Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss are due in Belfast to answer questions about their film ‘The Unbelievers’. Surely not in Northern Ireland? Isn’t this the last bastion of the Evangelical Faith in Europe? It seems unbelievable to some. Yet both Richard and Lawrence felt they had a large enough audience to justify a trip to ‘our wee island’. Indeed, according to the promoters of the event at Strand Arts Centre, the tickets sold for £16.50 a piece within 12 minutes. The Belfast Newsletter reported that the Centre didn’t even need to promote the event: word of mouth was sufficient. Who said New Atheism is dead?
Until now, evangelicals in Northern Ireland have pretended that the atheist movement cannot affect us. We have talked about the temptations that young people face and the vices they should avoid. But what about the more subtle attacks on their faith? They have been bombarded with sound bites which tell them that faith is a virus which infects the minds of idiots. Ricky Gervais and Seth Rogen have lampooned Christianity mercilessly. Drawing on the writings of Christopher Hitchens, Hozier wrote Take Me To Church which opines
“Every Sunday’s getting more bleak/ A fresh poison each week”
and asks Christians to
“Take me to church/ I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies.”
Of course, few believers will be moved to unbelief through ridicule and scorn. But the confrontational rhetoric of the New Atheism is part of an intelligent deliberate strategy. Nobody wants to be the object of contempt; “fence-sitters” who might consider Christianity will be less likely to give the Church a fair hearing if it means being subjected to ridicule. Furthermore, by dealing in harsh, aggressive language they make other atheists seem much more reasonable and plausible. They are the “bad cops” to mainstream secularism’s “good cops”; while neither movement has a compelling argument against the truth of Christianity, together they make a potent social force.
Yet it seems that the Church has not seen fit to provide the basic teaching to help young Christians deal with these pressures. Why is this? We have been too caught up in our own sub-culture, promoting events and projects at the expense of thought and depth. Too much of our worship has focused on experientialism. Thoughtless emotion is not an adequate foundation for any relationship, never mind a relationship with the living God. Every person has a mind that God claims for himself. Our ideas and beliefs must be converted along with our emotions and will.
We cannot rationally compel people into the Kingdom; nor can we guarantee that apologetics will keep every person in the faith. However, we cannot preach, witness, evangelize or pray someone into the Kingdom either; no-one neglects these works. More attention on the substance of our faith and less emphasis on the style of our ministries is bound to lead to a richer harvest. The defence of the faith is an essential part of evangelism and discipleship and it has been heart-rending to see it neglected in so many churches.