Assaults on faith

Sermon preached by Rev. Christopher Harrison at St Mary's church, Nottingham, 3rd January 2010

Christmas 2, year C

Christopher Harrison Home Page

The parish of All Saints, St Mary and St Peter, Nottingham

Just before Christmas the Guardian published an article about a new report by the Church of England about the work of churches with children.  The article was headed ‘Church recruiting drive targets 2-year olds’.  The report, which will be debated by General Synod in February, describes plans for using a range of opportunities for the Christian faith to children, not just in churches but through schools, homework clubs, breakfast clubs, play centres and the like.  This of course isn’t new – where there are possibilities for doing so, churches have long tried to find ways of bringing the gospel to children in various contexts where they gather, not just in church.  The article itself was reasonably balanced, despite its title.  But it was the flood of negative remarks posted by readers in the ‘comments’ section of the online version of the article which was deeply disturbing. 


The first one simply read ‘evil, evil, evil’.  The second read, ‘And the Lord said unto Moses, allegedly, " Let there be brainwashing throughout the land. Get them young before they know any better".  Then we have ‘I look forward to seeing school children participate daily in the worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; and ‘Whenever a religious organisation considers itself to be "out of touch" it always seems to end up with vicars in leather jackets wearing ear-rings and riding motorbikes (Hi, I'm Keith!), and so on. This targeting of children is no different than the state targeting children for sex education at five years old. Organised religion and the state should butt out of people's lives, full stop.  If we want either we'll give you a call.  Then, ‘This is awful. Ten years ago, when I was but 5 years of age; to the fury of my parents, the local vicar told me that Jesus personally knocked down the Berlin Wall. Religion has no place in young peoples' lives. I am fortunate that my parents allowed me to decide for myself. Why do we need youth to be inspired to hate foreigners, persons of other cultures, homosexuals etc.?  Churches cause far more mental harm than aggressive video games, pornography and the likes; why is there no minimum  age for buying a Bible, entering a church or watching a sermon on television?  As far as I am concerned, clergy should be kept away from schools just as pædophiles are’.


Slightly more neutrally, ‘If other worldviews get equal access and are regulated what’s the harm in trying to help children out and telling them some old stories and myths along the way. More services are a good thing, and stories are important’.   And, ‘Lighten up, people, there's no need to worry too much. After all, a lot of us atheists out there, like me, were baptised, went to Sunday school, assembly and scripture lessons at school, were members of the cubs or brownies. All this didn't stop us making up our own minds, and it won't stop modern children either. It doesn't matter what they think as children, it matters that they think when they are adults. Having both sides of the argument never harmed anyone.
In fact in my experience the early religious stuff is a sort of inoculation and renders you immune to it for the rest of your life. Knowledge of the bible etc is also very useful when it comes to reading classic literature and doing crosswords as well.


But then, ‘If you can't succeed then peddle lies to children. What a wonderfully moral vision those who pretend to believe in Jesus have’.  And ‘if this particular church wants to use the UN Declaration to back up their right to do this then they had better be prepared for a flurry of other claims from other faithheads for the same right.’


We wonder why many churches are struggling, and congregations declining.  The Church at large has tried modernising its services, many churches have become much more welcoming than they used to be, and have made real efforts to connect with the society around them.  But I have deliberately quoted the comments about that article at some length because they are an uncomfortable reminder of very deep-seated attitudes towards Christianity which some people hold.  And the strength of feeling expressed in several of those comments is deeply disturbing, including the readiness to use abusive terms like ‘faithhead’ – and several comments were so abusive that they were removed. 


So what are we to make of such attitudes, and what can we do in response? 


The task for the Church, as we can see, is huge.  Society is reaping the harvest of many years during which people have been taught to regard religion as being basically superstition, something which makes you suspend your critical faculties, which is not rational but dogmatic, and which is imposed upon vulnerable people by manipulation and brainwashing.  Religion is commonly said to be a cause of war and a justification for intolerance and prejudice.  It is regarded as the refuge of the needy and insecure.  ‘Organised religion’ is said to be particularly villainous because its structures have undue influence, too much money, and its hierarchy tries to impose its views on people against their will.  All these are elements of a fairly common perspective on religion which is held by those who think they know better, and take it for granted that society should discard old notions of ‘God’ and grow up. 

Needless to say – we must take every opportunity to challenge such stereotypes.  Our case isn’t helped by those elements within the Church at large which talk in terms of Jesus personally bringing down the Berlin Wall – while we may, just about, know what the speaker was trying to communicate, to most people a phrase like that simply sounds naive and laughable. Nor is it helped by those parts of the Church which not only show prejudice and intolerance to certain groups of people, but justify this as being the will of God.  Some forms of Christianity, it has to be said, do encourage sloppy and unrigorous thinking, and can lead to a kind of intellectual laziness, with ‘God’ becoming a kind of catch-all term for all those things we don’t understand about the universe and reality.  And while I hope we all know the importance of trusting in God, if we become too dependent on God solving our problems for us, we can reach the point when we fail to recognise when it’s actually up to us to sort things out, with or without divine assistance.  All this suggests that we urgently need to present to the world at large a mature, thinking, robust and defensible Christian faith.  We have to take seriously the challenges thrown at us, however denigratory and poorly expressed they may be.  We shouldn’t just retreat into a safe little Christian enclave, for they reflect some very widely held views about Christianity, and we ignore them at our peril.


Much of modern intellectual thought is to do with criticism – teasing out inadequacies, inconsistencies, contradictions within everything from politics to culture to religion.  It’s not surprising that people question the Christian faith – and let’s not forget that a healthy and constructive questioning is not incompatible with religious belief; indeed that’s one way of growing and deepening in faith.  But as we contend with all the slings and arrows thrown at us by those who would discard religion and destroy faith, let’s not hold back from presenting to the world the treasures which make our faith real to us:  the belief that self-giving love is the best principle by which human life should be ordered and guided; the belief that such love was expressed most perfectly in the coming to earth of Jesus Christ; that through Christ we have glimpsed something of the very nature of God; and that the love and compassion of God are permanently and infinitely available to us through the Holy Spirit.  We can go on to talk of the fact the Christianity is, at its heart, a religion of peace and not war; we can spell out a myriad of ways in which Christians have built social institutions which have added hugely to the betterment of humanity; we can explain that the traditional strength of the Church of England is that it holds the three pillars of Scripture, Reason and Tradition in balance, with each of these preventing either of the others from leading to excessive dogmatism.


But perhaps the heart of the problem, as we consider our critics, is that there simply are people who don’t have any innate, natural or learned experience of God – of the Divine – of the mysterious pattern and purpose to life which lies within all that exists.  When you’ve had a glimpse of the supernatural, in whatever way this may occur, your perspective on life begins to shift, and you become less ready to criticise the idea of God, and more open to God’s existence.  And even if the Church is a poor reflection of what an ideal Church might be, at least you realise that it’s trying to express in human and institutional terms religious truths which go far beyond words or human concepts. 


So let’s not lose heart; let’s use challenges such as these as a prompt to us to remind ourselves – and to tell others - why our faith is important to us; and as an opportunity to think things through afresh, where necessary, so that we can be credible in the modern age.  And of course history shows that the Church has often thrived in times of persecution – it’s pleasant to be comfortable in our faith, but it’s also no bad thing if, from time to time, we’re not.