Why American Christians Are Losing Their Minds: Part 1

Numerous studies over the last several decades reveal a startling and frightening fact: American Christians are losing their minds. This is to say that Christians are increasingly becoming more ignorant of what they believe and why they believe it.

Take, for example, George Barna’s studies that indicate that many professing Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the Apostles, only 14% of born-again Christians can provide an accurate description of the Great Commission, and only 50% of Christians can recite John 3:16.[1] What is more mind-boggling is that the majority of Bible-believing Christians believe that Benjamin Franklin’s statement that “God helps those who help themselves” is found in the Bible.[2] In fact, Barna indicates that only about half of Christians have a biblical worldview.[3] He concludes, “American Christians are biblically illiterate. Although most of them contend that the Bible contains truth and is worth knowing, and most of them argue that they know all of the relevant truths and principles, our research shows otherwise.  And the trend line is frightening: the younger a person is, the less they understand about the Christian faith.”[4]

What is going on here? Why are Christians increasingly becoming more ignorant of what the “faith once for all” (Jude 3) teaches? Why do many of them have little to no idea what they believe and why they believe it? Although there are probably a variety of reasons for American Christians losing their minds (like the simple fact that the majority of them do not read the Bible even once a week), I believe a primary reason is that many Christians have come to accept western culture’s views of faith and knowledge, and the purpose of life. Faith and knowledge are viewed as incompatible and the purpose of life has become one of self-centeredness. These two ideas mixed together have become a lethal potion for the American Christian mind.

Throughout much of the history of western civilization, Christianity was the dominant worldview. A part of this worldview was that theology and philosophy (which at that time included science and reason) were both considered to be sources of knowledge about the world. Things of faith and things of science were viewed as complementary; the two, when understood properly, never contradicted. To put it another way, faith was just as factual as science. It was only the method by which knowledge was obtained that distinguished the two: in general the things of faith were often understood through revelation (the Christian Scriptures) and the things of science were understood through empirical evaluation and human reasoning.

This is not to say, however, that the things of faith could not be demonstrated by evidences in the world or that the things of faith could not be evaluated by evidences and human reasoning. To the contrary, since both faith and science were knowledge, they both could be substantiated and evaluated in similar ways. This was the basis upon which many Christians formulated arguments for God’s existence, like the cosmological argument or design argument, also known as “natural theology.”

Today, however, western society believes that knowledge can be obtained only through science (or reason), while faith is based entirely upon subjective experiences that cannot be substantiated by evidence from objective reality. In short, faith has been divorced from knowledge. This divorce took place during the 17th and 18th centuries, during the period of western history known as the “Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment was a time of social, political, and religious upheaval—many traditional beliefs were challenged and discarded. In particular, the belief that faith is knowledge was rejected in favor of the view that only human reason or perception gives knowledge. Therefore, theology and revelation were largely discarded as authoritative for all people at all times. Faith was now one’s own opinion which could not be demonstrated to be objectively true. The impact of the Enlightenment upon the view of how the mind and faith relate is captured well by David Dockery:

The rise of the Enlightenment thought was a watershed in the history of Western civilization; it was a time when the Christian consensus was broken by a radical secular spirit.  The Enlightenment philosophy stressed the primacy of nature, a high view of reason and a low view of sin, and an antisupernatural bias; and it encouraged revolt against a faith-affirming perspective on education.[5]

The effect of this “enlightened” view of faith and knowledge upon Christians in America has been devastating. Rather than countering this cultural trajectory of the life of the mind, many Christians have followed the same path, accepting the idea that faith has nothing to do with knowledge.

The fertile ground to accept this divorce of faith from knowledge was laid in the early years of American revivalism of the Second Great Awakening when emphasis was placed upon emotions for conversion. Just a few examples include Charles Finney’s (AD 1792-1875) practice of the “anxious bench” and the Cane Ridge Revival hosted by Barton W. Stone of the Restoration Movement. The “anxious bench” was a practice in which unbelievers were exhorted to convert after being preached into a state of anxiety over their lost state. Unbelievers would sit on a bench at the front of the church building, anxiously awaiting for conversion to be wrought in their soul. In similar vein, the Cane Ridge Revival was known for its emotional focus that led to “religious exercises,” such as jerking, falling, dancing, laughing, running, and rolling. Both the “anxious bench” and Cane Ridge revival exemplify the emphasis upon emotional experiences to the exclusion of the mind. Conversion was about having an emotional experience, not being convicted based upon serious reflection and study of whether Christianity was in fact true.

