The Possibility Of Belief: Do The Nays Have It?

Hopper and the churchI am one who is rarely dispassionate about the secularization of our culture. I have been writing and speaking for some time now about what seems to be an accurate conclusion: The centuries-in-the-making secularization project is now complete. The secularists won. Christians have lost the culture. Christians are exiled to the sidelines of thought and influence. Belief is problematic in our time, so the story goes. People are leaving the church in droves. And here is a stunning realization: The final curtain dropped, over the last few years, with breathtaking speed. It’s over. Get over it, we are told.

But there is always this follow-on question that haunts me: Is this a good thing? Have the consequences of secularization brought us a better world?

In a recent column in The New York Times called “A Tough Season For Believers,” Ross Douthat says that people of faith feel acutely the pressures “to a form of faith effectively straightjacketed by naturalism, perpetually retreating from the God of the Bible, and defining divinity too far up to matter or too far down to count.” Where do these pressures come from? Well, of course, this truncated notion of faith comes from the surrounding secular culture.

Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker, recently wrote a stunning article about the victory of the “nones.”  Those are the people, according to the Pew Research Center, who declare themselves, in ever-expanding percentages, to believe in nothing, or at least to commit themselves to no particular religious tradition. These are the ones who have left the church. Gopnik, a secularist to be sure, is delighted with this development. This is a culture moving in the right direction, Gopnik surely believes.

Here is what we must come to realize and accept or get out of the way:

. . . What the noes [atheists], whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. What works wins. We know that men were not invented but slowly evolved from smaller animals; that the earth is not the center of the universe but one among a billion planets in a distant corner; and that, in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature. We need not imagine that there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none, and we will search for angels forever in vain. A God can still be made in the face of all that absence, but he will always be chairman of the board, holding an office of fine title and limited powers.

So there you have it. Who has the “actual explanation of things and processes”? Well, of course, the nones, those who also have “a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world.” These people read the world by computers instead of crystal balls. Anything that smacks of mystery is simply a cover for not knowing the truth of things. Belief is an illusion, a bad joke. Move on. Get hold of yourself and believe in something actual and true.

This is the air we breathe in our day. It is as if we have been living in Los Angeles long enough to believe the air is actually fresh. Belief has become preposterous, even to ourselves, and we don’t even know it. The secular presuppositions of our day have become invisible and presumed. It is the presumption of unbelief, as Charles Taylor puts it in A Secular Age.

So what do we do? I am always looking for a response, for some solution, for next steps. How do we go about living our lives as believers in this smog-filled world? Well, Douthat offers up an idea I have been exploring from some time. It is actually at the heart of my new book. Here is both the dilemma and the response we must craft:

. . . believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.

Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning. . . .

Ah, this now gets at a proposal I like very much. Is it possible for us to become an attractive, thriving minority right at the heart of this decidedly, dominant secular culture? Is it possible to study our history carefully enough that we may actually live into our history? I have come to believe this is where Christians must focus our energies. I believe we’ve got to step back from all the condescending dismissal of our way of life, recognize it for its own shallow limitations, and start building again, building attractive communities that allow us to thrive. This is the way we may shine out with an alternative to the dismal results of secularization.

Are we up to the task? The jury is out, but history tells us Christians have always found a way, not only to endure but to thrive. Yes, indeed, it’s going to take a lot of work, but I am absolutely convinced we are up to the challenge.

[button color=”#COLOR_CODE” background=”#COLOR_CODE” size=”medium” src=”http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/20/opinion/20douthat.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%222%22%3A%22RI%3A16%22%7D”]The Douthat Article[/button]

[button color=”#COLOR_CODE” background=”#COLOR_CODE” size=”medium” src=”http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=2014-02-17#folio=106″]The Gopnik Article[/button]