Kristallnacht: The end of Christianity in Iraq

by Jesse Johnson

When the world’s attention shifted to Ukraine and Israel last week, the Islamic leaders in Iraq capitalized on the distraction. For weeks the functional government in central Iraq (ISIS) had told Christians they had to make one of four choices by this past Saturday: forfeit thier property as a “Christian” tax, convert to Islam, leave, or die. But a week ago ISIS revised their list, and said paying the “tax” was no longer an option.

When Friday came around, residents awoke to an Arabic “N” spray-painted on the houses, property, and farms of all suspected Christians. The government had come during the night to demonstrate that they knew who the Christians were, and the spray-painted N’s were a not-so-subtle reminder that the deadline to convert, flee, or die was only 24 hours away. 

Why the N? Because in Arabic Christians are often simply called Nazarenes. And when this week began, so did the flight of the Nazarenes. All Christians were forced out of central Iraq, including Mosul, an historic city with some several churches 1700 years old. One church there had practiced communion every Lord’s Day for 1,600 years…until last Sunday.

As Christians left Mosul, ISIS set up checkpoints outside the city, robbing the fleeing masses (although ISIS points out they weren’t robbing them, but by their law they had a right to “confiscate” all of their property as part of their Christian tax).

An ISIS check point looking for fleeing Christians.

ISIS controls much of central Iraq and Syria. According the New York Times, which had a reporter embedded with ISIS, they took a church in Syria and converted it into a theater to show films of suicide attacks.

Ten yeas ago, Iraq had about 1.4 million people who identified as Christians and 300 different registered churches. Today there are only 50 churches left, and the number of Christians is probably closer 140,000 than 1.4 million. There are almost zero Christians left in Central Iraq, which used to be a hub of historic Christianity.

This decline not only signals an end to a Christian presence in central Iraq, but it also marks a profound turning point for Islam, which for over 1,000 years had as its goal the establishment of an Islamic state in cradle of the Euphrates River. Despite their intense effort, the possibility of completely eradicating crosses and churches from the area never seemed like a real possibility, until now.

In fairness, the Shari’a Law form of Islam that has now gripped Iraq is not looked upon favorably by most Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, or Turkey. So ISIS seems hedged in geographically. But it is the form of Islam embraced in much of Africa and Asia, especially in Pakistan. It is violent, and has as its goal the complete obliteration of Christians.

Christians fleeing Mosul on Saturday

The term Christian in Iraq is used to cover a small percentage of Roman Catholics, some Baptists, and some Orthodox Christians (very similar to Egyptian Christianity). But most of the churches were Assyrian Orthodox, which trace their roots to before the schism in Europe between East and West; in other words, they predated the Rome split from Constantinople, thus are not affiliated with either group.

And for that reason, this devastation of Christians does not garner much attention in the Western media. Many Evangelicals are slow to sympathize because they think “those people in Iraq are Christians by ethnicity, not by faith.” I’ve heard some believers say that as a way to guard their hearts—as if to think, “I don’t need to be grieved by what is happening there, because they don’t believe the same gospel I do.”

But remember, ISIS doesn’t understand nuances of Christian theology. They are not distinguishing between Catholics, Assyrians, Orthodox and Baptists. They are persecuting people who meet for worship in churches with crosses on the wall. They are exiling and executing those who at prayer time do not bow on rugs facing Mecca. They are killing people who refuse to say that Mohammad is greater than Jesus.

For the most part, the US government has remained silent about the elimination of Christianity in a place that was under American control only a few years ago. Ostensibly this is because drawing attention to the persecution there would only increase ISIS’ publicity, and make life even harder for Christians there (although it is difficult to imagine how that could possibly be the case). There are also obviously political and philosophical factors in play as well. The result though is that an entire religious group woke up last week to find a letter sprayed on their property, and then had only a day to flee for their lives or be slaughtered.

What can Christians do? There are several missions organizations in Turkey that minister to these Christian refugees (like this one, for example). We can give to those groups, we can give to missionaries who are trying to reach the Muslim world, and we can train up missionaries and send them to this part of the world. We can support political strategy that can protect religious freedom. But mostly, we can grieve that part of the church is under profound and unprecedented attack, and be moved to pray that the Lord would use this for his glory.

Pray that even in this persecution, many people would come to faith in Jesus.

____________________________

Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA.

