With Our Ears to the Ground

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”—Ernest Hemmingway

Its not easy being religious today. According to a report released by The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion Public Life, India was among the five countries with the worst social hostilities against religion. We shared the shame with Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia.

In 2002 and 2008, India witnessed large-scale religious persecution in Gujarat and Orissa. The number of countries experiencing mob violence over religion increased from 38 countries in 2008 to 52 in 2009.

Pew found that Christians were harassed in 130 countries, Muslims in 117 countries and Jews in 75 countries. Hindus and Buddhists, who are less spread throughout the world, were harassed in 27 and 16 countries, respectively.

Adherents of the world’s two largest religious groups, Christians and Muslims, who together make up more than half of the global population, were harassed or intimidated in the largest number of countries.

Over the three years between 2006 and 2009, governmental or social harassment of Christians was reported in a total of 130 countries (66%), while harassment targeting Muslims was reported in 117 countries (59%).

Home to every major world religion, India is one of the most tolerant cultures in the world. But faith is never without its critics. Despite the hostility from the non-religious corner, each faith-community is not averse to taking swipes at each other’s failures.

Christians are often perceived as a politically incorrect community with offensive beliefs, unreasonable claims and an intolerant evangelistic purpose that inspires more violence than peace.

On the global platform, no voice of criticism has turned the spotlight on religion more than the intellectual hostility embodied in the writings of the New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Each in his own voice—aggressive, irreverent, provocative and engaging—has railed against the evils of religion in general, Christianity in particular.

Their passionate and popular outcry against religion has earned them the sobriquet, ‘The Four Horsemen of Atheism’, a purposeful pun on the instruments of judgment in John’s apocalyptic revelation. Ironically, these horsemen take the judgment to God himself. They aren’t satisfied to say that religion is wrong. They believe its a social evil based on provable falsehood that spawns further evil. It should be opposed and rebuked by every means of reason and rational thought.

After the events of 9/11, Sam Harris inaugurated the age of New Atheism with his bestseller, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. He touched a nerve with people who hold religion responsible for all the conflict in the world today.

However, the term New Atheism is a bit misleading. It suggests that there is something new to their message.

Far from being a Christian, Tom Flynn, a Secular Humanist, finds their success impressive but criticizes them for not really being new at all. He says, “Something new was afoot, but it was only this: for the first time, uncompromising atheist writing was coming from big-name publishers and hitting best-seller lists. You could buy it at the airport…The triumph of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens was to take arguments against religion that were long familiar to insiders, brilliantly repackage them, and expose them to millions who would never otherwise pick up an atheist book. That’s no small achievement. But too many commentators lacking the requisite historical background have treated them as though the horsemen invented atheism. Not so!”.

Flynn traces the origin of their critical reasoning to thinkers like Robert Green Ingersoll, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Bertrand Russell – among many others.

Nevertheless, the New Atheists are giving flesh to feelings of doubt shared by people who are jaded by the failure of organized religion and faith in general. Their words have become the ideology that gives people, who are restless with religion, a structured and impassioned rationale for atheism.

Dawkins’ The God Delusion has a five star rating on India’s premier online bookstore, Flipkart.com. As of 2010, the book had sold more than two million copies, with more than half that number sold outside North America.

Only recently, Richard Dawkins was one of the prized guests at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival. His session was one of the most eagerly anticipated and well-attended, with crowds pouring out the sides. After a rigorous debate, the session concluded with God being voted out of existence in a landslide victory, by a simple show of hands.

Upon the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle on the Fourth of July, a popular Indian journalist urged nearly eighty thousand followers on Twitter to read The God Delusion, describing it as ‘the Bible of scientific atheism’. The next day, she defiantly equated the discovery of the particle with the triumphant death of God.

The trouble with Christianity today is that we don’t know how to take criticism. At the same time, we want to be taken seriously without taking our critics seriously. We want them to give us what we are not willing to give them – a listening ear with an open mind. 

Perhaps we fear that their ideas will influence us to become floozy liberals. But isolating ourselves from them will simply turn us into ignorant fundamentalists. We could become people who closet ourselves from the world and hide from thinking people because we don’t know how to deal with their challenge to our faith.

