intellectually lacking – it can’t properly explain things like love, morality, sacrifice, redemption, or forgiveness
  • Many people find secularism emotionally unsatisfying – if things like art and beauty awaken the sense that there’s ‘more to life’, secularism and atheism shut down those intuitions and declare, ‘Nope, sorry, there’s nothing more’. But, as C.S. Lewis once wrote: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
  • Many people have a direct, personal experience of transcendence that secularism or atheism simply can’t explain

I’m deeply persuaded that the first of those points is correct. You responded to this point by noting, “humans do a pretty good job at agreeing on most of the important moral questions”, regardless of whether morality is objective. That’s true, but you seemed to circle around or miss Keller’s main point: objective morality simply cannot come from atheism or scientific rationalism. If we’ve achieved something close to consensus on key moral and ethical questions, it’s not because scientific rationalism got us there. In fact, atheism looks our collective moral decisions in the eye and sneers. It says to us, “If you humans happen to have mostly agreed on your morality, big deal. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, mostly because there is no right or wrong. And if you decided to change your collective morality next week, that won’t make it better or worse than today’s subjective, fleeting conclusions.”

You go on to distinguish between science as the basis for an atheist’s life and an atheist’s knowledge. But I’d want to ask: what kind of knowledge? This is exactly the button that I think Keller’s trying to push. Aren’t there forms of knowledge that go beyond what science can give us? You choose to call that ‘life’, but ‘life’ as you define it here depends on what we might call ‘moral knowledge’: a far-reaching and sustainable philosophy that allows us to pursue love, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and justice (to name a few qualities)—not because we just feel like it, or because our culture has conditioned us to, or because we stumble into it, but because those things are actually, objectively, right and true.

I’d also love to drill down into this:

“Granted, I think we still need to start with a philosophical assumption, e.g. that happiness is the ultimate goal, or that we should aim for the least amount of human suffering, etc. That part is perhaps preference, but similar to my previous point, society is fairly aligned in its thinking about that.”

Aren’t you giving the game away when you admit that we need to start with ‘a philosophical assumption’? Aren’t you curious as to why ‘society’ (or should that be ‘societies’) seem to be ‘fairly aligned’ in their pursuit of happiness rather than suffering? Aren’t you dissatisfied with having to admit that this is all ‘perhaps preference’? Or to put that last point another way, are you really content to say that a society that decided to minimise happiness and maximise suffering would simply have chosen another equally valid preference?

To shift to another point, I worry you’ve inadvertently misled people in your description of how Keller uses the April 2015 Pew study. You claim that he “obviously didn’t take a close look at the Pew study … because, globally, when people change religions, they overwhelmingly move to the non-religious category (with most of them coming from Christianity).” You also included a graphic showing that the number of people expected to ‘switch religions’ to ‘Unaffiliated’ will grow significantly by 2050 and that Christianity will shrink significantly over the same time.

But as far as I can see, none of that contradicts Keller’s claims at all. In fact, he seems happy to admit that ‘religious switching’ may hurt Christianity’s overall numbers. His focus was on why and precisely how this might happen. Keller points out that, in recent years, people are leaving ‘liberal’ churches or expressions of Christian faith (e.g. “the most mild, modern kind that did not believe in miracles or the deity of Christ or a literal, bodily resurrection”, from page 25) in droves, but that more and more people are embracing ‘conservative’ expressions of Christian faith that uphold those traditional doctrines and emphasize the need for conversion (in fact he says faiths like this are “growing exponentially”). And he’s right. All the evidence shows that people around the world—even in the secular West—are turning to that ‘brand’ of Christianity.

But again, of course, none of that is decisive in helping us to figure out what’s actually true.

Lastly, I’m interested in your response to the notion of ‘joy’. You quoted Keller’s argument: “If you are being swept up in joy and wonder by a work of art, it will impoverish you to remind yourself that this feeling is simply a chemical reaction … and nothing more. You will need to shield yourself, then, from your own secular view of things in order to get the most out of the experience.”

I think he’s right, but you responded: “I’m not sure I really understand why this needs to be the case. The joyous feeling is what it is. When I feel joy, I’m joyous, even if I understand it’s just neurons firing in my brain. I’m not less joyous because I recognise it as a chemical reaction.”

Maybe the moment of joy is roughly the same (although I’d argue that it’s still experienced quite differently; when I experience joy, my own thoughts nearly always turn to thanking and praising God, which I believe enhances and intensifies the joy). But what about ten minutes (or ten days, or ten years) later?

Imagine the atheist pondering his moment of joy: “That moment of joy felt nice at the time, but now that it’s passed I can admit to myself (whoever ‘myself’ is) that it didn’t mean anything—not in any real, lasting or objective way, at least. Sure, it made me (whoever or whatever ‘me’ is) feel nice. I hope I experience feelings like that again and again; it sure beats feeling miserable. But it was just a chemical and neurological process within my brain (whatever ‘my’ means), triggered by a meaningless event. It felt good, but I can’t say ‘it was good’. It had no more objective value or worth that my moments of misery. And one day all my moments—whether joyful or sad—will come to an end, and I (whatever ‘I’ is) will simply be gone.”

Then the Christian: “That moment of joy felt nice at the time, but I’m so glad it wasn’t just a passing moment. It was a gift from my heavenly Father who gives me every good and perfect gift as an overflow of his love for me. Just think—at the heart of the universe is a personal God who loves, and who designed me to experience love and joy. And he’s prepared an eternal home for me so that, one day, when my life in this world is finished, I’ll be with him to experience perfect joy in his presence, knowing him and relating to him and enjoying him forever. Oh, how it increases my joy to know that every moment of joy is given by him as a foretaste of that eternal joy that awaits me!”

Or something like that.

The point is: surely there really is a difference between how an atheist and a Christian experience joy. Once again, it doesn’t prove that Christianity is true. But it does suggest that Christianity makes good emotional sense of our lives. And because emotions are real and important (if imperfect), it’s nice to have a worldview that makes best sense of them.

So my question for you—and I don’t think I’ve ever really asked this, but I probably should have. You’re a rational, scientifically minded kind of guy (which I really appreciate). Most of our discussions about spirituality come back to that kind of thinking. And yet you’re an artist. You live and move and have your being in the world of artistic endeavour. For example, you spend an inordinate amount of time delving into films, asking things like: Why did that film ‘work’? What makes a truly great acting performance? So I’d be especially interested to know how you responded to Keller’s discussion of art. Have you ever felt that sense of the transcendent that he described? Have you ever been moved by a work of art in a way that made you feel, “Yes, maybe there is something more to life, to this world—and to me—than the things I can see, touch, and scientifically analyze?”

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