The evangelical faith I once had was formed in a milieu dominated by a particular story about unbelievers. The story was rarely articulated fully, but it was assumed in conversations, prayers and sermons. It went like this: Deep down, unbelievers know they’re on shaky ground; unbelievers know the gospel is true; unbelievers are on the precipice of believing, if only they’d quit their denial and submit to the constant prompts of the Holy Spirit.
Because of this story, we’d find confirmation everywhere that God was at work convincing even the fiercest unbeliever to accept Jesus Christ. Hostility to an evangelistic effort was a sign that the message was having an effect at the deepest level. A vaguely positive comment about the church or Christianity was a sign that a person was open to or even ready for conversion.
This kind of thinking seems evident in the story Paula Kirby tells on the Washington Post website yesterday:
In October 2008 I attended a lecture by the Christian apologist John Lennox. He could hardly contain his excitement because the previous week he had publicly debated Richard Dawkins, and Dawkins had allegedly made two remarks that had ‘stunned’ him because they seemed, Lennox said, to suggest the world’s ‘atheist-in-chief’ was experiencing a major change of heart.
According to Lennox, Dawkins had conceded a) that he had no difficulty with Einstein’s God, in the sense of God being the laws of physics and b) that “a strong case could be made for a deistic God.” And what this meant, declared Lennox, almost bursting a blood vessel in his missionary zeal, was that Dawkins had a sense that there must have been an intelligence to account for the beginning of things; and Lennox went on to insinuate that Dawkins was in the process of abandoning atheism and was well on his way to becoming a deist – at least: “There’s a lot going on with Richard Dawkins at the moment!”, he announced ecstatically, leaving his overwhelmingly Christian audience with high hopes of a full conversion to Jesus at any moment.
As Kirby goes on to say, anyone who has read Dawkins for themselves knows that he has always been quite clear on these subjects. He has always said he can’t disprove the existence of God, for example, and is therefore agnostic in that sense. In his seminal book The God Delusion, he said he was a six on a theist-atheist scale of one to seven. He’s long said deism is more reasonable than theism, though still improbable.
Lennox, however, with an optimism perhaps quite similar to my fundamentalist naivety, saw confirmation that Dawkins was undergoing big change. At one time I would have seen the same thing — confirmation that God was at work, that Dawkins was gravitating towards faith. To me faith in Jesus Christ was, after all, something all humans were constantly moving towards, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and any deviation from that pattern was due to rebellion.
But in real life, most people are not on that precipice. The next-door neighbour you’ve been witnessing to is likely no nearer to believing the Christian gospel than he is nearer to becoming a Muslim, a vegetarian or a member of the Rotary Club.
Doubtless some of my conservative Christian friends, knowing I’m now an openly gay, liberal, agnostic Anglican, view me through that same lens of evangelical optimism. When evangelical friends tell me they’ll pray for me, I’m bemused. I think, How will that change my mind? Show me evidence, compel me, give me a convincing reason to return, but don’t assume there’s some deep part of me that still longs to return or knows I should. It doesn’t exist.
I have no reason to think it exists in Richard Dawkins, either. Or in the late Christopher Hitchens, although had I been watching his sad demise unfold fifteen years ago, I’d have half-expected a deathbed conversion. When Princess Diana died, in 1997, my congregation heard testimony from one member that she had cried out to God and received Jesus in her dying moments. He knew because the Lord had revealed it to him, he said.
But he also knew because that’s the story many of us in that Pentecostal church lived by: Everyone knows the truth, and acknowledging it is only a matter of time. Some are eager to believe that of Dawkins. They’ll be disappointed.