Sneering them into the kingdom

I saw this really interesting article by Giles Fraser in Unherd recently. The title of the article is ‘sneering scientists won’t win over anti-vaxxers.’ The article isn’t primarily about the vaccine per se – though it does use that as the thread for its main point. It is more about the fact that those in roles concerning the Public Understanding of Science seem more concerned with sneering at religious believers rather than trying to win them.

Fraser argues:

in recent years, what began as considerate public engagement has become tainted by a new group of public intellectuals who, comfortable in their own echo chambers, understand their role as preaching to the choir.

[Prof Alice] Roberts and [Dr Richard] Dawkins are not the only ones who have taken it upon themselves alienate religious believers. Brian Cox, Professor for Public Engagement in Science at the University of Manchester, argued on the Joe Rogan podcast only last week that physics “ruled out” the existence of the soul. Likewise Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey and former President of the British Humanist Association, has said that “someone of a religious faith will just stick their fingers in the ears and say: ‘I’m not listening, there’s nothing you can say that will make me change my mind.’” So too Professor Richard Fortey, Collier Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology at the University of Bristol, has suggested that proponents of Intelligent Design should be known as “IDiots”.

He goes on:

It doesn’t matter how many mosques and cathedrals open themselves up as vaccination centres; there will always be those who want to turn the complex relationship between religion and vaccination into some sort of culture war — using the present situation to leverage more condemnation of religious belief. And that is profoundly unhelpful, not least because it ultimately undermines the efforts of religious bodies to explain to their communities that science is their friend.

Some people just can’t move on from those tired, old, 19th-century debates surrounding science and religion. In fact, we’ve almost come to expect it from anti-religious campaigning organisations like the NSS. But what we should not expect, let alone accept, is the fact that so many of those now tasked with increasing the public understanding of science regard it as part of their brief to attack religion — it can seriously undermine the communication of all the good that science can do to people who may not share the same world view.

The essential point Fraser is making, in respect to those who are apparently wedded to helping people understand, and ultimately accept, scientific findings seem more interested in taking pot shots at religious believers by sneering and calling them names. In the end, if the goal is to win people to your position, telling them – as Richard Dawkins once did – that ‘Science is interesting and if you don’t agree you can f**k off’ is probably not going to work.

But, of course, the same is true for those of us who are about the business of teaching the Bible and sharing the gospel. I appreciate most of us aren’t going round and declaring, ‘God is real, Jesus is the messiah, you are a sinner who needs to repent, and if you don’t agree you can f**k off’ (and, if you are presenting the gospel like that, can we agree that you really ought to stop?) But whilst we might not use that sort of language, let’s not pretend that plenty of us don’t actually come over as having exactly that sort of attitude.

It is all too tempting to treat those we disagree with as complete imbeciles when, in reality, they are not stupid but operating from a different worldview. A worldview, it should be noted, that might have a high degree of logical consistency. A worldview that isn’t utterly ridiculous but, given the starting assumptions that underpin it, is a perfectly cogent and logical position to take.

But even when faced with somebody who is less logical, whose worldview is absurd and who has bought into – not just assumptions that are faulty – but who have made endless logical missteps from those starting assumptions too. Are we really going to win those people to Christ, and convince them of the superiority and credibility of the gospel, by sneering at them and barely concealing our contempt for them and their views? Let’s put it this way, when was the last time you heard somebody’s testimony and they recounted how they grew up in an unbelieving family but one day – thanks to a sarcastic, sneering preacher who basically belittled me, made snarky analogies and essentially called me stupid – I realised, there and then, that I had to trust in Christ?

Whether in your gospel preaching and evangelism, or in your church and discipleship programmes, which person ever grew more like Christ because we sneered at them and acted superior? There is more to making a case than merely being right. We so often think of ourselves as logical beings, without ever really accepting that the reason we hold to anything is a complex set of reasons, of which logic is just one tool. That is not to say our case should be untrue or less than logical. These things do matter. But so does emotion and understanding. I suspect more people have entered the kingdom through faithful, consistent witness than have those who have been convinced in by sheer, cold logic alone. That’s not to say those latter folks don’t exist, it is just to say it is but one tool available to us and, frankly, not always even the most effective one. There is reason why Jesus majored on our ‘love one for another’ and the early church seemed to attract people less by their unassailable logic and more by the strength of their fellowship and gospel-saturated lives lived out in community. Of course, actually sharing the gospel – and using compelling logic to do so – was an inevitable part of that. But it wasn’t everything.

But what we can say for sure, just as Giles Fraser thought about Atheistic scientists aiming to convince believers of the efficacy of scientific understanding, so we aren’t going to convince anybody of the gospel of Jesus Christ by sneering at them, holding them in contempt and suggesting they are idiots. Jesus had many hard saying, but snarking at people and calling them stupid were not among them. Convincing people of the gospel means we need to meet people where they are at and to love them. And that, minimally, means giving them the benefit of assuming they aren’t idiots, have thought their position through at least a bit and not sneering at them. We don’t like it when New Atheists do it to us, and Jesus said something about doing to others what we would have them do to us, didn’t he?