Confessing and Believing

Romans 10:9-10 & 13 are three of the most often used passages to encourage nonbelievers to confess Christ as Savior and Lord that we evangelicals use in our witnessing.

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” – Rom 10:9-10, 13

These passages are found at the end of a witnessing method known as the Roman Road, offering the ultimate relief from the problem of our sin, that the preceding stops along the Road made abundantly clear (Rom 3:23, Rom 6:23, Rom 5:8).

Some of us might even ponder the order of ‘believing and confessing’, in a ‘chicken and egg’ manner. That might be because verse 9 speaks of ‘confessing then believing’, but verse 10 speaks of ’believing then confessing’.

I think the answer to that is found in verse 10, which begins with the preposition ‘for’ indicating that what follows further explains the preceding phrase. Therefore I suggest to you that ‘believing in one’s heart’ ought to precede ‘confessing with one’s mouth’. Also, note that when one someone believes, he/she is also justified. If being ‘justified’ equates to being saved, the confessing is a result of having believed. On a more down to earth note, don’t we tend to see it to believe it and believe it before broadcasting it on social media? Just a thought.

Having said all that, perhaps want is most important here is the ‘character’ of the ‘believing’ – ‘heart’ belief. It’s one thing to assent to something mentally, but something quite different to believe in your heart that something is true. In the case of salvation, it is one thing to merely assent to a historical fact about Jesus – that he was crucified on a Roman cross and that perhaps the reason was because of human sin. It is another thing to realize at the depths of my being that I should have been the one hanging on a tree that day because of MY sin – that Jesus died in MY place. And by MY sin, I don’t just mean the sinful things that do, but the condition I was in at birth – dead in trespasses and sin and by nature an object of God’s wrath (Eph 2).

The Apostle Paul gives us an example of what God does in the matter of ‘heart’ belief:

“On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” Acts 16:13-14

Several women were listening to Paul preach, but we are told quite clearly that God opened Lydia’s heart to ‘hear’ the words of Paul. Lydia believed with her heart Paul’s words and was saved.

If what I have said above is true, it leaves us with a question:

Why do we so often ask others if they have made a ‘confession’ of faith but rarely ask them if they ‘believed in their hearts’?

Something to think about. . .

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” – Rom 10:9-10

The good news is NOT Jesus?

Well, the Apostle Paul disagrees, with this preacher, on at least two levels. First of all there’s the little matter of the the Gospel message itself, the Gospel Paul was not ashamed of (Rom 1:16); the Gospel he clearly defined to the believers in Corinth (1 Cor 15:1-4). Whether or not unbelievers don’t want to hear “about no blood on no cross”, it’s the message they must hear and believe if they aren’t going to spend eternity in hell.

Secondly, Paul has something to say about his ‘best life now’

In a recent sermon, a popular Health, Wealth & Prosperity (HWP) preacher asked and answered his own question:

Q: “Do you know why the people on your job really ain’t Christians right now?”

A: “Because you are preaching to them Jesus Christ.”  . . . “That’s not what you’re supposed to preach.”.

In the same sermon, we also find other little tidbits:

“People ain’t worried about no blood on no cross.” . .“You gotta talk about how to solve people’s problems.”. . .“The good news is not Jesus. The good news is the Kingdom.”

Being a faithful Health, Wealth & Prosperity (HWP) type, by “good news of the Kingdom’ he meant having dominion over all of our ‘life’ circumstances and being successful and prosperous in all things, since God created man to have ‘dominion’ (which He did).  However, what this preacher’s heretical message seems to forget is that there was something called The Fall, with its effect in bringing sin into what had been a creation God looked upon and pronounced “good” & “Very good”.

There’s nothing new here, except perhaps the blatant lie that preaching the crucified Jesus is somehow wrong – that “The good news is not Jesus”. I’ve not heard any of the Word Faith Heretics being so bold as to declare the lie behind their warped theology so openly. What this preacher did get right is that people don’t want to hear “about no blood on no cross”. They want to know how to have their “best lives now” (to quote another popular heretic). They what their itching ears tickled (2 Tim 4:3).

Well, the Apostle Paul disagrees with this preacher on at least two levels. First of all there’s the little matter of the the Gospel message itself, the Gospel Paul was not ashamed of  (Rom 1:16); the Gospel he clearly defined to the believers in Corinth:

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you ,old fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” 1 Cor 15:1-4

Not only did Paul define the gospel (the good news) as having everything to do with ‘blood and a cross’, the blood and the cross was the major theme of his ministry:

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men[c] but in the power of God.” – 1 Cor 2:1-5

Whether or not unbelievers don’t want to hear “about no blood on no cross”, it’s the message they must hear and believe if they aren’t going to spend eternity in hell.

