In a recent discussion with a Christian friend it was suggested to me that before dismissing Christianity entirely, I should perhaps read some of the more sophisticated theological arguments from biblical scholars such as Bruce Metzger, John Walton, C.S.Lewis, Alister McGrath and others. While I agree that it is prudent to be well versed in subjects that one is being critical of, I’m not so sure that one needs to be a theological scholar to dismiss certain claims.
I strongly suspect that most Christian apologists haven’t necessarily read the Jewish Torah, or the Quran, or the Book of Mormon, or the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, or the Bhagavad-Gita in any detail, or any of the supporting texts and arguments used by learned scholars in those religions, yet I have little doubt that they reject those religions as being wrong.
In a similar vein I know that Professor Richard Dawkins has received much criticism from religious believers over comments he made at an atheist rally in the USA recently where he called on non-believers to ridicule religious beliefs, and if some reports are correct he may have even asked people to ridicule believers themselves.
Now I admit this seems like a very provocative and intolerant thing to say and I know many believers and non-believers alike have admonished him for those comments. Apart from the fact that he may well have been a bit carried away being a guest speaker at a rally of likeminded infidels, preaching to the choir so to speak, I think that the call for more tolerance from the “new atheists” only seems reasonable if viewed from a certain religious viewpoint.
I would like to pose a hypothetical, and somewhat rhetorical question, to those Christians and other believers, who think that ridicule is an offensive and uncalled for response to their beliefs;
If a pair of Mormons came to your door and tried to convince you, with a sincere straight face, that Joseph Smith found a stash of gold plates buried in North America in the early nineteenth century, and that when translated by him they told of a lost tribe of Israel who had found their way to America thousands of years ago, that Jesus himself went to America, that there are many world with many Gods and you can become one yourself, would you dismiss their claims outright, before reading the book of Mormon?
What if a Jewish Rabbi told you that as a menstruating woman you were unclean for seven days and if a man touches you he will also be unclean for a day and that it was essential for you to have your son’s foreskin removed after birth as a sign of a covenant with God, would you not find that ridiculous?
Or if, while walking through Chinatown in Sydney, you were accosted by some young girls who wanted to test your stress levels with an E-meter and convince you that Xenu, the tyrant ruler of the Galactic Confederacy, came to earth 75 million years ago and deposited millions of lost souls, or thetans, inside a volcano, as told by the prophet L. Ron Hubbard, would you dismiss their claims as ridiculous before researching their claims?
To 99% of us these claims are ridiculous and would most likely be laughed at with contempt.
Yet what many Christians fail to understand, due to their own beliefs being such a pervasive part of our culture, is that from an outsider’s perspective, the story of an itinerant Jewish preacher walking on water, born of a virgin, raising people from the dead, turning water into wine and who has allegedly risen from the dead himself, and has been expected to return for the last two thousand years, and devout followers eat a bit of his flesh and drink some of his blood every week, is not really all that much different. Just because your entire family, and peer group, and almost all the adults you look up to take these stories as gospel truth doesn’t mean they should be subject to any less rigorous scrutiny.
In Australia, in most communities, crucifixes are a ubiquitous part of life. They are in many churches, stained glass windows, catholic hospital wards, faith school classrooms, taxi dashboards, and hanging around people’s necks. We are exposed to them so often, from such a young age, that we take them for granted, with little recognition of what they actually portray; a depiction of a man, tortured and bleeding, hanging from a wooden cross with nails in his hands and feet, dying a slow and agonising death. I understand that to a devout believer they are meant as a constant reminder of what their saviour suffered to atone for their sins. To most adult non-believers they are just an accepted part of our culture, tolerated but mostly ignored like the prayers on ANZAC day or the hymns sung at funerals.
In a secular culture where a growing percentage of the population are no longer bought up going to Sunday school and attending compulsory scripture classes, I shudder to think how many parents struggle to explain to innocent children exactly what these symbols represent and why they are displayed so publically. Recently in Geelong Victoria, a Christian group was perplexed to find that their Easter Passion display in a public shopping mall was offending and upsetting some people. How could a grown, near-naked man pretending to be crucified, replete with fake blood and nails, cause such distress to the little kiddies? How could they not understand that that was the true meaning of Easter?
The tide is turning. Possibly more than 30% of the population of Australia no longer believe in a God and for not much longer can religions expect automatic respect and deference for their beliefs as they have enjoyed in the past. No longer does a nun’s habit or a priest’s dog collar accord reverence in the way it used to. Religious organisations do much good charitable work in caring for the aged, homeless, and troubled youth in our society, but I question whether those same people couldn’t do those same good works without believing the supernatural beliefs that they entail.
It is quite obvious that you don’t have to believe in a God to be good. Many secular charities do wonderful work throughout the world without the missionary aspect. Surely homeless youth can be fed in soup kitchens without sticking a religious tract under the plate? Surely starving Africans can be given care packages that don’t contain bibles? Red Cross, Oxfam, UNICEF, The Fred Hollows Foundation, Water Aid, Save The Children, Doctors Without Borders, The Gates Foundation and many others all manage to raise funds and help those in need without proselytizing or preaching.