Recently Newseek published the result of its poll on religion in America (One Nation Under God?) and found that “A nation facing problems of biblical proportions appears to be looking less and less to religion for answers.” According to a new NEWSWEEK Poll, “the percentage of Americans who think faith will help answer all or most of the country’s current problems dipped to a historic low of 48 percent, down from 64 percent in 1994.” In addition Jon Meacham published an editorial piece on “The End of Christian America.” Are we in a post-Christian nation?

R. Albert Mohler Jr. President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said (as quoted by Jon Meacham): “The Northwest was never as religious, never as congregationalized, as the Northeast, which was the foundation, the home base, of American religion. To lose New England struck me as momentous… A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.” Strong words by someone who is very much affected by the shifting religious landscape.

Maecham comments that “This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory. To the surprise of liberals who fear the advent of an evangelical theocracy and to the dismay of religious conservatives who long to see their faith more fully expressed in public life, Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population.”

As I see it, this is a good thing. America isn’t a Christian nation. We are a melting pot of all types of religions and no religion at all. The strangle hold that fundamentalist Christians seemed to have on the government wasn’t good. It kept us from fully investing in Stem Cell Research, kept our education system in the dark ages by trying to force creationism/Intelligent Design into our classrooms, tried to rob the right of women to chose the outcome of their pregnancy, marginalized gays and lesbians, wanted to put prayer back into our schools where those of different faiths and no faith would be forced to pray to their god, would love the 10 Commandments to be hanging in every courthouse in the land (few among them obey the First tablet of their sacred law), and if given the chance would love us to be ruled by their Bible.

Meacham says it this way: “Evangelical Christians have long believed that the United States should be a nation whose political life is based upon and governed by their interpretation of biblical and theological principles. If the church believes drinking to be a sin, for instance, then the laws of the state should ban the consumption of alcohol. If the church believes the theory of evolution conflicts with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, then the public schools should tailor their lessons accordingly. If the church believes abortion should be outlawed, then the legislatures and courts of the land should follow suit.” What few evangelicals failed see is that any religion in control means that people of other religions are looked at as heretics. If any one religious group gained control, their doctrine would rule. And if you disagreed? Just look at history to see how religious states dealt with people that disagreed with their favorite doctrines. It isn’t pleasant.

Meacham sees this. He says: “As crucial as religion has been and is to the life of the nation, America’s unifying force has never been a specific faith, but a commitment to freedom—not least freedom of conscience. At our best, we single religion out for neither particular help nor particular harm; we have historically treated faith-based arguments as one element among many in the republican sphere of debate and decision. The decline and fall of the modern” religious right’s notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment and, for many believers, may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.” But he is also clear, “while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian.”

This might be true depending on how you define the term “Christian”. People love that label even when, theologically, there is little to it. Is Christianity a warm-fuzzy feeling about your best friend Jesus with little substance other than what your “heart” tells you? Or do you have to hold to a certain dogma to claim that label? If it is a certain dogma, then which one? There are some 38,000 denominations that claim the Christian title (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations) and many of them think they are the “true” believers. Even those who would use the label “evangelical” do not agree on core doctrines of their faith.

Could it be that we are moving to a post-evangelical Christian world? In that case the evangelicals would see it as a post-Christian world, but those who don’t hold to that label might see it differently. Mohler’s concern is that “the post-Christian narrative is radically different; it offers spirituality, however defined, without binding authority.” This is obviously upsetting to anyone in authority positions within the Christian hierarchy, but in an independent minded America the “Christian” religion might be moving to a more individualized spirituality. Yet don’t be deceived. People also like the black and white view of the world that dogmatic religions can bring. There are still authoritative, rigid, dogmatic Christian churches that are gaining membership precisely because they give security in a time of insecurity. They may grow but hopefully will remain a minority if the current religious polls are any indication.

Personally, I would love to see people come to their senses and realize there is no sky-god to worship, just like there is no Zeus or Thor or Krishna or Santa Claus. Yet, I’ll settle for a “post-Christian”, watered down, personal, inner spiritual Christianity. This kind of Christianity is no threat to anything. It’s a least a step in the right direction.

Michael Spencer recently published an article in the Christian Science Monitor entitled: The coming Evangelical Collapse (March 10, 2009). In it he gives 7 reasons why he sees this collapse coming within 10 years and “Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants“. Let’s look at each of those reasons:

1. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society….We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.” While I understand Spencer’s concern here, I’m not sure all of it is valid. If Christianity is to be vibrant and relative it must engage all aspects of a believers life and this engagement must include “moral, social and political issues”. When I was a Christian, I never understood the concept that your religion is private and shouldn’t impact your public life. If religion has any power at all it demands your public and private life. The problem here, as I see it, is not that Christians are engaging in causes; rather, the vast majority of those who claim Christ are keeping their religion a private matter. If you believe something deeply it must infuse your entire life, whether you are a believer or non-believer. Unfortunately, those believers that were the most visible were also extreme in their beliefs and these extreme policies are having a negative impact. In addition holding onto “truths” that no longer have a scientific or even moral basis makes their movement increasingly obsolete. You may believe the world is flat but don’t expect your beliefs to be taken seriously. I don’t see an out for evangelical Christianity here. They must engage the world but doing so with untrue Biblical “truths” is bad for society and bad for their movement.

