In the typical high school science classes, Darwinian naturalism is assumed as unquestioned dogma- it is fact and prevents any other ideas from being discussed. In high school and college psychology classes, most of the theories— from Freud’s psychoanalysis to Skinner’s behaviorism— promote negative views of human free will and therefore Christianity. In humanities class, the professors insist that Christianity is just a “values choice”— something that might be meaningful to an individual personally but was and could not be objectively true. From my point of view, most churches have taught the basic gospel message, but they do not equip individuals to meet the challenges they will face in the classroom. They do not teach individuals how to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10: 5).
I had become a ‘closet atheist’ long before I went to high school. My father had worked for many years for Dana Brothers Chrysler dealership in Tempe who were leaders of the Mormon Church in Mesa (and one of them officiated at his funeral in 1969). I don’t remember any boys with white shirts and ties coming to visit us. He then spent many years working for Chic Myers Television in Phoenix who was a Jew. We never entered a temple or celebrated Hanukkah. The relationship must have been a problem for my dad because he was the bookkeeper for the local John Birch Society. The only thing worse than a Jew was a black, a Mexican, or a slanty-eyed from across the Pacific. Maybe that is one of the reasons my life has been full of such contradictions and conundrums. I remember going to a Southern Baptist church on the corner of 51st Avenue and Camelback several times and their Vacation Bible School once before high school, but that was pretty much the only religion I had been exposed to early on.
My friendships in grade school and high school were limited- generally with individuals whom expressed the same sentiments and thought patterns as I did. We fed off each other’s beliefs and when exposed to something new and different we often mocked it, if it disagreed with what we wanted to believe, or eagerly accepted it into our self-righteous mumbo jumbo.
I took in all that my teachers told me knowing that they were wrong as our text books were 10 years old. I ‘worshiped’ the knowledge presented in the magazines like Life, Newsweek, Time because it was new and exciting. I read all the philosophy books and psychology books I could get my hands on. Moreover, I believed them because I had no other frames of reference. You are what you eat and you are what you read without any checks or balances.
It is a serious mistake for Christian parents, teachers, or churches to dismiss young people’s doubts and questions about the meaning of life, or to think these questions can be overridden merely by cultivating a more intense devotional life. Because we are created in God’s image, we are all endowed with a mind and a natural urge to make some kind of sense of life, even if many reject the notion of a creator. All Christians are invited to “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2: 16). Because we are created in God’s image as rational and responsible beings, we all have end up with a philosophy— not necessarily one learned out of a textbook, but an overall view of life by which we try to make sense of the world around us. The biblical view of human nature implies that we are “incapable of holding purely arbitrary opinions or making entirely unprincipled decisions,” writes Albert Wolters. “We need some creed to live by, some map by which to chart our course.”[i] If we take the Bible’s view of the human person seriously, we need to take the questions seriously.
In today’s pluralistic, multicultural society, teens have to navigate their way through a complex web of competing worldview claims-all claiming Christianity is a superstition. One study found that the age at which most people leave the church is in the high school and college years.[ii] Yet church youth groups rarely teach apologetics what the teens need to learn instead they concentrate instead on games and goodies. The goal seems to be to engineer events that ratchet up emotional commitment, as though sheer intensity of experience will compensate for intellectual doubts. However, emotional intensity is not enough to block out teens’ questions. If anything, it leads them to redefine Christianity in purely emotional terms— which leaves them even more vulnerable when they finally have to face their questions without any support.[iii]
Parents should rightly be concerned about the risk involved in exposing their children to non-biblical perspectives. Nevertheless, there is also a risk in raising children who think the only way they can test their mettle is by breaking away from their family and church. Competing worldviews often appear more attractive when they acquire the allure of the forbidden. I should know. If I was told not to do something, I figured out how to do it- and not be caught. The only way teens become truly “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks” (1 Pet. 3: 15) is by struggling personally with the questions, exploring alternatives, developing answers within themselves. Paul warns that Christians can be “outwitted by Satan” if they are “ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor. 2: 11).
Peer pressure will get a teenager to believe virtually anything else that somebody else espouses because they sound like they know more than they do. At the same time, each teenager will say they are independent and do not follow the crowd, all the while acting, talking, looking like members of the crowd that they deny being part of. I should know, I was not influenced by any of my peers as I was growing up, being a hippie, a radical, a biker, none of these things were influenced by anyone but me- right.
I have spent a considerable amount of time recently reflecting upon my past and the decisions I have made when, how, and why. All of this is in relationship to my current beliefs and how I arrived at them. Kind of backward engineering. I have come up with several concepts and ideas of how and why individuals reject Christ as their Lord and Savior and I will detail some of them in a series of articles.
