Thinking in the past

When I became a Christian as a teenager (over forty years ago, now), one of the things I had to endure was my atheist father’s anti-religious tirades. Religion was the cause of all war… the Church was filthy rich and after my money… Christians were hypocrites… etc, etc.

All water off a duck’s back – because none of it seemed to have any connection with the lovely group of people meeting in the little Baptist chapel down the road.

Not much seems to have changed in forty years, either; one of my husband’s atheist Facebook friends posts the same stuff whenever the subject of religion comes up.

Having recently been studying church history, I was fascinated to discover that all these arguments date right back to the 18th century (sometimes called the Age of Enlightenment). This was the age of Descartes and Voltaire, when it became not only possible but fashionable to despise religion in general and Christianity in particular. And in the 18th century, those arguments made a lot of sense. The previous century had been a traumatic period in Europe, with a long succession of religious and semi-religious wars (including the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War). The established churches everywhere were wealthy and privileged: the Catholic Church, for example, was one of the richest landowners in France yet paid no taxes. The clergy in general (I’m sure there must have been many exceptions) had a reputation for being idle and immoral. In short, Christianity was an easy target for criticism.

A lot has happened in the last 300 years, of course. Thanks largely to the labours of those 18th-century philosophers, Western society has become a secular one, and religion played little or no part in most of the wars of the 20th century. Even where the Church is still linked to the state, in practice it has hardly any political clout. Churches may still possess a large amount of wealth on paper, but most of this is tied up in real estate which is costly to maintain yet cannot easily be sold off (try just getting rid of the pews, and there will be shrieks of protest from hundreds of local non-attenders). Even in my own church (a relatively well-off evangelical parish church) the treasurer struggles to balance the books.

So why do the same stale old arguments get trotted out ad nauseam? If Christians seem to be impervious to them, it may be because they are simply irrelevant to us.

And atheists aren’t the only ones whose thinking can be out of date. Some Christians have the same problem: there are far too many ‘creationists’ whose anti-evolution arguments seem to be based on the science that they learned at school forty years ago (yes, that was the science I learned at school, too) and take no account of the recent advances in genetics on which so much of the evidence for evolution now rests. And then they are surprised when atheists are impervious to them…

So, whichever side of the debate you are on, here is some advice: don’t simply recycle the arguments that convinced you in your youth. Both science and religion are moving targets; if you want to hit them, you have to aim at where they are now, not where they were half a century (or more) ago.

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