2. “We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught… (we have) produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Absolutely. The church has reached out to younger people by substituting entertainment for doctrine. Churches have trained their congregations to seek after and value the church that has the best entertainment, the best singers, the best plays, and the most dynamic, showy sermons.

3. “There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile.” Here Spencer forgets a growing movement of churches that are rejecting consumer-driven megachurches and are focusing on serious worship and a solid doctrinal foundation. The Reformed Baptist movement is one of these; however, these groups are small and rigidly control their congregations. In this sense, they are fragile and will probably not last past a few generations.

4. “Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism.” Of course it can’t since it has no doctrinal basis and often contradicts social and societal norms, not to mention scientific facts. It’s only defense is the “bible says so”, which is increasingly losing the power and force it once had. Such reasons sound shallow and trite in today’s world.

5. “Look for ministries to take on a less and less distinctively Christian face in order to survive.” Could this be because a religion based on 2000+ year old values, morals and superstitions is becoming increasingly irrelevant in this technologically advanced society? At one time, the church could force it’s view on it’s congregation and they would believe it, but now a simple Internet search on any subject will show wide ranges of belief even within the Christian fold. It’s becoming harder and harder to become dogmatic.

6. “We will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.” It gets harder and harder to pass on such “truths” without withdrawing from society, because you have to bury your head in the sand to seriously say the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God. Recent best sellers are pressing home the facts of serious biblical scholarship to an ever widening circle of churched people. This scholarship is in direct conflict with the cherished doctrines of many believers.

7. “The money will dry up.” When a religion becomes entertainment driven and an increasingly irrelevant force in society, people find better things to do with their money.

The Evangelical church has painted itself into a corner that is becoming increasingly difficult to escape from. On one hand they want to affirm the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible. On the other hand science is confronting the church with facts that undermine the authority of the Bible. As the church pushes back they are increasingly seen as backward, obstructionist, head in the stand ostriches that oppose scientific truths and societal norms. The harder they push the more public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.” Yet if they don’t push back their message blends with that of society and they become a mere fixture of the past and nothing more than a social organization of like-minded individuals.

If they accept the inconsistencies and errors in the Bible they hold so dear and use it as a guide picking and choosing what is relevant, their solid moral compass becomes less and less absolute and more and more situational, something they hate. Yet, they don’t understand that they do pick and chose what they want from the Bible all they while maintaining they don’t. As Dr. Ehrman said:
Some people may think that it is a dangerous attitude to take toward the Bible, to pick and choose what you want to accept and throw everything else out. My view is that everyone already picks and chooses what they want to accept in the Bible.” (Jesus Interrupted, Kindle Edition 4333-36) No one kills their child for disobedience or kills someone for breaking the Sabbath. Most churches don’t even honor the Sabbath and have made a whole lists of excuses why that particular commandment is not valid for today.

I don’t see the evangelical church going away anytime soon, as they love to play the martyr game, but I do see them becoming increasingly irrelevant and marginalized in society similar to how the Amish are viewed today.

I just finished reading Dr. Bart Ehrman’s newest book, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). This is an extremely powerful and well written book. Anyone who has an interest in the Bible or Christianity needs to read this book, especially those who come from the Biblical Inerrancy camp. If you can still hold to Biblical Inerrancy after reading it, then you are just going by faith not by facts. Although, I do suspect that the usual conservative rebuttal books from Dallas Theological Seminary and the likes will be hitting the shelves shortly, so those people who want to keep their heads in the sand and read the rebuttals without reading the book will have some comfort.

Dr. Ehrman documents the following facts that have been known by Biblical Scholars for decades or more:

1. An historical-critical examination of the Bible and a horizontal reading of the Gospels (reading what each Gospel records about a particular event) shows that there are both minor and major (irreconcilable) differences in the Biblical stories from the birth of Jesus to his death on the cross. There are also historical difficulties.

2. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts but rather are based on oral traditions floating around at the time. They were written decades after the events they describe and they weren’t written by disinterested parties wanting to maintain historical accuracy. It may surprise some to know that we don’t even know who these authors were and there were other Gospels written that never made it into the Bible we now know.

