Yesterday was a sunny afternoon in Princeton, Texas, not far from Dallas. 40 young minds gathered for a program called “Camp Quest,” the first camp designed for “children of agnostics, skeptics and [self-proclaimed] ‘free-thinkers.’” According to a recent article in the Dallas Morning News, the camp was designed for the purpose of “opening up [the children’s] minds and learning how to ask good questions.” Among the activities was encouraging the children to invent their own creation myths. The article concludes with the story of a little girl named Endeavor:
“At noon, Endeavor was lounging in a pink lawn chair next to a girl she had met at the camp. Her new friend said she did not believe in God. Asked whether she believed, Endeavor answered without hesitation.
“I don’t know,” she said, then went back to her juice box. [Her father] smiled.
”That’s as good an answer as I could ever ask for,” he said.
SKEPTICISM AS SOPHISTICATION
Agreed, atheists are in the minority nationwide, and are by no means worthy of the hostility or malice they experience for their beliefs. I am always willing to engage in dialogue with honest skeptics regarding my own beliefs, and I expect the same respect in return.
But within the last century (and with increasing popularity in recent years), there has been a push toward an egalitarian view of world religion in the name of intellectual freedom. Like the father in the article above, it is preferable to remain agnostic in the area of religion rather than adopt a strong religious viewpoint. After all, religious viewpoints are constrictive (in his work The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins likens religion to a veil that constrains the vision of its wearers).
The North Texas Church of Freethought is a community of self-proclaimed “freethinkers” who meet regularly as something akin to a “church” service (no disrespect, but without Christ it ain’t the church). When I visited with a small group of friends, we were warmly welcomed. A good friend was even engaged in conversation with the leader (I don’t recall the title he used), who even extended an invitation to speak at a future service. That is, until he learned that he was a seminary student, to which the “freethinker” replied, “Well, you won’t have any opportunity to share your views here.”
And so in our present culture, there exists a growing subset of people for whom skepticism is the new mark of sophistication. I’ve heard many parents say they don’t plan on teaching their children to “think for themselves” rather than choose a particular faith.
IS IT THAT EASY?
Unfortunately, nothing is that easy.
There are at least two points to be made here:
(1) There is no such thing as absolute intellectual freedom. One can never remain truly open to all points of view. In essence, what these skeptics are ultimately saying is this: “Our view of religious pluralism is superior to all other forms of religious pluralism.” Therefore they are guilty of the exact type of intellectual exclusivity they claim to avoid.
(2) Skeptics often wrongly equate freedom with the absence of boundaries. Yet boundaries, discipline and restraint actually contribute, in some cases, to greater freedom. This is seen quite easily in the intellectual sphere: disciplined study leads to greater intellectual growth and an increased capacity for cultural engagement. Disciplined exercise routines lead to increased capacity for physical activity. By contrast, the absence of such discipline and restraint leads to slovenly minds as well as bodies.
ALIVE IN THE SUPERUNKNOWN?
The grunge rock band Soundgarden famously sang of being “alive in the superunknown.” The problem with (post)modern skepticism is that relegating knowledge to the “superunknown” subtracts from, rather than adds to, our humanity. In his work Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton writes:
“The new rebel is a skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty, therefore he can never be a true revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces but the doctrine by which he denounce it. … Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything, he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”
Another philosopher once remarked that an open mind is like an open mouth: it’s only useful if it can be closed around something solid.
The reality is that Christianity is far from restrictive. Granted, history is replete with examples of the abuse of church authority. But the reality is that Christianity is the only faith system that allows for both unity within diversity, as it rests on belief in a God who is both unified and diverse within Himself (i.e., existing as Father, Son and Spirit). This is why the Christian message has been so prolifically articulated worldwide through a plurality of cultures and their respective means of artistic expression. One of my professors shared with us the African theologian Kwame Bediako who spoke of “Jesus of the Deep Forest,” wonderfully illustrating the many ways that Christ’s message has been appropriated to different cultures without sacrificing the core message.