September 25, 2007
Dear tothesource reader,
For the past few years I have been "moonlighting" for tothesource, writing about some hot-button issues affecting Christianity and the culture. In general, however, I have been a secular writer. Moral issues and "values" issues have always been prominent in my books, but religious issues have never been more than an undercurrent.
This will change in early October with the publication of my new book "What's So Great About Christianity." The book began modestly enough, as a kind of follow-up to my 2002 book "What's So Great About America." I wanted to show the role of Christianity in forming America and the West. I sought to document how even values cherished by secular people are the product of Christianity.
Then a series of atheist books appeared in almost conspiratorial sequence: first Sam Harris' "The End of Faith," then Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," and most recently Christopher Hitchens' "God is Not Great." There have also been other anti-Christian tracts by Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Victor Stenger, and others. These anti-God polemics were enthusiastically promoted in the national media, and several of the atheist books have become bestsellers.
So I broadened the scope of my book to make it a full-blown defense of theism in general and Christianity in particular. The book is the first comprehensive answer to the atheist literature that has so aggressively seized the public square. Here I reproduce a section of the book's brief Preface, which suggests my main themes. Alongside you can read the comments of leading figures: not only Christian leaders and scholars but also my old debating rival Stanley Fish and even a prominent atheist!
In the next several months, I intend to engage the argument with the atheists in the media. I also intend to debate the atheists on university campuses and in civic venues. I also want to take my message directly to Christians. I hope pastors will read this book and discuss its themes with their church members. I would like to see church groups reflect and pray about the issues raised in the book. I have spoken in several large churches and would welcome the opportunity to speak in more of them. So far the atheists have had the field to themselves. Now the argument will be joined. TotheSource will give you a front-row seat in this debate but I'd like you to do more than sit passively and watch. It's time for our side to get into the arena.
A Challenge to Believers—and Unbelievers
Christians are called upon to be "contenders" for their faith. This term suggests that they should be ready to stand up for their beliefs, and that they will face opposition. The Christian is told in 1 Peter 3:15, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reasons for the hope that is within you." But in order to give reasons, you must first know what you believe. You must also know why you believe it. And you must be able to communicate these reasons to those who don't share your beliefs. In short, you must know what's so great about Christianity.
This is the arena in which many Christians have fallen short. Today's Christians know that they do not, as their ancestors did, live in a society where God's presence was unavoidable. No longer does Christianity form the moral basis of society. Many of us now reside in secular communities, where arguments drawn from the Bible or Christian revelation carry no weight, and where we hear different language from that spoken in church.
Instead of engaging this secular world, most Christians have taken the easy way out. They have retreated into a Christian subculture where they engage Christian concerns. Then they step back into secular society, where their Christianity is kept out of sight until the next church service. Without realizing it Christians have become postmodernists of a sort: they live by the gospel of the two truths. There is religious truth, reserved for Sundays and days of worship, and there is secular truth, which applies the rest of the time.
This divided lifestyle is opposed to what the Bible teaches. The Bible tells Christians not to be of the world, sharing its distorted priorities, but it does call upon believers to be in the world, fully engaged. Many Christians have abdicated this mission. They have instead sought a workable, comfortable modus vivendi in which they agree to leave the secular world alone if the secular world agrees to leave them alone. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed the terms for the treaty when he said that secular society relies on reason and decides matters of fact, while religious people rely on faith and decide questions about values. Many Christians seized upon this distinction with relief. This way they could stay in their subculture and be nice to everyone.
But a group of prominent atheists—many of them evolutionary biologists—has launched a powerful public attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular; they have no interest in being nice. A new set of antireligious books—The God Delusion, The End of Faith, God Is Not Great, and so on—now shapes public debate. These atheists reject the Gould solution. They say that a religious outlook makes specific claims about reality: there is a God, there is life after death, miracles do happen, and so on. If you are agnostic or atheist, you have a very different understanding of reality, one that is formed perhaps by a scientific or rationalist outlook. The argument of the atheists is that both views of reality cannot be simultaneously correct. If one is true, then the other is false.
The atheists have a point: there are not two truths or multiple truths; there is one truth. Either the universe is a completely closed system and miracles are impossible, or the universe is not a closed system and there is the possibility of divine intervention in it. Either the Big Bang was the product of supernatural creation or it had a purely natural cause. In a larger sense, either the secular view of reality is correct or the religious view is correct. (Or both are wrong.) So far the atheists have been hammering the Christians and the Christians have been running for cover. It's like one hand clapping. A few pastors have stood up to the atheists' challenge, but they have not, in general, fared well. Pastors are used to administering to congregations that accept Christian premises. They are not accustomed to dealing with skilled spear-chuckers who call the Christian God a murderer and a tyrant, and who reject the authority of the Bible to adjudicate anything.
This is not a time for Christians to turn the other cheek. Rather, it is a time to drive the money-changers out of the temple. The atheists no longer want to be tolerated. They want to monopolize the public square and to expel Christians from it. They want political questions like abortion to be divorced from religious and moral claims. They want to control the school curricula, so that they can promote a secular ideology and undermine Christianity. They want to discredit the factual claims of religion, and they want to convince the rest of society that Christianity is not only mistaken but also evil. They blame religion for the crimes of history and for the ongoing conflicts in the world today. In short, they want to make religion—and especially the Christian religion—disappear from the face of the earth.
The Bible in Matthew 5:13-14 calls Christians to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world." Christians are called to make the world a better place. Today that means confronting the challenge of modern atheism and secularism. This book provides a kind of tool kit for Christians to meet this challenge. The Christianity that is defended here is not "fundamentalism" but rather traditional Christianity, what C.S. Lewis called "mere Christianity," the common ground of beliefs between Protestants and Catholics. This Christianity is the real target of the secular assault.
I have written this book not only for believers but also for unbelievers. Many people are genuine seekers. They sense there is something out there that provides a grounding and an ultimate explanation for their deepest questions, yet that something eludes them. They feel the need for a higher sense of purpose in their lives, but they are unsure where to find it. Even though they have heard about God and Christianity, they cannot reconcile religious belief with reason and science: faith seems unreasonable and therefore untenable. Moreover, they worry that religion has been and can be an unhealthy source of intolerance and fanaticism, as evidenced by the motives of the September 11 terrorists. These are all reasonable concerns, and I address them head-on in this book.
This is also a book for atheists, or at least for those atheists who welcome a challenge. Precisely because the Christians usually duck and run, the atheists have had it too easy. Their arguments have gone largely unanswered. They have been flogging the carcass of "fundamentalism" without having to encounter the horse-kick of a vigorous traditional Christianity. I think that if atheists are genuine rationalists they should welcome this book. It is an effort to meet the atheist argument on its own terms. Nowhere in this book do I take Christianity for granted. My modus operandi is one of skepticism, to view the claims of religion in the same open-minded way that we view claims of any other sort. The difference between me and my atheist opponents is that I am skeptical not only of the irrational claims made in the name of religion but also of the irrational claims made in the name of science and of skepticism itself.
Taking as my foil the anti-religious arguments of prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and the others, this book will show the following—1) Christianity is the main foundation of Western civilization, the root of our most cherished values. 2) The latest discoveries of modern science support the Christian claim that there is a divine being who created the universe. 3) Darwin's theory of evolution, far from undermining the evidence for supernatural design, actually strengthens it. 4) There is nothing in science that makes miracles impossible. 5) It is reasonable to have faith. 6) Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history. 7) Atheism is often motivated not by reason but by a kind of cowardly moral escapism. I end this book by showing what is unique about Christianity and how our lives change if we become Christians.