We hold beliefs for many different reasons. In today’s episode Peter talks highlights the combination of motivations he had for disbelief as well as belief in God.
Hello and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to the Side B Podcast, where we listen to the other side. Each podcast, we listen to the story of a former atheist who changed their mind and came to believe in God.
There are lots of reasons why we believe what we do. We don’t hold our beliefs in a vacuum. We’re not purely rational beings. Our beliefs are wrapped up in a story. A story of how we got here and why we believe the way we do. Sometimes we believe things because we think it’s the rational intellectual thing to do. Sometimes we believe things because it’s what our friends and family and culture believe. And other times we’ve decided on what we believe because of what we’ve experienced or perhaps what we feel. Still other times, we believe things just because we want them to be true.
Most of the time, it’s a combination of a lot of different things, a lot of different motivations, memories, experiences, and desires, and you have to look in a lot of different directions to tease them all out, and oftentimes, you hear them when you hear someone’s story, when you hear them tell their story.
Today, we’ll be talking with Peter Byrom, he’s a former atheist who came to Christian faith a few years ago. Welcome to the podcast, Peter. It’s great to have you on the show. As we’re getting started, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Certainly, yes. And thank you. It’s really great to be on the show with you. So tell you about myself, where to begin with that? Well, I think, given what we’re going to be talking about today, it might be worth starting from university years, really. I graduated from the University of Kent, and that’s in Canterbury in England, United Kingdom, doing drama and theatre, of all things, and so that was things like sound design, performing classical texts, Shakespearean stuff, and multimedia theatre. And then, after that, after a fairly windy journey that I’m sure we’ll get to talking about, then went on to do things like video editing, graphic design, editing, including for a number of Christian ministries, and now I work for SPCK and IVP, who are Christian publishers, doing digital production and workflow and those sort of things, and I live with my wife in our children in the rural southeast of England. So that’s a quick summary of where I’ve come from over the last decade or so, let’s say.
So, Peter, in setting the context for your story, I always like to understand about the place where you grew up and the people who surrounded you. Were there any religious references in your world?
Well, I was raised in a Christian home, and I have and did have Christian parents, and so, yes, you could say that I started with those influences, and even around teenage years, I thought that I had a religious conversion experience and would’ve called myself a Christian then. I even went to the point of getting confirmed in the Church of England, I think, round about the time I was probably about 17 years old. So started with Christian influences, but they didn’t really last beyond leaving home. That was the key turning point there. It’s one thing to grow up with them, but when you leave the home and start doing your own thing, that’s when the real test begins of whether you really own those beliefs or not.
So what happened when you left home? What was it that made you start to doubt your own Christian upbringing, your Christian faith and belief?
I think, at the time, there was just… I think it was quite gradual. I think there was a sense of gradually thinking it didn’t make sense or that it didn’t fit my particular experiences or that it wasn’t particularly relevant. It just seemed to gradually be falling away into the background, and I think also the people I was associating with and the kind of experiences I wanted to have at the time had an effect. I mean, let’s be honest, if you’ve been brought up under your parents’ authority and then leave that authority, the idea of having a continuing authority over your life isn’t particularly attractive a lot of the time, and I think that’s how I saw it, which was, “This is my chance to do my own thing.” I think, more specifically, during my gap year and at university, the friends and the people that I mixed with, I think I very much became part of a culture that liked to think of itself as being quite expressive and sophisticated, because remember this is the arts and the drama, acting crowd, you know, and students in general, anyway, right? And it’s easy to get into conversations, and it’s easy to join in with people that might dismiss religious belief. I just have memories of being in the pub, having drinks with student friends of mine, and people casually attacking the Pope and saying, “Oh, he’s an idiot. He’s against condom distribution in Africa, and they’re all going to die of AIDS because of what he’s done.” All that kind of stuff.
And then… I mean, there are all sorts of… I think there were a lot of cultural influences as well. Even just things like hanging out with people, listening to the late comedian Bill Hicks, who was hilarious but scathing as well and very, very critical of religion and institutions. And so, one way or another, I think just the general culture that I was mixing with, I came to see religious belief as something that was for close-minded people, simplistic people who were afraid of gray areas, of ambiguity, of exploring what it is to be human, and I saw the more secular, artistic world as being a better fit for that kind of stuff. So it just, I think it just gradually fell away into irrelevance in my own experience and my own thinking.
