Wednesday, September 03, 2014

is faith obsolete?

We were sitting in a sea of nerds.

Dressed up like superheroes, elves, Jedi, and Hogwarts students, they were all eagerly awaiting the arrival of the five panelists, actors and actresses from the recent hit TV show Battlestar Galactica.
'We were all eagerly awaiting', I should say, because Emily and I were just as excited as the rest. We weren't in costume, but we did wait in line an hour and half to get good seats, close to the stars. That's what you do at DragonCon, Atlanta's annual, Labor Day weekend convention celebrating all things nerdy and geeky.

Some of the stars of Battlestar Galatica at DragonCon.

This particular panel was meant focus on faith and religion in the sci-fi series. On the one hand, that makes sense, because God/the gods and faith are huge issues on the show. On the other hand, it seemed a little silly that we were expecting these performers to have an hour's worth of thoughtful things to say about religion, and they didn't seem all that comfortable with the task themselves.

In a room of about a thousand, mostly-younger folks, many of whom are deeply engaged in science and many of whom spent the weekend going to panels and discussions about skepticism or atheism, in that room it wasn't really surprising when the question finally came: 'do you think the major world religions might soon be obsolete, in the next 100 years or 200 years?'

After a brief silence, one of the actors, in his characteristically gruff tone just said, "... Pardon?"

The question was passed to another actor, who is a pretty thoughtful person, and he spoke for a minute about how, he hopes, the adversarial, us-versus-them, character of some religious beliefs will disappear in the coming decades and centuries; everyone clapped; the panel moved on.

But the question stuck with me: are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, are these faiths soon going to be obsolete? The young speaker seemed to be assuming the correct answer is 'yes'.

I think the idea that these faiths will prove obsolete and just disappear is ludicrous. And I think this man's question and his assumptions about the future of faith are based on some equally ludicrous and sadly uninformed notions. Of course I can't read his mind, I don't know exactly what he was thinking, but these questions and these ideas are all over the place - and if he wasn't thinking this, plenty of people in that room were.
You see, it seems like a lot of people expect faith to go away because they're confused about the role it plays in a person's life, and they're confused about the foundation it's built on. 

Some people think faith mainly plays an explanatory role in someone's life, like 'Q: where does lightning come from? A: angry gods'. Of course, now that we know more about the meteorological phenomena behind lightning, you don't need gods to answer that question any more. Faith is an answer, and now we see it's a bad answer, so it's obsolete.
Some people also think that faith - say, Christianity - is built on a foundation of claims that are obviously and demonstrably wrong. Christianity is all about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection; science and history disprove all of that, therefore the faith is wrong and obsolete.

Of course the problem is that this isn't really true.

I don't know anyone who is a Christian only because, or even mainly because, she needed an explanation for rainbows, or even an explanation for why the universe exists at all. No doubt some people fall into this category, but not very many.
People follow Jesus for a lot of other reasons: because we think the Christian message about God and the world and sin and redemption is true; because we think it's compelling and beautiful; because we've experienced the Holy Spirit's presence and work in our lives; because we decided the church is a body we wanted to be a part of; because we've seen things we can only attribute to the hand of God. People believe in all of this because they've developed a meaningful relationship with this Jesus - he's helped us find meaning and hope in life. You might as well say spouses or friendship or life aspirations are going to become obsolete.

And anyone who has actually studied the history of the New Testament can tell you that history hardly 'disproves all of this stuff'.
I love this radio interview with historian Bart Ehrman (who is himself not a Christian), where he struggles to make the atheist interviewer understand that Jesus was a real, historical person. Check it out if you have a few minutes:

The young man takes for granted that history has done away with Jesus, but it's simply not true. Unfortunately, most of the people who periodically declare to the internet that Jesus didn't exist have never actually read or listened to any of the historians and experts.

If faith was just a set of outdated explanations for the weather or the seasons, if it was built on a slab of superstitious legends and myths, then I'm sure it's days would be numbered.
But what if it's not? What if faith has a future, and it's not going anywhere?

"Obsolete"? ... Pardon?