Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Insight from an Atheist

Religion as free enterprise?

Dr. Richard Dawkins, noted atheist claims so. Currently I am in the midst of his book, The God Delusion, and am immensely enjoying it. Though Dawkins has assuredly declared a war on faith of any stripe, there is significant insight contained in this tome, even though you must sift through his jaded sarcasm and biting British wit.

...the religiosity of America stems paradoxically from the secularism of its constitution. Precisely because America is legally secular, religion has become free enterprise. Rival churches compete for congregations--not least for fat tithes that they bring--and the competition is waged with all the hard-sell techniques of the marketplace. What works for soap flakes works for God, and the result is something approaching religious mania among today's less educated classes. In England, by contrast, religion under the aegis of the established church has become little more than a social pastime, scarcely recognizable as religious at all.
This quote also broaches another topic that came up in the comment thread of my last post, and that is of historical revisionism. Revisionism takes place essentially when a historical fact does not necessarily line up with your supposed worldview and then the meaning of those facts are changed to suit your purported belief

In the aforementioned quotation, Dr. Dawkins patently asserts that the founding fathers of America were secularists, yet Drs. Dobson and Falwell, and many others representing the religious right, would assert that America was founded on Christian principles. Who then is correct? That would be my question of the hour.


Streak said...

Not sure this comment thread will be as long as the last, eh?

Dawkins v. Dobson and Falwell? And we have to choose between them? :) Is Dawkins really arguing that the founders were secularists or that the document and system are secularists?

I also think the statement comparing religion to free enterprise is painfully evident. It is more than just a secular system that influences that trend. The language of democracy and republicanism both influence the growth of diverse churches.

Tony said...

No, I sincerely doubt this one will generate the same response. Oh, and yes you have to choose...;)

Dawkins is arguing for the secularism of the docs themselves. But he makes a similar leap that the right makes.

The right argues that since the fathers were mostly Christian (were they?), then of course the docs were. Dawkins makes the same leap, just the opposite direction, that since the docs were secular, then the fathers must also have been.

Dawkins does go on to say that the fathers were passionate secularists, and if religious, it was an intensely private matter. The fathers would have been "aghast" to have seen the exclusion of any group, religious or otherwise, excluded from the new union's citizenry.

The statement about free enterprise religion jumped out at me; I have argued for it before out here and it seems strange I can get support from an atheist but little from anywhere else.

It is more than just a secular system that influences that trend. The language of democracy and republicanism both influence the growth of diverse churches.

For Dawkins' purposes, he really does not care; but you are correct what influences it. He just noted the trends and that they are worthy to be refuted, and should be.

Tim A. said...

In some ways I would say Dawkins is correct. There is a competition between many congregations. No! It should not be that way, but sadly it is. Each congregation should be reaching the people they can, and not worry about the other.
Of course we are supposed to be doing it all for the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
On the question of the hour - YES!

Tony said...

tim a.,

Thanks for the comment. American idealism does creep into our mindsets and often we confuse the growth of the corporate church with the growth of individual believers. We have fallen prey to the bigger is better fallacy of church growth.

Gordon Cloud said...

I think as far as founding fathers and their faith is concerned, we should analyze the documents they wrote and the ideals they advanced in the light of scripture.

Is the Constitution a relgious document? Of course not. However, one can see the biblical influence that was in the minds of at least some of its writers. So one cannot say that the writers were strictly secularists.

On the other hand, some of them were secular so we cannot claim that the document is entirely faith-based.

At any rate, I do not believe we should attempt to revise history to fit our world-view (regardless of what that view may be), neither should we attempt to assimilate divine fiat into our nation's foundations.

Tony said...

Ahhhhh, Gordon, fine comments.

The more I read, I discover that the founders were a mixed bag of beliefs and ideologies. Various proponents desire to read back into the historical facts their own presuppositions, much in the same way some do Scripture.

The fact is, the atheist as well as the Christian has a place in our country, and each is valuable as a citizen. I think that was the primary principle guiding the fathers.

Again, fine comments.

Raborn Johnson said...

