Sunday, 16 July 2017

Review - 'Who Needs God' - part 2

I’m reviewing a series of six talks called ‘Who Needs God’, by Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church, Atlanta — — and we’ve reached the second talk.

Talk 2: ‘Gods of the No Testament’

In this talk, Andy says more about why people have left the church, having discarded their former beliefs. In his view, though, they don’t have a reason to be atheists. He says that many of their former beliefs weren’t actually right in the first place. People leaving Christianity have done so because they can no longer believe in versions of God, or of Jesus, that they were being taught. But, he claims, these versions of God and of Jesus weren’t part of Christianity anyway.

In this talk he focuses on these wrong ideas about God, which he calls the ‘somebody-told-you-so’ God. In the next talk he deals with wrong ideas about Jesus, which rather controversially he calls the ‘Bible-tells-me-so’ Jesus.

So what are these wrong ideas about God that people have been taught by their parents, their Sunday-school teachers, or even their pastors — these gods that don’t exist? Andy works his way through six:
  1. the bodyguard God — a God who ensures that good things happen to good people. Andy’s argument is that many people have abandoned belief in God because their experience of pain and suffering contradicts this concept of God. (Andy will deal with this area in more detail in a whole talk later in the series.) But, he argues, the idea that bad things never happen to good people isn’t part of the original claims of Christianity; it can’t have been, because Christianity itself started with the crucifixion of a good man, and with the persecution of his early followers. So we can’t use bad things happening to good people as an argument against God.

    As far as it goes this is a valid point.

  2. the on-demand God — a God who responds to fair requests the way we would. This is the expectation that God would do for us, at the very least, what we would do for someone else. Some people have decided there is no God because they didn’t receive answers to their prayers. But, Andy claims, this idea too isn’t part of Christianity, so again, you can’t use God not responding the way you expect as an argument against his existence.

    While the argument here is valid if it’s true that Christianity doesn’t make this claim about God, Andy fails to mention that there are parts of the Bible, especially the teaching of Jesus, that do appear to give exactly the impression that we can expect God to give us what we ask for.

  3. the boyfriend God — a God whose presence is always felt. Andy says that some people have decided there is no God because they have lost the sense of the presence of God that they used to experience. But, he says, the idea that God’s presence should always be felt is just an idea that somebody told them, not part of Christianity.

    Again, this is a valid point.

  4. the guilt God — a God who controls us through guilt and fear. This is the God who says, ‘No you can’t’ to everything, the God who supposedly loves us but who doesn’t really like us. As Andy probably rightly says, of all the gods that don’t exist, this is the hardest one to give up believing in if you were taught about him by your parents or your pastor. But you should.

    This is an important point for his Christian audience to hear, although Andy fails to say how he deals with large parts of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, where God is presented exactly like this.

  5. the anti-science God — a God who requires us to ignore the undeniable. People leave religion because the church asks them to close their eyes to undeniable science; it tells them to stop thinking and just believe. But thinking people can’t do this. Andy is bold enough to concede — in fact strongly state — that the ‘Sunday School God’ cannot be reconciled with science. But it’s not true that science and theology have to conflict. Rather, he says, if you find a conflict between science and your theology, it’s your theology that’s wrong.

    This argument certainly needs to be heard by Christians. But the unanswered question at this stage in the series is what sort of God is left over once you do eliminate the beliefs that are disproved by science.

  6. the gap God — a God who is the convenient explanation for everything we can’t explain. Believing in this God, Andy says, ultimately undermines faith, because the list of things we can’t explain is getting smaller. If your faith in God is based on the unexplainable, it’s going to crumble when things get explained. Unexplainable is not evidence for God, it is evidence of our ignorance. Here, Andy addresses the Christians in his audience and says the church shouldn’t be afraid of everything being explained, because that does not remove the necessity for someone having created it. Christianity doesn’t rely on there being mystery. He goes as far as to say that the fact that things are explainable, predictable, is evidence for a creator who created but then stopped.

    Andy credits Christians with the birth of science due to their belief that God had stopped creating, meaning that the universe should follow fixed laws, in contrast to belief in a pantheon of gods who were continually meddling with the world. But this ignores Greek philosophy in which there was an underlying order to the world that can be studied, despite the gods, and it ignores science in other ancient cultures which had other religious beliefs. It also fails to explain why ancient Jewish culture, which shares the same creation story, didn’t produce science, or why Christianity didn't produce science for many centuries.

    That aside, there’s much to commend Andy’s approach here: his realisation that the church has mostly got it wrong in its approach to science is an important message that Christians need to hear. But his side argument that the universe points to a creator is lacking substance. He doesn’t deal with any detail. What sort of God does the Big Bang point to? What sort of God does natural selection point to? There are many unaddressed questions here.
To conclude, Andy says that none of these six non-existent gods are evidence for or against anything; they are just unmet childhood expectations. They are elements of a childhood faith that has been undermined by adult questions, and rightly so. He’s not claiming to have presented any evidence for God in this talk, just to have said that anyone who has left Christianity may have done so unnecessarily because they believed in the wrong God in the first place. Having discarded virtually all the popular ideas about God that Christians have been taught, or that non-Christians imagine Christians to believe, at this stage in the series Andy gives hardly any hints about what sort of God he’s left with.

