I wrote a quick blog about Russell Brand’s podcast with Alister McGrath today… take a look! I empathised a lot with Brand because his position isn’t that dissimilar to mine about 10 years ago.
It’s bizarre, for anyone over 30, to see people such as Peter Tatchell, Stephen Fry and Germaine Greer being ostracised by the movements that they helped to create. Why are students ‘no platforming’ these people? In the latest case, with Tatchell, it was purely because he supported the principle of free speech. I offer some reasons why this trend might be happening, in a piece for Christian Today.
Kenneth is now an atheist, though once a Wycliffe missionary. He describes what happened at length in his memoir: ‘Why I believed: Reflections of a former missionary’. The book attempts to convince the reader of his arguments against Christianity, and claims that his deconversion was due to ‘weighing the evidence’. Though he says at various points that he is not trying to persuade believers to doubt, this doesn’t tally with his rather sinister invitation at the end of the book: “Consider taking a swim in the waters of unbelief. You won’t be struck by lightening…”
His analysis did not persuade me to doubt my faith. In fact it reminded me of the strength of the intellectual arguments for Christianity. Perhaps that is because of our very different backgrounds.
Kenneth grew up in a supportive but fundamentalist Christian environment, then began to have doubts while at university, which did not go away. Not an unusual story, as university is where we start to think independently from our parents. I think that’s why I was more convinced that God exists at the end of my science degree than when I began. My mind had been opened – though it took some time before I truly adopted Christian faith. But I grew up in a secular environment. Neither of my parents were practising Christians. I came to faith in my late 20s, after a lot of searching. It requires a lot of independent thought, as I’ve written elsewhere, to break out of the secular, atheistic worldview we are immersed in. It takes effort and courage. Becoming a Christian helped me to open my mind further. Though now, I absolutely, without hesitation, believe orthodox Christianity to be true.
Yet, Kenneth took the opposite path. Why? Well, he claims throughout the book that he didn’t want to lose his faith. One reason he cites, is that his family, wife and career are all devoutly Christian. (It’s worth pointing out that his doubts existed before he went to Wycliffe). Kenneth describes heartfelt prayers, spiritual experiences, earnest studying, that he hoped would bring him back to faith. He says that his deconversion was purely because he ‘weighed the evidence’ (p.56).
However, I do not see this careful ‘weighing’ in his book, which leaves me puzzled. He read fairly widely, yet often confidently makes assertions without apparently being aware of some of the counter-arguments. He seems to me, to be trying to convince himself that God’s not real. He also appears to be arguing against a particular kind of Christianity – fundamentalist, creationist etc – rather than the Christianity that I know, which is evangelical, but thoughtful and open. This leads to a whole load of straw men and red herrings for someone who does not identify with “fundamentalist” Christianity. (Though as I point out at the end of this piece, in some ways I think Christians should be more concerned about the fundamentals as Jesus described them).
The objections that Kenneth raises are nothing new. The violence and “un-Christian” commands of the OT, the “conflict” between evolution and creationism, the Biblical “contradictions” or “errors”, the existence of hell, suffering.
I was raised in British culture that sees such problems as insurmountable objections to Christianity, and rarely mentions the Christian point of view. This counter-Christian rhetoric is all over our TVs, in our most popular books, claimed as fact by many of our teachers. Most younger people in the UK now uncritically accept these ideas. For that reason, most committed Christians, especially adult converts, have thought through these objections carefully, and found them to be unfounded or secondary to their experience of Christ in their lives.
So how could these issues have been so devastating for Daniels? I don’t know, but I spot a few interesting possibilities. From a spiritual point of view, on the surface he had everything he needed. He grew up in an apparently loving Christian home, his experiences of Christian community seem to generally have been positive. He must have been covered in prayer, because he was open about his doubts while a missionary.
As to intellectual issues – he appears to have read many of the great Christian apologists. He has definitely thought through the issues to a certain degree. This is too small a space to go into all his objections – reams and reams have been written about all of these things from apologists on both ‘sides’. Kenneth has read fairly widely, but what interests me more, is the underlying assumptions he was holding as he read them. On what basis was he evaluating these arguments, and why? He describes ‘weighing the evidence’, but what scales was he using, why, and what is his criteria for evidence? On page after page of his long book, I found many holes in his arguments, or at least valid critiques. The most common thought I had was: “But you could apply that criticism to atheism too”. (This is a crucial point that I’ll come to later, and it is picked up in the video ‘The Skeptic’s Dilemma’, posted below.)
