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Aren't We Better Off without Religion?
Most college freshmen try to blend in. I stuck out. My English-major classmates were preternaturally cool. Some modeled; others starred in films. I did neither. But it wasn't just my lack of time in front of a camera that set me apart: I showed up to college with a three-inch wooden cross around my neck.
One guy assumed I was being ironic, and we struck up an unlikely friendship. He was into drugs. I was into Jesus. We both loved books. I could have increased my credibility no end by confessing that I was quietly falling in love with a succession of girls. But I didn't. I was still hoping it was a phase I would grow out of. So, for the time being, I was just one of a handful of Bible-clinging oddities among my mystified, secularized, and occasionally scandalized peers.
The Christian student group at Cambridge was larger and more active than people imagined. We knocked on dorm-room doors to deliver gospel booklets and discuss Jesus. But most casual observers of the Cambridge scene at the turn of the millennium would have bet these groups would subside: full-bodied Christian belief was simply no longer viable in a world-class university.
New Atheist Narratives
Since then, New Atheists have spun a credibility-killing web around faith. In 2004, Sam Harris published The End of Faith: Religions Terror, and the Future of Reason, followed in 2006 by Letter to a Christian Nation. That same year, Richard Dawkins released The God Delusion, which remained on the New York Times best seller list for fifty-one weeks. In 2008, the late Christopher Hitchens launched his tour de force of new atheist persuasion, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. These rhetorically gifted men preached that Christianity was neither plausible nor desirable. Dawkins ridiculed a faith disproved by science. Hitchens sought to puncture the sagging balloon of public opinion that imagined Christianity was a force for good.
Invigorated by these triumphs, atheists have boldly claimed the moral and intellectual high ground — even when that has meant trespassing. In a popular 2011 TED talk, "Atheism 2.0," School of Life founder Alain de Botton advocated a new kind of atheism that could retain the goods of religion without the downside of belief. He salivated over the black American preaching tradition and the enthusiastic response of congregants: "Thank you Jesus, thank you Christ, thank you Savior!" Rather than abandoning rapture, de Botton suggested secular audiences respond to atheist preaching by lauding their heroes: "Thank you Plato, thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen!" One wonders how Shakespeare, whose world was fundamentally shaped by Christianity, would have felt about being cast as an atheist icon. But when it comes to Jane Austen, the answer is clear: a woman of deep, explicit, and abiding faith in Jesus, she would be utterly appalled.
Likewise, at the 2016 "Reason Rally," designed to mobilize atheists, agnostics, and "nones," multiple speakers invoked Martin Luther King's March on Washington — as if a rally that despised Christianity would have pleased one of the most powerful Christian preachers in American history. In the same year, I stumbled upon an Atlantic article that promised to explain "Why the British Tell Better Children's Stories." As a Brit living in America, I read it eagerly, only to find it arguing that American children's stories are less compelling because they are more Christian. The author cited The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia as examples of stories shaped by paganism, failing to note that Tolkien and Lewis were passionate Christians who grounded their stories in the death-and-resurrection truth claims of Jesus. J. K. Rowling, another author referenced on the side of good-old British paganism, chose not to disclose her fragile Christian faith until the last Harry Potter book was published, precisely because of its Christian influence: she feared it would give the story away. The trend persists. In an oddly appropriating act, the 2018 film version of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time expunged its many Christian references.
Meanwhile, brilliant skeptical storytellers have captured our imaginations. Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, has been revivified in a popular Hulu dramatization. It imagines New England ruled by a pseudo-Christian sect, the Sons of Jacob. Women's bank accounts are suspended. Women are forbidden to read or work jobs. Those still fertile after a nuclear fallout are assigned to male "Commanders," who seek to impregnate them in a monthly ceremony, supposedly modeled on Abraham's impregnation of his wife Sarah's handmaid. Partly inspired by the 1980 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Atwood envisages a similarly repressive, supposedly Christian regime.
Back in my own motherland, the iconic sci-fi series Doctor Who takes viewers on breathless sprints between the moving, the witty, and the profound. The Doctor is in many ways deeply Christ-like, and Doctor Who is one of my-all-time-favorite shows, but its anti-Christian messaging is hard to miss. "Weeping angels" feed on human lifespans. "Headless monks" are ruled by faith: decapitation has rendered them literally thoughtless. The fifty-first century church is a military operation. The list of compelling stories, shows, and songs that invite us to reject religion is long, and we forget how much of the cultural capital we see as universal was sculpted by Christianity.