Secondly, Paul has something to say about what his ‘best life now’ was all about:

“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;  in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst” -  2 Cor 11:24-27

Jesus called those who suffer for His name’s sake blessed, and even promised that his followers would be persecuted:

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Matthew 5:11

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”  – John 15:18

To be fair, our subject preacher did not omit the preaching of the cross and the new birth altogether, he merely maintained that talk of being born again should follow the promises of ‘Kingdom’ living (HWP and dominion). However, that’s nothing more than a spiritual con game, if not THE great con pervading much of today’s evangelicalism – hook ‘em with promises of their ‘best lives now’ and leave talk about Jesus’ death for our ‘sin’ (blood and a cross) until later, if at all.  It’s a ‘bait and switch’ that produces many false converts and lines the pockets of  many a televangelist.

It also denies the sovereignty of God in evangelism. The duty of the preacher (and all of us) is to merely be faithful in the preaching the same gospel that Paul and the Apostles proclaimed (Christ died for our sins) and leave the saving to God, who opens hearts to hear and brings lost souls to the Blood and the Cross.

__________________________

If you’ve read this and don’t believe that a preacher would actually say what the above evangelist is quoted as saying, you can hear it for yourself here.

‘Get with the Program’ — The Church of England Votes to Ordain Women Bishops

Al Mohler, Tuesday • July 15, 2014

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Writing about the age of John Milton, the British author A. N. Wilson once tried to explain to modern secular readers that there had once been a time when bishops of the Church of England were titanic figures of conviction who were ready to stand against the culture. “It needs an act of supreme historical imagination to be able to recapture an atmosphere in which Anglican bishops might be taken seriously,” he wrote, “still more, one in which  they might be thought threatening.”

Keep that in mind as you read the news that the General Synod of the Church of England voted yesterday to approve the consecration of women as bishops of the church.

The votes came less than two years after a similar measure failed to gain the necessary two-thirds vote before the same synod. The election of women as bishops had sailed through the bishops and the clergy, but opposition from lay members of the synod had blocked the measure late in 2012.

What few even in the British media are now mentioning is the massive pressure brought upon the church by the larger British culture and, most specifically, from the British government.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday was “a great day for the Church and for equality.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that the vote was a “big moment” and Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labor Party said that the vote was “wonderful news.”

As for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the church’s chief cleric, Archbishop Justin Welby said that the measure adopted Monday would mark “the start of a great adventure of seeking mutual flourishing while still, in some cases, disagreeing. The challenge for us will be for the church to model good disagreement and to continue to demonstrate love for those who disagree on theological grounds.”

That “adventure” will leave conservative evangelicals in the Church of England increasingly out in the cold, despite all the talk of “mutual flourishing.” The measure approved by the synod means that women bishops will be bishops in full, with mandatory recognition of their episcopal status by all within the Church of England. This will leave conservative ministers under the authority of bishops they do not actually believe to be bishops in fact. It is hard to imagine “mutual flourishing” in that circumstance. The measure also called for the appointment of one conservative evangelical male bishop in coming months — which means that the church has just committed itself to appoint a bishop who does not believe that at least some of his colleague bishops will meet the biblical requirements.

This is the kind of “compromise” that pervades mainline liberal Protestantism. It shifts the church decisively to the left and calls for mutual respect. Conservatives are to be kindly shown the door. Ruth Gledhill of The Guardian [London], one of the most insightful observers of religion in Great Britain, recognized the plight of the evangelicals, though she celebrated the vote: “In the last 69 episcopal appointments, there have been evangelicals but not a single conservative one.” In this context, “conservative” means more concerned with doctrinal matters and opposed to a change in the church’s teachings on gender and human sexuality. But, as Gledhill recognized, “This wing of the church is where so much of the energy is, giving rise not just to growth, but also that necessary resource, cash.”

Yes, there is another pattern to recognize — evangelicals have the growth and the cash, just not the votes. The talk about mutual flourishing is really an argument to remain in the church and keep paying the bills.