So dismissing God seemed to be the attractive thing to do, the thing that just fit well with your world at university. Yeah.
Yeah. It did. I think it did. And I think what then really started pushing it was then I was explicitly recommended, at the time, Richard Dawkins’ latest book. You know, the new book. You’ve got to cast your mind back to, I think we’re talking 2006 here. That’s when The God Delusion came out, and at least one friend of mine, he’d started as a Christian, and then he lost his faith, and he was recommending this book to me, saying, “You’ve got to read this. It’s brilliant! It’s amazing!” And this was actually the great new atheist, Dawkins, taking on religious belief and not just being content with saying, “Oh, well, you believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want.” He actually went so far as to say, “No, this is wrong. It’s irrational. It’s harmful, and you should not believe it.” And that just really got me curious as well, and so then I just started reading and looking into the New Atheists, Dawkins, Hitchens, and those people. So I think it was partly the culture I was mixing with, but then eventually it became explicitly being recommended the New Atheists’ books.
So then it really became a combination of a lot of things. Just Christianity wasn’t attractive. It wasn’t relevant. You’re telling me, it wasn’t plausible. That it was really for the simpleminded person. Was it hard at all for you… I know this seems like a strange question, but was it hard, after being brought up as a Christian, believing in God, was it hard to let that go? I know sometimes you can just untick the God box and just live your life, but was there any kind of tension with that?
It’s funny, really. I think, in terms of living the way that I was living and what I would say and do, it was easy to let go of it. Because I was doing a lot of things that you certainly wouldn’t associate with someone who held to Christian values and beliefs. It was very easy for me to just be behaving in all sorts of different ways. I think the interesting thing about being confronted with atheist books like Dawkins and Hitchens was that that’s when you have to be more conscious and more aware explicitly of the fact that you are challenging and denying these beliefs, and I think some bits of beliefs were harder to let go of than others. I mean, I wanted to really challenge the beliefs that I’d been brought up with, and I think a lot of the arguments that the New Atheists were giving, a lot of the evolutionary arguments, why Darwinism was meant to disprove God, and even just listing the atrocities of religious people and just the various arguments that they were making, I think they quite naturally started to replace whatever Christian beliefs that I’d started with.
So I think it was… The best way I can describe it is that it was a very conscious process. I had to be very deliberate in denying the belief that I’d been brought up with. I had to remind myself consciously, “Remember, you are denying this.” “You are denying that there is a God,” or, “You are throwing this away.” And I wanted to. I definitely wanted to. I lost the attraction to it, but I was aware that it took a certain degree of effort in doing so, if that made sense.
Yes, it would seem… Especially if you’re looking at things conscientiously, that there would be a sense of a subtle tension, at least in letting go of a long-held belief, but I guess, because like you said, you’re surrounded by people who are very like minded and that gave you permission to do what you wanted to do, so at this time where you were letting go of God and Christianity, what did you think Christianity was then, if it wasn’t real or true?
I think at the time I probably would have characterized it quite harshly, and I probably would have put it as something for people who were afraid of the complexities of life and who were afraid of dying, who didn’t understand the evolutionary paradigm, who didn’t have philosophical sophistication. I think I probably just lumped it in with a general nature or an assumption about what it is to be a religious person, and it was very much about the people or the type of person that you needed to be. So I think it was very much just to do with, “Look, this is one of a number of different beliefs that people come up with, but ultimately it doesn’t hold water. There are religious people who do all sorts of stupid things, who contradict each other. If God existed, then they would be behaving a lot more coherently, sophisticatedly. Yeah, I think that there was a kind of snobbishness, I think. It was, “This is something for people who can’t handle the gray areas of life.”
So Christians were just the type of person you did not want to be. So it makes me very curious about what it is that changed your mind to open the door to even consider being that kind of person again. What started you on that road?