3. Each of the Gospels has a distinctive view of Jesus, why He died, when He became the “Son of God” (this isn’t a divine reference), how one is saved, the purpose of the law (especially when Paul is thrown into the mix), etc. Only John, the latest Gospel, has the view that Jesus was divine. Again, this might come as a surprise to many people who read these scriptures and just assume they are saying the same things or just gloss over the differences.

4. When Paul’s own Epistles are compared with the Book of Acts, it is clear that there are differences between the two which means that Acts cannot be used as a strictly reliable historical document.

5. We don’t know who wrote most of the Epistles and only about 7 can be clearly attributed to Paul.

6. Jesus was an Apocalyptic prophet, meaning that he thought that the end of the world was imminent and that one needed to repent and turn to God before judgment was executed. What happened to this message? “When the end does not come, people who want to remain faithful to the original vision of Jesus and his disciples have to grapple seriously with the fact that an essential element of that vision appears to have been wrong. Of course the faithful would not claim that Jesus was wrong. More likely, he was misunderstood. And so there begins a long
and significant process of reinterpretation, in which the original message comes to be transformed into a less tactile, less tangible, less easily disconfirmed view. Specifically, the teaching of a future resurrection of the body, in which the righteous will be rewarded and
the wicked punished here on earth, gets transmuted into a message of heaven and hell, where judgment comes not at the end of the age but at the end of one’s life. Your soul goes to one place or the other.”
(Kindle Edition: 4099-4105)

7. Surprisingly for many people, Dr. Ehrman states: “There were lots of early Christian groups. They all claimed to be right. They all had books to back up their claims, books allegedly
written by the apostles and therefore representing the views of Jesus and his first disciples. The group that won out did not represent the teachings of Jesus or of his apostles. For example, none of the apostles claimed that Jesus was “fully God and fully man,” or that he
was “begotten not made, of one substance with the Father,” as the fourth-century Nicene Creed maintained. The victorious group called itself orthodox. But it was not the original form of Christianity, and it won its victory only after many hard-fought battles.”
(Kindle Edition: 3341-47).

8. In spite of what some evangelicals teach and preach, the resurrection as well as the Gospel miracles are NOT subject to historical analysis and this isn’t because of any anti-Christian or anti-Miracle bias. It is because a miracle, by definition, is a highly improbable event or it wouldn’t be a miracle! So any explanation, ANY explanation at all, is more plausible than a miracle. It’s not to say that a miracle didn’t occur, just that historically speaking (as well as scientifically), any explanation is more probable than a miracle. As Dr. Ehrman says: “The resurrection is not least likely because of any anti-Christian bias. It is the least likely because people do not come back to life, never to die again, after they are well and truly dead. But what if Jesus did? If he did, it’s a miracle, and it’s beyond historical demonstration.” (Kindle Edition: 2782-84)

9. The doctrines and theology of Christianity changed over time to morph into something that would have been unrecognizable to Jesus. What Jesus said became less and less important than defining who he was and what he said was seen through the glasses of this definition. What Jesus taught is vastly different from what we call Christianity: “Christianity, as has long been recognized by critical historians, is the religion about Jesus, not the religion of Jesus.” (Kindle Edition: 4128-29) These are not minor doctrines but doctrines the Church considers core such as the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the suffering Messiah and even the Christian concept of heaven and hell!

I haven’t given any examples to support the above statements because I want you to actually read and engage the book yourself. Dr. Ehrman’s thesis is “that not only is the Bible a very human book, but that Christianity as it has developed and come down to us today is a
very human religion”
(Kindle Edition 3503-4). However, his personal view “is that a historical-critical approach to the Bible does not necessarily lead to agnosticism or atheism. It can in fact lead to a more intelligent and thoughtful faith—certainly more intelligent and thoughtful than an approach to the Bible that overlooks all of the problems that historical critics have discovered over the years.” (Kindle Edition: 4200-4203) He is very insistent on this point and lets the reader know that there are many professors and others with these views who claim to be a Christian and worship Jesus as divine. While this is undoubtedly true, I have to ask why?

If you know the Gospels were not eyewitness accounts, don’t accurately portray the historic facts, that the message Jesus preached is far and removed from the message preached today, that he wasn’t seen as divine until decades after his death, that the “orthodoxy” version won out over numerous other views of Jesus, that even the Canon of scripture was disputed, that many of the most precious doctrines of scripture were simply invented in order to explain difficulties (for example how can Jesus be fully man and fully God when there is only one God), and that even now there are still major disputes over major doctrines of the Church. If you know all this how can you still believe? What is so compelling that you feel you must use the label Christian? What is it about this label that people want to hang on to in spite of what they actually believe? Why knowingly worship a man? Why partake in rituals that have few roots in the original brands of Christianity? There can be no doubt that Jesus said some wonderful things but so have philosophers, Kings, poets and authors throughout the ages and no one worships them. What is so compelling about the Christian label?