So what’s the reason Kenneth lost his faith? My hunch is that ultimately, God gives us choices. We choose what we read, and we choose what criteria we will use to adopt our beliefs or reject them. Certainly during my faith journey, there have been a number of crossroads at which I think I could have chosen to turn away from God. I didn’t want to do so. For me, they were more emotional than intellectual. However, my intellectual searching and questioning has helped me to develop my theology and way of understanding my faith – I am a fully ‘intellectually satisfied Christian’ and I see many good rational arguments to believe. But my faith is something more fundamental than just a ‘belief’ or an ‘experience’.
Daniels sometimes expressed a passivity when he was a doubting believer – along the lines of ‘please God, show me that it is true because I want to believe’. I think this is a good prayer to pray. But was it honest? What choices did he make along the way that reflect his heart in the matter?
Daniels writes that he found his faith was on ‘sinking sand’. I suspect he is right. Let’s say that the OT does have errors, and evolution is true – both things I would be open-minded about, to a point. So what? Why does this make anyone doubt the existence of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God and died for us? Why does that lead one to think that the material world is all there is?
Most testimonies of coming to faith are not clear logical arguments from one intellectual position to another (though some do experience intellectually-driven conversions to Christianity). Neither is Daniels’ deconversion. For example, several times his doubts seemed to appear from nowhere and he doesn’t challenge them. If he had applied his ‘doubting’ to his own doubts, he may have had a more balanced rational journey. Yet he seems to accept his doubts as fact, in the same way that others would accept their faith as fact. If only skeptics would be as sceptical of their own beliefs as they are of religious ones.
For example, once Kenneth describes doubts came from observing the evolution of language and then thinking that this is plausibly how species evolution occurred (p.29). I’m at a loss to understand how this could have damaged his faith, it just doesn’t seem logical to me. But then, before my conversion, I read a degree in Molecular Biology, so I understood evolution pretty well to start with. I came to faith with the presumption that evolution was entirely true – it didn’t stop me believing in Christ. Other logical leaps are described in the book that suggest to me that this can’t have been a purely intellectual deconversion, though this is what Kenneth experienced it to be.
There is the odd almighty clanger in the supposed ‘evidence’ against Christianity. It would take a book in itself to challenge all of Kenneth’s arguments in detail, but I choose a select few here:
Clanger 1: “As long as moral behaviour is grounded in the relational consequences of our actions and we can ask ourselves, “what kind of society would result if everyone behaved like me? then no holy text or divine design is necessary to explain or support morality.” (p.164) He spends a long time arguing that you don’t need religion in order to be good. No, he says, we only “need to decide what’s ultimately in our best interest in the long term.” Goodness, as if every terrible act in history hasn’t been done with that in mind! A motivation to stop doing evil because “if everyone did it it would damage society” has not prevented the evils of the world. He’s also assuming quasi-Christian morals. But what about a community in which murder, or rape, or cannibalism, was seen as morally acceptable and pleasing to society? Is that OK because they’ve decided that such behaviour was ‘in their best interest?!’ This naivety at how human beings have decided and enacted their moral codes is worrying. As William Lane Craig simplifies, morality on naturalism is a matter of, “Who says?”
Kenneth also betrays a very legalistic understanding of Christianity. His understanding of how Christianity might help society is to restrain people’s worst instincts by fear or motivation. He says that he regularly prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide him, but says there was no difference to his moral behaviour after he lost his faith. He seems not to have experienced the increases in love, patience etc that the Holy Spirit can bring. (Note, I’m NOT saying he doesn’t have love, patience etc, but I do say that the Holy Spirit can bring breakthroughs in those areas that are not found otherwise – that is my personal experience and that of countless others). It’s not the rules that help real Christians to be moral, it’s the Holy Spirit and a change of heart. Obviously there are lots of half-hearted Christians in the world, as Kenneth is keen to point out. He says that the similar (or worse!) divorce rates among Christian groups compared to outside show this. Yet he’s talking about the US, again, and there are so many confounding variables in these kinds of studies, that make such conclusions are not empirically valid. In my culture, where Christians are in the minority, I can say that though there is much lukewarmness and bad behaviour by Christians – regularly I see, experience and hear about moral breakthroughs that have come from prayer.
