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Hebridean churches losing the culture war

With the prospect of arch-atheist Professor Richard Dawkins due to attend a Hebridean book festival it appears as if those who are fighting to maintain the traditions of the Western Isles are fighting a losing battle.


Dawkins in LewisTHE island chain which lies off the north-west of Scotland has been described as ‘the last bastion of Presbyterian fundamentalism. And certainly it looks as if the secular world – with its various views and values – have been making inroads into the prevailing culture of the archipelago of islands which runs from Lewis in the north to Barra at the southernmost end.

Church or Pub?
Many years ago a young man who was headed for these parts for the first time was forewarned: “You will need to become either a member of the pub or a member of the church”. Encapsulated in this caveat was one of the two main demarcation lines which ran – and still run – through these communities; communities which are otherwise bound together by geography, native language (Gaelic), and the daily struggles of subsisting in what can be a harsh climate and a challenging environment.

Protestant or Catholic
The other social delineation relates to the split which occurred in the Christian church in the 16th-century Reformation. With a cross-over point around Benbecula, the Presbyterian north – in terms of religious affiliations – is markedly different from the Roman Catholic south. The Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie found refuge and help in the island of Eriskay after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. But while these religious differences are mainly overcome through the above-mentioned commonalities, it needs to be recognised that in the Catholic tradition and what is and is not permissible on Sundays, there is an important distinction with regards their Presbyterian neighbours.

While, for Roman Catholics, church attendance on Sunday mornings might be de rigueur, the rest of the day is distincly laissez faire. So a Catholic priest might finish off in morning mass only to join in a game of football in the afternoon. Not so his Presbyterian clergyman counterpart. ‘Sabbath’ observance means a day devoid of worldly pursuits. So the battle to keep the 21st-century world at bay largely falls upon the Presbyterian churches – along with those non-religionists who prefer the hushed tranquillity which comes around in these parts every seventh day.

Cultural soil erosion
Up to about the 70s Sundays in the Isles were much as they had always been, but in the past few decades a number of developments have been combining to challenge the non-activity on the weekly day of rest. Improvements in communications and ease of travel have brought the habits and fashions of the outside world crashing onto the Hebridean shorelines of – on the west – sandy beaches, the Atlantic Ocean and North America; and on the east the rugged rocks, the Minch and the Scottish mainland.

But prior to these developments it was fairly easy, on these relatively-remote islands, to live apart from social trends and value-systems in the rest of mainland Britain. It is likely that the 60s mini skirt was well out of fashion before it reached the Hebrides; and even if it wasn’t, few young girls – certainly amongst those in the 'church' camp – would have dared to wear one; in public at least. This ‘disconnect’ with mainstream culture was of marked assistance to clergy in keeping the flock within the pen. (Even as late as the 90s a committed young Christian girl who stormed the heavens with her prayers at a mainland Christian holiday conference, pleaded with the prayer leader not to mention to anyone that she had been there; or, given that she was a female, had spoken in a mixed prayer meeting. )

Culture wars

Losing battles

Most recently however the commercial world and an increase in the number of ‘immigrants’ have, together with ‘locals’ who have no interest in the church and the important tourist trade, increasingly made inroads into the religious traditions. Battles over Sunday ferry sailings, drinks licences and recreational facilities continue to be waged, but increasingly, from a churches perspective, are being lost.

So the prospect of Prof Dawkins arriving on an inbound flight or CalMac ferry is a daunting thought. Meanwhile the scientist will no doubt be contemplating the prospect of being a lion in a den of Daniels.
(He has been accused in the past of ducking a debate with
American academic, William Lane Craig.)
However any apprehensions he might be feeling will be ameliorated by his host and Festival Director’s comment concerning the academic’s coming: “I am not worried about the reception he will receive in Lewis. People here are unfailingly courteous and tolerant.” And indeed these qualities can be very evident; especially in those who lives are more bound to Christ than to mere religion. (The latter has been described as ‘a portrait of God painted by the devil.’)