Before Ehrman became an agnostic he said that Christianity “resonated” with him and comforted him. This may be the case with many people but what would you think if we talked this way about another god? What if someone said:

I know how lightning is formed but I prefer to worship Zeus and look at lightning as an attribute of his godhood because it resonates with me. It comforts me that it isn’t random but controlled by the Almighty Zeus.

Does this make any sense to a modern person? I once heard a person describe them self as a secular humanist Christian? Huh? Isn’t this a conflict in terms? Why then insist on the label “Christian”? Why does one want the label of Christian when the facts are so much different than the original Christianity or Christianities? I really don’t have an answer. I suppose this has something to do with faith, how we were raised, where we were raised, and how we can compartmentalize what we believe. As Dr. Ehrman says: “Faith is not a matter of smarts.” So true, so true.

——————–
Dr. Bart Ehrman was a strong evangelical Christian, attending both Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. His strong fundamental, evangelical, inerrant views of scripture gave way in the light of the evidence presented in his Seminary studies. As he says, “…it became clear to me over a long period of time that my former views of the Bible as the inerrant revelation from God were flat-out wrong. My choice was either to hold on to views that I had come to realize were in error or to follow where I believed the truth was leading me. In the end, it was no choice. If something was true, it was true; if not, not.” (Kindle Edition: 68-71) However, he is equally clear that his new view of scripture did NOT destroy his faith. He continued believing but became an agnostic only after considering the problem of evil, the subject of another one of his books (God’s Problem).

Recently John Armstrong has written three articles extolling the virtual of Pacal’s Wager as an apologetic tool for “defending the ultimate reality of Christ and the truth”. The articles can be found here:

Pascal: “The Wager” and the Modern Context

Pascal’s Wager: Not the Proof of God but the Way of Wisdom

The Criticism of Pascal’s Apologetics

Briefly Pascal’s Wager “is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should “wager” as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose” (From Wiki on Pascal’s Wager). I am really amazed, in this day and age, that anyone can take this wager seriously as an apologetic tool. While on the surface it may seem like a compelling argument, there are huge problems with the “wager”. I would like to examine just two of those problems.

The first problem is relatively obvious and one in which Pascal attempted to deal with, that of faith and belief, neither of which can be manufactured. If god only cares about simply acknowledging his existence then Pascal’s Wager might hold some force, but if god wants any type of commitment this is not something that can be “wagered”. In a recent book, Ronald J. Sider said: Slick evangelical marketers have offered eternal salvation as a free gift if you just say yes to a simple formula: “‘God loves you, humankind blew the relationship, but He has a plan for your life; just saying the magic words triggers the contract’ was what we told people:’ The response? “Boomers studied the offer and realized it was a no-lose proposition: eternal security at nothing down, no future payments, just simple verbal assent. The deal specified nothing about life change “‘ Why not accept a no-cost fire insurance policy? The result, Barna sadly notes, is “born-again” people living just like everybody else.” (Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, The: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World?, Kindle Edition, location 395-99). Pascal’s Wager has often been used as cheap fire insurance. If there is a god, one would think this isn’t the type of believer he wants. If he wants real belief and real commitment, that is something that you can’t force and can’t compel yourself to do, hence the wager falls apart or at best can be used to start one thinking about the problem.

A more serious problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it is “Christ” centric. It assumes “Christ” or nothing and, as such, it ignores all other concepts of god. It assumes, a priori, that “Christ” is the correct god and there are no other choices. However, if you come to Pascal’s Wager without this bias then the next question has to be “which god”? There are 1,000s of religions with 1,000s of gods. Which god do you throw your lot or wage in with? (Here is a list of just some of the religions of the world.) The “Christ” god, isn’t compatible with most of these religions. How do you know that he is the correct god? And even if you decide on “Christ” as the correct god, which “Christ” are you going to bet on? There are from 34,000 to 38, 000 Christian denominations, many of which have incompatible notions of Christ. Do you pick your god based on how horrible their hell is? Maybe then Islam should be your choice. It has arguably, the worst hell (Islam’s Hell). Or maybe you should pick the “Christ” that doesn’t require a commitment so all you have to do is say a simple prayer? Maybe there isn’t one god but several? Do you have to throw your lot in with all of them?

It’s all so confusing because it isn’t an either or choice. You are simply making a guess as to which of the tens of thousands religions and denominations is the correct one. One person’s completely “rational” and “reasonable” god is another person’s obviously foolish and incorrect god. If god cares at all about truth, you better choose wisely. Make an incorrect pick and you’re toast! I’ll throw my wager in with non-belief. At least non-belief fits the evidence.