Ruth Gledhill is profoundly right about another aspect of Monday’s vote as well. It won’t stop with women bishops. “Now the church can move into the 20th century, although perhaps not the 21st,” she wrote. “A change on gay marriage would be needed to do that.” Well, stay tuned, as they say. The same church now has bishops living and teaching in open defiance of the church’s law on sexuality as well.

There is a very real sense in which Monday’s vote was inevitable. Once the church had decided to ordain women as priests, the elevation of women to bishop was only a matter of time. But the Church of England explicitly claims apostolic succession back to the earliest years of the church, traced through bishops. That is why virtually every major media outlet in Britain acknowledged, at least, that the vote reversed 2,000 years of Christian tradition. They also tended to note that the vote came after 20 years of controversy.

Evidently, 2,000 of years of tradition was no match for 20 years of controversy.

And much of that controversy was driven by cultural and political forces. Back in November 2012, when laity in the General Synod defeated a similar measure, Britain’s head of government pitched a fit. Prime Minister Cameron told Parliament that the Church of England needed “to get with the program.” He added, “You have to respect the individual institutions and the way they work, while giving them a sharp prod.” A sharp prod, indeed.

Cameron told Parliament, “I think it’s important for the Church of England to be a modern church in touch with society as it is today and this was a key step it needed to take.” There is the modern secular imperative with its teeth bared: Be a modern church in touch with society as it is today, or look out.

Archbishop Rowan Williams, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, responded like a chastened child, acknowledging the Prime Minister’s point and stating that “it seems that we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that larger society.” There was no mention of obedience to Scripture.

Maria Miller, the British government’s minister for equalities openly threatened the church. In a rather contradictory statement, she provided a “prod” of her own: “Obviously, it’s for the Church of England to run its own procedures and processes, but I hope that they have heard, loud and clear, the strength of feeling on this, and that it acts quickly.”

Some members of Parliament threatened to disestablish the church and to remove its bishops from the House of Lords. There can be no doubt that the refusal to elect women as bishops put the church far out of line with Britain’s secular culture — now one of the most secular societies on the planet.

There are a great many issues of importance in this situation. These include the very idea of a state church (much less, a state church in a hyper-secular society), the definition and role of bishops, the role of women in the church, the importance of doctrinal tradition, and, most of all, the authority of Scripture and the integrity of the Christian Faith.

But the public conversation about Monday’s vote reveals issues of urgency and importance that go far beyond Britain and the Church of England. The Prime Minister’s command that the church “get with the program” and “be a modern church in touch with society as it is today” is a command that is now addressed in every modern culture to every church.

One key question is that raised by A. N. Wilson. Can we even envision a day when Christian leaders might be taken seriously as committed to biblical Christianity? Or, to use his very words, “still more, one in which they might be thought threatening?” If not, Christianity in the West will continue its slide into compromise and eventual surrender.

The Very Rev. William Ralph Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in the early 20th century, once famously remarked: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Now, that is a word from an Anglican we all need to hear.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Just write me at mail@albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/albertmohler

Ruth Gledhill, “Joy and Relief at Display of Unity for Vote on Ordination of Women Bishops,” The Guardian [London], Monday, July 14, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/14/ordination-of-women-joy-and-relief

Patrick Wintour and Lizzy Davis, “David Cameron: Church of England Should ‘Get on with it’ on Female Bishops,” The Guardian [London], Wednesday, November 21, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/21/david-cameron-church-female-bishops

Aida Edemariam and Lizzy Davis, “Pressure Piles on Church to Vote Again in Female Bishops,” The Guardian [London], Friday, November 23, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/23/maria-miller-church-female-bishops

What is the Gospel? – R. C. Sproul

I always like good definitions of the Gospel. This is one of those. . .

What Is the Gospel?

by R.C. Sproul

There is no greater message to be heard than that which we call the Gospel. But as important as that is, it is often given to massive distortions or over simplifications. People think they’re preaching the Gospel to you when they tell you, ‘you can have a purpose to your life’, or that ‘you can have meaning to your life’, or that ‘you can have a personal relationship with Jesus.’ All of those things are true, and they’re all important, but they don’t get to the heart of the Gospel.

The Gospel is called the ‘good news’ because it addresses the most serious problem that you and I have as human beings, and that problem is simply this: God is holy and He is just, and I’m not. And at the end of my life, I’m going to stand before a just and holy God, and I’ll be judged. And I’ll be judged either on the basis of my own righteousness – or lack of it – or the righteousness of another. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness, of perfect obedience to God, not for His own well-being but for His people. He has done for me what I couldn’t possibly do for myself. But not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and the righteousness of God.

