The short answer: plausibility structures.
Have you ever been watching a movie or a TV show and something happens that completely takes you out of the flow of the story because it is patently absurd? You may not use the word, but you could easily be thinking, that’s just not plausible. If the scene is not too over the top, we may be able to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the story. Good fiction depends on it.
Plausibility, or that which seems credible or believable to us, isn’t just important for fiction, though. It’s a natural part of everyday existence, and critical to understand if we’re to correctly assess religious faith, or the lack thereof, in a secular post-Christian culture.
Plausibility structure is a phrase that most people have never come across, but it has more to do with what people believe than “facts.” A pretension among Western secular cultural elites is that people become atheists because they’ve thought through all the arguments for and against theism, and have found theism wanting. This could possibly be the case here or there, but I would argue that people embrace atheism because it just seems more credible or believable to them than theism. They haven’t reasoned their way there, so much as they’ve found themselves there.
I read a piece this morning at Breitbart about the astounding growth of atheism among the Brits:
The number of Britons who believe in God has fallen by four percentage points in under two years, a new survey on religious attitudes has found, leaving atheism to pull significantly ahead.
A YouGov poll for The Times found that the number of people professing a belief in God has dropped from 32 per cent in February 2015, when the question was last asked, to 28 per cent today. At the same time, those who say they don’t believe in any god or higher spiritual power has risen from 33 per cent to 38 per cent, putting atheism ten points ahead of belief in a deity.
This was so shocking to me that I had to read it several times to make sure I got it right. Only 28 percent of the British people believe in God? Atheism is 10 points ahead of theism? According to this poll, yes. In America, by contrast, the latest surveys say atheism is about 3% of the population. I have a hard time believing even that many of our fellow Americans find atheism the least bit credible, but I understand why: Plausibility structures. Okay, what are such things.
I first came across the term “plausibility structure” in Peter Berger’s, The Sacred Canopy, many years ago. When you connect the concept of plausibility with the cultural apparatus of education, popular culture, and media you have a plausibility structure through which reality is mediated to us. Thus we come to believe, if we’re not careful, what the cultural messaging dictates.
The word structure brings to mind something tangible like a building. The culture acts like a building of plausibility, if you will, and when we step into it certain things become meaningful to us, other things less meaningful. You might say it’s all about the seemingness of things. The messaging coming out of the cultural apparatus in the West is thoroughly secular, and in such a culture atheism comes to seem more credible or believable, more plausible to more people.
If you ask the average atheist why they believe what they believe (and yes, as I’ve previously argued, all atheists live by faith), you’ll find what ex-atheist C.W. Lewis found as “their almost bottomless ignorance of the faith they supposed themselves to be rejecting.” Very few atheists have seriously engaged any arguments for the truth claims of Christianity. Christian parents need to know this, and be vigilant with their kids as they challenge the ubiquitous secular assumptions of the dominant culture.