Feb 1 2013

Take Sweden

Although I have never been there myself, I hear that Sweden is a great place to live. I hear it a lot. People rave about the country’s cradle-to-the-grave social welfare system.

Apparently, big government is good for Swedes, and Swedes are good for each other. More than 80% believe it is safe to walk alone at night. A majority donates to charity, and a majority is very trusting toward others.[1] They sound like good people. We might even say that they sound like good Christians, except that Sweden is supposed to be one of the most secular nations in the world.

By some estimates, only 2-4% of Swedes attend worship services every week.[2] Only 23% say they believe in God.[3]

Swedish church

Atheists look at these numbers and conclude that it is indeed possible for good people to do good things without believing in God. Listen to biologist and militant atheist, Jerry Coyne,

Nor should we worry that a society based on secular morality will degenerate into lawlessness. That experiment has already been done—in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that are largely filled with non-believers and atheists. I can vouch from experience that secular European nations are full of well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths running amok.[4]

But is Sweden largely filled with non-believers and atheists?

In addition to those who believe in God, another 53% believe in some sort of spirit or life force. Only 23% say there is no God, spirit or life force. These results come from a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2005. Like a lot of surveys on religion, the wording of these questions leaves a lot to be desired. Are more than half of Swedes now pagans and New Agers, because they confidently assert a belief in spirit beings and occult forces? Or did they choose this option because they are not really sure what to believe, but are willing to admit that there is more to this world than meets the eye?[5] No matter how you read the results, this is a long way from non-belief and atheism.

As usual, the picture gets more complicated as we dig deeper. For instance, around 74% of Swedes are registered members of the Church of Sweden. A significant proportion of the population continues to rely on the national church for christenings, confirmation, marriage, and funerals.[6] In one very detailed study of Enköping—a small city west of Stockholm—64.8% describe themselves as either “Strong Christian” or “Mildly Christian,” and another 19.7% identify with “Non-Confessional” churches. In other words, almost 85% of the city’s residents consider themselves to be Christian in some sense or another. Only 10.9% consider themselves to be “Atheists.”[7]

None of this is really surprising. The Swedish state and the Lutheran church were bound together for over four centuries. Being a member of the Church of Sweden was compulsory until 1952. It was not officially divorced from the state until the year 2000.[8]

So, when someone like Coyne visits Sweden, he is going to feel safe, and he is going to enjoy the fact that people are not packing the pews on Sunday. It may be secular, but it is hardly an atheist’s paradise.

Modern Sweden is secular because its people never really had to fight for their faith. To be a citizen of Sweden was to be part of the faith community. It had little to do with right beliefs, right worship, and righteous living. Next, Sweden is secular because the state gradually took over the responsibilities of the church. This is easy to do when church and state are so closely connected. And Sweden is secular because the official church grew increasingly out of step with its own people. An irrelevant monopoly is still a monopoly. The viable and legal alternatives were few and far between.[9]

But the underlying morality of Swedish society was baked into the country a long time ago. It had a lot to do with the church. It also had a lot to do with Sweden’s tremendous sense of national unity. It is easier to be nice to people who share your language, culture, and heritage. It is easier to pay your fair share of taxes when you know all your neighbors are paying, and using, their fair share of taxes, too.

If you want to highlight a country for its secular morality, and want to live there, you are going to have to look elsewhere. May I suggest Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, for starters?

Atheists like Coyne benefit tremendously from living in a diverse, multicultural society with a strong Christian heritage. E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one.” But how can we be one if we do not share a common morality? Without God, there is no way to decide what that morality should be.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, February 2013, p. 24]


[1] “The 2012 Legatum Prosperity Index.” The Legatum Institute. http://www.prosperity.com/CountryProfile.aspx?id=752

[2] Byron J. Nordstrom, Culture and Customs of Sweden (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010), p. 41.

[3] Eurobarometer 225: Social Values, Science and Technology. European Commission publication, 2005. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf

[4] Jerry A. Coyne, “As atheists know, you can be good without God.” USA Today. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-07-31-atheism-morality-evolution-religion_n.htm

[5] See also Rodney Stark, Exploring the Religious Life (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 126.

[6] Nordstrom, pp. 32,41.

