For several years now, national surveys have firmly established that a fast-growing quarter of the U.S. population comprises people with no religious affiliation, including atheists and agnostics — “Nones,” in demographic slang — yet the only folks much aware of this trend seem mainly to be Nones themselves.
The apparent reason, as with the current Democrat-Republican political chasm in America, is that religious people and the irreligious (or religiously disinterested) separate themselves into respective silos to preach to their choirs or un-choirs, who then receive only information deemed relevant by their tribes.
So never the twain is meeting.
I wanted to shout to the heavens (so to speak).
It was clear that the writer, Josh Daffern, who posts on his “New Wineskins: An Apologist for the Modern Church” blog, had little idea what he was talking about. He seemed unaware, for example, that the one and only thing that might possibly lure most atheists, agnostics and the religiously untethered back to church is much, much better evidence for divinity.
Yet, Daffern has concluded that the ticket is not giving better evidence for the divine but avoiding the exercise altogether. He views Nones not as a chance to sharpen the arguments undergirding Christian dogma but as an opportunity for raw evangelism, referring to Jesus’ command (from Matthew 28:19-20) that his followers go forth and make disciples of people in “all nations.”
So, Daffern’s seven-point strategy boils down to distracting Nones from worrisome questions about dogma by appealing solely to their emotional neediness. Here’s what he proposes, in brief:
- “Live authentically.” Since one of the most powerful arguments against a omnibenevolent God is constant, intractable suffering among humankind throughout history, Daffern recommends counseling Nones to think of suffering not as bad, ungodly, but as essential to godliness, just as Jesus suffered. In other words, God condones it because it presumably makes you holier (which is a dodge, which I get to further down).
- “Change the way we talk about the Bible.” He recommends not saying the word “Bible” when proslytizing about Christianity, because its “bad connotations” could be off-putting to some people. “It’s a branding issue,” he writes. To explain further, he recounts the biblical story of God telling Joshua to attack Jericho and “kill every living thing inside.” Daffern contends — although it’s untrue (many, many Christians believe the Bible is inerrant) — that people “raised in church … get the nuance” within this passage, knowing it’s from the Bible’s most ancient scripture, the Old Testament, which is a “different covenant” that only “makes sense in the times and culture of the day.” In other words, God ordering the murder of innocents is OK if made in an ancient fictional book written when such things were apparently more kosher. Daffern encourages Christians to not imply the Bible is an absolute, infallible document (although most of the faithful arguably do). He writes:
“The other reason this is important is because if we make the Bible the basis of Christianity, then if someone can poke a hole of doubt into one part of the Bible, then it all comes crashing down like a house of cards.”
So, what he’s recommending is that the faithful downplay the Bible’s locked-in, foundational role in the genesis of Christianity to argue that the faith is somehow still valid and rational even without it. Just talk about Jesus, who was, of course, a relatively advanced New Testament guy, he says.
- “Make church irresistible.” Because a previous “bad experience in church” causes many people to walk away, Daffern concludes that churches should try to spruce up the experience by ensuring churchgoers have a “nice building, with central air and heating,” decorations for the Christmas season, staff to greet them when they arrive for worship, contemporary music and inspiring sermons. Makes sense, if faith were essentially about public relations.
- “Assume they’re in the room.” This is more public relations. Daffern suggests clergy should talk to churchgoers in language they can understand, without jargon or obscurity, and in a welcoming, inclusive way.
- “Don’t ‘go’ to church. Be a family.” Yet more public relations at the expense of proof of dogma. Daffern proposes that people come to church primarily for a sense of “community” and “family,” not religious programs, so he said it’s important to enhance that need more than to improve worship services.
- “Make it practical.” This item also deflects churchgoers attention from theology to emotional needs in how they find relevance in worship. Daffern writes of churchgoers:
“They’re lonely, they’re struggling, their marriage needs work, their kids are going crazy, they’re financially overwhelmed and they’re scared about the future. How are we making helping people with their practical needs?”
This is more psychology than theology.
- “Speak to their deeper needs.” More appeals to emotion. Daffern urges clergy to try to address churchgoers need to “know God,” find freedom, discover purpose and “make a difference” with their lives. Whatever that means.
Certainly, some people yearn for the sense of community and family that church congregations can clearly provide, and some backsliders return for that reason. But surveys bear out that whereas a lot of people, even some Nones, have a vague sense of some “higher power” in the universe, religious theology and its usual avalanche of contradictions and fantasies doesn’t seem to answer their questions. So more and more people are fading away from church affiliations, trying to figure out their existential questions on their own. And many are already long gone, as rapidly shrinking and graying church congregations attest. The young are the least religious of all, not just in America but throughout the West.
To be sure, absolute, monotheistic faiths may never be able to attract people back to faith in the numbers the once enjoyed, without some sort of cataclysm to unhinge them, as human knowledge and resistance to accepting fantasies as true steadily grows. The Enlightenment isn’t yet past, after all.
But churches almost certainly will fail to entice new believers by simply appealing to their emotions while trying to conceal the very questionable theology — the wholly unsubstantiated dogma — that competely underpins them.
And naïve strategies like Dafferns’ strongly suggest that the faithful have no idea how Nones and their ilk think, so their chance of success seems dim at best.
I myself am part of the communication problem. My criticism of Daffern’s program will appear in my own blog, which will be disseminated mainly to people who presumably mostly agree with me already. He and other committed Christians will never see it and thus have no chance perhaps to better understand what they’re actually up against. Therefore there will be no cross-fertilization of ideas. We will all just continue speaking to our choirs.
Martin Luther, the medieval father of Christian Protestantism, had nothing but contempt for reason in regard to faith. He commanded people to just think of God and Jesus and nothing else.
“Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore,” Luther said.
So here we are, still trying to hide religion from reason.
How’s that working out for us?