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December 3, 2014
Richard Handler

God’s PR Problem

Does God have a PR problem? I must admit when I saw the headline for this episode, I was delighted. After all, I am your faithful Stubborn Agnostic. And this topic is perfect because, oh my Christian friends, it is also so cunning.  

Why? Because for an agnostic, the question presumes that there is a god. So to answer yes or no, I have to admit to the existence of an entity I’m just not sure about. And I sense a trap. But fear not, it’s one into which I am eager to wander.

In fairness to Context, the program doesn’t ask a question: it states a problem. God does have a PR problem because church attendance is falling. Sheldon Neil reports that the number of Canadians who say they have no religion have risen from 4% to 24% since 1970 -- a six fold increase.

Still, as Sheldon goes on to say, quoting the renowned Canadian scholar Reginald Bibby, 70% of Canadians still identify with a religion, even if they don’t attend services. Plus, urban churches that cater to new immigrants are on an upsurge.  So God may not have a PR problem. Individual, especially old churches, might. 

Just because you don’t go to a church, doesn’t mean you don’t believe in God.

Just think of people you know who say they (sort of) believe in a God, and think of themselves as Christian or Jewish or Muslim, but still don’t attend a church, synagogue or mosque. Their identification is tribal, nostalgic -- a matter of custom or personal identity.

Churches may have the PR problem, not god “him or herself” (as Don Ferguson of the Royal Canadian Air Farce kept saying, bringing up gender matters). Ferguson is a good example. He grew up a Catholic, began asking questions, and then fell away. 

That’s crucial: this question of whether people are losing interest in a specific institution or a whether they believe in a Creator. In an historical sense, it’s one of those problems of modernity. Our ancestors simply weren’t agnostics in any sense we know today.

The great scholar of the Old Testament (what the Jews call the Hebrew Bible) James Kugel tells us that the people who populate the Bible have all sorts of trouble with their God. Think of Abraham, Jonah and Moses -- they balk at His commands; They argue with Him. In Jonah’s case, he sneaks away.  All sorts of biblical folk in the Bible are running away from the Lord. But it isn’t because they don’t believe in him.

In a way, they believe in him too much. They feared God; He was mightier than they were. God does did not have a PR problem. These patriarchs did.

Kugal tells us that the problem of atheism or agnosticism doesn’t exist in the Bible.  Sure, Job questions God’s fairness and rages against his fate. The book of Ecclesiastes laments the sorrow and piteous routine of His creation. But everybody believes in God, whether they obey Him or even like Him. The question of whether God exists consumes untold hours in college dorm rooms and coffee shops in the Western World.  But it’s absent in the bible.

And dare I say that atheism is not an issue for the New Testament either.  Speaking of PR, the Apostle Paul has been called the greatest CEO/PR man in the ancient world.  He was the one who schlepped from city to city, seeding congregations, and turning Judaism into a universal religion. 

Kugel also tells us something startling. People in the Bible believe in God because they know how limited their own powers are.  It comes down to this: God is very big and man is very little.  That’s not very sophisticated reasoning, it’s but it’s brilliantly clear. In a world where humans are all too big, it’s easy to banish Him from our consciousness. In that sense, God does have a PR problem today.

Richard Handler - the Stubborn Agnostic - is a former CBC Radio Producer and former producer for CBC's Ideas. He lives in Toronto.



Crisp writing, as usual, Richard, thank you. I think you should come to story meeting on Tuesday afternoon to help us get some more work on done on this ! Take care - Lorna
December 5, 2014 | Lorna Dueck

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