To some extent, of course, we Christians have dug our own grave. The entrenchment of the culture wars has led many believers to lose touch with their heritage, while Christians and atheists alike assume that secular means normative. Christians invented the university and founded most of the world's top schools to glorify God. And yet studying is seen as a threat to faith. Christians invented science, yet science is seen as antithetical to Christianity. Christians have told some of the best stories in history. But if the tales are too good, too entrancing, too magical, we assume that the authors cannot espouse this supposedly story-killing faith.
What fruit has this borne for today's students?
The Rising Generation of "Nones"
In 2016, the largest survey of incoming freshmen to US universities found that 30.9 percent claimed no religious affiliation — a dramatic 10 percent rise since 2006.8 This group broke down into freshmen who selected "none" (16 percent), those who identified as agnostic (8.5 percent), and those who claimed atheism (6.4 percent). While the growth of the nonreligious population has been rapid, this is no license to cede the university to secularism. Sixty-nine percent of US college students still identify as religious, and 60.2 percent identify as Christian. To be sure, checking the box on a survey is not proof of active faith. But when more students identify as Baptist than atheist, we need to be careful about exaggerated claims of secularization. Nor is the decline in religious affiliation a byproduct of diversity: atheism in America is overrepresented by white men, while women and students of color are more likely to be religious. Indeed, at historically black universities, 85.2 percent of students identify as Christian, and only 11.2 percent as agnostic, atheist, or none. Nevertheless, the proportion of religiously unaffiliated students in the US is growing — fast. So, are today's students simply waking up to the fact that we do not need religion anymore?
At an empirical level, the answer seems to be no.
Religion: A Miracle Drug
In 2016, Harvard School of Public Health professor Tyler VanderWeele and journalist John Siniff wrote a USA Today op-ed entitled "Religion May Be a Miracle Drug." The piece begins, "If one could conceive of a single elixir to improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans — at no personal cost — what value would our society place on it?" The authors go on to outline the mental and physical health benefits that are correlated with regular religious participation — for most Americans, going to church — even to the extent of reducing mortality rates by 20–30 percent over a fifteen-year-period. Research suggests that those who regularly attend services are more optimistic, have lower rates of depression, are less likely to commit suicide, have a greater purpose in life, are less likely to divorce, and are more self-controlled.
Of course, we need only open a newspaper to see that religious beliefs can cause harm. But to say that religion is bad for you is like saying, "Drugs are bad for you," without distinguishing cocaine from life-saving medication. In general, religious participation appears to be good for your health and happiness. Turn this data on its head and the trend toward secularization in America is a public-health crisis.
What makes religious participation so powerful?
The Power of Relationships
Part of the answer is relationships. Religion fosters relationships, and relationships matter. The director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a seventy-five-year study of well-being, summarizes its findings like this: "Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period." Throughout the study, the subjects expected their happiness would depend on fame, wealth, and high achievement. But, in reality, the happiest and healthiest people prioritized relationships with family, friends, and community.
Perhaps we do not need a seventy-five-year study to convince us that loneliness is lethal. Our single-portion society teaches us to prioritize choice over commitment. We resist being tied down because we fear missing out, and in doing so, we miss out on the things that matter most. But does the power of community account for the impact of religion? Would going to the local golf club once a week and enjoying a shared interest with a consistent group yield similar results? It seems not. Community support alone seems to account for less than 30 percent of the positive effect of religious participation. So, what else is in play?
The Benefits of Seven Biblical Principles
I want to explore seven counterintuitive biblical commands and how they relate to the findings of modern psychology. This is not an exhaustive list, and I make no claim that Christianity holds a monopoly on these principles or that a positive effect on heath and happiness is the litmus test for truth. But as this chapter is entitled "Aren't We Better Off without Religion?," it seems logical to examine some of the principles of the world's largest religion and see how they impact our ability to thrive.
