We know that demographic trends show a rising percentage of Nones in America. People are dropping their religious labels faster than ever before, and that’s a cause for concern for many church leaders and churchgoers.
Shane Hayes is an Christian who believes he can reach out to atheists in a way that’s far more effective than the usual breed of apologists — Good luck with that — in part because he used to be an atheist, too.
His new book, out this week, is called The End of Unbelief: A new approach to the question of God (Leafwood Publishers, 2014):
In the excerpt below, Hayes makes what he calls an Agnostic argument for faith:
(Note: I don’t normally post excerpts from Christian books — certainly ones that contain ideas I strongly disagree with — but I thought I would do so in this case because the topic concerns atheists directly.)
In 2004, The End of Faith by Sam Harris becomes an international bestseller. The New Atheism soon is trumpeted by other eloquent voices: Dawkins (The God Delusion), Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Dennett (Breaking the Spell), and Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis). Essays proclaiming there are no good arguments for God’s existence appear on op-ed pages of large metropolitan dailies. Three close friends surround me after dinner and declare that Christians give only inane reasons for believing in God in the face of human suffering and tragedy.
The tide of modern intellectual culture flows strongly toward atheism, a destination congenial to some but abhorrent to others. For me, it was like Antarctica — glacially cold and wind-lashed, an ice-bound waste devoid of tree, shrub, or flower, no hint of blossoming life visible to the horizon, and beyond the horizon . . . nothing. I endured it for most of a decade. Then, drawn homeward, I swam against the tide for years, made a grueling journey back to the island of faith — for me, a lush Capri of the soul. Drifting with the tide is pleasant and easy, but is atheism where you want to go? Or stay?
What “Agnostic” Really Means
I am a Christian. And I am an agnostic. I hold as true what cannot yet be verified. An agnostic is one who says we can’t know whether there is a God or not. His existence can’t be proven, and it can’t be disproven. Thomas Aquinas gave reasons to believe in God. I see the best of them as strong arguments, but not proofs. Bertrand Russell, a great proponent of atheism, admitted he couldn’t be absolutely sure God doesn’t exist. Chapter 4 of Dawkins’ book is entitled “Why There Is Almost Certainly No God.” Almost certainly. Dawkins isn’t sure, either.
Since none of us can know, the great question isn’t “to be or not to be?” but to believe or not believe? I believe. Atheists choose not to believe. I can’t tell them they’re wrong, and they can’t tell me I’m wrong. We all grope in existential darkness. I use religious faith as a compass. They think it’s worthless.
I don’t say everyone should believe as I do. I’m a pragmatist, not an evangelist. I know how different people are. My solution may not be yours. But of this I’m sure: believing in God can enrich the lives of many who have ignored or rejected that option.
The Way Out of Our Maze
We’re in this mess together — we’re all human, vulnerable to illness, crushing accidents, the carnage of war, calamities of every kind. We’re aging, and we’re mortal. We don’t know whether there’s an all-powerful God who cares deeply about his creatures, or not. There is reason to think there is not. There is reason to think there is. Either hypothesis seems far-fetched in light of certain observable facts. From six-day creation, to creation over eons with evolution, to Cosmic Inflation, to the Big Bang theory, there is no explanation of the universe that is not from some point of view wildly improbable.
So we must have either no explanation or an unlikely one. To some rational minds, the theistic view is less unlikely than the atheistic. Did the Big Bang ultimately produce Einstein, or did a cause more like Einstein produce him? Did cosmic dust evolve into a great mind, or did a Great Mind produce the cosmos? Since the keenest powers of human reasoning leave us without proof on this crucial issue, uncertainty is our fate. We can’t know. We can only believe.
But the atheist says, “I don’t believe.” Ahh, but you do, I reply. You don’t believe in God, but you believe in No God. You believe in the hypothesis that there is no God. I believe in the hypothesis that there is a God. Mine is a religious belief. Yours an unreligious belief. But we both believe. Some atheists would rather die than admit this.
Questions We Can’t Escape
I can’t say with certainty that there is a God. But I can say with certainty that if there is a God, that reality makes a huge difference in the character of the universe and of human life. Consider these three questions that we can’t escape, because they keep coming at us: (1) When faced with problems or troubles that seem overwhelming, is supernatural help available or not? (2) Are we ephemeral creatures who expire utterly with our last breath, or is there a spirit in us that survives physical death? (3) If death is not the end of human consciousness, if there is a whole realm of being beyond that, is it good or bad — or might it be either, depending on how we relate to each other and how we relate to God . . . while we’re here?
Atheists have decided that there is no supernatural help and death ends all. Fine, but that belief has consequences. The world feels different because they view it in that light. If supernatural help is available only to those who reach out for it in faith, they won’t get that help. The joy of feeling the presence of a loving God in their lives, and connecting with him in prayer, will never be theirs. Thoughts of our mortality are more daunting if we can’t link them to thoughts of our immortality. Grief is blacker if the lost child, parent, friend, or lover is gone forever, not just gone ahead. And if this life is harder because we have rejected belief in God, a future life might be harder still because we’ve done so.
Somber or Radiant?
These are a few ways in which faith can enrich people’s lives and its rejection can impoverish them. Since we can’t know whether the world is Godless or God-filled, why not embrace the radiant view and enjoy its benefits? Why not swim against the tide?
Shane will likely be reading these comments, so feel free to let him know if you’re persuaded… (or at least intrigued to hear more, given that his book is much longer than just this excerpt).
Shane Hayes. “An Agnostic Argues for Faith” from The End of Unbelief. Copyright © 2014 by Shane Hayes. Used by permission of Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press.