Yeah. Well, that’s the strange thing, because, you know, a moment ago I said that it was the likes of the new atheism and Dawkins and those people that really got me denying Christianity more and sort of fighting against it more and sort of reaffirming my thinking about wanting to get out of it. You could also say that it was actually Dawkins and those New Atheists, ironically, that actually started me on the route to becoming a Christian as well, which I’m sure they wouldn’t like that, but I think that is partly what happened.
Because it was all about the debate being stirred up, about the questions being asked. I mean, for example, one of the big light bulb moments that I had when I was reading The God Delusion, for example, was, in that book, Dawkins defines faith as being belief without evidence or belief in spite of evidence, and he was saying, “Look, you should only believe things that have evidence for them.” And the very first time I read that, I completely bought that definition that he gave. Now, of course, I think that’s a totally false definition. It’s a caricature. But at the time, I bought that, and I sort of latched onto that principle and thought, “Yes, that makes sense. Of course. Why would I ever believe or accept anything for which I cannot say myself, ‘I have investigated this. I can point to a body of evidence.'” And it was one of those moments of making myself conscious of a process that seems to be obvious. It seems obvious that I ought to investigate things and find evidence for them, so that became what seemed to be the first ticket, if you like, to sort of getting rid of Christianity. Because I thought, at the time, “Well, if I just investigate this stuff, there will be no evidence. There will be nothing. It’ll all fall apart.”
So in a way, I started by taking Dawkins’ recommendation, “Look for evidence,” and that led me onto the path of actually… I would watch debates on YouTube, I read various books, and I would talk to different people. Initially, they were Christians and religious people who were doing a really terrible job of debating against people like Dawkins and Hitchens, Sam Harris, the New Atheists. Really embarrassing, and I would be cheering for the New Atheists, you know? Defending science and reason against these religious bigots and idiots and that kind of stuff. And then gradually, though, that led me on to discover Christian apologetics, so that’s people like John Lennox, William Lane Craig, those sort of people, who had a much more robust set of arguments and a way of interacting on this issue. So it was really about discovering the debate. The other side of this, I should say briefly as well, is that, in terms of the people I was surrounded with, I mentioned already there was one friend who began as a Christian and then became an atheist and recommended that I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
At round about the same time, another of my best friends at university, who had not come from a religious background of any kind—I think he basically was an atheist to begin with—he then had a big conversion experience and became a Christian. And I was living with these two people. That was massively inconvenient. It would’ve been so much more convenient to just not have to be confronted with the reality of people becoming Christians and God working in their lives and to have that other side of the debate fleshed out in front of my face, it made me need to confront the issue. And I wasn’t just confronting it as a hobby or academically, reading books and watching debates, I was living with two people that were living this stuff out. So again it’s what you read and what you listen to, but it’s also who you’re with.
Right. Did you have some lively debates with them? Did you all participate together in discussing these big issues?
Oh, yeah. You bet. We absolutely did! Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is university, where there’s scarcely any boundaries on alcohol consumption or when the sensible time is to go to bed or whatever. You know. And there would be all sorts of things. And I would take different sides a lot of the time. I would begin being really, really hostile towards the Christian stuff, saying, “How can you believe this? Are you anti-gay?” All that kind of stuff. But then, things would emerge that were challenges for the atheist point of view as well, questions about the grounding of moral truths, for example, and can you strip away all of the history of the influences of Christianity on moral thought in Western culture and come up with your own foundation? All sorts of debates would go back and forth. Scientific debates, that kind of stuff. Yeah. We would lay into some really good debates and challenges among each other.
So during these times of debates, would you say that you were open to another perspective? Or were you just adamant about atheism and weren’t really listening to the other challenges?
That’s a really good question. I was really keen to hang in there and throw away the Christianity that I’d been brought up with, and at the time, I think there were lots and lots of holes in the Christian belief that didn’t make sense to me. There were things about the atheist view that seemed to make it a more comfortable default position. I think the turning point, for me, was… There’s a part of me that is quite attracted to defending the underdog or the victimized, and I think the way that religious people had been characterized, including by people like the New Atheists, was that they were the bigots, they were the crazy right wingers who wanted to destroy people’s liberties and that kind of stuff and enslave people under a theocracy and dismiss all the efforts of science and that kind of stuff.
