This week I received an email (along with a bunch of other pastors) from an atheist who seemed to be genuinely inquiring about why we believed what we believed. The person explained their reason for getting in contact like this…
I’m really just emailing to ask, what does religion do for you? Does it give you hope? Fulfillment? Purpose? Why is religion a good thing?
What a cool email to get!
Many of my friends and family are in a different place when it comes to these kinds of things. Some are religious, some aren’t. I’ve thought from time to time about why I’ve found faith to be such an attractive thing, so I appreciated the opportunity to talk about it, and I thought it might be helpful to put my response up here.
My reply wasn’t particularly planned, it was just my off-the-cuff response to this person’s question. Maybe that’s more revealing than if I had spent a bunch more time on it.
So, what is it for you that either draws you to faith in God or pushes you away? Here’s my answer…
Thanks for the question. Us Christians are a pretty diverse lot, so I’m sure you’ll get a wide spectrum of answers.
For myself, one of the big things my faith gives me is a sense of meaning, in the sense of their being a deeper “absolute” power to things like beauty, and truth. The idea that moral good is something hardwired into the universe, not simply a utilitarian good. Whenever I read apologetics stuff, by the likes of C.S. Lewis or Timothy Keller (which I do recommend, if you’re interested in a Christian case for the reasonableness of faith), it’s their arguments about morality and beauty which resonate with me, more so than the arguments about creation, or science etc.
I think my faith journey started with two things… a personal experience of God (which I realise is highly subjective), which was like an overwhelming feeling of being accepted and forgiven, and of meaning being given to my life, and second, being captivated and intrigued by the person of Jesus. Who he was, what he said, and the effect he had. Obviously, I’m hopelessly biased, but I do think there is something unique and arresting about Jesus in the field of religions.
From there, my faith was strengthened and supported by a couple of things. One was that smart, compassionate people around me, and down through history, believed the same thing. Even today, I can think of people whose humility and generosity, which they’d attribute to their faith, really inspires me. (Sadly, not all Christians have been as great an advertisement). A second thing would be that the apologetics work of Christians – some of whom I’ve mentioned – has convinced me that belief in the Christian God is reasonable. I would by no means say there is some knockout proof, and to be honest this end of the apologetics spectrum just hasn’t been that important to me, but it feels like enough to believe my faith is reasonable and reasonable people can believe this.
So, I guess to sum up, I’d say that it’s the person of Jesus – both who he was and my experience of him in my life – and the framework of meaning and significance that gives to life, both in a charging beauty and moral truth with real value, and in revealing God to be a God of forgiveness and grace (and I haven’t really spoken as much about the personal need I feel for that grace, but that’s important too)… these things attract me to Christianity. History, reason, and my experience with other Christians support that, but they’re not the main thing.
For all that, as I said, I don’t think there are any knockout punches when arguing this stuff. There is a story in the gospel of Mark, in chapter 9, which I think is fascinating. A father asks Jesus to heal his son, and Jesus pushes the father on his own belief. The father responds, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” which I think is a pretty accurate description for the way it can sometimes be with these things. I suppose that’s where faith comes in.
As for why all of this is a good thing… there are arguments about how Christians, early on in the Roman Empire, would be the ones who would care for the outcasts, the sick, and the hopeless. It’s certainly true that Christianity tended to attract the down-and-out, and give them worth and value, from early on. So, I think that Christianity has altered the arc of history in a positive direction. But you can read that kind of stuff in a book like Tim Keller’s ‘The Reason for God’. It would probably be a good counter point to a book like ‘The God Delusion’. I read the Dawkins book, including his chapter on religion. For what it’s worth, I often found myself thinking, ‘These Christians you describe sound horrible.’ I just haven’t met many like them, which is a good thing.
Good luck with the responses. If you ever want to catch up for a coffee, I’d be keen.