Religion as free enterprise...wow, ain't that just the truth!

Tony, this is a topic which I have been thinking about alot lately. I have been wanting to blog on this very thing and probably will in the near future.

A book that has prompted my thinking alot in this regard is "The Myth of A Christian Nation" by Gregory Boyd. This is a great read. It is written by a pastor who lost over 1000 of his members after refusing to unite with "Christian" political action groups and agendas. He points out that we have exchanged the power of the Cross for the power of the sword in as much as we have tried to excercise power over others to force them to conform to our moral code and beliefs.

Jesus, on the other hand, taught us that the best way to start a revolution is to love, plain and simple. When we love and serve others, we transform the culture in which we live instead of just conquering it. I think that we have traded the power of genuine, sacrificial Christianity for a civil religion of Christian morality that stresses conformity to moral requirements; not necessarily the deliverance or transformation of the heart.

Tony said...


I will put that book on my reading list; it sounds like one that would resonate with me.

The reason you pinpoint is the exact same that has caused my disenfranchisement with the religious right. Nowhere in Scripture do we see political activism make a significant, or really any difference in the lives of people.

I make no argument for the abandonment of government, our contribution to civil cohesion, or the meeting of our civil obligations, but that the preaching of the Gospel is what turned the world upside down.

I have blogged on this whole idea a number of times; notably the posts on "the seduction of politics" and "of proselytizers and moralists."

Streak said...

good comments. I like raborn's line about transforming a culture v. conquering. I am studying conquest right now and trying to teach about it. Conquered people usually resent it. Tremendously.

The commercial-like competition between churches is almost unavoidable in America. Once we removed the state sanctioned churches (for very good reason) then those churches that survived and kept their doors open, were the ones who attracted the most stable congregations.

Raborn Johnson said...

Your post "of proselytizers and moralists" is one of my favorite posts to date. It has been very thought-provoking for me.

You are so right when you say that "conquered people usually resent it. Tremendously."

Back in 1999, my wife and I went to a temporary missions school stationed in Norway. Norway was one of the countries "Christianized" by the sword. At the time I was there, something like 90% of Norwegians belonged to the Lutheran church, but I sensed the hostility toward using the name of Jesus. I believe that this resentment traces it's roots right back to the way in which the Norwegian people were forced to submit to "Christian" leadership.

Thanks for your dialog on this guys. Good interaction.

Tony said...

Raborn, Streak;

I have in my reading and studying found that the line between trasformation and conquering is very, very subtle.

The stalwart religious, political activists use this language almost as code, kind of a "rallying the troops" battle cry. I heard a blurb from Falwell a couple of days ago (sorry Streak, but I do live only one hour south of Lynchburg and sometimes his snippets just creep into "Christian radio" up our way) saying, ""We must win this battle for our culture."

That quote sounds strangely familiar...

I kind of cringe when I hear "Onward Christian Soldiers" quoted in regards not to the cosmic battle between good and evil but rather to engaging culture.

And thanks for the encouragement, Raborn.

Raborn Johnson said...

I think that one of the metaphors that continues to hurt the Church is that of an army. It is only mentioned one place in the New Testament (to my knowledge) and yet people seem to run away with it, viewing our mission in a manner consistent with the quote of Mr. Falwell.

The overriding metaphor I see in the New Testament is that of a family. Our job then as believers, is to love people into the family, not conquer them and force them into some kind of "Christian" empire.

Tony said...


Significant insight!

Curiously, the phrase "army of the Lord" does not occur in the NT. The army metaphor, as far as I can gather, can only really be drawn from the marshall language of the pastorals; ie., 2 Timothy 2:3.

Endure hardship like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.

You are correct, even if we were to consider the army of the Lord a viable metaphor for the church, it is certainly eclipsed by the metaphor of the family.

The irony of 2 Timothy 2:3 is that it is followed by verse four...No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs--he wants to please his commanding officer.

I think that is applicable in this context.

I appreciate your comment about loving people into the family; you cannot do that looking down the barrel of a rifle or with a closed fist, even metaphorically.