But I think the real change started happening was when I discovered the Christian apologetics. And I mean the really good ones, the ones that were philosophically, academically trained, and the one that I think really did stand out the most was William Lane Craig of Reasonable Faith. His debates were all over YouTube. There were all sorts of videos of him debating atheists and really putting up a very, very strong set of arguments, and then I would go to his website. I would read more of his materials, start listening to his podcasting, and gradually, I got the sense that, okay, if you really want evidence, and you’re meant to use reason and logic, it looks like he’s using it. He’s breaking down his arguments very clearly. He’s spelling out the different premises, you know premise one, premise two, conclusion, that sort of stuff. There was a way of him making his arguments vulnerable to criticism, in the sense that he articulated the arguments in such a clearly precise, logical fashion that it would be easier to attack and refute them than if it was just dressed up in rhetoric.
So it was discovering the strength of the Christian academic apologetics, and then I started to perceive things differently, I think. It was when… One of the things there was Dawkins was persistently refusing to debate William Lane Craig. He debated all sorts of other religious people, but he was persistently running away from this. People were inviting him to do it, and he kept just making all sorts of excuses that were rather insulting, and I thought, “This doesn’t quite make sense, because I’ve started living my life on the principle of challenging ideas and looking for evidence, and yet it seems as though William Lane Craig is very well matched to have a really good discussion with Dawkins,” and yet Dawkins was just running away from it. And there is actually… The funny thing here is, around 2009, actually, I attended a debate that Dawkins was speaking at. It was called, “Is Atheism the New Fundamentalism?” And in that debate, Richard Harries, Lord Harries, had stood up and said that one of the characteristics of fundamentalism is that it never seeks out and attacks the strongest arguments of the opposition. It always tries to focus on the weakest ones, on the straw men, and that really made me think, “Okay, this is my opportunity, and it would be a relevant question to ask in this debate,” and so in the Q&A, when I got the microphone, I just asked Dawkins to his face, “Look, lots of people have been inviting you to debate William Lane Craig. You’ve repeatedly refused to do this. Why is this is not an example of what Lord Harries was just saying about the New Atheism or fundamentalists avoiding the strongest possible arguments for the opposition?”
Now somebody took that clip, and they put it on YouTube, and I think it’s had about nearly 300,000 views to this day. It became a viral clip of Dawkins basically just, on video, dismissing William Lane Craig, saying he’s not worthy of his time, and the line that, of course, really went round the blogosphere was him just saying, “I’m busy!” “I’m too busy to debate this person,” you know, and just dismissing him. And that, I think, was the turning point. There was a sense of disappointment with Dawkins that didn’t fit the regard that I’d held him in until that point. Something started to look like New Atheism was intellectually weaker than the kind of stuff that people like William Lane Craig were offering.
That was probably quite a revelation to you, to find that, going into this search for evidence, you presumed that the substance and the strength was within the naturalistic worldview, but that’s not what you found. The more you searched, the more you found strength in the Christian worldview and weakness in the atheistic worldview. I bet that was disappointing, to find Dawkins in that kind of a sensed retreat of sorts to the challenge of debate from William Lane Craig.
It was. Yeah. I mean, you’ve got to be careful at this point. Obviously, Dawkins refusing to debate doesn’t mean that atheism is false, but it, nonetheless, was one of those things that shook me up, into asking, “Well, why would he refuse? I’d better look at this more closely,” and it spurred me on to look at it more closely. And when I saw the critiques that William Lane Craig was making of The God Delusion, and indeed when I saw him debate Christopher Hitchens. I mean Christopher Hitchens was my favorite New Atheist of all of them. He was just an incredible character. But when pitted against somebody with really good philosophical training, who really knew the arguments, he turned out to be very weak when they had their debate at Biola University. That was also 2009, I think.
And so it opened up all those questions about, look, okay, what do you do with the fact that the universe had an absolute beginning? Does that logically deduce that it has to have a cause which is transcendent and would actually have all the characteristics that we describe as God? What do you do with the fine tuning of the universe? What do you do with the apprehension of moral truths, or at least it seems as if there are moral truths. How do you account for those? And then, when you look at the historical evidence of the resurrection, how do you explain it? All of those arguments, it was becoming very uncomfortable, and I should say, as well, there were other arguments about the nature of what it means to even be able to have rational thought in a universe that’s purely governed by mechanical physical processes as well. All of those things. It was becoming very uncomfortable, how the more that those kind of arguments were investigated and those questions were probed, the weaker the atheistic worldview appeared to be under that scrutiny. I’d hoped that it would come out head and shoulders above Christianity.
