Having dutifully done so, I can’t recommend the book little enough. As an evaluation of religion and secularism in America, it is heavily distorted. As a strategy document, it is quite ordinary and predictable, with just one exception: Faircloth’s first objective, which is to “Increase advocacy by telling more stories and telling them better.” That caught my eye because I have seen it in action, and I know it’s effective.
I was at the secularists’ “Reason Rally” in Washington, D.C., on March 24. There was almost nothing of reason in evidence there, if we take that term (reasonably) to mean careful thinking applied to evidences and premises, so as to draw responsibly accurate conclusions. Reason of that sort was lacking, but there was plenty of story and symbolism. Both were used to advance the notion that religion—especially Christianity, as the dominant religion in the West—is bad and stupid.
Christianity is bad (so they said) in that it inhibits free choice and equal rights (think abortion, sexual freedom, and same-sex “marriage”); and it is also bad because it is stupid. It is stupid in that it is anti-science (think evolution and embryonic stem cell research) and anti-reason. Reason, for these New Atheists, typically means refusing to believe anything for which one does not have empirical evidence; this (they think) automatically excludes all religion.
Not only that, but our doctrines seem absurd. I spoke with someone who demanded I answer, “How did the donkey talk?” (He was referring to Balaam’s ass in Numbers 22.) I suggested, “How about if we talk about a miracle that’s even more difficult: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead?” He answered, “I’m not interested in the resurrection. I want to talk about the donkey.” I could be wrong, but I think that very odd preference of his can be traced to the fact that a talking donkey just seems stupid. Making Christianity look stupid was the order of the day.
And then there’s the order of Faircloth’s book. I have to admit that I was mildly concerned as I read through his first several chapters of complaints about the damage Christianity has inflicted upon the world. My concern collapsed, though, when I got to chapter 5, “Two Americans: Religious Hucksters and Secular Innovators.” It was at this point that he jumped the shark, as they say: The chapter was too ridiculous to take seriously.
Faircloth wanted to demonstrate religion’s failure to contribute anything to America’s greatness. He tried to do it by comparing a congressman and a few contemporary pastors and speakers on the Christian side, to double Nobel Prize winners Marie Curie and Linus Pauling, Ben Franklin, and Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs on the secular side. Not surprisingly, the secularists he chose seemed more innovative and advance than the Christians.
I wonder how his thesis would have turned out if he had mentioned Werner von Braun, one of the pioneers of modern rocket science; or the great 19th-century physicists James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday. What conclusion might he have drawn if he had mentioned the great astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler; or the virtual founder of modern science, Isaac Newton; or the geneticist Francis Collins, whose published papers greatly outnumber those of four prominent atheistic scientists combined? All of these men were or are deeply religious, most of them very orthodox in their Christianity.
What’s really fascinating is that Faircloth tells us, “Stories illustrate a larger point, sustained and supported by statistics.” It almost sounds as if he’s trying to say that anecdotes ought not be used to distort statistical reality, but if that’s his message, it’s more than a little obscured by the statistically reality-distorting anecdotes he tells throughout the book.
Nevertheless there is power in story, and the story being widely circulated, as I have said, is that Christianity is bad and stupid. An AlterNet article recently attracted attention with its message of “why patriarchal men are utterly petrified of birth control.” Those who know the real issue there know that the question is actually whether the government should have the power to order religious institutions to violate their beliefs. That same question could have arisen over any number of topics; birth control just happened to be the one. Turning it into a story of “utterly petrified” “patriarchal men,” however, serves secularists’ purpose in making Christianity look bad and stupid.
Whether or not this kind of storytelling represents atheism in general, it is certainly common enough in today’s marketplace of ideas, and I think it represents the sharp edge of the secularist sword against the faith. Who would want to listen to bad and stupid people? Therefore the strategic question for us becomes, how can we better prepare ourselves to defend against this charge of bad and stupid?
Clearly the first step is to grow in our own confidence that it’s good and right to follow Christ. As long ago as 1998, Dallas Willard wrote (The Divine Conspiracy, p. 92):
The powerful though vague and unsubstantiated presumption [among churchgoers] is that something has been foundout that renders a spiritual understanding of reality in the manner of Jesus simply foolish to those who are “in the know.” (Emphasis in the original.)
In other words, churchgoers are at least a little concerned that the faith might really be stupid (or “foolish”) after all.
Such uneasiness is not necessary. There’s a resurgence underway in Christian scholarship, strongly supporting the truth of Christianity. This is the time to become more confident, not less so, in the truth and goodness of the faith.
Yet we need to do our own homework, so that we can rest on something stronger than the vague awareness that some scholars somewhere have found solid support for the faith. We’re all being assaulted by the “religion is bad and stupid” stories, after all, and so are our loved ones. Pastors in particular can serve their congregations by explaining not only what is good and true, but also how we know it is good and true. And these explanations must go beyond, “the Bible says so,” for we also need to answer the question, “Why should we think the Bible is good and true?”
Our defense needs to include a solid offense as well. We too can tell stories, in spite of what one commenter on my Thinking Christian blog most amazingly wrote last week: “Unlike christians [sic], many people use allegory to make a point.” Apparently he didn’t know about Jesus’ parables, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and C.S. Lewis (and more besides).
We have expertise in allegory, and we have good stories of true history as well. We could overturn Christianity’s contemporary reputation for being oppressive to women, for example, if more of us would learn and relate the story of how the faith has lifted women out of deeper oppression than most Westerners can imagine, in country after country, culture after culture. Also, as I have briefly done above, the way to overcome our anti-scientific reputation is by knowing, and telling, Christianity’s massive contribution to science through the centuries.
The story that Christianity is bad and stupid is not true, but it is powerful. Stories are like that. But our story is a very good one, and true besides. If we got a more solid grip on the story of Christ and his people through the ages, I believe we could overcome the bad and stupid story, and reclaim Christianity’s position of truth and goodness in our culture.
Tom Gilsonis a Campus Crusade for Christ/Cru writer and strategist currently on assignment to BreakPoint. He blogs atThinkingChristian.net. His new e-book,True Reason,is availablehere.
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