I think I was in my sophomore year of college when I took a course in Sociology. This was during a crucial time in my faith journey, when I was having to let go of some of the narrower beliefs I grew up with, as I was seeing things through new eyes of secular reason and science. I wasn’t in the process of losing my faith, but it was certainly being adjusted. My sociology instructor seemed reassuring to me, since he came across as very open and together. The latest theories he was teaching us about seemed to be working for him, and that made me feel okay about considering them in my expanding worldview.

And then, just after the term ended, he committed suicide. I remember how that shook me and caused me to slow down in my embrace of all the new ideas that were coming at me.

So, I had a déjá vu feeling when I was recently listening to a YouTube video of a “TEDtalk,” entitled, “Why There Is No Way Back for Religion in the West”. In it, Dr. David Voas, world-renowned Professor of Social Sciences, argues that the movement away from religion and toward atheism is inevitable and irreversible. Society is going through a “generational replacement,” and there will be fewer and fewer individuals in the coming decades who begin life with religious teachings from which they have to break free. Dr. Voas came across as absolutely sure of his conclusions. He spoke as a god from Mount Olympus (except, he doesn’t believe in them). If I were an atheist, I would be completely assured, by his words, that I was on the winning team.

But I’m not an atheist, and it’s partly thanks to these two sociologists in my experience. Why did Dr. Voas’ platitudes make me doze off? Why did I find this to be the most boring TEDtalk I’ve ever listened to?

I wasn’t alone. Among the “Comments” in response to the YouTube video were these:

  • “Religion will evolve and adapt with new information. History will view atheism as a twentieth century anomaly (Darwinism/Scientism) made obsolete by twenty-first century science and philosophy. Modern scientific advances are not at all compatible with atheism. I think atheism has reached it’s peak and will decline due to unsustainability in reason. I also think fundamentalism will decline for the same reasons.”
  • “I’m not convinced that religion won’t make a comeback. From my perspective, mankind is still proving the adage correct, that if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to create him. I’m still open to the notion that some consciousness created everything. I just don’t buy the notion that anyone knows anything about it.”
  • “Lol! I enjoy the TEDtalks, and have learned a lot from them. But this is the silliest and worst TEDtalk I have listened to. What this scientist proposes is reckless, complacent, and I’m afraid, fatuously dangerous. When a scientist tells you that something is possible, it probably is. When a scientist tells you something is impossible, they are almost certainly wrong”
  • “He said so little in 15 minutes. If this were a church service, I would never want to come back.”

These comments are not from Christians; most identify as atheists or agnostics themselves. What they’re reacting against, I think, is the smug attitude that the truth of atheism will be self-evident to every person who thinks clearly, and that anyone who can’t see this is intellectually inferior and blinded by religious fables.

Dr. Voas has convinced himself that belief in the existence of a God is a “birth defect” we inherit from our parents and have to recover from. I think he misses the reality that our main reason for believing in God is not connected with our birth, but with our readiness to face our death. Questions about the origin of the universe, the meaning of human existence and the ultimate purpose of history can be interesting topics of discussion in a college philosophy or sociology class, but when you’re all alone, about to fall asleep, more personal questions overwhelm the mind.

My college instructor may have outlived some childhood religious fears, but what fears was he trying to escape when he took those pills?

– Pastor George Van Alstine