Polling data suggest that in 20 years, a quarter of Americans will profess loyalty to no religion at all. Those unbelieving Americans aren’t European-style atheists. Instead, they find all the available institutional religious choice unappealing, which is why they are sometimes called “nones” as in “none of the above.”
Believers are failing to reach an ever-increasing segment of the population. What can we do differently? Let me point out to you one possible approach to the problem, based on an ancient tradition about the earliest evangelist in history.
The first of the Jewish patriarchs, Abraham, lived in a time of total alienation from God. The Bible provides fragmentary information about how he discovered, or was discovered, by the Lord. Jewish oral tradition, conveyed in the Talmud and Midrash, fills in many gaps. Among other things, we learn that Abraham shared the lost knowledge of the One God with “thousands and myriads” of other people.
That information comes from the great medieval rabbinic sage Maimonides who drew other much older traditions about Abraham together into a single narrative, recorded in his Mishneh Torah. What made Abraham such a great evangelist was his flexible approach. On one hand, he aggressively argued for the truth he had found: “When he recognized and knew [God], he began to formulate replies to the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim and debate with them, telling them that they were not following a proper path.”
On the other hand, he was able to suit his teaching as appropriate to individual seekers: “When the people would gather around him and ask him about his statements, he would explain [them] to each one of them according to their understanding, until they turned to the path of truth” (emphasis added).
King Solomon would later formulate this idea in the book of Proverbs. “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” as the King James Version translates the verse (22:6). The Hebrew literally says we should train a child “according to his way,” again indicating an individual approach, here based on the child’s unique personality and inclinations.
Committed Jews and Christians need to be careful readers and interpreters of our culture, sensitive to the unique spirit of the time, which is one of doubting and questioning. Evangelists for atheism have made inroads, but those have been limited by the fact that the most aggressive secularists make their case in such starkly dogmatic terms.
Darwinians like Richard Dawkins, the bestselling atheist biologist, insist they have got everything all figured out. The history of life can be fully explained as the product of unplanned, purposeless churning by purely material, chance-driven natural forces.
Traditional believers have responded with an avalanche of books seeking to counter the remarkably influential Dawkins. However, perhaps more closely attuned to the spirit of our age is the reply to the New Atheism from mathematician David Berlinski, a Jewish agnostic.
In The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, now in paperback, Berlinski compresses, with his characteristic elegance and wit, a line of argument he has been pursuing for the past 13 years. A critic both of intelligent design and of Darwinism, Berlinski’s basic point is that whatever many scientists may say, along with their boosters in the media, science does not have it all figured. Icons including Darwinian evolution, but also theories about the human mind, the Big Bang, the origin of life, the origin of matter — these are all open to doubt:
“The claim that the human mind is the product of evolution is not unassailable fact. It is barely coherent.”
“The idea that man was created in the image of God remains what is has always been: And that is the instinctive default position of the human race.”
This is real skepticism, not the fake but popular kind that doubts God but concedes all to anyone claiming to speak in the name of science.
Berlinski’s skeptical voice may be the one that many in that growing population of “nones” most urgently need to hear, because he speaks as one of them, according to their understanding. They cannot hear professions of certainty. There is a real sense, too, in which Berlinski’s skepticism speaks not only to a demographic group but to the spiritual condition of modern man.
Solomon’s Song of Songs expresses this with the image of the beloved not waiting in anticipation of her loved one but, instead, having fallen asleep: “I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh” (5:2).
Ours is a spiritually slumbering generation, more than any in a very long time. Religious believers can’t force the knock to come. We might be better off, as would the doubters and “nones,” if we appreciated that.