It Really Is More Blessed to Give Than to Receive
In our acquisitive culture, the biblical demand that Christians serve and give to others feels out of joint. The claim that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35) cuts against the grain of our individualized, success-focused mind-set. But a growing body of research suggests that giving is good for us. Volunteering has a positive impact on our mental and physical health. Actively caring for others often yields greater physical and psychological benefits than being cared for. Helping others in the workplace seems to improve career satisfaction. And financial generosity has psychological payoffs.
Many nonreligious people are passionately engaged in serving and giving, while many Christians live self-centered lives. But as atheist social psychologist Jonathan Haidt observes:
Surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. ... Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood.
No Christian lives up to the radical example of Jesus, who gave his life to save his enemies. Too many churches enable a self-focused Christianity that ignores New Testament ethics. But the faint echoes of Christ in the lives of Christians seem to pay dividends — both for society and for individuals.
Love of Money Disappoints
For those of us raised on a steady diet of capitalism, the Bible's critique of wealth is tough to swallow. Jesus taught that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:23–24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:24–25). The apostle Paul called the love of money "a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10). But in the US at least, the love of money is still holding sway. In the 2016 survey The American Freshman, 82.3 percent of freshmen checked "becoming very well off financially" as an "essential" or "very important" life objective. This represents an increase of nearly 10 percent in the last decade and has overtaken "raising a family" as a top priority. Beyond our student years, many of us live as if money will buy us happiness, sacrificing family and friendship on the altar of career. But as Haidt comments, "Wealth itself has only a small direct effect on happiness because it so effectively speeds up the hedonic treadmill."
A little money can make a big difference to the truly poor — a reality reflected in the Bible's unrelenting demand that those with extra share with those without. But while the literature is complex, there is evidence to suggest that beyond a basic level of security, increased wealth is only slightly correlated with an increased sense of well-being. As economist Jeffrey Sachs notes in the World Happiness Report 2018, in the US, "income per capita has more than doubled since 1972 while happiness (or subjective well-being, SWB) has remained roughly unchanged or has even declined." The biblical warnings against the love of money turn out to be more true than we realized: invest your life in money over relationships, and the returns will not satisfy.
Work Works When It's a Calling
While the Bible eviscerates the love of money, it does not call us to a leisurely life. Rather, it tells a story in which humans are made to be in relationship with God and with each other, and to pour themselves into meaningful work. In the first century, few people had our freedom to choose their profession. If your father was a carpenter, you had better be into woodworking! But regardless of their situation or status, people could choose how they worked. The apostle Paul encouraged Christian slaves (a significant proportion of the early church) that even their work could be a calling, and exhorted them to put their hearts into it, seeing themselves as working for the Lord, not any human master (Col.3:23–24). So Christians are called to see work as part of their worship — whether they are designing a building or sweeping its floors.
Again, this proves to be good advice. Psychological research suggests that we need meaningful work to thrive. If we work just for money, we tend to find it unsatisfying; but if we put our hearts into our work and see it as a calling that resonates with our values, connects us to people, and fits within a larger vision, we experience joy. University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth tells a parable to illustrate this: "Three bricklayers are asked, 'What are you doing?' The first says, 'I am laying bricks.' The second says, 'I am building a church.' The third says, 'I am building the house of God.' The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling."
We can apply this to the least glamorous jobs. One study observed the attitudes of janitors emptying bedpans and cleaning up vomit in a hospital. Those who saw themselves as part of a team caring for the sick, and who went above and beyond to do their job with excellence, saw their work as a calling and enjoyed it far more than those who worked just for a paycheck. So, whether we are performing brain surgery or cleaning up vomit, we can put our hearts into our work, connect it with a larger purpose, and gain satisfaction.
