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Which God?

Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto recently provided the stage for a debate between celebrated Christian apologist Alister McGrath and noted skeptic Michael Shermer. By all accounts, the evening was civil, thoughtful, and well attended—and for the vast majority of English-speaking people around the world, irrelevant.

To be sure, some atheists might still be interested in the arguments of Christians. A greater number of believers, one might suppose, are troubled by the claims of certain high-profile atheists, such as the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Most informed people nowadays, however, see them as merely four strong winds (to cite a Canadian metaphor). Their argumentation is not nearly at the level of their bombast, and has been answered thoroughly by many authors—including McGrath himself.

No, the point is that real atheists are relatively hard to find in the general population. For most Canadians, Americans, Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis, the central question is not “Does God exist?” A different question deserves priority.

Polls show that a large majority of Anglophones claim they believe in God. But polls also show a very wide range of meaning to that little word.

Increasing numbers of them believe in the Islamic version of God, or one of the dozens of Hindu understandings of God. Many more will say they believe in God when all that means to them is some kind of cosmic ordering force, such as Brahman in Indian thought or T’ian in Chinese—or perhaps Fate, in some modern residue of classical Greco-Roman culture.

Decreasing numbers of people calling themselves Christians, still the majority in the Anglosphere, believe in a version of God that would pass the test of a rigorous catechism class, let alone a first-year theology course in an orthodox school.

Line up ten Canadians who claim to be Christians when a pollster calls and ask them to explain in a correct and clear way the doctrine of the Trinity, the nature of the Incarnation, or the divine creation and providential ordering of the world—which are ideas simply fundamental to the Christian understanding of God. How many would succeed?

How many pastors would succeed?

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