I’m not sure how relevant this talk is to an atheist audience; although on paper his target audience for this series are those who have left the church, it actually seems to be his Christian audience that he is really addressing here, urging them to rethink their faith and discard any childhood ideas about God that don’t fit with the real world. And for this, even if not for everything he’s said, he has my vote so far. It remains to be seen how much of the Christian God can be left after discarding these ideas.

The next talk in the series takes the same approach even further, dealing with Jesus and the Bible in ways that get him into trouble with many other Christian leaders.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Review - ‘Who Needs God’ - part 1

A Christian friend recommended I watch a series of six talks called ‘Who Needs God’, by Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church, Atlanta —

I suppose I belong to the target audience for these talks. Andy’s aim is to convince people who have left the church that they have left for the wrong reasons, people who have found that the faith they were taught as children doesn’t hold up in the outside world, people who, as he puts it, were ‘asking fact-based questions’, but were ‘being given faith-based answers’ by the church or their parents — answers that contradicted what they were learning from science. They are the ‘Nones’, those of no particular faith. ‘Who Needs God’ is his attempt to provide a version of Christianity that is fact-based rather than faith-based, that is compatible with science, and that will draw the ‘Nones’ back to church.

I should say from the outset that I don’t believe he has succeeded. Despite his claims, the talks do in fact hinge on certain assumptions that are very much faith-based. These talks were after all given as a series of sermons in church, albeit with the intention that non-church people would watch them online as well. The very fact that Andy remains a pastor shows that his version of Christianity still needs faith to believe it; he still needs to teach people its doctrines, to immerse them in its ideas, to keep them from abandoning it. His real audience in this series of talks is just as much his church members, who need their faith constantly topped up, as it is the ‘Nones’.

I should also say, though, that I would recommend every Christian should watch ‘Who Needs God’, especially talks 1-3. Andy does a great job of demolishing, one by one, many false ideas that the church has held onto by default over the years. Many of his points in the first half of the series, which have got him into trouble with more conservative pastors and organisations, are spot on, and no Christian should be allowed to remain a Christian without having faced up to them.

So, onto the detail. ‘Who Needs God’ is a series of six 40- to 45-minute talks. I’ll cover the first now, and hope to review the others in future posts.

Talk 1: ‘Atheism 2.0’

In this, the first of six talks, Andy Stanley says what he believes to be the main reason many people who were brought up in the church no longer consider themselves Christians. They have left, not because atheism is attractive, but because religion has become less attractive. They wouldn’t necessarily call themselves atheists, they just have no particular faith. They are the ‘Nones’, the non-affiliated. The religion and the God that these people were presented with as children have lost their attraction. If atheism were attractive, people would be leaving all religions, but this is something specific to Christianity, and Andy claims it’s the church’s fault for presenting the wrong version of Christianity. This is a bold claim, offering the promise of an alternative version that will draw people back again.

But before Andy offers that alternative version, he takes a detour to discus atheism. He does this to set out what he believes is the other choice that the ‘Nones’ have ultimately, if they don’t come back to Christianity. He describes six ‘uncomfortable things’ you have to accept if you’re an atheist, using a lot of quotes from atheist authors as he goes:
  1. If there’s no God, there’s no mind. He quotes Christopher Hitchens: ‘I don’t have a body, I am a body’. If the mind is a product of biology, then we can’t exist without our bodies.
  2. The illusion of free-will. He quotes both Sam Harris and Stephen Hawking here, to make the point that science claims everything is determined by physics and there is no room for choice.
  3. The illusion of value. Science doesn’t confer value on anything. If there’s no God, then there is no actual value to anything, only what we ascribe. Justice is just determined by what we want.
  4. Something came from nothing. The universe didn’t exist, then it did, but no-one has explained it yet. He quotes Richard Dawkins: ‘Cosmology is waiting on its Darwin.’
  5. Life from no life. Life arose spontaneously, but this hasn’t been explained either.
  6. Natural selection is responsible for all life after the first life, and it’s a purposeless process (even though it’s difficult not to speak of it as though it is a purposeful power).
For all these points, Andy says that for all he knows, they might be scientifically correct (he jokes, ‘I have a masters in Theology, not Biology!’), but he does his best to make them sound uncomfortable to his audience. On a couple of points, he seems to stray into the so-called ‘God of the gaps’ argument — that something unexplained by science might require a God — an idea which is repeatedly disproved by new discoveries. But it seems his main aim in this part of the talk has not been to argue logically against atheism, so much as to make an emotional appeal against it. If you were brought up with faith, then he hopes you still have an emotional link with it, and you will feel uncomfortable with the conclusions of science. I don’t really see how this fits with his stated intention to provide fact-based answers instead of faith-based ones. I sense a bit of emotional manipulation going on. These points would certainly not serve in any way to convince someone brought up as an atheist to doubt their position. They’d just think, ‘Yes, I accept those things, so what?’

It’s the Christian audience that I think would most benefit from looking at these six points. They should ask honestly, ‘If these things are true, what does that say about my faith?’ I congratulate Andy for bringing them up in a church context. I just hope he gives his church members enough emotional space to consider them honestly.