The great misconception in our day is this: that God isn’t concerned to protect His own integrity. He’s a kind of wishy-washy deity, who just waves a wand of forgiveness over everybody. No. For God to forgive you is a very costly matter. It cost the sacrifice of His own Son. So valuable was that sacrifice that God pronounced it valuable by raising Him from the dead – so that Christ died for us, He was raised for our justification. So the Gospel is something objective. It is the message of who Jesus is and what He did. And it also has a subjective dimension. How are the benefits of Jesus subjectively appropriated to us? How do I get it? The Bible makes it clear that we are justified not by our works, not by our efforts, not by our deeds, but by faith – and by faith alone. The only way you can receive the benefit of Christ’s life and death is by putting your trust in Him – and in Him alone. You do that, you’re declared just by God, you’re adopted into His family, you’re forgiven of all of your sins, and you have begun your pilgrimage for eternity.

Online Source: Ligonier Ministries

Megachurch Pastor John MacArthur: Denominations That Allow Gay ‘Marriage’ Are ‘Satan’s Church’

In the wake of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent decision to celebrate same-sex “marriages,” celebrity pastor John MacArthur of “Grace to You” has come out with some strong statements condemning “false churches” that abandon Biblical teachings against homosexual behavior.

“They have no allegiance to the Bible,” MacArthur told The Blaze online news service. “You go back to every one of those seminaries … for a century [they] have been deniers of biblical authority, they have no relationship to scripture, they are the apostate church, they are Satan’s church.”

While it seems clear MacArthur was implying that self-professed Christians who accept gay “marriage” are doing Satan’s work, not necessarily worshiping the devil, it is worth noting that the actual Satanic Temple of America has called same-sex “marriage” one of its “sacraments.”

MacArthur, who is Baptist, believes in the teachings of John Calvin regarding the inerrancy and literal truth of Scripture.  The PCUSA also has its roots in Calvinism, but in 1967 the church updated its precepts to distance itself from Calvin and adopted a more flexible view of Biblical truth.

During a 2001 debate over whether the denomination would permit the ordination of openly homosexual pastors, PCUSA officials said, “We acknowledge the role of scriptural authority in the Presbyterian Church, but Presbyterians generally do not believe in biblical inerrancy. Presbyterians do not insist that every detail of chronology or sequence or pre-scientific description in scripture be true in literal form. Our confessions do teach biblical infallibility. Infallibility affirms the entire truthfulness of scripture without depending on every exact detail.”

In his interview with The Blaze, MacArthur lamented the cultural decline of mainstream denominations like the PCUSA, and said their watered-down approach to theology is a major factor in the increasing secularization of America, which he argues was founded on “cultural Christianity.”

According to MacArthur, the historical “cultural Christianity” of Americans has long been a stabilizing force for society.  It didn’t mean that everyone belonged to the same church or worshiped exactly the same way, but it did mean that the culture as a whole had a shared set of values and generally believed they would have to answer to a higher power in the afterlife.

The founding fathers, MacArthur told The Blaze, “knew you couldn’t compel people to goodness” unless the majority of people believed in God.  But in our increasingly agnostic society, the very idea of “goodness” is open to debate.

“Cultural Christianity … is dying at a warp speed,” MacArthur said. “In the last election … the Democratic platform was pro-killing children and pro-homosexuality.  The young generation has bought into the corruption and lack of ethics morals by media entertainment [and] educators.”

MacArthur cited the unwillingness of mainstream pastors to speak out on controversial issues like homosexuality and abortion as the reason society has begun to embrace immorality as goodness.  He challenged church leaders to meditate on Romans 1, which reads in part:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

“Romans 1 describes exactly what is happening in America,” MacArthur told The Blaze. “It defines the wrath as God giving them over, giving them over, giving them over.”

To read the rest of The Blaze’s interview with John MacArthur, click here.

Online Source: LifeSite News

Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke

By Nury Vittachi | July 6th 2014

Metaphysical thought processes are more deeply wired than hitherto suspected

WHILE MILITANT ATHEISTS like Richard Dawkins may be convinced God doesn’t exist, God, if he is around, may be amused to find that atheists might not exist.

Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.

