One of my favorite economists, Bob Murphy, has a recent post on his blog that I decided to comment on. Murphy, a Christian, often posts some thoughts on religion on or around Sundays and this particular post brought out some interesting comments. One commenter shared a link to a post on hubpages.com by one, Thomas Swan, in which he lays out 40 questions for Christians in hopes of provoking some critical thought and, presumably, causing some to think twice about their belief. There are indeed some good questions, which you can see here. Since there are so many questions in several different categories, I’ve decided to break down my response into several parts – I don’t want this post to turn into a book.
I enjoyed reading through the questions, which have been broken down into various topics, including the Bible, hell, conversion, and the existence and nature of God Himself. I especially appreciated how Swan framed the questions. From the beginning, the questioner makes it clear that, while he ultimately hopes to change minds, the aim is really to provoke thought – not anger. I’ve seen my fair share of discussions on religion that become very heated, to the point where neither side comes out any better for it and I wish more people would come into these sorts of discussions with the proper mindset, as Mr. Swan has here.
Now, before I get into the questions themselves, I want to make a note that many of these questions that Swan has raised are incredibly relevant to the current discussion on religion in the West (Europe and North America). I’ve had some of these questions myself over the course of my life and I sympathize with some of these concerns even today. I also would like to say that I think most of these questions are directed mainly at Western Christianity (Protestants and Catholics, but I think traditional, fundamentalist evangelicals in North America should especially be on their toes here), as most atheists today in the Western world are familiar with the Western version of Christianity – this is all they know. Even many Christians in the West aren’t aware of the existence of the Orthodox Church, much less what makes Eastern Christianity substantially different from the Western half.
This is a very important time for Orthodoxy, as the Orthodox Church is moving into and steadily growing in the Western world just as more and more people are waking up to what we Orthodox see as inherent problems in Western Christianity. Secularism is rising rapidly even in North America and the game is just about over in old Europe. In an age of increasing unbelief, I think Orthodoxy is in a unique position to answer these questions. So with that in mind, I humbly offer the best answers that I can give to these important questions from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
The first few questions are about “global religion”, which I take to mean religion in general. Therefore, my answers will be fairly broad.
1. “If a hundred different religions have to be wrong for yours to be right, does this show that people from all over the world like to invent gods that don’t exist?”
This is a good question and the implicit point here is: “If other people make up religions, why isn’t your God just make-believe?” I think it’s a mistake to look at religion in such “black and white” terms. The same thing can be said for any culture or philosophy, even secular ones. One has to be specific when articulating beliefs and ideas. In other words, I think it’s fair to turn the question around and ask why should this burden be placed on religious people and not atheists or agnostics? What version of atheism is one proposing? On what grounds do you base your claims and why is your particular school of thought the correct one? In addition to rejecting every religious tradition, what makes you so certain about your particular atheist tradition? Why, or why not, reject the others?
Now, I’m not advocating relativism here. I want to be clear about that. But at the same time, I think it’s fair to recognize that there’s a lot more nuance to each religious or secular tradition and coming to a specific belief means that others are at least implicitly rejected. Of course, one can decide how charitable he or she wants to be with other traditions. For example, I tend to look at other religions and secular philosophies in a way that helps me learn a little more about the world. I see something God-inspired in most traditions and I’m eager to learn what I can. It never hurts to learn something new.
As an Orthodox Christian, specifically, I am first commanded to not judge others. Every human being is a child of God, created in His image, so each individual is sovereign and free to make his or her own decisions about how to live and what to believe. All I can do is pray for those who are not in the Church, trust in God’s infinite mercy, and love them and learn from them. Above all, I must struggle to repent of my own sins and put away my selfishness, becoming more like Christ each day through the life of the Church. That said, I firmly believe the Gospel that has been preached by the Orthodox Church since Pentecost and I think I have good reason to believe it. But this is not what I base my faith on, because faith is an orientation of the heart towards God – it is not coming into accord with specific facts in my head. So the important thing for Orthodox isn’t coming up with arguments to denounce other beliefs in favor of what we believe. Rather, we are to focus on our relationship with God and our journey towards God-likeness. As St. Seraphim of Sarov said, the purpose of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and that if we focus on our own repentance, those around us will be saved.
2. “If your parents had belonged to a different religion, do you think you would belong to that religion too?”
The question here is, on its face, perfectly reasonable and understandable. The assumption is that people tend to take on the religious beliefs that were handed down to them. So a child raised in a Muslim household will tend to be Muslim and a child raised by Buddhist parents will tend to be Buddhist, and so on. There’s nothing unreasonable about this and I think there is definitely something to this tendency – there’s no denying that our upbringing has a substantial influence on our beliefs as we mature into adulthood.
Then again, the world is a beautiful and wonderfully complicated place. If you look a little deeper, you’ll find fascinating stories everywhere and this includes spiritual journeys. While they may or may not be the norm, I think there are enough occurrences of conversions of various sorts to sometimes radically different traditions for us to take notice. Take me, for example. I was raised in a traditional, evangelical home in the Southern Baptist tradition. I went to Southern Baptist schools and churches all my life, but then I ended up converting to the Orthodox Church, which I see as the fullness of the Christian Faith. My sister became Catholic. Friends from school became atheists and agnostics and Lutherans.
Then there are instances where people who’ve no exposure to certain religions have experiences that bring them to new beliefs. Sometimes some exposure to a certain tradition can bring great changes. C.S. Lewis was an atheist and then, after his conversion, became one of the greatest theologians of the modern era. St. Paul had a vision of Christ and became one of the greatest evangelists of all time. Of course, those are just a couple examples of people converting to Christianity. Stories abound of conversions to other traditions as well. The point here is that while there may be tendency to hold on to the beliefs of one’s parents, life isn’t always so simple.
3. “If people from the five major religions are each told conflicting information by their respective gods, should any of them be believed?”
This question seems to be fairly similar to the first and turning the question around is fair play. “If five atheists each hold conflicting grounds for atheism or come from different atheist traditions, should any of them be believed?” There is an assumption here that implies that, because religious people have so many different views, they must all be making stuff up. Here again I think it’s important to recognize the importance of nuance in various traditions – religious and secular. It’s important to remember that just because each tradition makes a unique claim and can hold various grounds for it, doesn’t mean that none of them are right. Again, I’m not for postmodern relativism. I believe there is such a thing as objective truth and this will have to be hashed out in the arena of ideas. But I also think it’s unfair for non-religious people to actively attack religious traditions without also laying out their own claims and the grounds they have for them.
In addition, it’s only fair for each side in the debate to not resort to caricature in portraying the other side’s views. Atheists and religious people alike are guilty of this and it’s time to put an end to this intellectual vice – let everyone lay their cards out on the table, I say, and let each person make up his own mind as to which tradition makes the most sense to him.
I should emphasize, again, that Orthodox have not dogmatized a specific epistemology. Orthodoxy is existential to its core and not concerned with turning theology into an intellectual exercise or a science. Let people believe what they will and let them live in peace, trusting in the ultimate mercy of God.