By Alan Jacobs
The Know-Nothing Party
Or take the eminent cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker, in a recent article in Time magazine: "When you think about it, the doctrine of a life–to–come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11."
But countless millions of religious believers—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and so on—have treated other people with compassion and generosity precisely because they believed that it pleased God, or comported with an eternal moral law, for them to do so; and in many cases they believed they would be rewarded for their virtue in a life to come. (That's not precisely my theology, but is's an extraordinarily common one among the world's religions.)
So it turns out that it's not believing in "a life–to–come" that "necessarily" devalues anything; instead, what really matters is what kind of life–to–come you believe in, and how you think a person gets to it. If you believe that what you do in this world has eternal consequences, that actions in this world can matter forever, then that intensifies and deepens the value of life here—unless you're among the tiny minority who believe that your eternal reward will come from killing people. At least, that's what you realize when you really think about it, even for five minutes, which apparently Professor Pinker didn't have time to do; he was too busy typing.
How should Christians respond to this kind of thing? My counsel would be: infrequently and briefly. A blog post ought to do it, and even what I've written here may be too long. I have to say that I am somewhat troubled when I see major Christian thinkers like N. T. Wright going to some lengths to respond to The Da Vinci Code and even writing a whole book on the Gospel of Judas. The Da Vinci Code phenomenon, which agitated so many Christians so violently, came and went without having any discernible effect on the cause of the Gospel, and as for the Gospel of Judas … now, what was all that about again? (Sometimes we should be thankful for the short attention span of the American people.)
But there's another reason to keep on with the ancient work of preaching the Gospel and making disciples without worrying ourselves about these occasional outbursts of anti–religious invective. You can find many people these days claiming that, among the many causes of the miseries that continue to afflict the American intervention in Iraq, one of the leading ones is American leaders' ignorance of Islam in general and the Arab world in particular. Our government is regularly (and I think rightly) chastised for its failure to follow the ancient injunction to "know thy enemy." But our contemporary skeptics' new war on religion (or on what they like to call "fundamentalism") suffers from the identical failing. The first notable atheists and agnostics, the nineteenth–century critics of Christianity in England and America, were raised in largely Christian cultures and knew, often in considerable detail, the contours of the faith they were opposing. This made them more forceful arguers and more effective debaters, even if it also made them more vulnerable to the power and beauty of the Christian message—as my colleague Tim Larsen has convincingly shown in his new book Crisis of Doubt.
But today's polemical skeptics not only lack adequate knowledge of Christianity or of other religions, they're apparently unaware that such knowledge would be to their advantage. (Might they be unconsciously fearful that, if they learned more about religion, they would be risking the terrible fate of those earlier atheists who converted to belief?) Largely or wholly innocent of religious culture, religious language, and religious belief, they make their confident pronouncements and wonder why, for all the articles and books they're selling, the world seems to be getting more religious rather than less. As a committed Christian myself, all I can say is: May their tribe increase.
Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.
Copyright © 2007 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.