10 years of conversation between Christians and atheists

For the past 10 years, Justin Brierley has been inviting atheists and sceptics onto his radio show to talk with Christians about the reasons for faith. The show, Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio, opened up a much needed conversation about religion at a time when faith was being called a delusion. With the launch of Justin’s new book, Unbelievable? we asked him about the state of atheism, his favourite sceptic, and how we can have better conversations about faith.

Cover of Unbelievable? book by Justin BrierleyUnbelievable? has a question mark in the title. Why is that?

Just about every week we’re debating a question. which is why we give the show a question mark. It’s there to ask: ‘Is the Christian faith unbelievable?’ We live in a sceptical society, where many, or even most people would leave out the question mark and say that the Christian faith isn’t believable. The question mark is there so that we can consider the claims of Christianity and hear from thinking, intelligent Christians, as well as from thinking, intelligent atheists.

There have been quite a few articles written by lesser known atheists saying how unhelpful they find the temper of new atheism. Where do you think the new atheist movement is now?

I think in certain quarters new atheism is still alive and well, and there are still a lot of people out there who take the fairly boisterous, bolshy approach of Dawkins and others to religion. You only have to go into an internet chat room on some of the more aggressive atheist websites to see there are plenty of people out there banging that drum. You particularly find it in areas where people feel they have a common enemy in some sort of conservative Christianity which has too much pull on society.

Having said that, I also meet a lot of atheists who think Dawkins has become as fundamentalist as the people he criticises, and who define themselves by saying, ‘I’m not one of those sort of atheists’. I think that to some extent the cultural cachet the new atheists may have been riding on has passed. We’re probably entering Atheism 2.0 now, which is how people such as Alain de Botton put it, where atheists don’t want to be known simply for what they’re against.

Instead, they’re trying to find ways of expressing their non-belief in positive ways. The Sunday Assembly is a good example, where people meet together to encourage each other on life’s journey from a non-religious perspective, but without denigrating people who are religious.

Who do you think has raised the most challenging questions for Christianity to answer in the last decade?

The problem of evil and suffering is a perennial issue and every generation has to grapple with it. Stephen Fry’s video, in which he said ‘How dare you!’ to God for allowing disaese, was a good example. But at the same time, I think it usually hinges on people having a kind of wrong perception of God and what his job is.

Ironically, the people actually going through suffering are the ones who very often turn to God, because the atheist view that there is no rhyme or reason to suffering is somewhat meaningless and unsatisfactory in the end.

I think the most challenging voices to Christianity have not come from where you might expect. I met a very challenging critique of Christianity last year in Derren Brown, the illusionist. He’s an amazing showman and attracts huge audiences. His stage show, Miracle, was essentially a sustained critique of a form of faith healing and miracles in charismatic or Pentecostal Christianity. I think he raised some extremely pertinent questions about the willingness of some Christians to uncritically accept types of showmanship and psychological manipulation that can and do occur.

I think Derren Brown throws the baby out with the bathwater a bit too much with some of what he does, but I find him more challenging than the loud and bombastic atheist voices. People don’t know him primarily for his atheism, but I think his critiques of religion through his TV and stage shows are actually a lot more targeted and can do a lot more damage than Richard Dawkins.

I accept there are some very good and relevant critiques in what Derren Brown does, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Christians have to be made to think about what they believe, and why they believe it. Maybe he’s doing us a favour in the long run.

Have you got a favourite sceptic? Which non-believer do you most admire?

I really enjoy having Michael Ruse on the show. He may not be all that familiar to many people, but he’s a British atheist who is based in Florida State University. He’s a philosopher of science, and he comes from a generation (he’s in his 70s) where he still sees the value of religion and isn’t there to badmouth it. He’s a warm, humane and funny kind of person, who in his time has been as critical of Dawkins as any Christian has.

Nonetheless he speaks plainly and rationally about why he’s not a Christian. Whenever I have him on the show, you feel you’re having an honest and fun conversation, rather than an angry debate. That often makes for the most compelling kind of listening, because you feel he genuinely wants to understand where you’re coming from, and he’s open to having his mind changed. He sometimes says to me, ‘I expected to find myself becoming a Christian by this time in my life!’

Why do you think there’s often so much vitriol in conversations between religious believers and atheists?

I think it is down to the North American perspective. On the Christian side, people feel like their fundamental identity is being mocked or undermined, and on the atheist side, people feel like they’ve been lorded over by religious types, and this is their way of kicking back by using humour, mockery and sarcasm.

The internet does produce an echo chamber mentality, where that kind of behaviour gets applauded. The better you are at mocking and denigrating religious people, the more praise you get from your peers. And equally on the Christian side, the more you’re willing to flame the opponent, that’s seen as somehow good. So both sides can be as bad as each other. This is a problem of the internet age we live in. On my Facebook page, I see Christians acting in very un-Christlike ways towards sceptics, and sceptics doing likewise.

I think there’s still a huge value in sitting down and having face to face conversations, because it forces you to treat the person as a human, and not just some faceless entity who is the epitome of all you think is wrong with the world.

I find myself falling into that trap when I get into Twitter disputes with people. You end up trying to win an argument and you don’t necessarily have the best interests of the person at heart. It’s good to be reminded that we’re all human in the end.

What advice do you have for Christians and sceptics who are in that kind of flame war?

For Christians, I’d ask if you are prepared to spend as much time praying for the person you’re debating as you are thinking up smart putdowns – and if you’re not, then you should question why you’re doing it. And for sceptics, I’d maybe ask whether the debate you’re having is really about promoting equality and good will across humanity, or not. That’s what sceptics claim to be doing, but it often doesn’t look like that in practice.

Social media was supposed to create a greater human understanding of each other, but it’s tended to do the opposite, by making everyone huddle in their own silos and criticise other people. I think we need to get back to having face to face conversations, reaching outside our own particular bubble and talking to people who take a different view to us. That goes for whatever you believe (or don’t believe) in.