[7] Nordstrom, pp. 41-42. Again, the devil’s in the details. Identifying oneself as belonging to a church, especially the Church of Sweden, is not the same as believing in what the church teaches.

[8] Nordstrom, p. 31.

[9] Richard F. Tomasson, “Religion is irrelevant in Sweden,” in Jeffrey K. Hadden, editor, Religion in Radical Transition (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1970), pp. 111-127.

Jun 1 2012

Life After Youth Group

Surveys by the Barna Research Group show that teens are more likely than adults to attend worship services and participate in other activities of the local church.[1] The picture changes alarmingly after graduation. More than sixty percent of survey respondents who were active in their teen years are no longer active in their twenties.

Youth Group loss

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Apr 29 2012

The Family Plan

Hollywood movies often carry this disclaimer as the credits roll by: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” The same disclaimer applies to the three families I have profiled below. In this fictional world, all the parents are Christians, all the marriages are intact, and all are members of the same congregation. And yet, how could they be so different?

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Feb 7 2012

Whatever happened to faith?

Faith has a bad reputation, and it is our fault. By “our” I mean those of us who confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. In a terrible twist of irony, people of faith have turned faith into a dirty five-letter word. Not all of us have done this, of course, but enough of us to attract the attention of the wider world.

“Faith,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” At least this travesty appears several notches down from the primary definition. The same cannot be said for Webster’s New World Dictionary, which gives the following definition top billing: “unquestioning belief, specif. in God, a religion, etc.” Keep in mind that most dictionaries list the most common meaning first. This is why we don’t want preachers using their dictionaries to define important Bible words.

Needless to say, you will not find similar entries in dictionaries from a century ago, although the rot was already spreading into the pew from seminaries and the writings of prominent theologians and philosophers of religion. Astute skeptics certainly took notice. Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, put these words into the mouth of Pudd’nhead Wilson: “There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the schoolboy who said ‘Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.’ ”[1] Clemens’ wry observation turns into a battering ram for Sam Harris in a book appropriately titled The End of Faith: “every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This put the ‘leap’ in Kierkegaard’s leap of faith.”[2]

Ah, and now we get to the heart of the matter. It is easy to find simplistic or unfair characterizations of Søren Kierkegaard’s writings. His “leap of faith” is often portrayed as a momentous force of will to believe in God and the central claims of Christianity. This makes the Christian faith look bad in every possible way. How can anyone just decide to believe anything? And how could anyone hold such profound, life-changing beliefs in the absence of evidence or, even worse, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

It doesn’t help that Kierkegaard is notoriously hard to read, even in the best English translations. It doesn’t help that he never used this precise phrase, “leap of faith,” or its Danish equivalent. And it doesn’t help that he wrote some of his most important works (mostly in the 1840s) under a pseudonym, which leaves us wondering whether they represent Kierkegaard’s “official” view.

Despite all that, philosopher Jamie Ferreira tries her level best to offer a sympathetic reading of Kierkegaard’s leap.[3] [By the way, no one should use “Kierkegaard” and “basically” in the same sentence as I am about to do, but here goes anyway…] Basically, Kierkegaard envisioned a huge gulf between the historical claims for Christianity on the one side and the actual experience of Christianity on the other. The categories of knowledge and faith are so far apart, he thought, that we could never bridge the gap by piling fact upon fact. Evidence can lead us up to the edge of the abyss, but it can never take us all the way. Kierkegaard’s approving quote of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) gives us a strong sense of where he was going with all of this:

“If God held the truth enclosed in his right hand, and in his left hand the one and only ever-striving drive for truth, even with the corollary of erring forever and ever, and if he were to say to me: Choose!—I would humbly fall down to him at his left hand and say: Father, give! Pure truth is indeed only for you alone!”[4]

And so, standing on the precipice, it is possible to find oneself “infinitely interested” in God. All of sudden, as Ferreira puts it, one can “dare to be radically changed,… to take a real risk, to put oneself out over seventy thousand fathoms.”[5] In this very moment we leave behind the objectively uncertain proofs of Christianity and embrace the subjectively passionate striving after God. This is more a leap to faith than a leap of faith.

