September 19, 2007

The God Delusion

A Sermon preached at Riverview United Church, Atikokan ON
September 16, 2007

Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

When I sat down on Monday morning to think about what worship would look like this week the first line of the Psalm jumped out at me – “Only fools say there is no God, they only fool themselves”. It stuck out at me because earlier this year, there were a couple of books that got a lot of attention. This is one of them, it is by a well-known British atheist named Richard Dawkins and is called The God Delusion. I am sure you can guess from the title that he might have a different opinion than the person who wrote the psalm about who the fool really is.

Actually this week I did read the first chapter and a half but found it difficult to wade through the vitriol, as one friend describes it. Dawkins appears to be a very angry man and later in the book becomes very condescending to anyone who is foolish enough to believe in God. Dawkins talks about how this God delusion, or as he calls it in chapter 2 the God Hypothesis, has been the cause of many many terrible things over the years. He talks about how belief in God has caused warfare, and violence and anger. But of course he is coming from the point of view where the fool is the one who believes in God.

If you ask the Psalmist, the Psalmist would likely say that the problem is we don’t all believe in the right God. At this point in Israel’s history God is still largely a tribal god. It is only later, when the Israelites are in exile and come to the surprising realization that “Hey, the God who was with us in the Temple in Jerusalem is with us here too” that they start to broaden their understanding of God. For most of the history in the Jewish Scriptures God is, as the story puts it, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. God is a family god turned tribal god as the family grew. But as people’s understandings grew God became The One, Universal God.

What has often been debated in theological circles but not so much in local congregations is the question of “why believe in God?”. Most people grow up sort of assuming that, well if you go to church you believe in God. Part of the package as it were. For many years it was also assumed that everybody believed in God. Atheism has always been around – that first line of the Psalm shows that. But for many generations it has been the common assumption that people believe in God. Statistics show that this has been a pretty safe assumption. Census data from both Canada and the US consistently shows that a majority of people believe in something other. I say it that way because their something other doesn’t always look like the God we describe in the church.

Around 40-50 years ago something changed. Within the last 50 years atheism has become much more apparent. It has always been there but has become much more visible, even acceptable. I think there are a variety of reasons for that. Certainly one was that as our culture became much more scientific – so really since the beginning of the “Age of Reason” a couple hundred years ago – as our culture became more science-based, based on the idea that anything can be proven to be right or wrong. And people who were brought up in a church which told them to take literally the miracle stories, to take literally the Creation story met with a bit of a problem. One of the reasons that many many people have given up on the church is because that was their experience. Their experience of church was of a place that told them that as soon as they came in the door they had to switch off their rational brain. And many saw no purpose in doing that. So I think that is one reason for this apparent growth in atheism. People said “that is not a God I can believe in and so obviously there is no God and I’ll just continue merrily on my way and sleep in on Sunday thank you very much”.

At the same time this was happening in more people’s hearts and minds, we ran into what is now called the end of Christendom. Christendom is more than just the world wide Christian church. It goes into the belief that the culture itself was Christian. 50 years ago if you wanted to be elected mayor anywhere in Canada, or the United States, or much of Europe you had better be known to go to church. That was what “good people” did. And not only that but in many places you had to go to the “right” church. The Anglican Church was seen as being for one group or class, Baptists were another group. Or there would be the “management” church and the “union” church in union towns. To a degree we still see this today in that the United Church is largely a church of the middle and upper-middle class in Canada.

But somewhere in the 50’s and 60’s this idea that “good people” went to church started to break down. And so as more people felt free to say “well I’m not going to go to church” (And I think we get it wrong. I think it was as people felt free to say “I’m not going to church” that sports events started to get planned on Sunday. We in the church like to blame sports events for that but I think we have it backwards. If people still felt they had to go to church, including the people planning the sports events, the events would be planned differently.) But as that feeling grew and people stopped going to church a sort of practical atheism, or at least a practical indifference to the topic, grew. It may have been less a decisive statement of “I do not believe” and more of a “eh, doesn’t really matter”.

So for whatever reason atheism became more and more widespread. We see it today especially in the United States with ongoing arguments about the separation of church and state. But that means we have to take very seriously the question of “why believe?” Or, as I like to put it in light of the opening verse of the Psalm, “who is the fool, the believer or the unbeliever?” We have to take it seriously.

Many years ago a man named Blaise Pascal looked at the same question. The common picture of God in Pascal’s time was of an angry God who would judge and condemn you to hell if you stepped out of line. So Pascal looked it and reasoned that if he believed in God and acted in the way God wanted him to act and died and that was the end he had lost nothing. If he died and there was a God and a heaven he gained everything. On the other hand, if he didn’t believe and died and there is nothing else again he lost nothing. But if he didn’t believe and there was a God and he was damned for his unbelief he lost everything. So Pascal chose to believe because it was the better bet, the better odds. It is called Pascal’s wager. That would be one reason. I am not sure it is a convincing reason but it is a reason. Believe just in case, hedging your bets.

