Not long after I emerged from my own period of intense doubt, the Harry Potter series came onto the scene. I was aware of the Christian criticisms of the series, ie, that it was witchcraft and promoted paganism, etc. I didn’t think much about those arguments then and don’t today, either, for reasons discussed elsewhere on this blog and for later conversation. Suffice it to say, in my encounters with ‘paganism’ it was always the case that nature worship or something along that lines was more in play than desires to be ‘witches’ or play with ‘magic.’
Now more than a decade into my own apologetics ministries, my perspective has shifted somewhat. In particular, I now think that it is the Church itself that is creating its biggest problems. The Church generates the conditions that create atheists… and also the conditions that create pagans. In this view, then, it could be suggested that the Church is more dangerous to Christianity than paganism and atheism! I certainly am of the mind that if we want to do something about these two areas of concern, we should start with the church rather than merely lashing out at the groups I have mentioned. But that said, I want to exclude that and focus just on atheism and paganism for a moment.
In my experience (and yes, I admit this is anecdotal), atheism tends to be a stopping off point for many disenchanted Christians on their way to more pagan world views. Giving people the impression that the really faithful never ask any questions and then exhibiting great ignorance about possible answers gives atheistic apologists an excellent foothold. The only problem is that the vast majority people find the atheistic world view to be positively sterile. Richard Dawkins can claim all he wants that he too is in awe of the universe and treat religious experiences as ‘misfires’ but normal people want an explanation for the awe and are unwilling to treat their own experiences of reality as a ‘misfire.’ Sufficiently disillusioned with Christianity at this point, these people set off to find- or construct- a world view that respects their experience of the world while it explains it.
In this sense, then, atheism is more ‘dangerous’ to Christianity because it raises the questions that really are potentially faith-shattering. Ie, can the Scriptures be trusted if they talk about miracles, what about Bible contradictions, what about the problem of suffering, and pain, free will, etc, and heck, how do we know there is a God in the first place? These are all issues that I believe there are effective answers to and in fact in most of these examples (and still others we could name), Christians themselves have raised the questions, long before modern atheists thought of them. The problem is that these answers are not getting out to Christians, and so a lot of them are saying adios.
But they only say adios for so long, because as I pointed out above, while the seeker may find it improbable that there is a God as the Christians understand him, there is something out there. It burns in their hearts. Whatever the atheists say, there is something.
Now, I find it easier to work with people who believe in something rather than nothing, and so prefer to work with pagans, as maddening as it can be.
What we need is a change of tactics. Historically, Christianity has been the only game in town in the West and so it could afford to sit back and transmit what it thought were the essentials. However, there is a lot more competition these days. The fact is, there is much in Christianity that can satisfy both pagan and atheists (sincere truth seeking atheists, anyway), but you’ll find Christians more often than not fighting over traditional versus contemporary worship styles or whether or not you should drink alcohol. Reality is much more holistic than that, and seekers are interested in bigger things than that, and I believe Christianity can speak to them, if only we set about doing so.
Put another way, it isn’t enough to show that we are right on the facts. Even a broken clock is right twice a day and we have to acknowledge that paganism and other world views have their appeal precisely because they resonate with certain aspects of reality. We shouldn’t simply be offering flat repudiations. We should be showing how we can meet and exceed even those aspects. We can out-pagan the pagan, out-buddhist the buddhist, out-atheist the atheist, etc, etc. If Christianity is true- and I think it is- then we offer the complete package.
In principle, at least, I think that is the case. If we want to engage the world and change the tide, I think we’ll have to do it by showing that we can ‘do’ what our ‘competitors’ can do… and do it better.