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.

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