Samford University provost and executive vice president Dr. Brad Creed advised students to use their faith and mind to build bridges to those who may sneer at their religious beliefs during a talk this week.
Creed, speaking at the opening convocation of the spring semester on Jan. 30, asked students to consider what to do when a person "launches a frontal assault on the things that you believe and throws his arguments in your face."
Noting the current popularity of many books on religion, such as The Prayer of Jabez, the Left Behind series and The Purpose-Driven Life,, Creed acknowledged the surge of books that are hostile to the idea of faith and religious belief.
Writers such as Richard Dawkins, who compares religious belief to a virus, raise serious issues worth discussing, he said. The best-selling atheist is the author of The Blind Watchmaker, The Devil's Chaplain,; and most recently, The God Delusion.
"There is great value in engaging the arguments proposed by people like Dawkins, and you shouldn't shy away from doing so," said Creed, who urged the students to read widely on a variety of topics, not just in their field of study.
One way to refute a sneer, he said, is to present intellectually rigorous approaches to the belief in God and to expose the presupposition arguments that are made by all people, regardless of their alleged belief or unbelief.
"In making rational arguments and contentions, everyone starts from somewhere, not nowhere."
Apologetics as a discipline provides a way to engage serious arguments about crucial issues and to hone skills as a critical thinker, he said.
Another, more imaginative approach to a sneer is to accept the judgment that is presented, but engage the despiser from the standpoint of prophetic biblical faith.
When someone argues that religion can be used to lull people into accepting unjust and oppressive structures that keep the powerful in power, he said, "just admit it's the truth."
"This is what the prophets of the Old Testament thundered against: a religion that uses, manipulates and oppresses people. Those who sneer like to point out how much pain, suffering and difficulty religion has brought into the world, and they're right," he said.
But science, he noted, has also been a force for great good, such as electricity and polio vaccine, and also for bad, such as mustard gas, the despoliation of creation and Hitler's final solution.
An argument used by cultured despisers of religion, that life can be happy, moral and meaningful without God, is not new.
"Jesus would have a hard time convincing his followers that the purpose of faith was to make them healthy, wealthy and wise or to awaken the giant within as he dragged the cross up to the hill of crucifixion," said Creed.
Struggle, especially intellectual struggle, is at the heart of the Christian experience, because it is the way of the cross. People of faith throughout history felt seasons of doubt, darkness and difficulty in their faith experience.
"There will not be an end to religious faith, no matter how vigorously Richard Dawkins attacks it," said Creed, adding, that "for good and sometimes for bad, religious movements worldwide are thriving."
"Use your faith and your mind to build bridges to those whose ideas, beliefs or non-beliefs are different than yours," he advised. "Don't build walls or throw bombs. Use your influence and abilities to promote dialogue and clarity in the search for truth. Speak with balance and care.
"When others sneer, practice the Christian virtue of hospitality, even to those who are hostile, and in so doing, be faithful."