The Lack of Faith of the Average Christian

Roger Olson, one of the theologians Lee Strobel interviewed in The Case for Miracles, laments the lack of faith he finds among the majority of his fellow believers. He correctly observes that in their everyday lives, they for the most part live as if God isn’t really there. Only when faced with something like a terminal illness do they turn to God. Even churches function much as secular institutions do: “Years ago, I noticed that churches were tending not to think biblically or theologically about the way they ran their operations…They’d ask, ‘Will this fit into our budget?’ regardless of any faith that more funding could come in.”

That average Christians don’t usually expect miracles, and that churches run their business based on realistic expectations rather than counting on supernatural intervention, is disturbing to Dr. Olson. Nevertheless, he believes he knows the reason why: “You see, there’s a certain unpredictability with the Holy Spirit, and we mainstream evangelicals have come to love predictability. We don’t want big surprises. We don’t want to open the door to something that will really shock us, because we can’t control it.” In other words, according to Olson, people behave as if God isn’t there because they don’t like the idea of something that is out of their control.

This explanation fits in with the general Christian message about humility. Olson points out that he can guess fairly well what a particular congregation believes by the kind of cars he sees in the church’s parking lot. “The more prosperous and educated we are, the more likely we are to substitute our own cleverness and accomplishments for the power of prayer.”

Olson has correctly noticed many of the behaviors of his fellow believers. His analysis of the reasons for that behavior, however, is almost completely wrong. The real reason has nothing to do with being afraid of the unpredictability of God.

Human beings are practical by nature, which means we are basically rational with respect to our everyday needs. After all, an individual who, rather than actively searching for food, waited for manna to fall from heaven, wouldn’t last very long. This explains why, when it comes to practical matters, most of us behave pretty much realistically. Usually, it is only with respect to things that are out of our control that some of us turn to imaginary beings for help. People don’t pray for food to appear on their plate: they use their naturally-evolved abilities to find it. A terminal illness, on the other hand, is something that we can do nothing about — and so the only thing left (other than acceptance of the facts) is to hope for a miracle. And of course in the middle of a famine, many will pray for food. Many also turn to magical thinking when it comes to less drastic things — such as finding love — provided, once again, that these things are to a great extent out of their control.

So it’s not that we “don’t want big surprises,” nor that we are prideful in our “cleverness and accomplishments.” It’s that we naturally do whatever we need to survive and flourish, and only turn to magical help when our abilities fail us. This explains why the more prosperous we are, the less reliant we are on God.

I once used the example of a car breaking down to make this same point. No one prays to God when their car doesn’t work: they go to an auto mechanic. Though he doesn’t realize it, Olson is like everyone else in this respect. One of the examples of a miracle he gave Strobel was of how one time, when his car broke down and he didn’t have the money for the repairs, someone “miraculously” gave him the money. “It was what I needed,” he says. But why didn’t he expect God to skip the need for the auto repair shop, and just fix the car directly?

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.