What should we make of what people say about why they don’t believe, and how should the Church respond?
According to a report commissioned by the Wilberforce Foundation, just over half (55%) of New Zealanders do not identify with a “main” religion. 35% described themselves has being neither spiritual nor religious, and 33% identify with Christianity.
Along with an increase among those with no religious or spiritual beliefs, the study shows an increase in ignorance about Christianity. More than one in five people know nothing about the Church in New Zealand, and 9% of respondents know no Christians. This growth in non-exposure is reflected in the makeup of the group that does not identify as religious or spiritual. When comparing a person’s current status (religious/none religious) with the home environment in which they were raised, the single largest combination (26% of respondents) is “Never been religious: I was shaped in a non-religious household and am non-religious to this day.”
The study asked respondents an important question: Given the right circumstances and evidence, how open would you be to changing your religious views? Those who are spiritual but not religious indicated the greatest openness with only 29% of this group indicating that they are not open at all.
Just under half (46%) are not open at all to considering other religions and are strongly committed to their current religious view. Those that do not identify with any religion or spiritual belief are most likely to take this viewpoint, with 61% indicating they are not open at all to changing their current view. [emphasis added]
One more point of interest from the study was what it called “blockers” to belief. 26% of respondents are “warm” to Christian belief, accepting much of it but not identifying with it because of hurdles to belief. For 47% of respondents, they maintain that the church’s teaching on same-sex relationships is a blocker to belief, while 45% maintain that the doctrine of hell is a blocker. Why would a good God send anyone there?
There are all sorts of insights we can draw from the findings. For one thing, there’s a perception among some non-religious people that being faithless is a state of enlightenment. But according to these findings, a dogmatic unwillingness to consider new evidence or that one could be wrong is most prevalent among the least religious people. For all the talk I hear (and read online, which is where most of it comes from) that knowledge of Christianity of the Bible is what drove them to unbelief, the data suggests that even if we can believe those isolated voices, they are a small minority. For the most part those who are neither religious nor spiritual don’t know anything about the Church, and a good chunk of them don’t even know any Christians.
From its beginning, Christianity has been different from its surroundings in its moral outlook…
Another thing to think about is the fact that the progressive church is possibly (and in my opinion certainly is) reacting to the world rather than to Scripture when it descries things like religious exclusivism, the doctrine of hell and Christianity’s historic (and biblical) teaching about marriage and sexuality. When somebody shared a news story about this study in social media, one of the first replies was from somebody who said that the fact that respondents said that the church’s view on homosexuality was a major blocker to faith itself showed that the church has handled LGBT issues badly and needed to approach the issue differently. The assumption was that if the church affirms beliefs that people outside the church don’t, and those beliefs are obstacles to people accepting the faith, then the solution is for the church to change its beliefs or practices. The response was coupled with some fairly typical misrepresentations of Christian belief, such as the claim that God doesn’t love people who are same-sex attracted, they cannot be saved, they are not people etc, none of which is any part of historic Christian teaching. As I’ve noted before, progressive Christianity has a serious honesty problem here. But the fact of disagreement between the Church and secular culture is no indication at all that the Church ought to change. From its beginning, Christianity has been different from its surroundings in its moral outlook, and its goal has been to see people transformed, rather than for the church to transform to resemble the world more.
This brings me to the one issue in particular that I wanted to highlight. When it comes to identifying the “blockers,” the things that prevent a person from considering the Christian faith more seriously, the study relied on self-description. There are times when self-description is very reliable, for example when asking a question like “Do you identify as religious?” At times, however, self-description is a shot in the dark at best, and an opportunity to re-write reality to fit our preferred narrative at worst. A perfect example of this opportunity is a question like “what stops you from considering Christianity more seriously?” It is a question that supposes a person’s ability to take an impartial outsider’s perspective on the inner workings of their own motivations, a perspective that is fiendishly difficult to obtain. It is also a perspective most of us frankly don’t want, whether we realise it or not. Imagine asking a National Party supporter: “What’s the worst thing about the Labour Party?” and then treating their answer as true. Now granted, people were not asked “what is the worst thing about Christianity,” but being asked what it is that stops you from considering Christianity amounts to pretty much the same thing. We tell ourselves (and, consequently, others) the story about ourselves that we would like to be true.
Why just assume that our first inclination about why we reject the Church is a true description of our decision making process?
If Christian theology is true, the main thing that keeps us from God is our own sin and our unwillingness to worship him. An organisation that represents the God who calls us to worship him and submit to him, however good and loving he may be, isn’t something we want. Why just assume that our first inclination about why we reject the Church is a true description of our decision making process, a process that began deep in our subconscious and whose origins are very unlikely to be transparent to us? And surely this suspicion of our own self-description is all the more justified when the reasons we give for rejecting the church just happen to align perfectly with our liberal cultural milieu. Little wonder we find ourselves declaring these purported virtues as our reason! We will rationalise our position in whatever way is deemed appropriate in 2019, because this is what people do.
But the fact that people say that they do not follow Christ because of the Church’s view on marriage does not at all mean that people do not follow Christ because of the Church’s view on marriage. And that is only one of the reasons why the Church would be wrong to change its stance because of survey results like these.