While this idea may seem outlandish—after all, it seems easy to decide not to believe in God—evidence from several disciplines indicates that what you actually believe is not a decision you make for yourself. Your fundamental beliefs are decided by much deeper levels of consciousness, and some may well be more or less set in stone.

This line of thought has led to some scientists claiming that “atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think,” says Graham Lawton, an avowed atheist himself, writing in the New Scientist. “They point to studies showing, for example, that even people who claim to be committed atheists tacitly hold religious beliefs, such as the existence of an immortal soul.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since we are born believers, not atheists, scientists say. Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting. “A slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith,” writes Pascal Boyer in Nature, the science journal, adding that people “are only aware of some of their religious ideas”.

INTERNAL MONOLOGUES

Scientists have discovered that “invisible friends” are not something reserved for children. We all have them, and encounter them often in the form of interior monologues. As we experience events, we mentally tell a non-present listener about it.

The imagined listener may be a spouse, it may be Jesus or Buddha or it may be no one in particular. It’s just how the way the human mind processes facts. The identity, tangibility or existence of the listener is irrelevant.

“From childhood, people form enduring, stable and important relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasized mates,” says Boyer of Washington University, himself an atheist. This feeling of having an awareness of another consciousness might simply be the way our natural operating system works.

PUZZLING RESPONSES

These findings may go a long way to explaining a series of puzzles in recent social science studies. In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power (Pew Forum, “Religion and the Unaffiliated”, 2012).

While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey by Theos, a think tank, found that very few people—only 13 per cent of adults—agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. For the vast majority of us, unseen realities are very present.

When researchers asked people whether they had taken part in esoteric spiritual practices such as having a Reiki session or having their aura read, the results were almost identical (between 38 and 40%) for people who defined themselves as religious, non-religious or atheist.

The implication is that we all believe in a not dissimilar range of tangible and intangible realities. Whether a particular brand of higher consciousness is included in that list (“I believe in God”, “I believe in some sort of higher force”, “I believe in no higher consciousness”) is little more than a detail.

EVOLUTIONARY PURPOSES

If a tendency to believe in the reality of an intangible network is so deeply wired into humanity, the implication is that it must have an evolutionary purpose. Social scientists have long believed that the emotional depth and complexity of the human mind means that mindful, self-aware people necessarily suffer from deep existential dread. Spiritual beliefs evolved over thousands of years as nature’s way to help us balance this out and go on functioning.

If a loved one dies, even many anti-religious people usually feel a need for a farewell ritual, complete with readings from old books and intoned declarations that are not unlike prayers. In war situations, commanders frequently comment that atheist soldiers pray far more than they think they do.

Statistics show that the majority of people who stop being part of organized religious groups don’t become committed atheists, but retain a mental model in which “The Universe” somehow has a purpose for humanity.

In the US, only 20 per cent of people have no religious affiliation, but of these, only one in ten say they are atheists. The majority are “nothing in particular” according to figures published in New Scientist.

FEELING OF CONNECTEDNESS

There are other, more socially-oriented evolutionary purposes, too. Religious communities grow faster, since people behave better (referring to the general majority over the millennia, as opposed to minority extremists highlighted by the media on any given day).

Why is this so? Religious folk attend weekly lectures on morality, read portions of respected books about the subject on a daily basis and regularly discuss the subject in groups, so it would be inevitable that some of this guidance sinks in.

There is also the notion that the presence of an invisible moralistic presence makes misdemeanors harder to commit. “People who think they are being watched tend to behave themselves and cooperate more,” says the New Scientist’s Lawton. “Societies that chanced on the idea of supernatural surveillance were likely to have been more successful than those that didn’t, further spreading religious ideas.”

This is not simply a matter of religious folk having a metaphorical angel on their shoulder, dispensing advice. It is far deeper than that—a sense of interconnectivity between all things. If I commit a sin, it is not an isolated event but will have appropriate repercussions. This idea is common to all large scale faith groups, whether it is called karma or simply God ensuring that you “reap what you sow”. 

NARRATIVE PRESENCE

These theories find confirmation from a very different academic discipline—the literature department. The present writer, based at the Creativity Lab at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design, has been looking at the manifestation of cosmic justice in fictional narratives—books, movies and games. It is clear that in almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

WELL-DEFINED PROCESS

In manuals for writers (see “Screenplay” by Syd Field, for example) this process is often defined in some detail. Would-be screenwriters are taught that during the build-up of the story, the villain can sin (take unfair advantages) to his or her heart’s content without punishment, but the heroic protagonist must be karmically punished for even the slightest deviation from the path of moral rectitude. The hero does eventually win the fight, not by being bigger or stronger, but because of the choices he makes.