Where do we begin? According to Romans 1:21-23 (21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.) , those who reject the Creator will create an idol. Teenagers will declare perfect, complete, or unchangeable some power or element operating within the cosmos, elevating it into an all-defining principle— a false absolute.[iv]
When evaluating a worldview, then, the first step is to identify its idol. What does this viewpoint, this rationality, this ‘Oneness’, this belief set up as a God substitute? Despite the vast diversity of religions and philosophies old or new, complex or simple, ritualistic or just plain ‘groovy’, they all start by putting something else that has been created (generally in their own mind) in the place of God. In ‘Culture and the Death of God’, literary critic Terry Eagleton lists several idols of the modern age: Enlightenment rationalists made a god of reason; Romantics deified the imagination; nationalists idealize the nation; Marxists offer an economic version of sin and salvation. “Not believing in God is a far more arduous affair than is generally imagined,” Eagleton concludes. God cannot be rejected without putting something else in his place. The history of philosophy is largely a history of setting up God surrogates.[v] It is a history of idol-making some successful, some dismal failures.
One of the most effective ways to understand history (besides reading about the events that have occurred in history), then, is to identify the prevailing idols of each one of the peoples you wish to study. As Timothy Keller writes, “Every human personality, community, thought-form, and culture will be based on some ultimate concern or some ultimate allegiance— either to God or to some God substitute.” Thus, “The best way to analyze cultures is by identifying their corporate idols.”[vi]
In its teaching on idols, Scripture has given us the key to unlock all of history. Scripture provides conceptual tools not only for ideas that are normally labeled “religious” but also for ideas that are labeled “secular.” What an unusual opportunity to view both sides of the issue. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel calls them idols of the heart (Ezek. 14: 3 3 “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them?). Today when we speak of the heart, we specifically mean the emotions. However, in Hebrew the word means your innermost self, including the will, mind, moral character, and spiritual commitment. Considerably more than just our simple emotions. “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16: 7 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”.)
We often contrast “believers” to “nonbelievers,” but that can is misleading. Everyone believes in something, in the sense that they must assume some principle or reliance on ‘something’ as fundamentally true. Atheists often fail to recognize that they are part of a religion of non-belief. (https://larryemarshall.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/the-theology-of-atheism/ and https://larryemarshall.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/7-reasons-why-atheism-is-a-religion/ ). The common mantra on atheist websites goes like this: “Atheism is not a belief. Atheism is merely the lack of a belief in God or gods.” However, it is impossible to think about your purpose on this earth, without some kind of starting point. If you do not start with God, you must start somewhere else. You must propose something else as the ultimate, eternal, uncreated reality that is the cause and source of everything else, everything you believe in. The important question is not which starting points are religious or secular, but which claims stand up when tested.
The advantage of using the biblical term idol is that it levels the field by defining it ‘as a false conception.’ Secular people will almost always accuse Christians of using their “faith” as a crutch, while claiming that they base their convictions purely on facts and reason. Not in my experience. If you examine, press them, follow any set of ideas back far enough, you will reach an ultimate starting point eventually. Something that is taken as a self-existent reality on which everything else depends. This starting assumption cannot be based on previous reasoning, because if it were, we could then ask where did that reasoning start? At some point, every system of thought has to say, “This is my starting point. There is no reason for it to exist. It just is.” If the belief systems starting premise does not rest on anything reasonable, how can it be tested? How can you affirm that it is correct for you (and presumably others)? Although you might not be able to argue backward to their prior reasons, you can argue forward to a conclusion by working out the implications of their reasoning and then testing those implications using both logic and experience.
Using the term idol is advantageous in that it avoids dry intellectualism, as though people choose a life philosophy the way they solve a logical puzzle. People commit themselves to a certain vision of reality for a reason it becomes their ultimate explainer. It interprets the universe for them; it guides their moral decisions to give meaning and purpose to their life. All of the functions normally associated with a religion.
Many philosophies can be seen as secular religions which seems like an oxymoron, but it will make sense when you understand the generic meaning of the term religion. I’ve written about how the Supreme Court believes it is (https://larryemarshall.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/the-theology-of-atheism/ ).
