Can only one of us be right? audio (4MB)
This is a series based on and heavily dependent on Timothy Keller’s Best Seller "The Reason For God" for which I’m deeply grateful. It uses much of his argument though with various additions by myself or the other preachers of the series.
I guess we’re all aware of the Atheists’ conference held in Melbourne in February. You may even have seen Richard Dawkins on the TV in one of his many appearances, putting forward his dogmatic, almost religious, views on the irrelevance of religion. The way he talks you might think this is something new that he’s presenting but of course atheism’s been around for a long time. I guess the 20th century was the age of atheism at it’s strongest. Various atheist regimes came to power: the communists of Russia and China being the most obvious. But by the end of the 20th century it seemed like the cause was lost. Atheism hadn’t provided the solutions to people’s needs. The communist regimes had failed to stop people practising their religion and in fact people were saying that atheism was dead.
But clearly it wasn’t. Richard Dawkins and his friends are back as strong as ever, proclaiming Christianity and other religions as a waste of time and energy. And he’s had no shortage of supporters. The media has given him plenty of coverage. Those who have always opposed Christianity are thrilled to have someone as high profile as him promoting their cause. The sceptics are out in force. And what’s interesting is that we’ve heard very few voices critiquing his message.
Well one of the things we’re going to be doing over the next few months as we move through this new series “From Doubt to Belief” is to examine some of the major objections to Christian faith, many of them raised by Dawkins, in fact. I imagine that some of the questions that we’ll look at will be ones that some of you have asked from time to time - perhaps are even still asking. And even if you haven’t asked them, you can be fairly sure that your friends and colleagues have.
If you’re as old as me you’ll have grown up in Australia when Churchgoing was the norm; when the census figures showed the vast majority of people in Australia belonged to one of the major Christian Churches. Sadly now the statistics have gone way down. It’s now estimated that around 8% of the population will be worshipping in a church today. When I was growing up people inherited their faith. If your parents were CofE that’s what you were. If they were Catholic you were Catholic. And you didn’t need to even think about it.
Not so any more. Now most people [probably including some of your children] see themselves as non-religious secular humanists. Those who continue to worship, particularly among the young, are more and more joining high commitment churches where a life changing conversion is expected. Belief is now something you choose.
So what we find is a world that at the same time is becoming more secular and more religious all at once. Doubt and belief are equally on the rise. The problem is that the two sides of this divide tend to polarise, to take up the attack against the other. So you get comments like: “These religious nuts are trying to thrust their beliefs down our throats.” “They can’t see that times are changed.” “They want to spoil our enjoyment of life.” On the other hand Christians might complain that the others are giving people a false sense of security; are using relativism to justify permissiveness; are ignoring the clear evidence of a creator; are ruining the morals of a generation.
Well none of that is very helpful is it? Name calling never helped anyone. And it’s no longer sufficient to hold a set of beliefs simply because you inherited them. Christian faith has never been blind faith. It’s always been a faith based on evidence. So let’s think through the issues that intelligent people like Richard Dawkins raise as creating doubt about the truth of Christianity. Sometimes it’s as you struggle with the objections to faith that your faith is strengthened and you’re able to explain it to others.
So today we start with the question that stops so many people in Australia today from following Christianity: “Surely there can’t be just one true religion”. We have two major problems in addressing that question. The first is the ‘discovery’ of historians in the 20th century that truth is often relative. History is generally told by the victors and therefore is often only a half truth. This scepticism about truth has now spread to almost every part of life except, perhaps, science, though even there, there’s often a healthy scepticism about new discoveries.
The second is the multicultural world we live in. We’re surrounded by very nice people who belong to a range of religions. But we also see in our world a whole lot of not very nice people who think that their religion is the only one that’s true and who think they should force their religion on others by force. It’s been suggested that one of the main barriers to world peace at the moment is the existence of major religions who all think they’re right. And of course that’s true isn’t it? As soon as a religion tells its followers that it’s the only one that’s true, they begin to feel superior to everyone else. And if they’re told that they’re more connected to God when they carry out the observances of their religion it makes it easy to think of others as being less deserving of God’s love. And so this downward spiral continues until the religious person thinks it’s OK to kill the others if it might make them turn to the true religion. It happened in the crusades. It happened to the Jews in Europe. It’s happening with Islam at the moment.
So how do we deal with this problem? There seem to be three main solutions tried by governments and societies in general: Outlaw religion, publicly condemn religion, or radically privatise it.
The 20th century saw several regimes attempt to outlaw religion. Soviet Russia made it illegal to practice religion. Communist China expelled all the foreign missionaries in the hope that that would end the growth of Christianity in China. But their efforts all failed. Instead of more peace and harmony there was just more oppression. Despite what Richard Dawkins claims, those government that were built on an atheist platform were guilty of far more violence and oppression than any so-called Christian country can be accused of.
There was an expectation that if you got rid of religion the growth of technology and the development of civilisation through scientific advance would replace it as the source of human happiness. But of course that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Technology has caused as much pain as it’s fixed. Instead of dying the underground church in Communist Russia continued to grow. Throwing the missionaries out of China just allowed the local Christians to take up the leadership of the church and therefore to strengthen it.
