Believe it or not, the biggest threat to Christianity is not Atheism. After all, atheists make up a significantly low percentage of the population. In my mind, given this, we shouldn’t be directing all (or most of) our apologetic resources towards a group that only makes up about 3-5% of the population, and are often the most resistant to the gospel and spiritual things (Matt. 7:6 may be applicable). Apologists are fighting the wrong battle.
I’m not saying apologetics geared towards atheism is not necessary and beneficial; it has great benefits for believers and unbelievers alike. However, we should be addressing issues that are affecting the masses. This naturally leads us to ask, what sort of issues are these?
Each generation has their own set of concerns with Christianity that must be overcome by the believers of that era. At one point it was the motion of the Earth. Not too long ago it was the issue of evolution and the age of the Earth. Today, I believe less non-Christians actually care about these things. They are far more concerned with what Christianity has to say about issues like sexual ethics. For present purposes, I will argue that three of the biggest threats to the Christian faith are divine relativism, sexual ethics, and biblical illiteracy.
You don’t have to talk to very many people about Christianity before you start to hear claims of religious relativism. They will claim that they are happy you found something that works for you, but they have no need for Jesus. Or perhaps they don’t believe in a god who would send people to hell. “Christianity is great as long as you keep it to yourself” they say. There is one underlying assumption that these claims usually share: The purpose of religion is not to serve God and others or acknowledge the truth about reality. Rather, it’s primary function is psychological; each person is free to chose whichever religion works best for their personal therapeutic purposes.
Part of this is our own fault. For some time now, we have geared only towards emotional well-being in evangelism, while neglecting any emphasis on the truth of Christianity. We tell non-Christians not to come to Christ because it’s true, but because it is the only way for them to truly become happy. It is no longer about us serving God, but rather God serving us. Similarly, church services are primarily focused on Christian living.
In our homes, we have unknowingly modeled to our kids that the only time you need to call on to God is when you have a problem that needs to be handled.
Though done with good intentions, we’ve sent a message to our culture, our congregations, and our children, which has reduced Christianity to little more than one of culture’s many offers of psychological therapy. It is little wonder why the skeptic will claim Christianity is nothing but a crutch. For many of us, that is the truth.
I’m not saying that these claims about Christianity are not true. Nor am I saying that Christianity doesn’t offer tremendous therapeutic support. It does. God is our comforter (2 Cor 1:3-5) and we are to cast our burdens onto the Lord (Matt 11:28). However, Christianity is far more than that. The main point of Christianity is the Gospel, not our emotional well-being.
There has been a shift in our culture’s thinking that challenges Christianity at a much more profound level than intellectual atheism could ever hope. It can loosely be defined as a shift from authoritative evidential/logic-based thinking into authoritative emotion-based thinking. Feelings now carry more weight than facts and evidence.
Relativism has been extended to language itself. This has led to the prostitution of words with virtuous connotations such as tolerance, rights, freedom, and choice. Similarly, the definition of words with moral connotations such as bigot and homophobic, have similarly been altered. The redefining of these terms has caused Christianity to be seen as morally inferior, an eminent threat to society, and permits a sense of righteous anger directed towards Christians. In short, using these words short-circuits reasoning faculties, and invokes high emotional responses. This permits Christians to be verbally abused and bullied into silence.
Do these well-meaning (but misguided) people feel bad for disrespecting Christians? Not at all. As long as they sense they are fighting against evil and bigotry, just about anything goes. Abusing Christians often makes them feel good. Their wrath feels morally justified.
Never mind how illogical or poor the arguments from Christianity’s critics may be. That’s irrelevant. By and large they are not interested in hearing reasoned or logical arguments. They want to silence Christians with emotionally charged words and rhetoric; both of which are far more powerful than calm and reasoned discussion in today’s day and age.
Earlier I said how intellectual atheism is not a significant threat to Christianity. The biggest threat atheism has posed in America has not been reasoned argumentation. Rather, bitter diatribes and emotional criticisms (usually following religiously infused catastrophes like 9/11) have been responsible for much of their success. Their books and speakers weren’t made famous due to carefully-crafted, logically sound arguments. Instead, their highly emotive statements resonated with the frustrations of those who already had issues with religion.
In my estimation, well over 80% of what the New Atheist authors and speakers say about Christianity are demonstrably false or misleading. But this raises the question: If their claims are false, why is it that Christians weren’t able to correct these falsities, shutting them up right away? Part of it is simply because of the brute force of their rhetoric. Another part is because Christians are largely illiterate about what it is that they claim to believe. Statistically speaking, most who claim to be Christian are either unable to articulate or flat out do not understand the basics of what they claim to believe. This has led Christians to be unequipped and unable to respond to such attacks.
To give a brief glimpse of what I mean, recent statistics show that 63% of young Christians don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God, 51% don’t believe Jesus literally rose from the dead, and 68% don’t believe the Holy Spirit is a real being. When asked what it is they do believe, they weren’t able to explain, and got confused easily.
This represents a strong departure from the traditional understanding the Church and culture used to have of Christianity. It used to be that most people knew the essentials of what it means to believe in Christianity.
So if not Christianity, what do they believe? Much can be said about this, but I believe the tenants of what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, would be a good starting place. In their research they found that most teens more or less believe the following:
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Take a moment to contemplate what the Bible has to say about these points and the significance of each.
If most of our culture believes something like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, then it does us little good to marshal the bulk of our resources against intellectual atheism. Most people are not atheists, nor are they interested in intellectual arguments. We need to be developing creative ways to overcome the powerful, emotive rhetoric that is shaping the way our culture thinks. We need to frame ethical debates using the right language. We need to demonstrate the absurdity of relativism by showing how it clashes with things they have strong emotional ties to. Most importantly, we need to ensure that we, and our kids, understand and can articulate basic Christian doctrine.