But so what? Whether we take the cruder version of the leap or the more nuanced version, Kierkegaard is working with a number of faulty assumptions.

For a start, while Kierkegaard makes room for reason and evidence, he doesn’t make room enough. He is overly impressed, it seems, by attacks on the proof of Christianity coming from people like Hume, and attacks on the historical Jesus coming from people like Strauss.[6] But if we think that reason and evidence are on our side (they are), and if we think that Biblical faith is richer than Kierkegaard imagined (it is), then there is no need to separate the certain from the uncertain, the subjective from the objective, and make a leap from one to the other.

And in what sense is faith an instantaneous transition? This is where we need to distinguish between the subjective and the objective. From God’s objective standpoint, either we are born again or we are not (John 3:3-6). Either our sins were buried in baptism, or they were not (Romans 6:1-11). At no moment prior to this point are we somewhat saved or mostly forgiven. This is conversion to the faith of Christianity; the transformation that follows within that faith is something else again (Romans 12:2). The subjective experience of faith varies from individual to individual. Belief, which is the beginning of faith (Romans 10:14-17), might come suddenly, as it did to the Emmaus-bound disciples (Luke 24:31). Or it might come reluctantly and with a demand for more evidence, as it did for Thomas (John 20:24-29).

Speaking of evidence, some of our arguments will be inductive and issue in conclusions that fall short of certainty, but are nonetheless highly probable. Other arguments will be deductive and issue in conclusions that are certain (because the conclusion must be true if all the premises are true). For instance, design arguments tend to be inductive and probabilistic; cosmological arguments tend to be deductive. Christians have no problem with strong inductive arguments. When Paul appealed to the many eyewitnesses of the resurrection, he was effectively making an inductive argument (1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Acts 26:26). Not  only was it a strong argument, it was the only argument that adequately explained the facts at hand.

Kierkegaard was offering a false dichotomy: either Christians can build their faith entirely on deductive reasoning, and risk losing everything in the face of seemingly convincing counter-arguments, or they can ignore the arguments and make a leap to faith. In reality, deductive arguments for the existence of God have proven remarkably resilient, and inductive arguments have grown stronger as the amount of evidence accumulates in their favor (in areas like genetics, microbiology, archaeology, etc.). Even if the evidence for Christianity only ever rises to the level of “highly likely,” I can still have a reasonable, evidence-based faith.[7]

However, Kierkegaard was right in this one respect: we cannot build a scaffold to God out of facts and figures. As James reminds us: “even the demons believe–and shudder!” (2:19). Clearly, there is something more to Biblical faith than intellectual assent to the right number of propositions.

Faith in its fullest sense is not a risky leap, but a confident walk (1 John 1:7). It is not a confidence in what we see now, but in what we know we will see later (Romans 8:24-25; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Hebrews 11:1). It is a confidence that is grounded, not on wishful thinking, but on the historical reality of the resurrected Savior. Atheists are welcome to attack the straw man of dictionary faith, but it has nothing to do with Biblical faith.

[A version of this article appeared as “Leap of faith?” in Think, February 2012, p. 8.]

[1] Mark Twain, Following the Equator. Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co., 1897, p. 132.

[2] Sam Harris, The End of Faith. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004, p. 23.

[3] M. Jamie Ferreira, “Faith and the Kierkegaardian leap,” in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 207-234.

[4] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 90fn56.

[5] Ferreira, pp. 220-221.

[6] George Pattison, “D.F. Strauss: Kierkegaard and radical demythologization,” in Jon Stewart, editor, Kierkegaard and His German Contemporaries: Theology. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2007, pp. 233-257.

[7] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Third Edition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008, pp. 55-56.

Jan 14 2011

The De-conversion of Doctor Who

Recently I learned that one of my favorite TV actors of yesteryear is an avowed atheist.[1] The person in question is Tom Baker, who played the titular role in the marathon sci-fi series Doctor Who. So yes, I hold up my right hand and confess, “I am a geek.” To make matters worse, I am a British child of the ’70s. This means, of course, that I spent the requisite time cowering behind my father’s armchair while the Daleks threatened to Exterminate! Exterminate! pretty much everyone I knew and loved. Ah, good times, but I digress…

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