Religious skepticism should not be confused with outright atheism or irreligion, although atheists can be considered one type of religious skeptic. The religious skeptic may simply be someone who has serious doubts or who is noncommittal toward religion. Actually, religious skepticism is nothing new. The famous skeptics Nathaniel (John 1:45–47) and Thomas (John 20:25) were disciples of Jesus who had their doubts. Yet it does seem today that religious skepticism is growing more prevalent.
Many things have contributed to the rise of religious skepticism. One is the culture at large. For more than a millennium, the ethos of Western culture was “Christian”; that is, the Judeo-Christian worldview was respected and taught, even if it was not always lived. That began to shift during the Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason) in the early 1700s and continued during the Industrial Age, a time when man knew no obstacles. The cultural change accelerated in the modern and now postmodern age due, in part, to the influx of many different cultures and ways of thinking.
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, writes in his book unChristian: What a new Generation Really Thinks About Christianity . . . and Why It Matters, “Many young Americans say life seems complicated—that it’s hard to know how to live with the onslaught of information, worldviews and options they are faced with every day. One of the specific criticisms young adults frequently make about Christianity is that it does not offer deep, thoughtful or challenging answers to life in a complex culture.” In other words, they see the Bible’s answers to cultural issues as too simplistic. Society is too “sophisticated” to pay attention to the “old-fashioned” mores of the Bible. They reject basic answers such as “because the Bible says so,” and they fail to see—perhaps they’ve never been taught—there are deeper reasons underlying the Bible’s mandates.
Another reason for today’s religious skepticism has to do with the practitioners of religion. Sadly, some religious people are immoral, dishonest, or just plain mean. Some skeptics have had bad experiences with religion in the past. According to the Barna Group, the biggest reason religious skepticism has grown among Millennials (those born between 1985 and 2002) rests on personal interactions with “Christians” who were truly un-Christian. Religious hypocrisy has left many disillusioned and disengaged from the faith that once solidified the Western world.
Any lack of Christlike attitudes and actions among professing believers points to a lack of personal transformation. We are called to be like Christ. But many Christians focus more on unrighteousness in the culture than self-righteousness in their own hearts. They miss the point of Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” The crucified life counters hypocrisy.
Another contributing factor to religious skepticism today is an over-reliance on empiricism. People who want everything to be “proved” beyond all doubt will naturally be skeptical of spiritual truths, which cannot be quantified, dissected, or tested in a lab. Ironically, many religious skeptics accept as gospel truth the theory of naturalistic evolution, which has never been proved, while rejecting the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels.
Religious skepticism can also be caused by a desire to give due consideration to all religious beliefs—and being puzzled by the conflicting beliefs the different religious systems espouse. One group says one thing about Jesus, and another group says the opposite. Other groups dispense with Jesus altogether in favor of a mesmeric guru or a cerebral philosophy or a strangely shaped rock. It’s enough to make anyone a little skeptical. Add to this confusion the wide-ranging acceptance of postmodern relativism, and it’s no surprise that there are so many religious skeptics today.
Intellectually based religious skepticism, in itself, is not bad. In fact, healthy skepticism is a good thing—we should be wary of false teaching, and we are told to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). A healthy, enduring faith incorporates permission to question and seek answers. God can withstand our scrutiny, and doubt does not have to equate to disbelief. God calls us to “come . . . reason together” with Him (Isaiah 1:18).
We need to “be wise in the way [we] act toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5; see also 1 Thessalonians 4:12 and 1 Timothy 3:7), and we must engage skeptics in dialogue leading to the truth. The apostle Peter says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). He immediately follows that command with instruction on how to engage the questioner: “Do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15–16). Humility and respect are crucial in dealing with skeptics in our postmodern age.