Let me do a critical take on an old chestnut. Maybe it’s not that old, but it’s been around as long as I can remember. It has to do with “religion” being the main reason why people don’t believe in God.
Brennan Manning (1934–2013) put it like this:
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
I take the point: We need to look to our own failings before those of others and adopt a less judgmental/protective posture, in favor of a more authentic/open posture toward unbelievers. But turning this critique into an attack on religion is a less than helpful way of framing the issue from an Adventist theological and historical perspective.
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First, the historical. This popular sentiment casts religion as the site of nominalistic Christianity, where people go to God-management institutions to get a spiritual get-out-of-jail-free card that makes them feel okay about almost anything they’re doing with the rest of their lives. But historically, it’s the exact opposite. The modern concept of religion was invented, in part, to provide for spaces where you could pursue an authentic relationship with God—wherever that might take you—without automatically implicating the temporal well-being and eternal destiny of everybody around you.
That was a novel concept in comparison to Medieval Europe, where you assumed that people around you could mostly be trusted because almost all became a Christian shortly after birth (via infant baptism). This inducted folk into a moral order where if you treated anyone too terribly, you were going to hell. The choice wasn’t whether to believe, but whether you’d try to get to Heaven in the slow lane (laity) or the fast lane (clergy). Anybody who believed otherwise and made it known was a threat to this mutually reinforcing the spiritual-social-moral order and was dealt with accordingly.
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The new idea of religion helped solve the problem of how the radical Protestant reformers could challenge that widespread nominalism of Medieval Christendom—by forming churches of believers by choice, highly committed to distinctive beliefs—and in doing so not condemn Europe to endless wars over which church would best offer salvation, here and above. In other words, ‘There’s this thing called religion that’s between me and God, and all of us don’t have to agree about it to get along in this world.’ The concept of religion also explained how church-states with state churches, which retained the baptism-citizenship matrix, could tolerate dissenters, who held non-official beliefs. This means that if we ditch the category of religion today, we throw open the question of why religious liberty is then necessary.
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This is all to say that our concept of religion is part of what has provided us with the opportunity to think of ourselves as having a primarily individual relationship with God, with the ability to form free associations of believers—as opposed to having Jesus mediated by a universal institution with a social mandate to do so. Thus religion, not to mention religious liberty, is a big reason why there are atheists. Because requiring people to opt-in to a relationship with God also allows them to opt-out of belief in God. But it’s also a big reason why more people don’t expect their relationship with God to come in the form of a salvation-pill they can only get from a God-monopoly that lobbies the government to keep people from questioning whether they need it to be their middle-man between Heaven and earth. In other words, if religion as such were the biggest producer of unbelief from a historical perspective (and demonstrating that would be a huge research project), it would at the same time be the biggest historical cause of committed belief in Jesus Christ.
That’s why, now from a theological perspective, I submit that God brought about the Protestant Reformation. Even though it laid the social groundwork for the rise of unbelief, God would rather have unbelief than nominal, uncommitted Christians (Rev 3:15–16). But the “social groundwork” (or whatever other metaphor you prefer) of unbelief is not the same thing as “the single greatest cause” of unbelief. To say the latter is to reduce belief to a byproduct of social forces, the aggregate of our influences. That would mean belief is something less than the result of a choice to exercise the gift of faith.
Therefore, it’s also not accurate to say that “religion has done more to produce unbelief in God than any other factor,” as someone put it the last time I saw this idea on the internet. That distinction belongs to sinful humanity’s collective choice to “suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18), in spite of God having revealed himself to us in such a way that everyone is able to choose to believe at some point in their life (Rom 1:20). No one will be able to stand in the final judgment and claim that they would have believed in him if only God had sent believers who were a better witness or if only the social conditions had been more conducive to belief. “Everything depends on the right action of the will” (Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, 47).
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This is not to say that individually and corporately believers are not a major influence on those decisions being made. We are called to witness to the attractiveness of a life committed to Christ. And God will require us to account for how we did or did not improve on our blessings and love those around us, including unbelievers. (We could multiply biblical examples of this point.) I take that as the true spirit in which the expressions I critique have been intended.
Homiletical license permits hyperbole, which is meant to motivate more than to be taken literally. If that’s what’s going on here, fair play. But a rhetorical device that is repeated often enough becomes a cliché, which, on further repetition, turns into a proverb. I suspect saying that our lack of genuine witness is the number-one cause of unbelief is passing from cliché to proverb in the Adventist circles I compass. It’s time to bring that exaggeration in for a proper landing before the process is complete.