What is the one feature shared by all religions? It is not what you might expect. Does a religion have to affirm the existence of a personal god or creator? Most Westerners would say yes. There are many beliefs that we consider religions that do not identify their ‘divine’ with a being at all. In pantheist religions, such as Hinduism, the concept of the divine is not a personal Being but a non-personal, non-cognitive spiritual substance or essence— something like energy or the force in the Star Wars movies. In its popular forms, pantheism often does include the worship of local gods and goddesses. However, what Westerners often fail to understand that these local gods are not identified with an ultimate reality. They are merely beings in which the divine essence, shared by all humans, is more highly intensified or concentrated. Buddhism goes even further, referring to the divine with terms such as the Void or Nothingness. That is why Buddhism is sometimes called an atheistic religion. So are Taoism and Confucianism. As one philosopher explains, the founders of these religions are “not gods themselves; they identify with no deity, no revelation, no personal or transcendent Creator of any sort.”[vii]
If a personal deity is not required to qualify as a religion, what about morality? No, again. Many Eastern religions are amoral. They teach that everything must be accepted as parts of the One, the Whole— both yin and yang, both good and evil. The goal is the balance or union of opposites. The rituals associated with these religions do not aim at achieving holiness but enlightenment: the recognition that everything is equally part of the Whole. When I was a college student during the countercultural 1970s, I was deeply impressed by Hermann Hesse and his novels (Steppenwolf -from which came a popular 70’s band, Narcissus and Goldmund and Siddhartha from which came the album name and cover for Santana’s 1970 album Abraxas). Siddharthat is about a Brahmin’s son who undergoes a search for spiritual wisdom. In the end, he learns that “everything that exists is good— death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly.”[viii] Many of these religions do have moral teachings, however difficult that may be to square with their metaphysics. In Hinduism the concept of karma involves a concept of justice— good actions cause good karma and bad actions cause bad karma; what you reap is what you sow. It every belief it is almost like a law in physics – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Polytheistic religions may demand rituals to appease the gods and guarantee good health and good harvests, but often they say nothing about morality. Pagan gods are often outright immoral. The Greek and Roman gods were prone to greed, adultery, quarreling, jealousy, and deception. Some religions even require worshippers to engage in rituals that are immoral.
Do all theologies at least involve some kind of worship ritual? Not at all. The Epicureans taught that the gods exist, but they take no interest in human affairs. They do not care if they are feared or worshipped. Aristotle conceived of the Prime Mover as a perfect and unchangeable mind. Which therefore thinks only about what is perfect and unchangeable— namely, itself. It neither knows nor cares what humans do. Other religions that practice no worship include Brahmin Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism.
Are there any features shared by all religions, then? Surprisingly, only one. According to Clouser, the only feature shared by all religions is that they acknowledge something as divine— using that word to mean the self-existent, eternal reality that is the origin of everything else. Obviously, they do not agree on what qualifies as divine; they agree only that something is divine. No other factor is genuinely universal among religions[ix]. As a result, religions are a lot more like philosophies than most people think. And philosophies are a lot like religions. Structurally, both start with a set of postulates about what is ultimately real or divine.
Next article we will discuss philosophical divinities.
[i] Da Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 4.
[ii] Bradley Wright, “If People Leave the Faith, When Do They Do It?,” Patheos, January 28, 2012, http://www.patheos.com/ blogs/ blackwhiteandgray/ 2012/ 01/ if-people-leave-the-faith-when-do-they-do-it/. Wright cites a study showing that those most likely to leave are ages seventeen to twenty. The next most likely to leave are a year or two younger (ages fifteen to sixteen). After age twenty, the numbers decline somewhat, then finally drop off after age twenty-six.
[iii] Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Youth and Religion at the University of Notre Dame, reports that teenagers today often define faith primarily in terms of “meeting emotional needs.” Their one-dimensional understanding is the product of “an overwhelmingly relativistic and privatized cultural climate,” as well as “youth leaders who have not challenged that climate.” Cited in Chris Norton, “Apologetics Makes a Comeback among Youth,” Christianity Today, August 31, 2011.
[iv] An idol may also be something mistakenly thought to be in creation— creation— something unreal or imaginary, such as space aliens. The point is that if it were real, it would be something less than God, something within the cosmic order.
[v] Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 119.
[vi] Timothy Keller, “Talking about Idolatry in a Postmodern Age,” Gospel Coalition, April 2007.
[vii] “Atheistic religions … include eastern religions like Theravedic Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and Confucianism.” Eric Steinhart, “On Atheistic Religion,” Patheos, January 8, 2012, http://www.patheos.com/ blogs/ camelswithhammers/ 2012/ 01/ on-atheistic-religion-2/. However, “godless faiths are sustained only by small intellectual elites, and the popular forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism abound in Gods.” Rodney Stark, “Why Gods Should Matter in Social Science,” Chronicle of Higher Education 49, no. 39 (June 6, 2003). In the Supreme Court decision Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), Justice Hugo Black stated that “among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others”; and André Comte-Sponville, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality (New York: Penguin, 2006), 2.
[viii] Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, trans. Hilda Rosner (New York: Bantam, 1951), 144.
[ix] Clouser, Myth, chap. 2.