Is that really what God is about? Is God a being in whom we believe solely to avoid eternal punishment? That seems like a rather scary vision of God. This is the cover of Time magazine in April 1966 – “Is God Dead?” The wording comes from a book by the German philosopher Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra) where one of the characters runs around yelling that God is dead – and no-one really cares. And in fact there was a theological movement in the middle of the 20th century called the “God is Dead” movement. And It was a theology in that it did not give up on God totally. But it did say that older images of and ideas about God were no longer helpful and needed to die. And indeed that really is what that cover story from Time went into (imagine my surprise at being able to read a 41 year-old cover story on the Time website).

Oh and there is at least one other reason that people give up on God. And I think this is the big one. In the first half of the 20th century (and continuing on until today) the world fell apart. In 1914 a young Serbian nationalist shot an Austrian Archduke, the heir to the throne. And in a war that would be “over by Christmas” – they just didn’t say which year – millions, an entire generation of European boyhood, died. Not only that but 20 years later another World War. And in the aftermath of those two wars and especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust (and remember that most of those SS troopers and Gestapo agents and German Army soldiers were good Germans from Christian homes) in the aftermath of those horrific events people couldn’t help but ask “how can I possibly believe in God?” This wasn’t just a philosophical question now. It wasn’t based on indifference. This was anguished asking how such events could match with the God they had been taught about. How could they reconcile these experiences with a God who controls everything, who knows everything, who has a plan for everything?

That’s where the God is Dead movement grew wings. Because the old images and descriptions didn’t help deal with genocide and gas chambers new images were needed. So new visions came out. And part of the answer theologians, at least liberal theologians, came out with, was that God didn’t allow these things to happen and so we can believe in God. This was part of a radically new vision of God. It required a vision of God who wasn’t the puppeteer in control of everything (which is an image I often get from older descriptions of God). It required a God who was more than the Creative Clockmaker, an image popular around the time of the American Revolution, a model called deism. In the face of horrors like genocides you need a God who is present. You need a God who is not “up there”. But you also need to be able to admit the possibility that God isn’t in control.

As these new images developed you had phrases like “the Ground of Being”, which was used by a famous theologian named Paul Tillich. It is also an image we find in Acts where Paul talks about the “God in whom we live and move and have our being”. This wasn’t the God in control. Indeed many modern theologians question the old idea that God has a plan. They also question the adage that God never sends you more than you can handle. I have talked to many people who when they hear that say “God must have a lot more trust in me than I do” – often wishing perhaps God would have less confidence in them.

So who is the fool, the one who believes or the one who doesn’t? I think it is the wrong question. It isn’t a matter of asking who is more foolish or who is delusional. There are many people who have faith and yet are foolish and delusional at times. There are many unbelievers who are foolish and delusional at times. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is good to be foolish at times. And in the end I don’t think many people really believe because they were brought up being told about God (atheists would call this indoctrination, and they are right – all education is in fact indoctrination). That is part of it of course. But in the end most people believe because they have experienced God in their lives.

Medieval theologians spent hours trying to work out proofs for God’s existence. Thomas Aquinas came up with 5 (although 3 of them are pretty much the same thing in different words). But in the end the only proof that God exists lies in the believer. It isn’t something you can prove in any scientific fashion. It isn’t something you can prove to another person. The most you can do is say “I Believe because…” and then tell your story. And that is the step the church needs to take.

There are still many people out there who will continue to say “everybody has to believe in God”. There are people who hold Pascal’s wager to be correct, that you should believe as the safe bet, to avoid damnation. But I think to reach those people, and we are now talking about 2 generations, who for whatever reason have said “eh, church isn’t that important”, we have to tell our stories. The way to reach out is by telling them why faith is important to us, by telling the “I believe because” stories and by inviting them into the dialogue. We have to trust that they can make their own decision –whether they make the choice we want them to or not.

The Psalmist may say they are fools. The Psalm may say that only fools say there is no God. Richard Dawkins may say that only fools say there is a God. I say so what. Fools are fools are fools and we are all fools at some point in time. I think we tell our stories. We tell how God has been active in our lives. And we trust that, when people are ready, when people are open, they too can sense God active in their lives. But in the end the choice is up to them, not us. May God help us as we continue to understand what it means to be a believer, and what it means to tell our stories. Amen.

As a response to this we sang #92 Like A Rock from More Voices (the new hymn book supplement)
Like a rock, like a rock God is under out feet
Like a starry night sky God is over our head
Like the sun on the horizon God is ever before
Like a river runs to ocean, our home is in God evermore.


  1. this is fabulous. thank you so much for transcribing it. i can't believe you did that sans manuscript, sans notes. wow. you rock.

  2. excellent sermon Gord!! definitely a keeper.