Belief or unbelief often follows lifestyle choices

July 9, 2013

I said something in my previous post that might have seemed harsh, but I believe it was completely true. In relation to questions related to inerrancy and the authority of scripture, I wrote, “Skeptics haggle over questions of historicity and science so they can avoid dealing with the God revealed therein, who they hope doesn’t exist.”

My point is that very few people reject Christianity primarily for intellectual reasons; they do so for emotional reasons and look for intellectual justification after the fact: “Well, science has pretty much proven that God doesn’t exist, right?” Therefore, if someone like me—whose tendency is to “live inside my head”—imagines that I will dazzle skeptics with my most well-reasoned, well-articulated arguments for the Christian faith, I will be disappointed.

Dr. Glenn Peoples, a theologian and apologist from New Zealand, picks up this theme in his latest podcast and goes much further with it.

In the Bible, in the Old Testament as well as the New, the rejection or denial of God’s sovereignty, or goodness, or worthiness of worship is always associated, not with intellectual slowness or stupidity, but with immorality, with wrongdoing. Listen to what the psalmist said in Psalm 14, verse 1: ‘The fool says in his heart there is no God. They are corrupt. They do abominable deeds. There is none who does good.’ You see the immediate leap there from the rejection of God to the embracing of evil. Ephesians chapter 4, St. Paul has some things to say along a similar line…

Now you might be thinking, That kind of sounds like propaganda: People who aren’t believers are bad, and you don’t want to be bad, so you should be a believer. That’s not really the point. I’m bad, too! On a bad day I’m really bad!… The fact is that human beings tend to rationalize. We’ll find ourselves justifying, defending, and eventually just liking the outlook on life in terms of metaphysics, religion, and so on, that suits the way that we wish to live. And this may override the fact that there may or may not be good intellectual reasons to accept or reject the view in question.

You find yourself wanting to live a certain way, all of a sudden you start thinking, ‘Uh, maybe this Christian faith isn’t true. Maybe these arguments that people have been using against it, maybe they’re quite good! Wouldn’t that be convenient?'”

Peoples goes on to back up this biblical insight with contemporary research and data.

Peoples is hardly alone in drawing a connection between our lifestyle choices and our acceptance or rejection of Christian faith. At a recent conference, Timothy Keller raised some eyebrows by making a similar point:

Drawing on his experience in urban, culture-shaping Manhattan, Keller responded that one of the biggest obstacles to repentance for revival in the Church is the basic fact that almost all singles outside the Church and a majority inside the Church are sleeping with each other. In other words, good old-fashioned fornication…

Others might not be surprised at the sheer amount of fornication but might still be asking, “Sex? Really? That’s the big hang-up? What about intellectual objections from science, or post-modern philosophy, or the church’s history of violence, or our consumerism and greed?”

Those are all there, absolutely, but just ask any college pastor and they’ll tell you the same thing. Just as C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity all those years ago, there are few of Christianity’s teachings more offensive, unpalatable, and likely to drive people away from hearing the Gospel than its sex ethic. Many college students and young adults don’t want to turn to God, or at least not the kind of solid God you find in the Gospel, because He has opinions on sex we find restrictive…

Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use, that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students who were home from school. He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life. When he’d come to the state of their spiritual lives, they’d often hem and haw, talking about the difficulties and doubts now that they’d taken a little philosophy, or maybe a science class or two, and how it all started to shake the foundations. At that point, he’d look at them and ask one question, “So who have you been sleeping with?” Shocked, their faces would inevitably fall and say something along the lines of, “How did you know?” or a real conversation would ensue. Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience. Honestly, as a Millennial and college director myself, I’ve seen it with a number of my friends and students—the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more “doubtful” for some of them once they’d had sex.

4 Responses to “Belief or unbelief often follows lifestyle choices”

  1. Paul Wallace Says:

    I may be an exception here. My doubts about Christianity started when I was in high school and progressed rapidly during college. I took some philosophy and some world religion classes and was blown away. I never partied or rebelled really, never did anything new against the faith I was brought up in. Christianity just started looking really unlikely. I eventually came back to it, but so far as I can see now (25 years later) my doubt was not a cover for any underlying behavior or an expression of guilt. I think it was as true a testing of the faith as I could have mustered. Not that the other doesn’t happen; it just didn’t happen with me.

    Thanks for the post, Brent.

    • brentwhite Says:

      You know your own mind, obviously. But I also took philosophy classes that shook my faith. I wonder if honest doubt that causes us to wrestle with faith is the same kind of full-scale apostasy that Peoples is talking about.

  2. Tucker Says:

    Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use,

    Well, that’s a great tactic; I’m not surprised in the least that it worked so well. I haven’t yet listened to Glenn’s podcast (I will), but I have been arguing for years and years precisely the thing stated in this post’s title: that unbelief very often follows immoral behaviour rather than preceding it.

    Jim Speigel offers a compelling look at the whole phenomenon in his book The Making of an Atheist. What’s striking is that many outspoken atheists will very skillfully argue as though the intellectual doubt appeared first, but in my experience it almost always, virtually always, if you dialogue with them for long enough, eventually comes out that the real reason for their unbelief is either anger at God (e.g. “why did my mom die?”) or else an unrepented sin. I won’t name names, for several reasons, but I know that there is a fairly prominent atheist writer who was formerly a devoted Christian and became an atheist shortly after his affair with a fellow congregants.

    I think all of this is a reason for the decline in religious faith in our era. The sexual revolution came first; then the apostasy.

    I do take issue with Keller’s assertion that a “majority” inside the church are living sexually immorally. I hear this all the time online; it seems to be such a peculiarly American phenomenon, originating, I think, in the fact that in the USA “everyone” claims to be “religious”. Here in Canada, by contrast, you don’t go to church unless you mean it, so there’s much less fornication going on in the church. Keller’s definition of “the Church” may be overly broad and include people who are more culturally Christian than sincere believers.

    @Paul Wallace: you’re the 1 percent. Feel special. 🙂

    • brentwhite Says:

      Given that we don’t have an actual transcript of Keller’s words, I wonder if he wasn’t talking about his Manhattan congregation? Regardless, I live and minister in the so-called “Bible Belt.” I’ve performed probably three dozen weddings. It’s no exaggeration to say that all but about five of those couples were cohabitating. (Granted, many of these couples weren’t church members. They were renting the sanctuary, basically.) Still… I think it’s a crisis here.

      Paul Wallace is very special, btw. 😉

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