Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto recently provided the stage for a debate between celebrated Christian apologist Alister McGrath and noted skeptic Michael Shermer. By all accounts, the evening was civil, thoughtful, and well attended—and for the vast majority of English-speaking people around the world, irrelevant.
To be sure, some atheists might still be interested in the arguments of Christians. A greater number of believers, one might suppose, are troubled by the claims of certain high-profile atheists, such as the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Most informed people nowadays, however, see them as merely four strong winds (to cite a Canadian metaphor). Their argumentation is not nearly at the level of their bombast, and has been answered thoroughly by many authors—including McGrath himself.
No, the point is that real atheists are relatively hard to find in the general population. For most Canadians, Americans, Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis, the central question is not “Does God exist?” A different question deserves priority.
Polls show that a large majority of Anglophones claim they believe in God. But polls also show a very wide range of meaning to that little word.
Increasing numbers of them believe in the Islamic version of God, or one of the dozens of Hindu understandings of God. Many more will say they believe in God when all that means to them is some kind of cosmic ordering force, such as Brahman in Indian thought or T’ian in Chinese—or perhaps Fate, in some modern residue of classical Greco-Roman culture.
Decreasing numbers of people calling themselves Christians, still the majority in the Anglosphere, believe in a version of God that would pass the test of a rigorous catechism class, let alone a first-year theology course in an orthodox school.
Line up ten Canadians who claim to be Christians when a pollster calls and ask them to explain in a correct and clear way the doctrine of the Trinity, the nature of the Incarnation, or the divine creation and providential ordering of the world—which are ideas simply fundamental to the Christian understanding of God. How many would succeed?
How many pastors would succeed?
So which God exists, what we mean by “God,” is the question of far more relevance to far more people.
Alas, a leader of the west African church, Sunday Bobai Agang, recently testified about his native country of Nigeria that “The Greatest Threat to the Church Isn’t Islam—It’s Us.” He indicts his fellow Nigerians for happily going to church and supporting Christian causes and politicians while participating in a thoroughly corrupt society that prizes material gain above moral and spiritual goodness.
What he says about his region is true elsewhere in that great, troubled continent. Christianity Today reports that “parts of East Africa have had a Christian majority for generations. In Uganda, the government has no problem appointing Christian lawyers as state prosecutors, judges, and to other influential government posts. Yet corruption in Uganda is widely regarded as the nation’s greatest problem.”
Closer to home, if a majority of people in the Anglosphere say that they’re Christians, and they still do, then one might draw a coarse, but challenging, conclusion. A majority of the crime, a majority of the corruption, a majority of the cruelty, and a majority of the callousness in our countries should be attributed to that majority of the population. And there is a lot of each.
Which God truly exists—in our minds and hearts?
Sociologists have stared hard at us and concluded that most of us are “functional atheists,” providing them no evidence in our actual behaviour that we truly believe in the Christian God.
By that measure, there might be far more atheists among us than we knew. But to say this is to be too hard on atheists, many of whom live lives of rectitude and generosity far more impressive than a lot of us ostensible “believers.”
No, if we believe in God, but in a God who is more like an insurance policy, or like a vending machine, or like an indulgent grandparent, or like an erratic and abusive parent, then we will behave accordingly.
So which God do we believe in?