Saturday, June 11, 2016

Why Atheism?

One of the more interesting questions I have been thinking about lately is why we have this rise of atheism in western society in the last few generations. I have seen some scholars point out that this is quite unique. Other religions and even other Christian societies have not seen anything like this. One religion can be replaced by another as the dominant one in a particular culture but never does a religion get replaced by a null religion. No better revelation of God but rather a decision to doubt all revelation of God. There is no central prophet either. You could see Jesus or Mohammad being the authors of movements that overtook many countries but no similar central figure around atheism. It is more like people just drifted away. Yet why do people drift away from the central truths of human existence? This has not been a feature of humanity before. Why now?

Many of the functional atheists actually don't actively oppose religion. Most secular people won't explicitly deny there is a God. They try and say a particular religion is true but they don't live like it is. It is a polite lack of interest rather than a rebellious spirit. They don't want to offend God in case He exists but they are not willing to reorder their lives around that possibility. 

You can think of a few reasons. There has been some bad theology. Yet much worse theologies have held sway in other places without producing atheists. You have the hard moral teachings but again we can think of other religions with harder moral teachings that remained basically intact. 

So maybe people have gotten more sophisticated. Maybe they don't have the same desires for morality, immortality and meaning. Maybe science has somehow given us better answers to these questions. I think this is getting closer but I don't think this is it yet. 

What has happened is the balance between faith and reason has become skewed. All religions have certain things you must accept on faith. After those things are assented to then reason kicks in and fills in the rest of the picture. What happened in Christianity is quite strange. People started to reject articles of faith yet they considered it a virtue and not a vice. 

It started with Luther. He said that unless someone could convince him from scripture and plain reason that he was wrong then ... here I stand. I was always told that the key to that statement was scripture. Thinking about it later it seems clear the key is reason. He was rejecting the church and the councils and the saints and the sacraments in favour of reason. He was not rejecting them in favour of scripture. Catholicism already embraced scripture. He was rejecting many articles of faith and replacing them with his own reason and considering it a virtue. 

That process has simply continued. Luther was followed by the radical reformation which replaced more articles of faith with reason and called it a virtue. Then we get the Age of Reason. People are still basically Christians yet faith is becoming less and less important to them and reason more important. This is seen as progress. 

Even when we had revivals like the Great Awakening movements in the US there was a call to faith but very little emphasis on the content of that faith. Just having faith is what mattered. 

So what has fuelled this constant degradation of Christianity? It is the embrace of your own reason and the distrust of tradition. Tradition is just the reasoning of previous generations of Christians. This is a basic tenant of any religion that the truths it teaches are timeless and therefore what was received from the previous generation should be trusted. Protestantism has in its DNA to distrust that teaching. 

That process of distrust  does not lead us back to scripture. Why would those trained to be sceptical of what comes from the previous generations choose to accept scripture without question? The process leads to atheism and nihilism. Articles of faith are rejected and human reason has no foundation to arrive at any truth. 

This is what we are seeing. People are rebelling against Christianity but not in a very different way from the way Protestants have frequently rebelled against their fore-bearers. It is rejecting more of the faith and replacing it with their own reason. Just that now the articles being rejected are the very existence of God and the truth of scripture and other very basic tenants. Yet many retain much of the moral framework of Christianity. How long will that last? Not sure.

The question is how far will we fall before we come back to the faith. Not a revival where we embrace a slightly less watered down form of Christianity and declare ourselves to be holy. I mean the real faith. By the grace of God it is still here. 

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