Though governments have failed, the popular media are still working hard to dissuade us from following one religion as unique. It’s suggested by subtle and not so subtle messages that to make exclusive claims for a religion is both unenlightened and even outrageous in its arrogance. This message is given so often that it’s finally become a virtual axiom of belief. There are no absolutes except this one: that there are no absolutes.
But what are the presuppositions of this view?
“All major religions are valid and all basically teach the same thing.”
It doesn’t take more than a few moments to find the holes in that argument does it? Clearly all religions don’t believe the same thing. Jews and Muslims believe in a unitary God. Christians believe in a Trinitarian God. Buddhists don’t believe in a God at all. And Hindu’s believe in a host of Gods.
But we can go further than that. If you ask the person who suggests that these religions all believe in the same God, what this God they all believe in is like, you’ll most likely receive their personal description of a God that they believe in. They might argue that the various distinctives of each religion don’t matter but they’ll be quite clear about the distinctives of their own version of the nature of God.
“Religious belief is culturally conditioned”
The objection is that you only believe what you believe because you grew up in a Christian culture. If you'd been born in Iraq you'd be a Muslim. If you'd been born in Jerusalem you’d probably be a Jew. Therefore your beliefs are unreliable. But apart from the countless examples of people who’ve been converted to Christianity out of a non-Christian Culture, even those who make such a claim are guilty of the same failing. The reason they expect cultural relativism to determine what you believe is because they grew up in a culture that teaches relativism. If they’d been born in Iraq they’d never even have asked the question. So by their own reckoning their assumptions are unreliable because they too are socially conditioned.
“It’s arrogant to want to convert others to your religion.”
Of course there are some cases where the claims of Christians have derived from a certain arrogance and sense of superiority, particularly cultural or racial superiority. But that’s not the general case. The Christian gospel is offered as good news to people who aren’t aware of it, not from a sense of arrogance but from a sense of gratitude that God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ and from a concern for those who don’t know him yet. It’s no more arrogant to offer salvation to those who don’t have it than it is to claim that there’s no need for salvation in the first place.
Keep Religion Completely Private.
The third approach is to allow people to believe what they like but insist that they keep it to themselves. In the public arena this shows itself by Christians being sidelined, being excluded from public discourse. The scientists and humanists are allowed to apply their beliefs but not Christians.
Of course this is to ignore the enormous influence for good that Christianity has provided in the development of western civilisation and it’s to ignore the fact that even the claim that religion has no place in public discourse is a religious claim, based on a belief system that says that human logic and common sense can find the most just approach to society’s issues. Everyone, religious or not, has a value system from which they operate. It might be related to family values. It might be connected with a desire for social justice for the poor. It might be a belief that free market economies will always produce the best outcomes for the majority. Whatever the value system is, it’s no different from a Christian worldview in the way it determines how you act or speak about public issues.
Why Christianity works
Finally let’s think about what it is in Christianity that might help us walk this minefield of religions and bring about peace. We believe that there is only one God. Our two readings today make that clear. Is 42:8: “I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.” John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me”. So how do we avoid the sort of arrogance and exclusivity that we’re so often accused of?
Well, first let’s remember what the Scriptures teach us about God. God is the one who created every person and made them in his own image. How does that help us? It reminds us that people of other faiths will have goodness and wisdom to offer. God has made them in his own image so we can expect them to be better people than their mistaken beliefs could make them.
The gospel tells us that we’re all fallen creatures, prone to sin. That means that Christians will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them. It also tells us that there will be some non-Christians who will live lives that are morally superior to our own. We’ve received God’s grace not because we’re morally superior to anyone else but because we were morally bankrupt but God in his grace has forgiven us.
So the truth of the gospel should lead us to be not arrogant but humble, willing to accept all people as equal with ourselves. It should lead us to be peacemakers, to be the ones who accept all others as made in God’s image.
The early church took hold in the Roman empire not because its adherents were superior to their pagan neighbours nor because people cared about what they believed. In fact the Roman world was an incredibly tolerant society. There were so many gods no-one cared who you worshiped. But where Christians made an impact was in the way they accepted all people of every class and race. They accepted and cared for the poor both among their own followers and the society in general. They mixed across social boundaries. They began to break down the distinctions between male and female. When plagues hit the major cities it was the Christians who cared for the sick and dying even at the risk of their own lives. Far from the exclusivity of Christian belief separating them from others it actually had within it the key to sacrificial service of others irrespective of their belief system.
Our God is a God who lays down his life for those he loves, even those who are his enemies; and who brings peace and reconciliation at his own cost.
Yes, there are many religions in the world today and they’re all different. They all have some element of truth within them because they’re all the product of people who are made in God’s image with the desire to worship him. But in Christianity we have God revealed to us in a way that none other can claim, as a God who gives up his own life to bring all people back to himself. If we concentrate on that most fundamental belief then we should have no problem in living among others who fail to share our beliefs.