A news item today talks about efforts by Christian evangelists to boost their witnessing in such New England states as Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, an area of the country that has become even more secular than the Pacific Northwest. Reportedly, up to 22% of New England residents claim no religious faith of any kind. This is absolutely wonderful news of a trend that I hope continues to spread. But it's sad faces all around for the poor folks at places like Redeemer Fellowship Church.
Several Christian denominations see New England as a "mission field" — a term often associated with unchurched, foreign lands. As they evangelize and work to plant new churches, they speak of possibility, but also frustration. The area's highly educated population is skeptical and often indifferent to their faith.
"About once every hour, I give up. It's tough, man," said a half-joking Joe Souza, a Southern Baptist missionary working north of Boston. "It's like, you found a cure for cancer and you want to give it away and nobody wants it."
That last remark illustrates with blazing clarity why fellows like Souza do not understand their difficulty in winning converts. Read the preceding sentence, Joe, where the people whom you are trying to reach are described as "highly educated" and "skeptical." There's your problem. You are dealing with people who are sufficiently intelligent to realize, much moreso than you, that you emphatically do not have anything to offer that can be remotely likened to a cure for cancer. (For one thing, if Souza's religion really were both true and as good as a cure for cancer, then there would be a cure for cancer. All powerful magic sky deity, remember?)
No, Christianity is in fact peddling an inferior product, one that offers the empty solace of "faith" in response to real-world problems, and then, with staggering arrogance, turns around and threatens people with eternal torture for non-compliance. Maybe there's a placebo effect in Christianity that can, I suppose, be argued to have better benefit than no effect at all. But "it's better than nothing" is not exactly what you'd call a ringing endorsement for a belief system that treats the human intellect as if it's something that can be won over with carrot (Heaven) and stick (Hell) theology.
The work is slow and its fruits can be scarce. Souza said people are generally polite, even interested in talking about spiritual matters. But they don't hesitate to reject invitations. He recalled a man with whom he recently shared his faith at the mall courteously declining to even take a card.
Of course. This man realized that Souza had nothing to offer that he wanted or needed. This is always how people respond to empty sales pitches: with indifference. Oh, it's a telemarketer offering me a limited-time-only deal on subscriptions to magazines I don't even read in the first place? Gee, why am I not clamoring to take advantage of that? Golly, it's a smiling but empty-headed buffoon in the food court telling me all about how much his invisible friend loves me? Sure, great, whatever — can you pass the sugar?
This trend, I think, is a terrific riposte to claims that those who criticize the "New Atheists" often make: that we may as well accommodate religion, because it is such a thoroughly ingrained part of our cultural landscape that we'll never be rid of it. Clearly, as the increasingly educated and skeptical population of New England are demonstrating, that is untrue. It doesn't take much to divest yourself of inferior products in your life. You just need to become a smart shopper.