Younger generations hunger for a better world. Christian speaker Sara Stevenson, in a recent Premier Unbelievable podcast, argues that this goal is best understood using the truth of the Christian worldview
There is a desire for authenticity in young people today. Psychology professor Jean M Twenge1 argues that one way this is expressed is in justice movements. Young people are genuinely concerned about the marginalised and social justice. Therefore, I chose to discuss this in a recent debate, held in a school with an audience of students, on whether Christianity or secular humanism offers the brightest future. I wanted to engage with the young people’s concerns, and then argue that the Christian worldview is the most coherent foundation for progressing justice and human rights.
The debate at St Michael’s School in Aylesbury, UK, was between myself and Neil McKain, who is a Religious Studies teacher and the vice-chairman of Humanists UK. Lacking a microphone, we both had to shout to be heard! You can hear the full debate here, but these were my main points:
A Christian foundation
Christianity is the most logical foundation to make sense of justice issues. If young people want to advance human rights, then Christianity is the worldview that should make most sense to them, when properly explained. Yet Christianity is often in the firing line, and some say it should be removed from the classroom. So, I wanted to ask the students the question: If you strip away the existence of God and objective moral values, then where does the authority for moral decision-making lie?
I appreciate that various atheists do believe in objective morals (such as Eric Wielenberg’s non-theistic normative realism – though I believe it lacks causality) but many young people do not accept objective morality. Instead, they embrace moral relativism, believing that we can do whatever “makes us happy”. However, many then vocally enforce their particular interpretation of ethics, believing it is true and that everyone should follow it. This seems to be a contradiction. Without an objective foundation for ethics such as God, then human rights are just different points of view.
In this debate, I avoided contentious issues such as sexuality or gender. However, even these justice issues - that seem to most challenge Christian belief - are most comfortable within Christian theism. Historian Tom Holland makes this point in the well-known book Dominion: the making of the Western mind. He argues that many secular, liberal values that we hold dear today were Christian in origin.
LGBT groups campaign for equal opportunities, but it is a Christian concept to believe that each human being has equal value and deserves to be treated with individual intrinsic worth. If you remove this foundation, then where does authority lie in providing equal opportunities for each individual? Who can say whose beliefs and which “truth” is the most important?
The philosopher Immanuel Kant provided a moral framework based on reason, but he also argued that God’s existence provides moral motivation. Otherwise, we lack the authority to persuade others. Some secular humanists provide opinions on moral issues arbitrarily and expect others to agree with them. Of course, secular thinkers can do good things or describe ethical frameworks. But they cannot insist upon individual intrinsic worth. Christianity is a solid foundation for the belief that “every life matters”.
Clues for God
There are a range of clues within human experience that correspond with the claims of Christian theism (a cumulative case). At times, philosophers will point to evidence such as the fine-tuning of the Universe to make this argument, whereas I focused on the example that we are a spiritual being as well as a physical being. Our minds transcend physical reactions alone. We have the experience of an inner subjective world, something that philosophers call “qualia”. There is no scientific reason as to why we have a “felt experience” when we drink coffee or eat chocolate. We also have individual thoughts, which we can bring into the physical world as we engage in conversation with others.
Mathematics and the mystery of numbers provide another clue, alongside our mental experiences, that we are both physical and spiritual beings living in a world that has a spiritual realm. Numbers seem to exist outside of our minds, and mathematical minds help us to understand the world through science. I aimed to make it clear to our young audience that science is not a barrier to having faith. Science provides us with a methodology for ascertaining knowledge of the natural world, it does not provide us with answers to our metaphysical questions, which theology and revelation can help to make sense of.
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Is Christianity dangerous or good news?
Christianity is good for ethical decision-making and human rights. It is not exclusive or discriminatory. The basis for this claim lies with the reality that all people are equally invited to follow Jesus, but the cost is high. In Mark 8:34, Jesus stated: “Take up your cross and follow me”. Whatever your distinguishing factor is, or however you would define your identity, you are invited to follow Jesus. This is where the inclusion lies.
However, to “follow Jesus” means that we give our lives up for the will of another, and that means becoming willing to change our behaviour. Every single human being who makes this decision is faced with the reality of deep grace and love but reciprocal sacrifice and obedience.
It is not discriminatory to ask people of differing identities to partake of the bigger story of the Bible as the basis for equality. The Holy Spirit can help everybody to give their lives up for God. If it is the case that the biblical pattern for relationships is God’s best, then it would actually be discriminatory to ask some people to follow something less.
In John chapter 4, we see this perfectly demonstrated with Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well. The woman who had five husbands was considered worthy of Jesus’ time and salvation. Jesus sought her out. He went towards the social outcast. When he addresses her relational wounds, there is healing, but also the call to live in spirit and truth. There is a unique myriad of truth and love, which he invites us into, and I think this is what we are searching for as part of an authentic life of meaning and purpose “for a brighter future”.
The ethical concern with justice was my primary point in this debate. With more time, I would have clarified why I believe Jesus of Nazareth best reflects the form of theism that can give us a brighter future. On the surface, other religions seem to be comparable, offering belief systems, scriptures and religious practice.
However, only in Jesus do we have God sacrifice himself for our sins. For example, Hinduism does not provide a permanent alleviation for the burden of karma or relief of a guilty conscience. And Allah, in Islam, remains unknowable in his transcendence, offering only a system of merit for his forgiveness.
Christianity teaches that we are made in the image of God, providing individual human worth. The cross and resurrection of Jesus shows us how much each life matters.
We were made for more than secular humanism.
Sara Stevenson is a speaker for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.
1 Jean M Twenge, ‘Generations’, p435-450.
2Eric J. Wielenberg, ‘Robust Ethics’, Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism.
3 Tom Holland, ‘Dominion’, chapter ‘Woke’, 2019:499-525.
4 Brian Davies, An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion’, Third Edition 2004:266-267
5 Sharon Dirckx, ‘Am I just my brain?’, 2019:39
6 Michael Green, ‘But don’t all religions lead to God?’ 2002:13-34
7 Andy Bannister, ‘Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?’ 2001:44-70.
Jean M Twenge, Generations, Atria Books, 2023.
Eric J. Wielenberg, Robust Ethics, Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism. OUP Oxford, Reprint edition, 2014.
Tom Holland, Dominion, Abacus publishers, 2019.
Brian Davies, An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion, Third Edition 2004, Oxford University Press.
Sharon Dirckx, Am I just my brain?, 2019. The Good Book Company.
Michael Green, But don’t all religions lead to God? 2002. Inter-Varsity Press.
Andy Bannister, Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? 2001, IVP Publishers.