We Really Can Be Happy in All Circumstances
This view of work ties into a yet more counterintuitive biblical claim. After multiple experiences of physical and psychological trauma, the apostle Paul wrote this from prison: "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:12–13 NIV). This sounds like wishful thinking. But modern psychology suggests that we have a highly developed ability to synthesize happiness. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert calls this our "psychological immune system." To illustrate the point, he quotes the seventeenth-century polymath Thomas Browne: "I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Confronting Christianity"
Copyright © 2019 Rebecca McLaughlin.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Aren't We Better Off without Religion? 17
2 Doesn't Christianity Crush Diversity? 33
3 How Can You Say There's Only One True Faith? 47
4 Doesn't Religion Hinder Morality? 59
5 Doesn't Religion Cause Violence? 75
6 How Can You Take the Bible Literally? 95
7 Hasn't Science Disproved Christianity? 109
8 Doesn't Christianity Denigrate Women? 131
9 Isn't Christianity Homophobic? 153
10 Doesn't the Bible Condone Slavery? 175
11 How Could a Loving God Allow So Much Suffering? 193
12 How Could a Loving God Send People to Hell? 209
General Index 227
Scripture Index 235
What People are Saying About This
“This book is compelling reading, not only because of its intellectual rigor and the fact that it is beautifully written but also because of its honest, empathetic humanity. Readers will find themselves expertly guided on a journey that involves them not only in confronting Christianity but also in confronting themselvestheir worldviews, hopes, fears, failures, and search for identity and satisfactionand, finally, in confronting Christ as the altogether credible source of life as God means it to be.”
John C. Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, University of Oxford
“McLaughlin probes some of the trickiest cultural challenges to Christianity of our day and clearly demonstrates the breadth and richness of a Christian response. Confronting Christianity is well worth reading and pondering.”
Tyler J. VanderWeele, John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology and Director of the Human Flourishing Program, Harvard University
“In the West, many people are persuaded by dominant secular narratives and think they already know what Christianity is about. In this bombshell of a book packed with myth-busting statistics, McLaughlin reveals the many surprises in authentic Christianity.”
Peter J. Williams, Principal, Tyndale House, Cambridge; author, Can We Trust the Gospels?
“A deep and caring response to current criticisms and confrontations of the Christian faith fills Rebecca McLaughlin’s book. She speaks from real-life experience of the personal and intellectual challenges we encounter today in considering the claims of Jesus Christ. Her open and faithful answers to serious questions provide not an easy stroll through imagined virtual reality but an adventurous rocky pathway through true and abundant life.”
Ian Hutchinson, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; author, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?
“Apologetics with heart, discernment, empathy, and rigorous study. Confronting Christianity will help you understand the hard questions of the Christian faith while also igniting a love for neighbor. McLaughlin doesn’t shy away from tough questions about diversity and the nations, as well as slavery and facing America’s past and present. Her answers are not only insightful; they have the potential to transform a heart of stone to a heart of flesh. Take up and read.”
Trillia Newbell, author, If God Is For Us: The Everlasting Truth of Our Great Salvation
“Rebecca McLaughlin refuses to duck the biggest challenges to the Christian faith and takes on the hardest questions with empathy, energy, and understanding. She has studied widely, thinks deeply, and argues very persuasively. This is an outstanding resource for the skeptic, the doubter, and anyone who is ready to engage with some compelling thinking.”
Sam Allberry, apologist; Associate Pastor, Immanuel Church, Nashville, Tennessee; author, 7 Myths about Singleness
“Rebecca McLaughlin’s defense of the Christian faith is what all defenses should be: sensitive, smart, and sound. This is apologetics done rightand exactly right for this age in which we live. Confronting Christianity is a book I will draw upon myself and will recommend widely to believers and skeptics alike.”
Karen Swallow Prior, author, On Reading Well and Fierce Convictions
“Rebecca McLaughlin addresses the most frequent and pressing objections to Christianity in our time with unflinching honesty, rigorous clarity, and deep compassion. This book is written not merely for skeptics but also for those who have suffered much in this sin-sick, destructive world. It is brimming with hope and will surprise youand likely change the way you think about Jesus.”
Jon Bloom, Cofounder, Desiring God; author, Not by Sight
“What Christianity has to offer the world is bound up in its strangeness. Only a distinctive word can be truly good news in a world like this. In a secularizing age, though, Christianity is often not simply odd to the world but also unexplained and seemingly inexplicable. In this book, Rebecca McLaughlin takes seriously both the Bible and the questions of nonbelievers. If you’re a non-Christian and have wondered why Christians think and do as they do, this book will be a good start to exploring those questions. If you’re a believer, this book will not only equip you intellectually but also call you to compassion and empathy for your questioning, unbelieving neighbor, as well as prepare you to bear witness to the Light that has come into the world.”
Russell Moore, President, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention
“A fresh voice, arresting arguments, and an easy-to-read style. McLaughlin writes for curious thinkers everywhere, and handsomely repays the open-minded reader.”
Os Guinness, author, The Call