Most importantly, he’s missed the real point of the moral argument that he claims to be refuting. The question is, does objective morality exist? Kenneth seems to believe so, as he’s very sure that atheists can be moral, and that his behaviour as an atheist is just as moral as when he was a Christian. So presumably he is happy to define morality as something beyond just what he thinks to be true. If objective morality exists, then how and why? Is it on some metaphysical moral plane that science can’t currently detect? If not, than who says Kenneth’s understanding of what is moral is correct? I suspect that Kenneth has not wrestled with the real dilemma that he faces. Atheistic moral philosophers are very aware of this problem, and are trying to find ways of getting around it, but it is not easily done.
Clanger 2: Prophecies. Warning bells should ring when he recommends to the reader a book written in 1807 on Jesus’s fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. His chapter on this subject begins by arguing Daniel’s apocalypse in chapter 10-12 is not prophecy, but written after the events in the second century BC. He cites the ‘Oxford Companion to the Bible’. He says that there’s no evidence that the book wasn’t written afterwards. Well, maybe not, but using secular assumptions that a genuine prophesy is impossible probably won’t help. It’s a strange place to start, as I don’t know many Christians who find this prophecy to be foundational to their faith.
The really important prophecies to Christians have clear evidence that they were written well before the events prophesied, and Kenneth barely mentions them. As for the most convincing prophesy, tellingly Kenneth limits his comments: “Perhaps… Isaiah 53 was not presented primarily as a prophesy but a series of past events.” (p. 210) and “most of what it refers to is spiritual in nature, so it was possible to apply it to Jesus or any other righteous person who was unjustly executed.” I’ll leave this to readers’ own conclusions – though it’s fair to say that people who are not well acquainted with the life of Jesus will not realise how astonishing Isaiah 53 really is.
Clanger 3: “There is no evidence that any of the authors of these five sources [of the gospels] witnessed any of the events they described.” As Kenneth’s book was written three years later than Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the eyewitnesses’, the claim there is ‘no evidence’ was, and is, patently incorrect.
These are three examples, but there are more problems with the ‘evidence’ cited in the book.
So, why did Kenneth lose his faith? I can only speculate. I would never attribute it to some great moral failing – everyone suffers from great moral failings of some kind. I did observe some interesting themes throughout the book that might offer some possible routes to understanding.
- He describes not being exposed to secular or atheistic ways of thinking until adulthood, and feeling afraid of reading non-evangelical authors or having his fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity questioned. Obviously, this does not help someone to really explore what they believe and why. Someone who comes from a non-Christian background such as myself, will have had exposure to all these things, and analysed them without ‘fear’. Though I think it would be better for a child to be brought up in the Christian faith, clearly there can be a downside, if they do not encounter the problems that ‘outsiders’ have with the faith, and so consider such ‘doubts’ to be more significant than they really are.
- Often he described being persuaded by a book, just by reading it – whether the author was Christian or atheist. This suggests to me that he tends to take things at face value and accept them, perhaps because of his fundamentalist roots? Though he has clearly thought a lot about the subjects – his childhood non-critical acceptance of what he is told does reveal itself in the adult Kenneth. Mind you, many atheists and Christians are also like this – we all have blind spots of some kind. Lack of critical thinking is as much a problem in atheism as it is in Christianity, and Kenneth displays a lot of rigid thinking.
- He does not fully understand many of the Christian arguments for God. Eg, he is confused re the moral argument, as explained above. He also doesn’t engage with a lot of good Christian arguments for the existence of God, such as the argument from consciousness, and the excellent Christian challenges to atheistic naturalism, such as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.
- He says he had been brought up with the idea “Christian = good, non-Christian = bad”. This is so easy to refute (and begs questions of what is good, how can we label something Christian etc) that I’m not surprised he was confused.