Let the real Lion roar
While Dawkins may be seen as a significant challenge to those who hold to a 'faith-based' view ', he poses no threat whatsoever to the trinitarian God. The Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be around long after the Professor has disappeared from this world – unless of course Jesus returns first. Dawkins is a thinker, an intelligent man; and as such he deserves a hearing – even amongst the bastions of Christian commitment.
A spokeswoman for Prof Dawkins said: "The very fact they are making such a fuss about a talk which no-one will be forced to attend betrays their panic at the mere idea of their beliefs not being considered sacrosanct by all."  But robust challenges to those armed with the sword of the Spirit are perhaps best judged as opportunities more than threats?

lion roaringAs it is, the author of ‘The God Delusion’ will not have it all his own way in the festival programme. With him in the line up of speakers will be (d.v.) the theologian and philosopher Professor Keith Ward who will talk about his own book ‘Why There Almost Certainly is a God’ which was written in response to Professor Dawkins’ work.
But the ‘last word’ is God’s Word and regarding the Bible and earlier in the same day there is a presentation of 'The Gospel According to Matthew': the life of Christ with dialogue direct from Scripture.

C H Spurgeon, the famous preacher of yesteryear dismissed opponents of God's word:
“Defend the Bible? Would you defend a lion? Loose him; and let him go!”

In the ultimate sense there is just no contest.

Prof Dawkins is due to speak at the Faclan book festival on 2 November in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. The festival which runs from 30 October - 3 November 2012 is centred on An Lanntair in Stornoway but events will take place elsewhere and a schools' programme will also be part of the whole event.


The impelling drive amongst neo-atheists may have its roots in niggling doubt concerning their unbelief. The following extract is from a poem entitled 'Antigonish' which was written for a play called 'The Psycho-ed':

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!

But of God:
"He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end". (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Footnote: For a fuller description of Hebridean life see related articles – Sunday Sailings to Lewis. And for Sabbath observance - Pubs 'n' Boats 'n' Planes 'n' Sundays

Christians Together, 07/08/2012

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John Miller 15/08/2012 14:39
Un-named Guest, I agree with both your points. There have been many indications of moral decline in humanity over centuries and that is a trend that will continue and accelerate until the return of Christ as Universal King. However it surely must be noted that where a nation has generally been respectful in the acknowledgement of the principles of God's word and Christian values in particular, He has blest it.

Where these values have been deliberately abandoned in response to the wishes of ungodly, anti-Christian sections of society, the moral decline has manifestly been speeded up.

As far as faith is concerned my point, perhaps clumsily expressed, was that faith and faith alone is all that is required to fit us for heaven and render us righteous in God's sight. Our Christian walk, obedience to God's word and the demonstration of the reality of our faith is what God requires from us, but only after we repent and believe the gospel.

Colin, you believe that Acts 20:7 refers to Saturday night and cite the Jewish calendar. Acts 20:7 is not set in a Jewish context and Luke, the writer was not a Jew. If scripture had read that they met on the day after the sabbath your theory might have had credibility, but it does not. I believe in the straightforward account given and that it refers to the day that world calls Sunday, to believers the Lord's Day. The fact that they gathered in the evening was probably because it was a working day in Troas.

You avoided my question - "Do you set aside some other day of the week for Christian worship, teaching and preaching?"

Which churches meet on days other than Sundays?

As far as being God's policeman is concerned, what man does is not a pattern unless it is founded on God's word. The Church of Rome claimed it was acting as God's policemen in the Inquisition.

If my style is a little blunt be assured I mean no disrespect or ill feeling. Our common bond is much stronger than can be damaged by any disagreements such as these.
Editor 16/08/2012 10:15
Hello John, Apologies that I am rushing right at this moment - part of that is the need today to prepare for a church which is meeting on Thursdays (smiling).
I will however respond to your questions, but don't want to do that in a 'rushed' fashion as they are deserving of more than that.

