With Justin Brierley’s new book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God about to hit the bookshops, Gavin Matthews from Solas spoke to Justin about the book, and what he has set our to achieve.
GJM: Hi Justin, it’s good to speak to you! Can I begin by asking, what’s the ‘big idea’ in your new book?
Justin Brierley: The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God’ is a book that I’ve tried to summarise by its subtitle: ‘Why new atheism grew old and secular thinkers are considering Christianity again’.
The victorian poet Matthew Arnold famously described the ‘melancholy, long withdrawing roar’ of the ‘sea of faith’ in his generation, and for the last 150 years the tide of Christianity has continued to recede in the West.
However, in this book I recount the ways in which, after a long spell in the grip of the atheist materialist worldview, we are seeing Western culture begin to open up to the idea of God again – in culture, history, science, philosophy and other areas.
It’s not a simple picture – when people get rid of God they tend to replace him with all kinds modern idols and quasi-religious stories. We don’t become less religious, we just become religious about different things.
However, I believe the Christian story may be ready to sweep in again and make sense of the many smaller stories people are telling themselves today as they tire of the thin gruel of atheist materialism and the confusion of the post-modern ideologies that have proliferated.
GJM: How did writing this book come about?
Justin Brierley: A couple of years ago when I hosted a conversation between atheist journalist Douglas Murray and New Testament scholar NT Wright, Murray referenced Arnold’s line about the sea of faith and said something that struck me hard: ‘The sea has a habit of coming back in again. That’s the point of tides.’
Murray was saying this in the context of noticing that several of his intellectual peers had recently converted to Christianity. I too had come across a number of surprising stories of adult converts.
I had also been noticing a shift in the conversations I was hosting on my Unbelievable? show. The combative debates between new atheists and Christian apologists were less frequent. In their place I was seeing secular intellectuals such as popular psychologist Jordan Peterson, historian Tom Holland and Douglas Murray himself, finding common ground with many Christian thinkers and questioning the atheist paradigm.
I felt there was a cultural moment here that needed to be captured – I’ve tried to do that in the book.
GJM: Who is the book for?
Justin Brierley: It is for thinking Christians and non-Christians. Naturally, I have written it from my own perspective as a Christian. But I’ve always tried hard to take all sides of the argument seriously and I hope that atheists and agnostics find their perspectives fairly represented in this book.
In the end the book is for anyone who is questioning what the ultimate purpose of life is, and whether there is an answer to the problems our culture is running into in an increasingly materialistic, individualist and technology-saturated world.
GJM: Why is the ‘New Atheism’ your starting point? What was the significance of that movement? What will it’s legacy be?
Justin Brierley: In the mid 2000s the New Atheism seemed to vaunt itself as the final step in an inevitable story of the demolition of religious superstition in favour of science and reason. But within a decade or so the movement had imploded under the weight of scandals and divisions within its own community. Once they had agreed that God didn’t exist and religion was bad for us, the new atheists couldn’t agree on anything else.
We still feel the echoes of that movement in the generally skeptical approach many people take to religious belief. But the movement itself is a shadow of what it was. Few of its key leaders are talking about religion any longer – they have moved on to take various sides in the the culture wars.
To that extent the movement simply proved that religion is really difficult to extinguish, as quasi-religious forms of belief now increasingly appear in progressive ideologies around gender and sexual identity, or in right-leaning conspiracy theories and nationalistic fervour.
Ironically, I think the legacy of New Atheism will be that it forced the church to gird it intellectual loins and re-engage its apologetics tradition. For that we can be thankful.
GJM: In the introduction you say, “people need a story to live by”. What do you mean by that, and why is that significant in the UK in 2023?
Justin Brierley: Many atheists will say that religion springs from the fact that we are ‘story-making’ creatures. We need some sense of a purpose and meaning to life. That we aren’t just bouncing around chaotically. The atheist may believe that sense of needing a transcendent story to live by is an illusion instilled by evolution which we need to overcome.
But I think that’s false. I believe the universal need for a story to live by has something very real that meets it – the Christian story through which billions of people have found a pattern and purpose to life that makes sense of the world.
As our culture has drifted away from that story, people have not simply embraced a rational, science-driven view of reality. All kinds of esoteric stories are springing up in its place, and causing quite a lot of chaos as these competing stories bump up against each other.
I think the modern requirement to invent our stories from scratch is also very exhausting for most people and has contributed to the ‘meaning crisis’ and the rise in anxiety, depression and suicide. We live in a materially prosperous age in the West, and yet we are more unhappy than our forebears.
I believe that will only change when we return to the true story of a God who created us in his image and who, through an act of cosmic sacrificial love, stepped in to rescue and redeem us along with the whole of creation. That stands over and above every other ‘smaller’ story we can ever tell ourselves.
GJM: When did you first notice the “God conversation” starting to change?
Justin Brierley: The meteoric rise in popularity of Jordan Peterson in 2018 was a key moment.
Here was a psychologist drawing crowds of thousands of young people to lectures on the book of Genesis… These were essentially the same crowd that would have flocked to hear Hitchens and Dawkins a decade earlier. The big difference was that Peterson wasn’t dismissing religion as poisonous – he was showing why the Bible and Christianity has been a source of meaning and wisdom to generations of people.
At the same time the popular historian Tom Holland published his book ‘Dominion’ in 2019 in which he laid out why he, as a secular person, had come to realise that all the moral instincts he took for granted as a citizen of the West, were actually a result of the Christian revolution.
