Posts tagged ‘Psychology Today’

God and the Debt Crisis

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.

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

ABC Extra: Not So Neighborly

When I moved to Austin in 1996 to go to college, I was a scrawny seventeen year-old. As I settled into college life, hung out and ate Top Ramen in our 1950’s rundown dorm, and turned eighteen, I felt the need to “bulk up.” After all, I was on my own now. And I was eighteen so I was a “man.” And so, I hit the gym with one of my buddies. Almost immediately, my eyes darted to the bench press. “This is exactly what I need!” I thought to myself. “I’ll be benching a couple hundred pounds in no time at all.” Of course, I needed to start with a little less than two hundred pounds. After all, I hadn’t bulked up yet. And so, I lugged four twenty-five pound plates onto the bar for a mere one hundred pounds. “I’ll just lift this to get warmed up,” I thought to myself. I couldn’t even lift the bar. So, I switched out the plates and reduced the bench press to eighty pounds. Still no dice. Finally, I tried fifty. This, I managed to lift. But I also forgot to put the pins on the ends of the bar. And the plates quickly came crashing down.

I thought I was strong. But I wasn’t nearly as strong as I thought. A similar thing happens when many of us think about our righteousness and goodness. Most of us like to think of ourselves as “good people.” I was recently reading an article by Dr. Neal Mayerson, founder of the VIA Institute on Character. In his article, he noted what psychologists refer to as an “actor-observer bias.” This refers to the tendency that we all have to excuse our immoral behavior by appealing to circumstantial reasons that we had to act the way we did. In other words, we think we’re good. But we’re not nearly as good as we think. And when we are confronted with our own immorality, we try minimalize and rationalize it.

The “actor-observer bias” comes out in our text from this weekend from Luke 10 when an expert in the law approaches Jesus with a question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25)? Rather than responding to his query directly, Jesus instead prods this so-called “expert” to answer his own question. And so the expert does. He gives his take on the requirements for eternal life. You must “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Jesus is impressed: “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). Notably, the Greek word for “do” is in the present tense, denoting a continuous action. So it’s not just that this expert in the law is to love God and his neighbor once. Or even regularly. It’s that he is to love God and his neighbor continually – as in constantly. And no matter how highly the expert in the law might think of himself, this is something he cannot do. This expert in the law may think he is good. But he’s not nearly as good as he thinks. Indeed, Jesus’ subsequent parable makes this sobering fact all too clear.

In His Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus relays the story of a man who is mobbed and robbed as he is traveling the steep trail which leads down the side of a mountain from Jerusalem to Jericho. Indeed, in the first century, this road was well known as a haunt for thieves and thugs. Being beaten unconscious and left for dead, a priest passes by and sees this man, clearly in need of assistance. But probably due to concerns for ritual cleanliness – for, according to Old Testament law, to touch a dead person would render one ceremonially “unclean” for a whole week – he passes the man by. The same thing happens with a Levite, also probably out of concerns for ritual cleanliness. It is a Samaritan – a person from a nationality despised by the Jews – who stops and helps this man.

In our day, we like to think of ourselves as the Samaritan. “Surely!” we think to ourselves, “If I someone half-dead on the side of the road, I would help.” But alas, this is merely our own “actor-observer bias” rearing its head. If you don’t believe me, consider these scenarios:

  • Have you ever failed to stop to help someone with car trouble because you were in a hurry?
  • Have you ever not picked up the phone because your caller ID told you who the person on the other end of the line was and you didn’t feel like talking to them?
  • Have you ever lied and told a panhandler, “I don’t have any change” simply because you didn’t want to get into a discussion with them?

If you have ever done any of these things – or a whole host of other similar things – then perhaps you are not as helpful as you think you are.

Finally, when we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we are called to think of ourselves not as the Samaritan, but as the priest and the Levite. Helmut Thielicke, the rector of the University of the Hamburg in the 60’s and 70’s, explains the parable like this: “The point of the parable is that we should identify ourselves with the priest and the Levite and repent” (The Waiting Father, 167).

So who, then, is the Good Samaritan if he is not us? The early church fathers thought he was Jesus. Origen says unequivocally, “The Samaritan was Christ” (Homilies on Luke). How did they arrive at such a conclusion? They knew that all of us failed to continuously love God and our neighbor. Thus, only Jesus can play the part of the Samaritan. This does not mean, however, that we are not invited to follow in our Savior’s footsteps. Jesus’ admonition at this end of His parable, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) makes this clear enough. We are called to love our neighbor by being a neighbor. We are called to help others.

So be a neighbor to someone in need today. After all, before you were called to become a neighbor to someone else, Christ became your neighbor on the cross.

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March 21, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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