God and the Debt Crisis

August 8, 2011 at 10:55 am Leave a comment


It was a rough day on Wall Street. On Friday, Standard & Poors downgraded United States debt, taking it from its time-honored AAA rating to AA+, with a warning that another downgrade could be in the making. Today, the markets reacted as the Dow Jones plunged 632 points and closed below 11,000, its worst one day loss since December 2008. Though I’m no financial analyst and would never deign to give anyone counsel concerning our fiscal future, right now, the economic horizon of our country does not look particularly bright to me.

The current debt crisis has invoked a fair amount of personal reflection concerning the ethics of managing money. From greed to irresponsibility to politics to entitlements, there is much to be said concerning our pecuniary predicament. But it was an article in The Huffington Post that led me to some new and sober analysis on how we, as Americans, view our finances. The article was titled “Why Atheism Replaces Religion in Developed Countries” and was written by Nigel Barber, who holds a Ph.D. in Biopsychology. Barber’s thesis runs thusly:

Atheists are more likely to be college-educated people who live in cities, and they are highly concentrated in the social democracies of Europe. Atheism thus blossoms amid affluence where most people feel economically secure. But why?

It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion.[1]

Barber’s argument, then, is this: The more money you have, the less religion you need. Religion is for those who cannot secure their futures via monetary means.

There are a couple of things that strike me as odd about Barber’s argument, not the least of which is its conflict with much of the empirical evidence. According to Barber, money and religion compete with each other in an inverse relationship. The more money one has, the less religion one needs. But many studies do not bear out this assertion. Take, for instance, the percentage of atheists in our nation throughout the years. In 1944, 4% of our nation’s citizens were atheists. In 1964, it dropped to 3%, remaining steady through 1994. In 2007, it crept back up to 4%.[2] Over the course of sixty-three years, through good economic times and bad, the percentage of people who self-identify as atheists has remained remarkably consistent. Indeed, the economic vitality of our country seems to have no effect on the religious sensibilities of our people. Moreover, because our nation is one of the most economically prosperous in the history of the world, one would expect to see a much higher percentage of self-declared atheists. But this is not the case. Statistically, atheists make up a small segment of our population, regardless of our economic state.

The second thing that strikes me as odd about Barber’s argument is his massive assumption that all human desire can be reduced down to a single need: the need for security. Barber’s argument runs like this: Our foundational need is to feel secure. And we will get the security we so earnestly desire one way or another. Some superstitious people get security from religion. Enlightened people, invigorated by their economic prosperity, receive security from money and the government that doles and dishes it out. But is this really true? Can money, managed by the government nonetheless, really offer the kind of security human beings desire and need? If our latest financial crisis is any indication, it cannot. Finding refuge in money is like finding security in a house of cards. The slightest jolt can send it crashing down.

Additionally, is the need for security really the only fundamental need human beings have? What about the need for purpose in life? Atheism, with its commitment to a closed and sterile universe, cannot offer the transcendent purpose that human beings seem to innately desire. Bertrand Russell, the famous British atheist philosopher, explains with clinical sobriety the view atheism has of the universe and of human beings:

In the visible world, the Milky Way is a tiny fragment; within this fragment, the solar system is an infinitesimal speck. And of this speck our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water, of complicated structure, with somewhat unusual physical and chemical properties, crawl about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded.[3]

Is it any wonder Bertrand didn’t make it as a motivational speaker? But Bertrand is simply honest enough to admit what so many atheists have fought so vigorously to sugarcoat and excuse: The inevitable philosophical concomitant of atheism is fatalism. If atheism is true, that means we are born, we live to struggle against the evolutionary goads, and then we die. That’s it. Our lives are merely blips against the backdrop of a cold, and ultimately triumphant, evolutionary system.

This is why atheism will finally never carry the day. Atheism will never carry the day because human beings want their lives to count for something – something bigger than money, something bigger than accomplishments, and something bigger than even this life itself. And only God can meet this want. And it seems only reasonable to recognize that if only God can meet this want, then maybe there is a God who has placed this want in human beings in the first place. Doctrinally, we call this the natural knowledge of God. And all human beings, yes, even atheists, have this knowledge – even if they fight this knowledge.

All of this leads us back to our debt crisis. The economic future of our nation is indeed frightening, but it is not surprising. After all, stocks and bonds, debt limits and balanced budget amendments simply cannot offer what God offers, no matter what Nigel Barber may assert. For capital cannot offer comfort and hope. Only God can offer that. That’s why so many in our nation continue to trust in God – through this crisis and the crises to come.


[1] Nigel Barber, “Why Atheism Replaces Religion in Developed Countries,” The Huffington Post (July 26, 2011).

[2] Matthew Hutson, “One Nation, Without God,” Psychology Today (September 1, 2009).

[3] Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays (London: Routledge Classics, 2004), 19.

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