there was no argument

This observation from the first page of Isobel Kuhn’s By Searching could have been written yesterday:

Brought up in an earnest Presbyterian home (my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and my father an ardent lay preacher), I had been carefully coached in the refutations of modernism before my parents had allowed me to enter the University. If it had been a case of arguing the claims of modernism v. fundamentalism, I do not think I would have been shattered in my faith. But there was no argument. There was just the pitying sneer, “Oh, you just believe that because your papa and your mama told you so,” and then the confident assumption that no persons nowadays who thought for themselves, who were scientific in their approach to life, believed that old story any more.

She’s talking about the 1920s, but hordes of well-informed young people from Christian homes are still experiencing exactly the same situation. Isobel Kuhn was evidently shaken enough by the sneer that she gave up almost everything that she knew from her background in a Christian home, and it’s the same still. There are no toeholds in the smooth facade of the secular, hedonistic, modern or postmodern worldview that the Christian can readily make use of, whether the side they’re exposed to is everyday TV or university lectures or workplace mores or anything else. Its foundations, even more critically, are very rarely on public display. There is no argument. People whose attachment to Christianity is weak or immature, or only nominal, may well find themselves (consciously or unconsciously) taking the path of least resistance, ducking away from the ridicule and incomprehension that generally attends belief in anything as orthodox as heaven and hell (as it was in Kuhn’s anecdote), and capitulating to some extent or another, in belief, or practice, or both.

Isobel Kuhn spent several years as an agnostic, before being gradually won back to belief in the prayer-hearing God of the Bible (which in her case eventually developed into an increasing devotion of herself to mission work, first locally and then overseas). This doesn’t always happen, we know only too well. Our neighbourhoods are chock full of people who loyally went to church until they left home and now never look at the bible, never pray, never think about going to church. Most of them, if you asked them, would be perfectly capable of explaining what the bible teaches on heaven and hell and the way of salvation, and why they’re not atheists. But there is no argument, and so they go on – good, decent people, who would be mortified at the thought of being seen dead in church, and yet know perfectly well that if it’s a case of arguing the claims, faith doesn’t come remotely close to being shattered.

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8 thoughts on “there was no argument

  1. Could it be resting too much on what you know, and then expecting God to save you, as opposed to seeing what you are, and on that basis pleading mercy from a merciful God?

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  2. As an explanation for why people from Christian homes aren’t all saved? Bound to be, I’m sure.

    Although that might apply more to the ones who are still coming to church. It probably grants too much (expecting to be saved) to people who have no interest in church/religion any more.

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  3. Yes, I was thinking of those at the point of leaving home. Intellectually, they could hold their own in any debate – and in debates they rest in the security of their knowledge.
    But sadly, there’s no faith.

    I heard an interesting illustration of old, where the minister said: “there are many in this church tonight who are 12 inches from heaven, who will end up in hell”.
    Faith could be in the head, but unless it had progressed those 12 inches further into the heart, it serves only to condemn them.

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  4. Of course, these days there are plenty of atheists who are happy to provide the arguments too. But if you’ve already decided that the atheists are wrong, then I suppose that’s no comfort to you.

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  5. The ultimate explanation as to why there are folks who were raised in Christian homes who are unsaved is the doctrine of election. Being raised by Christian parents is no “guaranteed ticket” to heaven. Not all the children of Christians are elect themselves. And, of course, we all know that from personal experience. Just as not everyone you share the gospel with will believe, not everyone born into Christian families will be saved. As the old saying is: “God has no grandchildren.” You can’t get grandfathered into the faith just because your parents were believers (or your grandparents, for that matter).

    As to the “fact” that “no person” with a “scientific approach to life” could believe Christianity – these days one could steer such a person to John Polkinghorne, a molecular physicist (I think) who is also a Christian. Can’t get a whole lot more “science-y” than that!

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  6. Richard, it is certainly the case that people switch beliefs, ending up in very different categories to those of their parents. (This article provides a convenient visualisation of the fact.) In fact, more so than almost any other belief system, the atheist community is primarily composed of former believers.

    I know that simple “belief” is not the same as “election” in the sense you’re using it – but this pattern is nevertheless supportive, in an indirect empirical way, of your claim.

    It is an unfortunate tendency that some atheists seem to think that a scientific approach to life is inconsistent with religious belief.

    Most atheists certainly don’t claim anything like that. However, there is a tendency for scientists (as a population) to have less religious belief than non-scientists. The explanation for this is bound to be complex.

    Some important questions, when examined scientifically, give answers that contradict certain traditional religious answers. Evolution is a big-ticket example. So people whose religious belief is tied up with those answers are forced to either (1) modify or abandon the religious beliefs that conflict with the science, or (2) abandon science. So we end up with either scientists whose religious belief is modified or abandoned, or religious people self-selecting out of science. So this, I think, is an important component of the answer.

    Other components might include the general attitude of skepticism encouraged in science (which is in tension with the value of “faith” promoted by many religious traditions), and the number of atheist role-models with a scientific bent (which may encourage atheists to become scientists more than it does theists).

    None of these are knock-down absolutes, so many theists do practice science, and do it well. As an atheist and a scientist, I’m glad of that. Both atheism (as a part of a broader worldview such as Humanism) and science thrive on being exposed to competing ideas, and being forced to re-examine assumptions.

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  7. Tim – it did occur to me before i posted that the internet’s heated arguments pro and anti atheism could be offered as a counter-example, except that (i) most of these anxious atheists don’t come close to challenging the foundations of Christian doctrine, through desperate lack of understanding of the doctrines. As Mr Robertson, Free Church minister in Dundee, has humbly put it, he could write a better defence of atheism himself; and (ii) most non-religious people are not the type of atheist who find themselves compelled energetically to attempt the refutation of religious belief whenever they encounter someone with a religious background. Most people from Christian homes who stop their church attendance don’t do so through being converted intellectually to the atheist cause.

    Richard – absolutely. The only contribution an observation like Kuhn’s can make is therefore to highlight one of the possible routes down the broad way. Thankfully in God’s electing purpose, not everyone who wavers in their attachment to the doctrines they were brought up with is left to abandon them altogether. And obviously, the attachment to Christian doctrines that comes from a Christian upbringing is neither necessary nor sufficient for salvation: it’s those who the Father gives to Christ who come to him.

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  8. Cath, can’t argue with those points.

    In my experience, university is probably a better place than anywhere else to encounter and engage in the more substantive discussions over religion, with clever people on both sides. But I am not surprised that Kuhn missed that, as even today there are many in university (and, in my experience, most people outside of university) who consider such discussions to be in poor taste.

    It’s just not something you do in polite society. I think it’s a shame, since engaging in such discussions is the best way to learn how to interact respectfully with those of different beliefs.

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