Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Barna Report on Atheist Militancy

The Barna Group has a new Update titled "Atheists and Agnostics Take Aim at Christians." In the report Barna states:

...a new survey shows there is indeed a significant gap between Christians and those Americans who are in the "no-faith" camp. For instance, most atheists and agnostics (56%) agree with the idea that radical Christianity is just as threatening in America as is radical Islam. At the same time, two-thirds of Christians (63%) who have an active faith perceive that the nation is becoming more hostile and negative toward Christianity.

After a discussion of the growth of this segment of Americans, and noting the differences and similarities between Christians and various forms of unbelief, the Barna report continues with an analysis provided by David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group:

Kinnaman addresses some of the realities of increasing hostility toward Christians in a new book that examines Mosaics and Busters, releasing in the fall of 2007, called unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity...And Why It Matters. "It is important for Christians to understand the environment and the perspectives of people who are different from them, especially among young generations whose culture is moving rapidly away from Christianity. Believers have the options of ignoring, rejecting or dealing with the aggressiveness of atheists and those hostile to the Christian faith. By their own admission, Christians have difficulty handling change, admitting when they are uncertain of something, and responding effectively to divergent perspectives. These characteristics make the new challenges facing Christianity even more daunting."

While it is encouraging that Barna's organization recognizes the challenge posed by engagement with atheism and agnosticism, this does not seem to translate into appropriate forms of communication. Curiously, in this same report a resource is offered titled Jim & Casper Go to Church, a book that represents a pastor and an atheist sharing impressions on various church services in the U.S. As the Barna website describes the book:

Jim interacts with another atheist...to take a nationwide road trip in visiting a dozen of America’s churches, including some well-known (such as Saddleback, Willow Creek and Lakewood) and some little-known. Jim wanted to document the "first impressions" of a non-believer at those places. The book offers an intimate and frank dialogue between an atheist and a believer, helping us to see church anew through the eyes of a skeptic, and tracks the development of an amazing relationship between two men with diametrically opposing views of the world who agree to respect each others’ experience.

While I'm sure this process has some value, it strikes me as strange that rather than engaging the atheist on his own terms with his issues and in his cultural and intellectual forum, the pastor brings him to church to ask him what he thinks of a worship gathering of various expressions of the Christian community. Why is the institutional setting of the church the chosen place for engagement and dialogue between these two? Might it not have been better for the Christian to consider how to enter the atheist and agnostic thought world and to engage them in their pathways of life and concerns rather than inside a church building? Perhaps I'm the only one that finds this strange, but to me this seems like another indicator that Christians in post-Christian America still struggle with how to grapple with increasing religious and irreligious pluralism.


philjohnson said...


I think that perhaps your expectations may be way ahead of the place inhabited by most folk inside the Church sub-culture. In order to take on the area that you suggest is outside the thinking and the comfort zones of lots of church-goers.

It is probably in the long run much more helpful for American church-goers to come to an awareness of the ideas and impressions that non-Christians have of the church. It is probably more effective to read how a pastor escorts an atheist to various church gatherings and then debriefing about the experiences.

When we wrote Jesus and the gods of the New Age we felt that it was important for Christians to see how Christianity is perceived by New Agers, and so the main chapters convey some of the things we did discuss with them in a new age festival setting. However, we also included an appendix to the book that tells in her own words the story of a former Church-goer who has found a spiritual "home" in the New Spiritualities rather than in Christianity. The interesting feedback we have received is that "her story" was very "confronting" for Christians.

While I would prefer to see discussions between atheists and Christians take place outside of the Church sub-culture, and that many valuable things could flow from such discussions, in the long run most church-goers are not up to speed on the outside culture, do not spend much time interacting with non-Christians in non-church settings, and are probably not aware to any great extent of what mainstream American citizens who are not Christians think of the church.

If church-goers are to take the steps of conscientiously meeting outside the church sub-culture, then they probably first of all need a jolting wake-up call. In learning how a non-Christian responds to church services and related meetings, it may stimulate some to ask new questions beyond "what church programmes can we devise to attract people to attend our friendly services?"

The programme-oriented approach is very much a reflection of North American corporate culture and of the pragmatism that characterises much of US culture generally. The "it works for us" outlook (ie imitating Saddleback, Willow Creek etc) can lead to blindspots for sure.

However, I think that as US church culture is much larger than its counterparts in Australia, New Zealand and Europe, that the programmatic methods will endure without much critical evaluation for quite sometime. It can work and seem successful among the proverbial "god-fearers" of your culture because there are more of them around and it is fairly easy to fill an auditorium with people who are on the fringes of Christianity anyway. Whereas in Australia the "god-fearers" are now few and far between.

Unless the church culture can be encouraged to develop some critical self-reflective skills (and be shown why they are needed in the first instance), I surmise that the US church scene will endure for many decades hence before the crushing realities of cultural change and non-Christian religious pluralism begin to make a deep impact on Christians across your nation.

John W. Morehead said...

I appreciate your comments and wisdom, Philip. I think you are correct that my expectations are far ahead of where most Christians are, and this might be a good first step after all. I can only help for more in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Another thing that is often missed in discussions like this is that militant atheists aren't just critiquing Christians, they are critiquing religion and spirituality without qualification.

Sure, militant creationists and Islamic Jihadists are the ones that get up their nose the most, but they'll just as happily take pot shots at Buddhists and Pagans when it suits. There are many implications to this that Christians would do well to think about.