Right. And I know that it would be somewhat disappointing or disheartening in some way. How long was this process of looking and searching and considering?
If we say that it kicked off at the time of reading The God Delusion and consciously looking into this issue, which I guess that had to be around 2007, 2008. The whole process, I think, went on until round about 2011. So yeah, we’re talking, what? Must be somewhere in the region of around three to four years. I think gradually… I think what I need to say as well is that… I mean, this stuff, I’ve been characterizing it quite a lot as sort of intellectual argumentation and that kind of stuff, and that is an important part. It’s very big and it’s crucial. You have to use your mind on this stuff, and you have to be very, very inquiring and critical of all the different sides of the argument.
But of course it’s never entirely 100% about the intellect or about the mind in that respect. It’s the whole person and everything else that’s going on with you in your life, whether that’s emotionally or in terms of your own agenda and your plans and your own desires. Because, at that time, I had very particular desires to live in certain ways, to embrace particular lifestyles, and I think I had to be shown that some of the more hedonistic ways of living that would be perhaps more licensed by a naturalistic worldview didn’t live up to what they were recommended and how they were promoted, really, so I think it was a mixture. As the intellectual side of it became stronger. That is to say the fewer arguments I had against Christianity and in favor of atheism, the less I could use intellectual objections like a kind of shield, so to speak. I couldn’t use them as an excuse for staying away from belief in God and Christianity.
The more that the intellectual questions were being addressed and answered, the more exposing it was of the other reasons, perhaps, why I didn’t want to embrace this. Because it does mean that you move from a muddle of a universe where there’s no purpose, no design, which means you basically get to set your own course and just make up all your own rules and call the shots completely by yourself. It does mean that you end up moving an omnipotent, all-good, all-knowing God into the picture as an authority again. And that is something that, on it’s face… Yeah. Well, that was what put me off it in the first place, and so, to move back to that, it can’t just be about whether you’re intellectually convinced. There needs to be change happening emotionally as well, and I think that was going on, too, through various life experiences, while doing this investigating.
So it is a bit of the whole person, like you say. I’m glad you brought that out, because belief is definitely more than just intellectual assent. When you essentially buy into a worldview, it affects not only your beliefs, but it affects all of your life. So how did you come to make that more total kind of conversion towards not only the truth of the Christian worldview intellectually but the truth of the Christian worldview for what it meant for your life?
I think it was… Well near the end of university and having graduated from university, the choices that I was making were very foolish, frankly, and I wasn’t going on a good direction with what to do next. I got into a relationship that I really shouldn’t have got into at all, really, and that just put things down a very wrong path, where I could just see that a lot of these ways of living that I wanted to live wouldn’t work and wouldn’t stand up, and then actually, it’s funny. The more that you investigate the apologetics, you can start from arguments that are quite abstract and philosophical or scientific, but then gradually, you have to confront the identity of Jesus. You have to ultimately look at, “Okay, look. Who is He? What did He come to do?”
And I think through the apologetics, listening to the podcasts and investigating that gradually, I was being exposed more to biblical content, understanding more about what it actually means to become a Christian. The actual change that that brings and the fact that it does mean that you end up embracing a totally different view of reality, which is that you are a sinner, you are guilty of all sorts of crimes and wrongdoing, but the penalty for that has been paid, and you get to live completely free of that in what would then be unconditional acceptance in God’s eyes, and it just as seems as though the alternative to that, every other alternative to that way of living, seems to be something where you have to be the one who achieves, you have to be the one who makes sure you never, ever, ever screw up.
