Gavin Matthews spoke to Peter Byrom for Solas
SOLAS: At University, you got very involved in “the New Atheist” thinking, how did you get into that, what grabbed you about their thinking and what persuaded you that they had a case?
PB: I was on a drama course, at University of Kent, 4-year Masters Programme. In that kind of environment you get to mix with all sorts of people who throw all sorts of ideas around. One of my best friends there said, “you must read this book called The God Delusion, it’s absolutely amazing.” So I started looking into Dawkins, watching him on YouTube, and reading the book.
At University, you want to be independent and break off from your parents and do your own thing. In the crowd I was mixing with – a very liberal, expressive, quite emotionally sensitive, crowd, you really do buy into the general narrative; that ‘we’re here to be expressive, experimental and push boundaries, and get in touch with really deep things about human nature’. So regarding ‘religious-stuff’ or ‘God-belief’ the narrative is that it is something oppressive, dull and boring, and for unimaginative idiots. People throw around arguments in the pub such as “the Pope tells people not to use condoms, isn’t he an idiot”. Then, you hear about ‘creationism’ whereas you believe in evolution, and think it makes you a more sophisticated person, because you embrace the grey areas and complexities of the human condition. So the whole ethos was, ‘if you are a sophisticated, intelligent, person, you don’t do ‘the god-stuff’ which is for losers. That was an atmosphere that I very much enjoyed and embraced, because that gave me more permission to just do things my own way.
SOLAS: So you were attracted to a non-Christian lifestyle, and Atheists like Dawkins provided you with a justification for that..?
PB: Yes, I’d ditched whatever bits of Christian upbringing I’d had. But what’s interesting about Dawkins is that he was pioneering the view that you don’t have to give respect to religious ideas. In his view, you can just say it’s wrong and that it’s stupid to believe it. I read his book again and again, and the bit I found liberating was when he defined faith as “belief without evidence”. I now know that’s nonsense, but back then, I bought into his definition that faith meant believing stuff without evidence.
Immediately that made sense, and gave me the right to reject anything anyone said if I didn’t think they had provided evidence. That was the ‘golden-card’. I thought that if I stuck to this life principle then it would open the doors for me. I felt that if anything came up to do with ‘God-stuff’, I could just dismiss it. Dawkins threw down the challenge daringly at the time and it seemed compelling.
SOLAS: Is Dawkins an ‘anti-theist’?
PB: That term is more used of Christopher Hitchens, I enjoyed discovering him in the “Intelligence Squared” debate, where he, Dawkins, and Grayling, debated three religious people who really didn’t make much of an impression. Dawkins is technically an agnostic, because he thinks that there is something like a 6.9 out of 7 likelihood that God doesn’t exist. His position is that God is the least reasonable option for explaining our existence and the apparent design in nature. Hitchens though says that you should be an ‘anti-theist’, that theism is wrong, and likens living under a creator to being in a ‘celestial North Korea’. They are very attractive people to listen to. Dawkins gives you a sense of being ‘in’ on the wonder of science, and he plays his talents for explaining science and enthusing people about it. He persuades many people that finding science beautiful, and the natural world amazing, means rejecting all religion. So he turns the ‘argument from beauty’ on its head by saying that life is more beautiful and the world more explainable without God, and that belief in God is lazy and boring. Hitchens was incredibly engaging and drank and smoked a lot too, which is also attractive to students!
SOLAS: And were you ever a passionate atheist, trying to convince other people?
PB: I really enjoyed getting into the debates and seeing how well I could argue the case. So , yes, I’d fight for it.
SOLAS: But then some cracks started to appear. What were the first things that made you question the atheism that you were living, and believing?
PB: It was when I discovered “good” Christian apologists confronting the New Atheists. YouTube recommended videos with titles like “Dawkins wipes the floor with…” or “Dawkins destroys….” such and such a person. However, through those debates I was exposed to other points of view. Some Christian debaters I saw were really pathetic, waffly and vague. Eventually, though, I discovered William Lane Craig, and John Lennox. The first Christian apologetics book I read was The Dawkins Delusion, by Alister McGrath, which raised some interesting points. However, the heavy-artillery came in with people with philosophical training, like Lennox and Craig. Soon after that, I discovered Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable?” programme and from there David Robertson.
