World without God?

new-scientist-coverThe cover article of this week’s edition of the New Scientist explores what they think a ‘World Without God’ would look like. It won’t surprise you that I think there’s a few flaws in the article… (as well as some more interesting points!)

The article is called ‘Losing our religion‘ and is written by the deputy editor Graham Lawton (I’ve linked to the article but you need a subscription to read it). Lawton talks about “the world’s fastest-growing religious identity”, that of the ‘nones’. This includes any sort of non-believer “from convinced atheists … to people who simply don’t care about religion”. I’m interested that Lawton, I think rightly, characterises this as a “religious identity”, given that many atheists deny that this is the case.

Lawton talks about the worldwide trend of growing secularism, although also notes that this has ebbed and flowed over the last hundred years or so. Nonetheless,  there is a significant increase in people willing to identify as ‘none’.

Lawton then discusses why people believe in a god. He argues that for most people “belief in god is effortless”. I rather think that this will come as a surprise to the many people who struggle with their faith! And this is where I think Lawton fails to define his terms properly. As he notes later on, 60% of UK adults believe in some form of higher power or spiritual being, or what the philosopher Baggini characterises as those of “vague faith”, as I’ve blogged about in response to David Cameron’s remarks about faith.

For these people a vague, usually unexamined, belief in a god might well be ‘effortless’, but I think it’s rather more complex for many people, particularly once we start to examine what we believe, why, and what that actually means for how we live our lives:

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.

James 2:18-19

However, Lawton also seems to want to co-opt these people into his ‘none’ category, based on their lack of putting their faith into action. This then leads him to conclude that a “godless society” will include “new-agey irrationality” as well as being “a bit spiritual”. Given that I think that is arguable that most societies, most of the time have been based on some level of “vague faith” rather than believers, I’m not clear that how this is different to now (and nor does he; read on!), or why this so-called godless society is going to be better or even distinguishable from the ‘vaguely believing’ society that we currently live in.

What we think
Lawton also argues that “cognitive by-product theory” explains why we are naturally receptive to religious ideas. This theory says that the skills our ancestors evolved to survive and thrive in a hostile world also pre-disposed us to belief in a god.

There are a number of problems with this argument. The same observations can also be used to argue that humans have evolved that way to respond to the reality of God. If we’re made in God’s image then we are going to search for him! At its best this enables and encourages love and care for one another, greater social cohesion, and so on, which would provide a selective advantage:

since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made

Romans 1:20

Cognitive by-product theory also equally applies to our understanding of mathematics and our ability to spot the patterns of decaying Higgs bosons in the Large Hadron Collider. We evolved cognitive functions that helped us survived and also, incidentally, helped us to explore and understand the universe. This theory fails to say anything about whether those by-products are real or a function of our brains.

Nonetheless, there are interesting challenges for Christians in this article. Lawton identifies that one motivating factor for belief is insecurity, while prosperity and stability leads to a decline in belief. I think that this is a challenge that the church continues to wrestle with. And, indeed has done for a long time. Many of the prophets criticised the comfortable and complacent:

Woe to you who are complacent in Zion,
and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria …
You lie on beds adorned with ivory
and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs
and fattened calves. …
Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile;
your feasting and lounging will end.

Amos 6:1,4,7

Perhaps the growing understanding that materialism makes us unhappy is part of the answer.

Another interesting challenge is the sociological understanding of CREDs (“credibility-enhancing displays”), which are “costly and extravagant acts of faith”, including fasting and martyrdom. Where people see believers exhibiting CREDs they are more likely to believe. (“I show my faith by my deeds”) So, what CREDs are appropriate for our fairly comfortable, relatively stable Western society?

Lawton also discusses the rise of the Sunday Assembly movement – essentially church services for non-believers. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, this is a rather interesting (and challenging) movement for the Church. However, I also wonder whether it will make church-going a bit easier for people, given that the format is very similar?

The future?
Lawton concludes that the future looks a lot like present-day Britain. Given the significant social problems we are facing and the significant social work that Christians and the church do, including charitable donations, work with foodbanks, credit unions, Street Pastors and so on, I’m not sure that this is quite the hopeful model for a faith-free society that Lawton believes. However, it’s a challenge that the Church needs to rise to:

let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos 5:24


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