- Regularly, he cites a potential alternative to the Christian viewpoint, as if it is a damning indictment. Perhaps again, this is a reaction to his upbringing, but to me such possibilities do not undermine my faith. Reasonable atheists and Christians acknowledge the strong points and weaknesses of their own and the other ‘side’ in terms of the rational debate. But I didn’t read Kenneth – once – acknowledging some of the very real problems with atheism and naturalism. He appears to find the unanswered questions or uncertainties of Christianity to be devastating for belief, yet doesn’t see the massive rational problems with his adopted worldview. Yet plenty of atheists are willing to acknowledge, along with Christians, that atheism has many difficulties intellectually.
- To whom do we listen, and why? It’s worth examining our motives and emotions about our choices of what we read and what we believe. On what basis are we evaluating something, and how have we chosen this criteria? And why? Kenneth said: “I came to my present perspective initially against my will, and I persevere in it only because it is genuinely where I believe the evidence leads.” This begs an awful lot of questions. What kind of evidence is he talking about? Why choose that kind of evidence? Isn’t that choice culturally constructed? On atheism and naturalism, how can we trust the cognitive reasoning of our brains in any case? And, is there any such thing as a ‘choice’ as the world has to be scientifically determined? And, the biggie… to the next point
- There is often a blatant inconsistency by which atheists pick holes in arguments for theism or Christianity, yet ignore the holes of the atheistic arguments. This phenomenon is well articulated by David Wood in this talk: The Skeptic’s Dilemma. This summarises what I believe Kenneth does so often in his book.
- We are not just passive accepters of faith. Unless Calvinism is true (I don’t believe so), faith requires decisions of our own making.
- He seems to have picked up quite a lot of rigid assumptions, such as ‘if the Bible is not inerrant, it is worthless’ and ‘if I feel uncertain or doubtful about one area of Christian belief, all other areas are in doubt too’. Having such absolute beliefs without any notion of a ‘middle way’ may not be helpful. I can testify to the fact that it is possible to be a passionate believer, holding to the basics of faith, while still being open-minded about certain issues. Our faith shouldn’t rest on whether or not it’s possible to prove that every piece of our theological system is infallible. Surely, it should rest on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ and His love and sacrifice for us.
- A significant factor preventing Kenneth from rejecting Christianity was the fear of hell if it was true, and the rejection of his family (though they have not rejected him). This reveals quite a legalistic ‘faith’, once again. This kind of fear-based adherence to God can’t be a good thing. Did he really, genuinely, know that God loves him, before his deconversion? It doesn’t sound like it, sadly.
- Very early on in his doubting, he said he didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God. In fact, I noticed a surprising lack of discussion about Jesus – the book was much more about the religious trappings of the faith. Did he actually know and love Jesus, before he lost his faith? I suspect he would say yes, but the lack of mention does intrigue me. If he had a more Christ-centred hermeneutic to his Bible reading, would this help him to know God?
I once listened to a talk by Michael Ramsden about the ‘ontological grounding’ of the gospel, which I thought was a good way to articulate the reality of a Christian. Essentially, he said that his faith was more than just a belief, more than just a feeling – that it was a way of being, something much more fundamental. Did Kenneth ever experience this? I wonder whether this internal “being” influences our emotions, beliefs and choices – though the influence can go the other direction too? I’ve known a number of people who have converted to Christianity through intellectual means, as well as emotional, spiritual, and other routes. Likewise, people appear to make the trip the other way through these same means. How can we trust our own thoughts, our own logic? If we are nothing but dust, atoms and molecules, material objects – nothing can be trusted. As Plantinga has persuasively argued, atheism is a philosophy that refutes itself. But faith is something more than just matter, thoughts or emotion.
No, I think that there is something much more fundamental going on. The ultimate point of our existence is the acceptance or rejection of God. This is something more than a belief, an experience. It is who we really are.
I was chatting to an atheist on twitter, and we were discussing how we can know what is right and what is wrong – and how we can be sure we’re not being deceived. My answer is, ‘The Bible and the living Christ’. He said he didn’t understand the latter, so I thought I’d write a blog post to explain.
Christians debate about what extent their own experience of God – which could also be called the presence of God, mystical experiences, being filled with the Holy Spirit, the indwelling Christ – should play a role in the Christian life. Usually if they are concerned or sceptical, then they say it should just be the Bible. After all, we could be deceived as to what we’re feeling. And, presumably, most atheists would think that we are deceived.
