A few days ago in the thread dangling from “Ad Maitzen: On ‘What must I believe to be saved?‘” Brad Haggard made an interesting claim in response to Stephen Maitzen:
Finally, one thing you didn’t address in your paper are facts which I would consider recalcitrant upon a naturalistic explanation of religious diversity. The revival in China comes immediately to mind, as it occurred in an explicitly atheistic country without the presence of foreign missionaries. I could also cite other modern revivals in South America and Africa, American revivals in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and even going back to the initial spread of Christianity. I felt not addressing this was a real hole in the argument, because if any of those revivals are genuine then the naturalistic hypothesis is falsified.
In principle I would certainly be open to a revival providing some evidence of divine action. For instance, imagine an unreached people group in Irian Jaya who has never heard the gospel before. One night the village shaman has a dream that the following day a white skinned man will come proclaiming a new faith and that the village should accept this faith. And so it goes, the next day a missionary appears and by sundown the whole village have become Methodists (or Catholics or…) It seems to me that two facts provide intriguing evidence of divine action in this case. The first point, obviously enough, is the dream itself. The second is the mass conversion. It seems that these two facts are mutually supporting.
But could I claim that the evidence here is something for which a naturalist would be compelled to surrender her naturalism? I sure don’t think so. But I certainly do think that Maitzen’s argument wouldn’t provide a defeater to the interpretation of these events as evidence of supernatural activity.
But when it comes to a mass revival in China I am much less convinced that this could be plausibly explained, on the whole, as evidence of direct divine action to the exclusion of natural (e.g. psychological and sociological) explanation. Even missiologists provide sociological explanations for this explosive growth in terms of the real enculturation of the gospel within Chinese culture following the expulsion of all western missionaries in 1949. (It is a well known fact that religions tend not to grow in a people group until it is enculturated for the people.)
More to the point, I think we just need to identify other mass events like fads which are, if anything, even more impressive in terms of their staggeringly rapid and sweepign growth through mass people groups. Think of Bieber fever, Beetlemania, or the explosive popularity of Wham-O’s hula hoop in 1958. Which futurist, writing in 1957, could have predicted that within a year a plastic tube would become the hottest toy on the market? Such trends and fads are striking, but we certainly are not under any compunction to invoke divine action to explain them. Nor, I suspect, are we more compelled to do so if the product happens to be WWJD? merchandise. Or even the very gospel itself. So while the explosive growth of Christainity in China (or Korea, or sub-Saharan Africa, or…) may be interpreted by a Christian in providential terms, it hardly offers a defeater for the naturalist who prefers to interpret these events purely in terms of natural causes.