Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Do Christians sing because they're insecure?

Last Thursday I spent an interesting two hours peering over Richard Dawkins' shoulder  (left).

I was at the Oxford Union for a debate on the existence of God, where three Christians and three atheists slugged it out to try and establish the superiority of their particular viewpoint.

Though I entered the room excited at the prospect of seeing such an important question discussed at the heart of the university, I left somewhat disappointed that neither side had advanced their best arguments or engaged meaningfully with the perspectives of the other.

Part of the problem may lie in the breadth of the question being debated.

Asking two teams of debaters to discuss something as broad as "Should We Believe In God?" invites them to spew forth their entire arsenal of arguments without ever developing any of them to a clear or persuasive degree.

It might have been more helpful had there been a narrower question such as "Does science disprove God?", or "Are the New Testament accounts accurate?", or "Is belief in God a good thing?".

This would have kept everyone's arguments more focused.

Despite the inconclusiveness of the debate, however, there was one interesting argument put forward by a member of the atheist camp.

Dan Barker (right), an American former Pentecostal preacher, suggested that the foundationless nature of Christian belief is evinced by the fact that Christians get together and sing about Jesus.

He said something along the lines of, "Scientists do not join hands every Sunday and sing 'Yes gravity is real! I know gravity is real! I will have faith! I believe in my heart that what goes up, up, up must come down, down, down. Amen!' If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure about the concept.”

Now, leaving aside the implicit assumption that science and Christianity are somehow mutually exclusive, it was not an argument I have ever previously heard articulated in public discussion.

I do suspect, though, that is one which lingers in the minds of people other than Barker and therefore has an emotional force to it.

But the problem with his argument is its assertion that communal singing exists to (hypnotically?) convince the singer of the truth of the lyrics.

This is simply not true.

Think, for a moment, of another place where public communal singing occurs: Rugby matches.

If Wales, for example, are beating England 27-0 at half-time, there will probably be outbursts of singing on both sides when play resumes.

The Welsh fans will be singing songs or chanting because their team are ahead and they are excited about this fact.

The English supporters will also sing and chant because they want to express something they believe is true; their team is capable of winning when the final whistle comes.

There is certainly a sense in which the singing reinforces and amplifies the emotion surrounding how each set of fans perceives their team, but both sides are singing because they already believe something about their team (either 'we are winning' or 'we can win').

At the end of the match the supporters of the winning team will be left singing and the losers will have to stare dejectedly at their shoes.

Now, a set of supporters which just lost 90-0 could conceivably be in denial and therefore singing wildly about the glories of their team, but this does not prove Barker's assertion that passionate singing somehow necessarily signifies insecurity about ones beliefs.

It more frequently indicates the strength of an existing belief.

That said, Barker is correct to observe that singing can reinforce or even help foster ones belief in God.

But is this really a sign that we barely believe God exists?

If one can come to grasp truth through reading a book or hearing a lecture, can't that also happen with a song?

Something is not only true if apprehended through musically-unaccompanied propositions.

A friend of mine once told me she first understood the reality of racism after hearing Bob Dylan's epic story-song Hurricane (below).

Though there is certainly a rational and evidential basis for the Christian faith, it also possesses an emotional and imaginative dimension which can frequently be best communicated and grasped via the arts.

It would have been helpful, in the context of the Oxford Union debate, to have time to pick over specific lines of argumentation such as this.

In the end the debate was officially won by the side arguing for God.

I'm not sure, though, that anybody attending had even had a chance to meaningfully engage with the question being debated.

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