Yet – a secular morality has to come from conscience and/or rational thinking. But how do you know whether your conscience, or reasoning, is correct? Both of those things can be entirely subjective. Even groups of people can come to very wrong moral decisions together through their own thinking and feeling. So the atheist has the same issues as a Christian does – how can we know what is right?
That’s why the Bible as a foundation is so important to me – and why the living Christ is just as important. The Bible is an objective measure of standards, particularly if we are focused on the simple and beautiful teachings of Jesus, as I think anyone who follows Christ should be. If I am tempted to have an affair, and ‘feel’ that it might be right, or even think that God is telling me to do this – I can look to the words of Jesus that tells me adultery is wrong. (I can also see his words of mercy for things I’ve done wrong in the past – but I would be clear that he does not want them to do this in the future).
Of course, many people have twisted what the Bible says to suit their own ends, sometimes for evil and murder. This is harder to do though, when you focus on Jesus, what he did and said, as a whole. How can you be deluded into thinking that Jesus wants you to kill, or even hate someone, when Jesus said ‘love your enemies… do unto others… pray for those who persecute you… he who lives by the sword dies by the sword?”
But, coming back to the living Christ. Why is this important? Why not just the words written down? Well, one danger is to just think that Jesus was a good teacher who lived a long time ago, which can mean we don’t pay much attention to him. But as a Christian, I believe that he lives today, that he is the visible image of the invisible God. That his presence can be felt in the here and now, as a very clear reality. That we can talk to him and know his love – in the here and now. I do feel this, though there are ups and downs in this journey and I am not always in this state of bliss!
The Bible says that when we are filled with the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Christ, that we will feel and demonstrate: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
In this state of feeling or knowing the goodness of God inside of us, the written words of Jesus written down are also given more insight, beauty and clarity. Because as we KNOW Christ in the here and now, by experience in our hearts, we can also read his clear, objective words in the Gospels, and clearly hear His voice. They become alive, and have more power and meaning.
Many times as I’ve struggled with something, particularly if I’m annoyed with someone, or hurt, or in some way battling with anger and negative feelings – if I repent and focus on Christ’s presence, and His words in the gospels, then there is a breakthrough and I feel love once more.
So this is how the living Christ influences what I do and think in the present. By knowing Him in my heart, and also knowing him through his Word. This can be kind of a simple morality – about what I need to do with myself in my life in the here and now, rather than philosophical debates. But without doubt it has led to more love in my life (though there is still plenty of room for improvement, and more of that love).
This was the experience of the early Christians, as St Paul wrote as a prayer to other believers, that God would: “empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”
This is obviously difficult to understand for someone who has never experienced it. I am no better than anyone else for having had these experiences – and I need much more of his indwelling presence in my life, as I have only made limited room for it so far. But Jesus makes my life richer and more beautiful, and has brought much more love to my life. I still make wrong judgements and I’m sure I could be led astray with wrong thinking or emotions. But I know it’s only the living Christ who could bring me back to a place of love, and its his presence and his words that I rely on.
I hope that makes sense to you, please feel free to ask questions.
I attended the Evangelists’ Conference in London on Tuesday, with the view to reporting it for Christian Today. Professor John Lennox was the main speaker, and very good he was too.
He took queries from the audience, of questions they’d been asked by atheists or skeptics. I collated ten of these into a short article for Christian Today – click here. Those who like to discuss their faith will find the atheist claims very familiar.
Of course, most of these touch on subjects that could take books and weeks of discussion before they’re even partially resolved. However some of the atheist claims are a bit daft and illogical, so can be answered pretty quickly. Anyway, I hope the article stimulates some thinking and seeking in whoever happens to be reading it.
This is a great clip from a good debate between Christian William Lane Craig and atheist Peter Atkins, with a wonderful short answer to the question, ‘Does science tell us everything’.
Watching it led me to reflect on why some people are desperate to believe what they believe. What’s the underlying motivation? It’s a charge most often levelled at Christians, as Atkins does here. Yet I think it’s as likely to be on any ‘side’ in a God debate. Such desperation likely to lead us to think irrational thoughts that can’t be backed up – Atkins demonstrates this in this video, I think. So, why are people so desperate to believe what they do?