More and more people these days identify as atheists. They don’t believe in “God” or “a higher power.” The only thing that’s real, they say, is what you can see or touch or smell. In fact, in the last census, in BC over 35 per cent of the people checked the box labelled “None” when it came to declaring their religion.
It’s true that we are a much more secular society. Some people think that’s a bad thing. They long for “the good old days” when the Church would speak as one of the trusted institutions in society and people would listen.
Those “good old days” (if they ever really existed) were part of a condition which sociologists and philosophers and historians call “Christendom”. I’ll have more to say about that next week.
This week, I want to focus on the increasing number of people who are abandoning any kind of faith. They adhere to a philosophical school called “materialism”. Please note that I am not talking about materialism as a fixation on owning more stuff. This is not about conspicuous consumption or economic materialism.
Rather, I’m talking about a branch of philosophy which holds that reality is only comprised of material, physical stuff — what we can see or touch or hold or feel. In other words, the only thing that is real is what is available to our senses: taste, touch, sight, hearing, smell. Physical matter is all there is.
They say that existence can only be explained in material terms, with no accounting for spirit or consciousness or any other sense of “Something More” in the universe. The universe is a huge device held together by pieces of matter which function according to natural laws.
Materialism is opposed to any supernatural explanations. It is also opposed to human feelings, human will, or human faith. It is a purely atheistic worldview … which means that there is no place for any kind of god in this universe.
It’s not a new way of thinking. Ancient Greek philosophers espoused a materialist view of reality. Not surprisingly, the Church condemned this philosophy, but it was revived in the 17th century by scientists and political philosophers.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I am opposed to a materialistic view of reality. I have had too many experiences that can’t be explained only by the senses.
Recently, I heard a story from a friend which reinforces this for me. My friend is involved in the medical profession. He himself is not a Christian, but I think he is a believer in something More at the heart of the universe.
He told me a story about a woman who came to see him for treatment after she had been away for several years. She is a faithful Christian, who engages in daily prayer, Scripture reading and meditation. He asked her, “How can I help you today? What can I do for you?”
She responded, “You can tell me why God is telling me to pray for you, and to pray hard.” She had had an experience that my friend was in need of help. She would say, “God spoke to me.” It doesn’t necessarily mean she heard a voice coming out of the air. But it does point to a very real experience of knowing something without being able to explain it.
The wonder of this experience for my friend is that she asked him the question precisely at the time when he was ready to end it all. He had made a suicide plan. All that was left was to carry it out. Circumstances had conspired to make life difficult and unbearable.
I have also been there. I know what it’s like to lose hope like that.
And she asked him, “Why is God telling me to pray for you?”
Materialists simply can’t explain that kind of phenomenon. There is no place for it in their universe.
I said earlier that while my friend is not a Christian, he is a believer. What I mean is that he knows that life is interconnected. There is so much more out there than is available to our senses. We simply cannot explain all of life in that kind of sense–based way. It doesn’t explain love … or generosity … or a sense of connection we make with other people … or our passionate commitment to certain causes … or a life marked by compassion and grace.
There are times when I am an “agnostic”, which comes from two Greek words meaning “we don’t know”. I am agnostic about what happens after death. I trust that we are held safe in the love of God … but I don’t know. I trust deeply that God exists … but I don’t think we can be 100% certain.
That’s the thing about faith. It isn’t certainty. It’s trust, a deep trust, a passionate trust, that there is More in life than we can know. Christians name this More as “God in Christ”. Muslims name this More as “Allah”. Jews name this More … well they don’t pronounce the name, because the name is too holy.
My search for meaning has taught me that reality must include God. I can not make ultimate sense of life if God does not exist. God grounds the meaning of life for me. That’s the deeper reality in my life. It makes life rich and grace–filled for me.
It doesn’t make me a better person. Atheists also are worthy, and they also find much meaning in life, and they contribute in valuable ways to life.
But for me, it is not nearly enough.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook