Friday, July 22, 2011

McDowell lays it on with a Trowel

Should Christians build protectionist barriers?

PZ Myers has written a gleeful blog post about this article in “Christian Post”. The article reports the comments of Christian apologist Josh McDowell. In the article McDowell admits that his version of Christianity will find it difficult to survive amongst young people given the environment of information laizzez faire brought on by the internet. If, as McDowell is effectively saying, Christianity will struggle outside the bounds of its tradition epistemic play pen, then this is hardly an advertisement for the authenticity of the faith; in fact it sends out the signal that the Christian world view can’t cope with the latest influx of information; that could be construed as saying that as a world view it is bankrupt. No wonder atheist PZ Myers is so pleased about McDowell’s comments. Here are some quotes from the “Christian Post” article:

Atheists and skeptics now have equal access to our children as we have, which is why the number of Christian youth who believe in the fundamentals of Christianity is decreasing and sexual immorality is growing, apologist Josh McDowell said. What has changed everything?” asked the apologist from Campus Crusade for Christ International as he spoke on “Unshakable Truth, Relevant Faith” at the Billy Graham Center in Asheville, N.C., Friday evening. His answer was, the Internet. “The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have... whether you like it or not,” said McDowell.

McDowell, who lives in southern California with his wife Dottie and four children, said atheists, agnostics and skeptics didn’t have access to kids earlier. “If they wrote books, not many people read it. If they gave a talk, not many people went. They would normally get to kids maybe in the last couple of years of the university.” But that has changed now.

Around 15 years ago, the apologist added, when Christian youth ministries were raising money for youth projects, the big phrase was, “If you don’t reach your child by their 18th birthday, you probably won’t reach them.” What is it now? “If you do not reach your child by their 12th birthday, you probably won’t reach them.”
The Internet is weakening Christian witness and “we better wake up to it because it’s just beginning.”

My Comment: If the Christian world view can’t weather a blizzard of information then it’s worth less than tuppence. Removing the walls of the epistemic play pen can only be a good thing for any Grand Narrative that is really worth its salt. A successful sense making narrative feeds on raw data and has no need to insulate itself from challenges. Mcdowell, however, clearly doesn’t believe that internet laizzez faire will actually support a Christian World view; in fact he thinks it will do precisely the opposite and support other world views. Let me repeat: Mcdowell is sending out the very worst kind of signal about Christianity: For if Christianity finds it difficult to survive in an environment of free flowing information then that suggests it simply doesn’t work as a world view. Typically, Mcdowell gives little credit or trust that young people, in the fullness of time, can and should come to their own opinion on things: He regards a young person as all but lost if they haven’t succumbed to early years indoctrination. This looks to me like a return to the Jesuit concept of an institutionalized faith propagated by child rearing.

I made the statement off and on for 10-11 years that the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; [My Bold] it will lead to pervasive skepticism. And, folks, that’s exactly what has happened. It’s like this. How do you really know, there is so much out there… This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics].”

While 51 percent of evangelical Christians did not believe in absolute truth in an earlier survey, the percentage escalated to 62 in 1994. In 1999, it jumped to 78 percent. “You know what it is now?” asked McDowell. “One of the most staggering statistics in history of the church… 91 percent said there is no absolute truth apart from myself.”

My Comment: Note McDowell’s reference to “certainty” in the foregoing. My recent exposure to fundamentalism tells me that postmodernism and relativism are becoming such frightening ogres to fundamentalists that they are confusing skeptical and critical attitudes with a lack of belief in absolutes; to fundamentalists anything less than certainty in their kitschy world view smacks of relativism. Fundamentalism offers a false dichotomy between a toy town certainty and the slippery slope of relativism. With only this dichotomy available in the minds of fundamentalists, they are liable to classify skepticism and uncertainty as postmodernism.

McDowell proposed three ways to deal with the problem. “First, we have to model the truth. If you don’t model what you teach your kids, forget it. If they don’t see it, they won’t believe it… Second, we have to build relationships.” Just as truth without relationship leads to rejection, rules without relationship lead to rebellion, he said. “Kids don’t respond to rules. They respond to rules in the context of a loving, intimate relationship.” And third, he said, we have to use knowledge. “You better arm yourselves to answer your children’s and grandchildren’s questions…no matter what the question is…without being judgmental.” Kids’ greatest defense, he said, was the knowledge of truth.

However, McDowell said, as many as 85 to 90 percent of the evangelical Christian parents in America are not equipped to handle their kids. Christians, he urged, needed to understand the time, quoting 1 Chronicles 12:32: “Of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do...”

My Comment: Not surprisingly McDowell’s solution is didactic; give kids “answers” in a controlled and authoritative way rather than inculcate a probing, analytical faculty allied to an uncompromising integrity and honesty that strives for truth. It is ironic that the religious right favours epistemic protectionism rather than the free market of ideas. They are unwilling to apply their “Libertarian, small government” ethos to epistemology.

I don’t think militant atheism is the ultimate enemy of Christianity; laizzez faire atheism’s critical freedom and lack of superstition is far too sanitized to present any real “dark side” threat to Christianity. Moreover, atheism has difficulty connecting with some of humankind’s deepest emotions and provides little or nothing to celebrate publically - unless it borrows from religion: Viz: when organised atheism in the form of communism has attempted to provide a public rationale for celebration it has created cult figures, demigods and a quasi-religious sense of mystical collective destiny.

But the postmodern nihilism that often accompanies laizzez faire atheism may simply be the pendulum pull back prior to an almighty reactionary swing into the black depths of cult religion. Maybe the house is being swept clean ready for all manner of nasties to re-inhabit it; my guess is that those nasties will be fundamentalists of some sort. Fundamentalism, as I have said elsewhere, appeals to deep seated instincts in way that laizzez faire atheism has little hope of doing. Religion is capable, therefore, of unleashing some of the strongest motivations known to man. The real danger to Christianity is not gnu atheism and the internet but something far more insidious.

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