To be fair, however, the emphasis upon the emotions during American revivalism was not the only factor that provided fertile ground for American Christians to divorce faith from knowledge. One among many other significant factors includes modern (or liberal) biblical scholarship that arose during the 18th and 19th centuries. Many biblical scholars of this time came to accept the Enlightenment mentality that human reason and observation alone determine or discern what is true.  When this was applied to Scripture, the effects were disastrous for faith claims and ideas: faith claims became mere statements of personal, subjective experiences. Unfortunately, this type of scholarship continues today in many seminaries, adding continual fuel to the idea that faith has nothing to do with knowledge.

With the aid of these influential movements—revivalism and modern biblical scholarship—over time much of American Christianity has come to accept the view that faith and knowledge do not go together. One of the most popular mantras in today’s church is that “all we need is a relationship with Jesus.” The unspoken phrase that typically goes along with this is “and that’s all we need.” And we should not forget the dictum “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.” The implication is clear: Christianity has nothing to do with “facts” and things that can be understood about the real world; it’s all about subjective experiences that cannot be validated objectively. When Christians come to the service on Sunday, checking the brain at the door is a prerequisite because the service is about having a great experience, not intellectual engagement. Christian philosopher and teacher J. P. Moreland observes, “Religion is now viewed by many as a placebo or emotional crutch, precisely because that is how we often pitch the gospel to unbelievers.”[6] If this is what Christianity is really about, who has any interest in developing the mind?

Divorcing faith from knowledge is not the only reason why many American Christians are losing their minds. A second reason is that many have come to accept the cultural idea that life is about the “self.” I will consider this aspect in my next post.

Grace,

Peter Jay Rasor II

Notes:

[1] See the Barna Group website at http://www.barna.org. See also George Barna, Think Like Jesus (Nashville, TN: Integrity, 2003). For other statistics and discussion on the biblical illiteracy of Americans and Christians, see Al Mohler, “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy,” October 14, 2005; internet, http://www.albertmohler.com/2005/10/14/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-our-problem; accessed, 30 July 2012; Collin Hansen, “Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible,” Christianity Today vol. 54, May 24, 2012; internet, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ ct/2010/may/25.38.html; accessed 30 July 2012.

[2] George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Nashville, TN: Word, 1998), 7.

[3] A biblical worldview was defined by Barna as the following: “The definition requires someone to believe that absolute moral truth exists; that the source of moral truth is the Bible; that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches; that eternal spiritual salvation cannot be earned; that Jesus lived a sinless life on earth; that every person has a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others; that Satan is a living force, not just a symbol of evil; and that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful maker of the universe who still rules that creation today.” See “Most Adults Feel Accepted by God, But Lack a Biblical Worldview,” August 9, 2005; internet, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/174-most-adults-feel-accepted-by-god-but-lack-a-biblical-worldview?q=preachers; accessed 5 July 2012.

[4] Quoted in Center for Bible Engagement, “Bible Literacy and Spiritual Growth: Survey Results,” November 2006, 1; internet, http://www.centerforbibleengagement.org/images/ stories/pdf/cbe_survey_results.pdf; accessed 30 July 2012.

[5] David Dockery, Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic), 7-8.

[6] J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), 30.

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2 Responses to Why American Christians Are Losing Their Minds: Part 1

  1. Kraig Stanforth says:

    As Christianity grows in the southern hemisphere it appears to be entrenched in the divorce from reason and fact. African, South American, Chinese Protestant churches are from what I have experienced devoid of Biblical theology that incorporates historical faith.

  2. Always good thoughts here. I am addressing this matter in the next three issues of the RH.