This process is so well-established in narrative creation that the literati have even created a specific category for the minority of tales which fail to follow this pattern. They are known as “bleak” narratives. An example is A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, in which the likable central characters suffer terrible fates while the horrible faceless villains triumph entirely unmolested.

While some bleak stories are well-received by critics, they rarely win mass popularity among readers or moviegoers. Stories without the appropriate outcome mechanism feel incomplete. The purveyor of cosmic justice is not just a cast member, but appears to be the hidden heart of the show.

ROOTS OF ATHEISM

But if a belief in cosmic justice is natural and deeply rooted, the question arises: where does atheism fit in? Albert Einstein, who had a life-long fascination with metaphysics, believed atheism came from a mistaken belief that harmful superstition and a general belief in religious or mystical experience were the same thing, missing the fact that evolution would discard unhelpful beliefs and foster the growth of helpful ones. He declared himself “not a ‘Freethinker’ in the usual sense of the word because I find that this is in the main an attitude nourished exclusively by an opposition against naive superstition” (“Einstein on Peace”, page 510).

Similarly, Charles Darwin, in a meeting with a campaigner for atheism in September 1881, distanced himself from the views of his guest, finding them too “aggressive”. In the latter years of his life, he offered his premises for the use of the local church minister and changed his family schedule to enable his children to attend services.

SMALL DIFFERENCES

Of course these findings do not prove that it is impossible to stop believing in God. What they do indicate, quite powerfully, is that we may be fooling ourselves if we think that we are making the key decisions about what we believe, and if we think we know how deeply our views pervade our consciousnesses. It further suggests that the difference between the atheist and the non-atheist viewpoint is much smaller than probably either side perceives. Both groups have consciousnesses which create for themselves realities which include very similar tangible and intangible elements. It may simply be that their awareness levels and interpretations of certain surface details differ.

THE FUTURE

But as higher levels of education spread, will starry-eyed spirituality die out and cooler, drier atheism sweep the field, as some atheism campaigners suggest? Some specialists feel this is unlikely. “If godlessness flourishes where there is stability and prosperity, then climate change and environmental degradation could seriously slow the spread of atheism,” says Lawton in New Scientist.

On a more personal level, we all have loved ones who will die, and we all have a tendency to puzzle about what consciousness is, whether it is separate from the brain, and whether it can survive.  We will always have existential dread with us—at a personal or societal level. So the need for periods of contemplative calm in churches or temples or other places devoted to the ineffable and inexplicable will remain. They appear to be part of who we are as humans.

Furthermore, every time we read a book or watch a movie, we are reinforcing our default belief in the eventual triumph of karma. While there is certainly growth in the number of bleak narratives being produced, it is difficult to imagine them becoming the majority form of cultural entertainment. Most of us will skip Cormac McCarthy’s crushingly depressing “The Road” in favor of the newest Pixar movie.

POPULATION IMPLICATIONS

When looking at trends, there’s also population growth to consider. Western countries are moving away from the standard family model, and tend to obsess over topics such as same-sex marriage and abortion on demand. Whatever the rights and wrongs of these issues, in practice they are associated with shrinking populations.  Europeans (and the Japanese) are not having enough children to replace the adult generation, and are seeing their communities shrink on a daily basis.

Africans and South Asians, on the other hand, are generally religious and retain the traditional model of multi-child families—which may be old-fashioned from a Western point of view, but it’s a model powerfully sanctioned by the evolutionary urge to extend the gene pool.

“It’s clearly the case that the future will involve an increase in religious populations and a decrease in scepticism,” says Steve Jones, a professor in genetics at University College London, speaking at the Hay Festival in the UK recently.

This may appear as bad news for pro-atheism campaigners. But for the evolutionary life-force which may actually make the decisions, this may augur well for the continued existence of humanity. (An image of Richard Dawkins and his selfish gene having a testy argument over dinner springs to mind.)

In the meantime, it might be wise for religious folks to refrain from teasing atheist friends who accidentally say something about their souls. And it might be equally smart for the more militant of today’s atheists to stop teasing religious people at all.

We might all be a little more spiritual than we think.

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