I am listening to a debate at the moment on Premier Christian radio between Michael Shermer and Adrian Holloway about the existence of miracles. Michael says he was a “born again evangelical Christian” but is now a staunch atheist and is in fact the president for the sceptic society. Why the change? Well through studying psychology and social sciences he says he came to realise that:
“beliefs, like political attitudes and religious faiths, are socially constructed and psychologically dependent. It depends on where you happen to have been born and what your parents believe and the influence of your peer groups and teachers and things like that rather than something that was absolutely true, and the study of social psychology and anthropology really reinforces that idea. Had I been born in another century or some other millennium or on some other part of the planet I certainly would not have been a Christian.
Obviously the fact that there are such strong clusters of religious beliefs around the world shows that the believers are largely dependent on where you just happen to have been born. And that’s different to science where physics is physics whether it’s in India or China or North America or Europe. It doesn’t matter where you are born the physics is still the physics. And yet that is not the case with religion.”
Richard Dawkins says this was a key factor in his conversion to atheism. But again I just don’t get it. What if being an atheist turned out to be very dependent on where you were born? Would that make the non existence of God any less likely to be true? What if most places in the world had Christians living there? Would that make Christianity more likely to be true because of a homogeneous spread of this belief across the globe? If everybody believed in God for centuries and centuries would that undermine the truth of atheism?
Let’s say Jesus did all the miracles he said he did and rose from the dead as he said he would. Does the fact that those in Jerusalem believed long before those in Australia, undermine the truth of those events or the beliefs? Surely geographical or chronological factors are not decisive indicators of truth. They must know that. So what is the issue?
Perhaps it’s the injustice of it. Your eternal destiny seeming to be heavily influenced by where you happen to have been born, what parents you had, friends you knew, books you read, TV you watched, even your genes. The list goes on. All these things could have been said to play a factor in someone being a Christian and yet the Christian world view would say that those things are not ultimately decisive: God is. He sovereignly works through all events and people and places to bring, to a saving knowledge of him, those he chose before he made the world. The problem doesn’t go away of course because now we could ask if that, ie God choosing, is really fair. That’s not easy but it does show that the problem is not location, location, location, it’s grace, grace, grace.
The bottom line is whether we can accept that God is truly free to choose which of his sinful enemies to die for? I confess I find that hard too. But knowing the terrible nature of my sin and the massive cost that Jesus paid to sort it for me, I find myself willing to trust God that he is both good and just in his decisions. I also find myself very motivated to tell other people about this grace so they can enjoy it too.
In the debate Adrian emphasis the importance of evidence. He says he is open to be lead where the evidence leads. If the bones of Jesus were discovered in Jerusalem he would ditch Christianity. If that sounds dodgy he points out that the Apostle Paul felt like that too. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, says Paul, our faith is useless.
Like Michael, Adrian too had a conversion but it was the other way round for him. He became a Christian because of a culmination of several different lines of argument that pointed towards the existence of God. He admits that our religious beliefs could be an aspect of our cultural context, but that is no reason to throw them all out. It just means we need to think very carefully about what we believe. That is probably a better way of putting it than my ramblings above. Of course these things have an effect but we are not trapped by them. In fact the lives of both Michael and Adrian show you can change your mind by looking at the “evidence”. Adrian suggests that “instead of throwing up our hands and saying “everyone believes different things it’s hopeless I’ll never find the truth” it would be sensible to look into things a bit. Why not, he says, read the Koran, the God Delusion, Mere Christianity by C S Lewis, etc or even pray “if you are there help me find the truth” and make an informed decision.
He goes on, there are no guarantees in life. Is your marriage going to work, will the plane you step onto crash? It’s the same with the Christian faith. Adrian doesn’t have infallible proof but there is enough evidence for him to make a decision, like a juror, beyond reasonable doubt.
I think that’s true, although there is another aspect to faith that transcends evidence. As you meet and get to know Jesus (often through various lines of evidence) you find your foot on something even more secure than the scientific method. The eye of faith can see things invisible to the natural mind with more certainty than we know the earth goes round the sun. It’s the same with the bible, once evidence has lead you to the reasonable conclusion that it is the word of God, it can be a firmer place to stand.
Actually evidence and faith are probably a bit more inter-woven than that last paragraph suggests. What would I do if anthropologists discovered what they claimed to be the bones of Jesus? Would any amount of evidence change my mind that Jesus rose bodily from the dead? I certainly wouldn’t close my ears to the claims and would want to investigate them. Maybe there would come a point at which I would be swayed but it would have to be pretty convincing evidence. It would be like persuading me that the person I have been married to and loved for 20 years is a spy using me for cover. Especially if my spouse protested their innocence and pointed to the evidence over the last 20 years that they have loved me faithfully. Love can be blind but it can also trust against all the odds. Christianity is a relationship with a person not a set of abstract beliefs about the world. Discrediting it to a Christian who has a living relationship with the Lord Jesus is a bit more involved than just producing some bones.