But meanwhile could I refer you to an article (consisting of two separate articles which I wrote when I was a columnist for the Press and Journal). It touches on some of the things we are discussing here.

Philip (Guest) 17/08/2012 07:47
Will we be enjoying some sparring (as below) come November?
John Miller 17/08/2012 16:09
Dawkins is sponsored by the father of lies. No debate in which he is given the oxygen of publicity is for enjoyment anymore than when his master tried to tempt Christ.
Philip (Guest) 17/08/2012 16:26
But, in order for truth to triumph it must be aired!
Seumas 17/08/2012 19:50
That comment from John miller is quite frankly ridiculous. For OTT hyperbole you would be hard pushed to find better. Do you honestly think that Dawkins followers, or perhaps more importantly, people who know about him but havent heard him speak or read his books will actually read that sort of fundagelical ranting and think that Christianity looks attractive? This is from the same stable as "Turn or Burn", "The end is nigh" and other hyperbole.

For a REASONED, sensible, MEASURED approach that actually engages with the target audience, you would do well to read Gprdon Mathesons response to Dawkins' inverness event a few years ago.

It is listed in the comments under " A Date with Dawkins", on this site. But here is his comment anyway, cut and pasted:

"Aye, what an interesting event. Dawkins was, I think, expecting a much more hostile audience than he had - I noticed that he seemed genuinely surprised by the positive applause to his readings. Furthermore, the discussion was well scripted - Ms. Kirby actually corrected Prof. Dawkins on the author of a quote at one point, before he'd actually given the quote!

Allow me two or three observations about the audience there:
1. It struck me that a large number of the non-Christians there were turned off by poorly understood and articulated Christianity. We, the Church, need to rise to this challenge, or all is lost.
2. Andrea, above is spot on! The language we use may be rich in meaning to us, but I'll be honest, it doesn't connect with Dawkins' post-modern followers, who are looking for any excuse to disbelieve. This was especially true of Mr. Shaw who spoke at the end - I understood what he was taking about, but the way he spoke played into the hands of people who will dismiss our testimony. We can try harder.
3. I have to be honest and say that Dr. Boyd's contribution wasn't helpful. Long scripted questions don't help. It's a bit rich for us to say things like, "lacked the cut and thrust of true debate" when the best we can manage is not a debate that engages with what was just said, but a statement prepared in advance.

We have a got a lot of work to do, in how we contextualise to reach an audience like Dawkins had today. So for that, I'm thankful for the event - it is another wake up call to the church that the world has changed, the time for woolly thinking has passed, and we need to hear again the words of Jude - Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints."

Got that? Spot the difference in style? Now tell me, who do you think is more likely to win people over?
Philip (Guest) 17/08/2012 21:00
John, IMO Seumus has a point. What say you?
John Miller 19/08/2012 09:50
Seumus finds my comment ridiculous. That's fine by me. He bases his critcism on events of a few years ago. The Dawkins bandwagon rolls along fed by controversy, publicity and a hatred of the truth of God.

Scripture tells us (Titus 3:10) that after a period of reasoning with such a man we should cease from any attempt to communicate with him. I believe that to preach the Gospel in proxinity to his Satanic activities is the answer.

I will make no apology for naming his activities for what they are. This is a Christian discussion forum and Seumas' ridicule does not interest me. Our Lord Jesus Christ warned of persecution, ridicula and opposition to come.
Davina (Guest) 04/11/2012 15:14
In case anyone is interested, Professor Dawkins had a well deserved standing ovation at the AN lanntair on Friday evening.
Editor 04/11/2012 15:41
It has ever been the tendency of men and women to worship things and persons other than God.

At least the angels have a higher view, when one celestial being gave revelation to the apostle John:

'And when I heard and saw, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed me these things.

And he said to me, "Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book: worship God." (Rev 22:8-9)
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