Last week I was listening to a lecture pastor Andy Stanley gave on one of his latest DVDs entitled, “Who Needs God?”. In it, he went into the big three of New Atheists – Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens – and their criticisms of religion. That’s an important distinction to Mr. Stanley, because criticizing religion isn’t the same thing as criticizing a personal relationship with Jesus. Thus, Mr. Stanley appears to sympathize with criticisms of organized ritual worship and dogma while carving out a special exception for Real Christianity™.
Except the distinction is without a difference.
The dictionary definition of religion is fairly open and inclusive of all groups of people with shared beliefs and practices. As long as a group gets together and agrees on what they believe about the supernatural and how to act around it, that could reasonably be called a religion. It doesn’t matter if two or two million people believe it.
Mr. Stanley runs a megachurch with many different campuses. In form and structure, they’re no different than the different campuses (called churches back then) set up by Paul of biblical fame. The only meaningful difference between a modern megachurch and the initial Christian proliferation is that megachurches have access to better technology. I would find it difficult to imagine that Paul wouldn’t have used mass media to spread his teachings if he had access to them. Certainly he wouldn’t have had to write as many letters to the congregations he started.
Outside of structure, Mr. Stanley also educates his congregation on what beliefs are appropriate to hold about the divine. It’s his ministry, after all, which makes him ultimately responsible for how worship services are conducted, sermons are delivered, and where to record it all. His lectures are in his DVD materials that people may purchase. I can’t think of anything which justifies saying he’s not a person operating a religious organization.
This makes it a little disingenuous for him to pretend to agree with someone like Hitchens.
Christopher Hitchens wrote a book titled, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” The title really says it all. Even if one just reads the first chapter, Mr. Hitchens clearly states an intention to critique even the least association with religion and religious beliefs.
Thus, for Mr. Stanley to agree with Hitchens, he’d also have to agree that his operation is poisoning his congregation. Such an idea definitely runs at cross purposes with the later part of his lecture. Namely, he asserts that godless principles have some scary consequences that his religion doesn’t possess. By playing to those fears of scary beliefs, Mr. Stanley still contradicts Hitchens without leaving Hitchens’s first chapter.
Mr. Stanley isn’t exactly presenting anything new here.
Many Christians have told me after I’ve left my faith that they’re against religion. It used to come off as a slap in the face, because I didn’t magically forget all those years I spent believing in Jesus as my lord and savior. I felt like I was getting told what I remember rather than having people accept the fact that I remembered things correctly. Naturally, it fed a lot of anger I had towards my former religion (and the other subsets like it).
Nowadays, it’s a disappointment whenever I hear stuff like this. Fairness dictates that I make allowances for people, to not assume that they’re lying to me whenever this happens. I have to accept that people can and often are willingly ignorant of facts. Getting despondent about it doesn’t do me any favors, even when I get presented with megachurch pastors who keep spreading non-truths about me and people like me.
Pro tip: persuading people works better if you don’t misrepresent facts.
Even assuming that Mr. Stanley just doesn’t know anything about atheists and other non-religious people, it at least shows he didn’t bother asking them or listening to what they had to say. If he had called me before delivering his talk, I could have warned him against all of the bad things he went into. He would have had a more receptive audience of skeptics, and skeptics wouldn’t have to hurt themselves rolling their eyes so hard.
In the end, Mr. Stanley’s talk was just an exhortation to join a religion of his design, aimed at a crowd of people that already joined it. Any skeptic not under extreme emotional distress could have seen that from a mile off. Pretending to agree with some of Christianity’s most vocal and vehement critics doesn’t score any points with skeptics. It just signals that there’s incoming bullshit.