SOLAS: And were there particular lines of argument which were especially important for you as you started to discover Christian apologetics which were persuasive and credible? Were there particular things which were helpful for you at that critical stage?
PB: Well before looking at particular arguments there was a more general theme. Firstly Dawkins and others were struggling when they came up against academically capable apologists rather than the popular-level ones.
It was here that I discovered the best way to develop logical argumentation. William Lane Craig was the one that really led the way with that, because of the way he would lay out an argument: “Premise 1”, “premise 2” and the conclusion. That was interesting because even though the New Atheists, put a lot of emphasis on being logical and evidence based, they didn’t really teach how to actually do that. This is why the strongest apologists are those with philosophical academic training. David Robertson is very strong philosophically, with his grasp of logic; but also he’s got a very good history degree behind him. Justin Brierley and his debating show Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio also deserves a shout out – I think I listened to the whole podcast catalogue!
When Craig is sharing the Kalam Cosmological Argument, (the one about how the beginning of the universe implies God) he spells it out very clearly. Premise 1: “Whatever begins to exist has a cause”. Premise 2: “the Universe began to exist”. Premise 3: “Therefore the universe has a cause”. Then he unpacks the implication of premise three, the nature of the cause. He laid the structure of the argument out clearly so you could see the logic, and the evidence presented to support the premises of his arguments, openly and systematically. Then he would critique Dawkins’ arguments.
The closest thing Dawkins did to that was in chapter four of The God Delusion, where he outlines his central argument, known as “The Boeing 747 Gambit”. Dawkins developed a seven-step argument, which begins with the fact that the universe is complex and looks designed, and the temptation is to attribute this to a designer. But he says this is inadequate because it raises the question, “who designed the designer?” He argues that it’s no good trying to explain this complex universe by invoking something even more complex, as that just magnifies the problem. So basically, it’s a dressed-up version of the “Who made God?” argument. He invokes evolution as a way to get that complex universe from simple beginnings and makes it look as if he has solved the problem.
That looks compelling until someone like William Lane Craig comes along and dismantles it. He shows that Dawkins has made all sorts of logically invalid steps and equivocations. One such example is that Dawkins confuses complexity of function with complexity of structure. He’s saying that the universe is structurally very complex. Then when it comes to God, he assumes that God must also have a complex physical structure. But of course the whole point is He doesn’t! God is Spirit, He is a mind. So the complexity that God has is His power, mind and thoughts (i.e. complexity of function). So Dawkins is making a complete “apples and oranges” equivocation there. He is assuming that the only possible beings are those with complex structures, which is to assume naturalism and thereby atheism implicitly from the outset. This was also later pointed out to Dawkins by the agnostic philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, during his dialogue with Rowan Williams in 2012. Dawkins had nothing to say at the time other than “you cannot be serious” (sounding like John McEnroe!), and then proceeded to complain about “the meddling philosopher” after the event.
So, firstly, I discovered how logical argumentation actually works, and then saw that The New Atheists didn’t live up to that standard, and were being hypocritical.
There were specific arguments too, such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, (the beginning of the universe needs to be explained by God); and The Argument from Contingency (that the universe can’t sustain its own existence so you need to invoke a necessary being, and God is that being). There’s The Fine-tuning Argument, that God is the best option rather than chance or necessity for the life-permitting constants and quantities of the universe. Then there’s The Historical Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, that William Lane Craig, David Robertson and John Lennox weigh in on. Then there’s The Ontological Argument, but The Moral Argument was very significant; because there I found out how weak the New Atheists were. They make moral pronouncements about religion being evil but their responses are an absolute mess when you press them on how they account for the existence of objective moral truths. They try and mischaracterise that whole argument, by making it about whether you can behave like a good person if you don’t believe in God. But that’s not the issue! The issue is, “Even if you do behave like a good person, how do you explain the actual objective truth of what makes anything good!?” How do the objective standards of goodness exist: that’s the question!
So there were some specific arguments which were particularly useful. However, at a broader level I was struck by how ineptly, and at times hypocritically, the New Atheists responded to good Christian apologists who defended their beliefs using logic and evidence.
