Talk Two: We are all atheists now
Most people in our society are not atheists. Instead, most people, if asked whether there was a God, would say that it is impossible to be sure one way or another. This means that whether or not there is a God is simply a question that has no real relevance to them in how they live their lives and go about their daily existence. If it is impossible to know, why waste time trying to find out? For most people, the question of how to afford somewhere to live or which to school to send their child to are far more troubling and pressing issues than whether there is a God or not.
This is true even for those who are convinced there is a God or suspect that there might be. Try taking this simple test: Imagine that it was suddenly announced that it had been conclusively shown that there was not a God of any kind; that the universe and the physical world as we know it just is. What difference would that make to your life on a daily basis?
The answer for most of us is that it would make little or no difference at all. It would have no impact on what we think and believe, who we enter a relationship with, how we bring up our children, what we eat or wear, where we go on holiday, or how we spend what little free time we have after doing all the things we have to do each day. And this is as true for most Christians and theists, in general, as it is for those who belong to no religion, in particular.
We all know people who claim to be atheists. People who are certain that there is no God of any kind. We have all heard of famous celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who make a point of sharing their atheism and tying to convince people to join them in their unbelief. But what is the difference between how an atheist lives his or her life and how a theist lives theirs?
For many churchgoers, being a Christian is mainly about subscribing to Jesus’ ethical teaching about how we treat each other as it is about anything else. Much of the doctrinal stuff that clergy go on about in their sermons, frankly, just goes over our heads. This is not for one moment to say that people don’t enjoy going to Church, or that the Church isn’t important to them, or even that they don’t find the idea of God reassuring. It is just that God makes very little real difference to the choices and decisions they make in their daily lives. Life would go on much the same without God.
Indeed, there is no reason why, with a little adjustment, the Church itself couldn’t continue without God. After all, it’s nice for people to have somewhere to meet and socialize. And who doesn’t like a good sing song? All it needs is for the clergy to make a few changes to their sermons to focus on life in the here and now, and church life could go on much as before. In fact, this is something that many clergy have done already.
Sermons are often no more than encouraging thoughts about how we should live our lives or else they are a poor parody of self-help manuals. When they do get serious, the theme is more likely to be what we need to do to improve life in the here and now of this world rather than how we can obtain life in the there and then of the next.
Am I being unfair and unduly cynical? I don’t think I am. The fact is that God has become in the life of many, churchgoers included, something of an optional extra. Nice to have, maybe, but not really necessary. Practically speaking, we are all atheists now.
St Paul wrote that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then believers are of all people most to be pitied and, of course, for Jesus to have been raised from the dead requires that there is a God to have raised him.
Biblical Christianity is not simply about following those bits of Jesus’ teaching that we find nice or congenial. Nor is it about belonging to a religious club with like-minded people; it is something that has God at its heart. And God changes everything. Furthermore, if the Bible is right, then the existence of God becomes something that, ultimately, no-one will be able ignore - whether we want to or not.
Minutes that Matter: Talk Two