There are many ironies in the list of “better explanations” atheists graciously provided in response to a recent blog post here, but perhaps none greater than atheists’ skepticism:
I figure if there’s an atheist worldview it might be the same as the scientific worldview, which means questioning things and looking for physical evidence, unlike the religious worldview which means trusting and submitting to authority.
There’s a sentiment in there that’s echoed in comments like,
Skepticism is a better method for examining the claims people make about the nature of reality…. Skepticism and empiricism are so important…. Faith implies belief without reasoning.
Now, here’s the irony: Christianity isn’t what they’ve described it to be, and it’s hard to tell whether they’ve done the investigation to check their facts. I’m not sure skepticism is really their approach to knowledge after all. I think it’s may be something more in the neighborhood of unquestioning disbelief toward positive religious claims and unquestioning belief of negative assessments of religion.
I’m sure that sounds harsh, and I need to temper it by owning up to a harsh reality on our own side. Contemporary Western Christianity has an unhealthy fear of questions. We need more unanswered ones. Our pastors seldom, if ever, end a sermon without wrapping it up neatly, all questions answered, and in this they are not following the example of Jesus Christ. There is even an authoritarian strain within Christianity that tries to command assent and squash doubt by forbidding questions. This is counterproductive. Research out of Fuller Seminary shows that youth whose questions are denied by parents or church leaders are far more likely to leave the faith than students whose questions are encouraged.
Western churches have done a lot right over the past several decades, and we’ve done many things wrong. I wonder whether this might be our greatest error of all: not following the teaching example of Christ, who left a lot of questions unanswered–until his listeners were fully ready for the answers. (See the link above for more on that.)
I think this probably accounts for why Christian fiction and drama seem so canned so much of the time. Our chief performance and literary art form—the sermon—has to have everything tied up and tidy in 20 to 45 minutes, and heaven help the pastor who leaves his congregation wondering about anything he said when it’s over. That’s our model. I think it’s been a bad influence on Christian creativity.
So I think it’s entirely possible that our atheist commenters acquired their views of Christianity through direct, personal experience. Some or all of them may have spent an unhealthy amount of time in unhealthy, unquestioning church environments. If they’ve got a wrong impression of Christianity, it could be because Christians have given them that wrong impression.
I had a fascinating lunchtime talk once with a tenured philosophy professor at a major university, an atheist. I asked him why he was an atheist. I expected a philosophical answer, and he had one or two, but I’ll never forget the first words out of his mouth: “I was in a church youth group when I was thirteen, and I wasn’t too impressed with the people there….” Experiences color interpretations. Christians, let’s quit shutting down questions and start exploring them instead!
For my part, I’m going to ask another question of my own here: Skeptics, could you tell us where it was that you acquired your impression of the church as being unquestioning, insufficiently skeptical, overly trusting? Because I’m here to tell you that what you’re describing is an aberration with respect to Christianity as presented in the Bible, which is completely unlike that. Let’s start a conversation on that, during which we Christians here will also have the opportunity to explain why your opinion, Christianity isn’t skeptical enough isn’t skeptical enough.[I’ll have more to say later about other topics alluded to in the quotes above. For now, my focus is on skeptics’ skepticism.]