SOLAS: So there you were reading both sides of the argument and you tried famously (or perhaps infamously!) to bring them together! You publicly asked Prof. Dawkins if he would be willing to debate William Lane Craig. And you weren’t that impressed with his answer….
PB: Oh no…. it was pathetic!! I got very disgruntled with Dawkins. I felt almost personally let down by him. I’d based a lot of my world-view, values and behaviour on his work. I embraced a particular way of life, the unrestricted hedonism which in many respects was implied by and championed by Dawkins. I had felt free of any God or restraint, which looked evolutionarily fine.
Dawkins had made this great name for himself as this intellectual giant who wiped the floor with people, but I began to realise that loads of them were very cheap targets or celebrity figures. I got increasingly irritated with Dawkins excuses for refusing to debate Craig, “It might look good on his CV, but not on mine”, “I don’t know who Craig is” But William Lane Craig had debated, Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett!
Then in that Intelligence Squared debate entitled “Is Atheism the new fundamentalism”, Bishop Richard Harries argued that a characteristic of fundamentalism is that it always attacks the weakest part of the opposition and doesn’t engage with the strongest one. I thought that that was an open door to ask Dawkins if he would debate Craig. He said he was happy to debate Bishops, Cardinals, and Pope’s (even though the whole challenge that he has thrown down is an academic one). And then he said, “I won’t debate people whose only claim to fame is that they are professional debaters. I’m busy!” Well, Bill Craig isn’t a professional debater, he is primarily engaged in peer-reviewed academic publishing. Dawkins responses were obviously excuses for avoiding debating William Lane Craig.
Peter Byrom challenges Dawkins to debate Craig
SOLAS: So there you were, balancing these two positions, and cracks were starting to appear in your atheism, and your New Atheist heroes were not performing well. How did you move from that position to full Christian faith?
PB: There were several fronts. I felt that I was getting almost a free extra university module in critical thinking in philosophy, because I was learning how to do logical argumentation, from Christians! So, intellectually the barriers to belief were coming down and the questions being answered. I was finding the New Atheists were doing a weaker and weaker job. When Christopher Hitchens debated Bill Craig, that was the weakest I had ever seen him perform. I noticed that some of my atheist friends struggled with the counter-arguments too.
But in terms of coming to Christian belief myself, there were a mixture of factors. The intellectual side came first. I had decided that I didn’t want to go anywhere near Christianity because I didn’t want an authority figure over my life. I’d come to university, I was doing my own thing, making my own rules, playing my own game, I was enjoying the pleasures and ‘loose’ ways of living that a lot of students do. I didn’t want a big ‘father-figure’ in the sky thank-you! So, emotionally I was very set against it. But the intellectual barriers had started to come down.
At the same time I ended up living with two friends. One was a Christian who became an atheist, the other an Atheist who became a Christian. He had a massive conversion experience, and that was really annoying; really inconvenient! I didn’t want that in my life. I thought I had got rid of it, and then my friend had to go and become a Christian and stir everything up again. So our flat was a constant source of debate and discussion because I was living with two people who believed these different things!
However, I saw the impact of becoming a Christian on my friend. I couldn’t help noticing that bits of his character seemed to be oddly improving! He seemed to be calming down a bit, he seemed to be a bit more level-headed about a few things. In terms of my own lifestyle choices, I got into a relationship that was really foolish, based purely on hedonism. That was incredibly damaging and messy, one of the most selfish things I ever got into . But I got into that because I was very much embracing the whole kind of “be free and hedonistic, be the animal that you are” ethos.
SOLAS; “There’s probably no God so stop worry and enjoy your life…” like the atheist bus campaign slogan!?
PB: Exactly, and that was a ridiculous trajectory and I spent three years of my life on that; a really bad road to go down. It actually compares very weakly to the standards that came from the Christian point of view.
So there were two things. Firstly the intellectual case for Christianity needed to be made. But then, secondly, having already started heading down a hedonistic, foolish lifestyle; then that needed to collapse as well. I think that intellectually I became convinced of Christianity, maybe a year or so before I actually made the step to converting! I’d say the intellectual was a necessary, but not sufficient condition for actually becoming a Christian.
SOLAS: So, your head before your heart!?
PB: Yes, that’s right! I suppose the head made it easier to direct the heart where it needed to go.