Along with these examples I noticed more and more secular people pushing back against the simplistic rhetoric of the new atheists (e.g. the journalist Matthew Parris, philosopher John Gray, the comedian Russell Brand) by critiquing their own side, and and also taking Christianity a bit more seriously.
GJM: What do you make of these public-intellectuals who have moved as far as saying “We need Christianity” (for a shared, story, identity, values etc), but who have not said, “I need Christ” (or that they have found him)? Indeed, can the story of Christ be ‘useful; if it is not actually true’? Can we have Christian culture without conversions?
Justin Brierley: I think many of the public intellectuals in this position find themselves conflicted (as Douglas Murray, who calls himself a ‘Christian atheist’, told me himself). They can see the value of Christianity but they can’t bring themselves to believe its supernatural claims.
I think some of them are on a journey towards faith in Christ. Others perhaps can see the cost that would be associated with making that leap, and it is holding them back.
I believe the story of Christ is only ultimately useful if it is indeed true. The benefits of the Judeo-Chrisitan heritage that we enjoy today were won by people who really believed in Jesus. Nowadays we have largely cut off the roots of belief in our culture but the fruits will eventually wither on the vine as they cease to be nourished.
That’s why a lot of these intellectuals seem to have a wistful desire for it to be true. The good news is, there’s actually really good evidence that the story of Christianity is true. Indeed the only reason it has worked so well for us in the past is because it is true.
GJM: The UDHR is a secular document which contains a problem for atheism! Is that true??
Justin Brierley: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is supposedly a secular document. But it emerged from the Christian West. Documents like that have never emerged out of other religious traditions, pagan cultures or modern atheistic regimes.
Its opening paragraph states ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’
That belief is not one you can derive from science and reason alone. It is a fundamentally theological assumption about humanity which stems directly from Genesis 1: ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’
It is a problem for atheists because I don’t see how you can believe in such a claim without recourse to something like the Christian view of reality. I believe a lot of humanists try to dodge this fact, so it’s helpful when atheists like Yuval Noah Harari honestly acknowledge the difficulty they face by writing:
‘[We] got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality.’
GJM: You describe changing perceptions of what the Bible is in the following rather striking phrase: ” from being book written by ignorant Bronze-age peasants” to one providing “a deep understanding of western culture….. vital to psychological health” ! Are people really more open to considering The Bible in 2023 than they were a decade ago?
Justin Brierley: I think so. Whether you love him or hate him, Jordan Peterson has been a gateway drug for a lot of people to take the Bible more seriously. I don’t agree with all of Peterson’s conclusion about scripture. But I think he speaks with a lot more nuance and sense than the new atheists did about it.
Likewise, when I read other secular psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and John Vervaeke extolling the value of ancient scriptural wisdom in a culturally shallow age, I think we are seeing the pendulum swing back towards taking the Bible seriously in modern culture.
Sometimes it takes a while for that to percolate down into popular culture, but I’ve heard form many people myself who have a new appreciation for the Bible because of what those secular thinkers are writing and saying.
Of course it still leaves the question – ‘It may be useful… but is it really true?’. I believe its a real intellectual option to embrace the best of both worlds. Yes it contains a deep well of psychological truth… and Jesus Christ also really walked out of the tomb.
GJM: In terms of Christianity in the UK, is the tide coming back in, and is there anything we can do to affect that?
Justin Brierley: I think we are seeing the tide begin to turn… but it may not turn into a flood for some time yet!
However, the church can at least be making sure that it is preparing itself for the right kinds of questions people are asking.
Too often I see evangelistic and apologetic ministries that are essentially still answering the intellectual criticisms of Dawkins and Hitchens. There’s obviously still a place for that, but we also need to be engaging people at an imaginative level. To show them why they really want Christianity to be true… and then show them that it is in fact true.
Young people are often uninterested in the question ‘Does God exist?’ but are often fiercely invested in issues around justice and equality. We need to start there and point them to the ways in which only Christianity can make sense of that moral instinct and the stories they are telling themselves.
Likewise, many of the adult converts I’ve met (and those seriously considering faith) have advised the church to ‘keep Christianity weird’. People aren’t looking for warmed-over humanism or the same platitudinous messaging they already surrounded by in popular culture. They are looking for an unapologetically different story of reality – and the church shouldn’t be ashamed of announcing it.
GJM: What are your hopes and prayers for what the book might accomplish?
Justin Brierley: I hope people on every side enjoy it. I hope that it encourages Christians in their outreach and witness. I hope that it helps to change the narrative around God in our culture. I hope that some skeptics may be persuaded by it. In that sense, my prayer is that it will be a contribution in itself to the surprising rebirth of belief in God in our generation.
GJM: Finally then, when does it come out and where is the best place to buy it?
It officially releases on 12 Sep 2023 but you can pre-order the book now by clicking here where I will also be making signed copies available!
Also… look out for a forthcoming podcast documentary series (also titled ‘The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God’) that will accompany the release of the book!
GJM: Thanks Justin – we hope and pray that the book will make a really positive contribution to the discussion
Justin Brierley is a UK broadcaster, writer, and speaker who hosted the Unbelievable? show and Ask NT Wright Anything podcast for many years. He currently hosts the Re-Enchanting podcast and a newly-launched documentary podcast series The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God. Justin is passionate about creating thoughtful conversations about faith with both Christians and skeptics. His first book, Unbelievable?: Why, After Ten Years of Talking with Atheists, I’m Still a Christian, was published in 2017.His second book ’The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God’ (Tyndale) publishes in Sep 2023. Justin lives in Surrey, England, with his wife, Lucy, and their four children: Noah, Grace, Jeremy, and Toby.