When it comes to our critics, our answers will be enriched by the discipline of listening to them, seriously. Its the Proverbs’ prescription for wisdom and its caution against folly—”To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”

Surprisingly, spirituality has nothing to do with resisting secular voices. Daniel was a captive in exile who mastered the language of his captors and bettered the natives in their own thought and tongue, ten times over.

God is eager to empower people to learn the language of our critics and weave our way through complex thoughts and arguments, so we can properly discern and declare the sound of truth. When we learn to listen to harsh criticism with God whispering wisdom in our ear, we can be neither fundamentalist nor liberal, but rather shrewd and pertinent voices of grace and truth.

From a Christian perspective, New Atheism seems to offer inadequate answers to sincere questions. They are often disrespectful, irreverent and unkind, but they are not afraid of articulating their doubt.

Christianity has a bad habit of hiding from its own questions, suppressing its own suspicions and repressing its own fears. We are too afraid to ask questions.

We are too fearful of our own doubts. But its odd that we should be intimidated by difficult questions, given that some of the greatest biblical literature is the voice of Spirit-inspired doubt. Job, David, Habbakuk and Jeremiah showcase the outlandish freedom we are given to stand off against God and bring our accusations to Him without fear or trembling. 

Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason for God, writes, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic.”

God is not insecure. He is not intimidated by our doubt. Perhaps if we were more courageous and sensitive to our own questions, we would take them to God. Then we would find that our hard work and perseverance in seeking the truth – in books, conversations, sermons, articles, research – is rewarded by a generous portion of wisdom which answers our doubts and empowers our faith.

Embracing doubt, then, is perhaps the first step in a journey to deeper faith. But in our passivity, we have let movements like New Atheism get ahead in the game. Perhaps its not too late to question. Perhaps its not too late to doubt. Then like the Psalmist who struggled with the prosperity of the wicked, we might say, “…when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”

Finally, during a series of debates with Doug Wilson, recorded in the documentary film Collision, the late Christopher Hitchens is remembered by Wilson as someone who could brutally assault religious belief without being unkind to the religious person. Wilson, writi

ng for Christianity Today, after Hitchens’ death, says, “One time we shared a panel in Dallas, and I told the crowd there that if Christopher and I were not careful, we were in danger of becoming friends. During the time we spent together, he never said an unkind thing to me—except on stage, up in front of everybody. After doing this, he didn’t wink at me, but he might as well have. So we got on well with each other, because each of us knew where the other one stood.”

We demonize our opponents too much, reducing them to the “fool” of the Psalms and denying them the God-given right to rebel against Him. G.K. Chesterton, the renowned English writer and apologist, embodies the grace and truth needed in our times.

He is remembered to have relationships with his opponents that were congenial and peaceable, even brotherly. During public debates, if his opponent made a particularly witty or comic rebuke of religion, he would laugh out loud unapologetically. He believed that “the test of a good religion is whether or not it can laugh at itself”. After debates, he would often take his opponent out for a pint at the pub. 

When H.G. Wells was seriously ill, he wrote a letter to Chesterton, saying, “If after all my theology turns out wrong and your Theology right I feel I shall always be able to pass into Heaven (if I want to) as a friend of G.K.C.’s. Bless you”. A few years later, Ian Ker writes that he said, “If ever I get to heaven, presuming there is a heaven, it will be by the intervention of Gilbert Chesterton.” 

Too often, we intimidate our critics with threats of damnation, deflect their questions with unreasonable emotionalism, find fault with their personal lives to feel superior and, ironically, empower their influence by ignoring them.

What a statement of grace it would be if we could listen to our critics without holding their beliefs against them or piling on the pressure to mould them into our image.

The last thing Judas took from Jesus was a kiss. He was faithful to love his betrayer to the end. To be a Christian today demands that we be secure in our belief, curious in our questions, confident in God’s wisdom, persistent in our research, gracious in our speech and shrewd in our reasoning.

It’s always better to lose an argument because we couldn’t answer a question than to lose a person because we refused to listen.

Image Credit: Tyler

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