SOLAS: What year was this?
PB: This was during William Lane Craig’s “Reasonable Faith” tour in October 2011. I took a long time to become a Christian. For about a year or so, I was very critical of Dawkins; and slowly shifting allegiance to William Lane Craig and the Christian apologists. I was at my most atheistic around 2006-2008. However by 2011, atheism was looking intellectually weak; and existentially and from a lifestyle point of view it was unfulfilling, silly, cheap and shallow. From 2009-2011 I was challenging atheism with good Christian apologetics. Then by 2011, I was finding Christianity more intellectually convincing that atheism. But I still hadn’t moved on it, because my heart wasn’t there yet. I needed my bad lifestyle choices to fall down around me because I needed to start afresh.
I was very disgruntled with Dawkins too, and tried all sorts of ways to persuade him to debate Craig, including that question that ‘went viral’ on YouTube. Dawkins had made all these boasts about how his view was superior, and that nobody had ever defeated his arguments. So when Craig came to Oxford, Peter May of UCCF had this brilliant idea of inviting Dawkins to debate Craig and putting out an empty chair, with his name on it when he refused!
There were these great representatives of two great clashing world-views, and Dawkins was the one with much more media exposure and yet he was the one running away. Daniel Came the atheist from Oxford University wrote a letter to Dawkins which was published in The Telegraph, which said “You need to debate with Bill Craig otherwise this will look like cowardice”.
So, my oncoming Christianity manifested itself first of all as a frustration with Dawkins. His refusal to debate Craig was the final straw, atheism just doesn’t have the intellectual rigour that he claims. Then I became really concerned about some of the smear campaigns that Dawkins tried to use against Bill Craig. Then one evening I realised, I actually believe, and that I should just get on with it and become a Christian.
SOLAS: You mentioned that when you were an atheist, you lived consistently with that and that that was very unhelpful in your life. You talked about unhelpful relationships, no structure of values and things not going well. How has your life looked as a Christian?
PB: There have been all sorts of changes. It’s actually made me confront a lot of the things that lead me to going down those bad roads. My biggest problem is perfectionism. Psychologically, it’s a terrible thing to have. If you are a perfectionist you have an absolute crippling fear of failure; and don’t want to take any risks because everything has to be right. It was very easy for me to be led by the pleasure-seeking and led by other people. But coming into the Christian world, I tried to do everything well and follow all the rules, and not let people down. Then I began to grasp biblical principles that actually helped to confront this perfectionism. Actually becoming a Christian, involves learning that your security is in Christ, and that it’s not about getting your act together and being a perfect person. The irony is that it frees you up to have a better shape to your life because your security is all in God. He has forgiven your sin, and you don’t need to go and worship idols and base your life-identity on something else, like hedonism.
In other ways, things have been incredibly different. I have a better relationship with my parents for example. I had got really into heavy smoking and heavy drinking which needed to be addressed as well. Now I’m married and we have a child on the way, and are getting a new home. There’s a lot of change and a lot of growing for my wife and I because we’re both finding that when you have your mind on Christ, it’s really important to read God’s word, start applying it personally, existentially and emotionally as well.
So the apologetics opened my head to allow my heart to follow to a place where I could take God’s word seriously and start getting the benefits of it.
The Christian life isn’t all easy, however. Some things also get worse before they get better, and the “getting better” is first and foremost to do with growing in knowing God and having Him shape your character, rather than necessarily having “better” life circumstances. But it does mean that, whatever happens, you are secure in Christ, and can trust Him, and that is the greatest thing to have.
If I was to sum it up, I’d say “Don’t be conned”. Faith is not “belief without evidence” as Dawkins says, but is “placing your trust in what the evidence shows you”. Or, to quote C.S. Lewis, “faith means holding on to what your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods!” So, don’t be duped into thinking that you don’t have to use your mind when it comes to the question of God. That’s the case whether you are an atheist who wants to avoid God, or a Christian who wants to grow in God, you’ve got to really use your mind. The heart and the soul cannot be separated from it. Don’t settle for people who just describe things as intellectually credible, or “morally superior” but actually go and test it yourself!
SOLAS: Thanks so much for taking the time to tell us your story!