And that doesn’t just apply to other religions. That applies to other secular views as well. There’s a survival game being played out in atheistic views. Whether you’re a humanist or a nihilist or a social Darwinist or whatever you want to call it, there is still a burden of, “You have to make it. You mustn’t put a foot wrong,” whereas with Christianity, that was the only thing that was actually saying, “No, it’s not about what you do. It’s about who you’re related to. What is your standing with God?” And I think the apprehension of that was making itself clearer in my mind as to what would be involved if I actually joined it and became a Christian. I think the real thing that really did push me over the edge, though… It was a gradual process. I think the strange thing that happened was that—I said that it took a number of years, so my allegiance was changing. I wasn’t a Dawkins fanboy or anything like that. I wasn’t a New Atheist supporter anymore. I think I probably intellectually was ready to become a Christian about a year before I actually converted. That comes back to what I was saying about the difference between the intellect and the deeper, more volitional things that go on within somebody.
I got to the point of… It was 2011, and I’d got to know some people that were working on bringing William Lane Craig back to the UK to do a speaking and debating tour. These were people like Justin Brierley at Premier Radio, and there’s Dr. Peter May, who used to be the chair of UCCF, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. I got to know those people and that they were organizing to bring William Lane Craig back over to the UK, and I just found myself getting more and more involved with them and actually helping to try and sort of promote the tour. I was making videos and putting them on YouTube, sort of drawing attention to the fact that Bill Craig was coming to the UK to do speaking and debating, and this was around about the time as well that Dawkins’ refusal to debate was really kicking off. He’d already refused a number of years ago, but now four different organizations were inviting Dawkins to debate William Lane Craig. He was just refusing and throwing out all sorts of ad hominem excuses, and I was feeling let down, maybe even betrayed, I think, and conned almost at this point. And actually this great New Atheism just was a sham, really, the way I was looking at it.
And so I was making videos that were probably more provocative than if I were making editing choices now, but… And putting them on YouTube, trying to sort of stir up the discussion about, “Will Dawkins debate Craig? Look at all the excuses for why he’s not doing it,” and sort of trying to add a little bit to the drama, I think, of what was going on, and they went viral as well, actually. They got shared quite a lot, videos like “William Lane Craig, Dawkins, and the Empty Chair,” those kind of things, and eventually doing things like helping to design the adaptation of a parody for a bus campaign that was advertising the event at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, where William Lane Craig was going to refute the arguments in The God Delusion, and Dawkins had been invited to attend that debate. This was in October 2011. He was invited to debate William Lane Craig, and when he refused, they said, “Look, what we will do is we’ll make it a lecture, where William Lane Craig will refute the main arguments in The God Delusion, and then he will interact with a panel of opponents.
But I got involved, basically, in trying to promote that, and I think, in 2009, the British Humanist Association had made a bus campaign that said, “There’s probably no God. Now, stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Well, we flipped that round to say, “There’s probably no Dawkins. Now stop worry and enjoy October 25th at the Sheldonian Theatre.”
So basically a bit of a dig… Basically saying, “Look there’s probably no Dawkins showing up to the debate. He’s not going to do it.” And this was also backed by at least one other atheist philosopher from Oxford, Dr. Daniel Kane, who’d published an article in the Telegraph as well, saying that, “Look, this could be interpreted as cowardice, Dawkins. Because you’re debating all sorts of other low-hanging fruit, but you’re not debating one of the most academically capable people here.” So I just got really involved. I made the graphics adaptation for that bus campaign, and they went around Oxford, and I think that got under Dawkins’ skin a fair bit, and he was publishing an attack article in The Guardian, and all of that was heating up, and I think we got to the point of the tour, where Bill Craig was over and doing his debating, and I think one of the last things that pushed me over the edge… Funnily enough, it was talking to his wife, Jan. Because she was incredibly welcoming and was just keen to understand a bit more about who I was and how I got to this point and why I had confronted Dawkins, and where am I now, you know? And I said, “Well, I guess I’m sort of agnostic,” and there was a point where she basically said, “Look, if you don’t think you could give up everything to follow Jesus, if you don’t think you could give your whole life to this, don’t do it.” That’s what she said. She said, “If you couldn’t actually really give everything to it, then actually you shouldn’t do it. That is what this is really about. It’s a total commitment and a total change,” and I think that was just one of the last things that I was mulling over.
And it just got to the point, during that tour, where I just realized, “I think I believe this. Why am I not a Christian yet? I’m following this. I’m defending Christianity against atheism and all these arguments. I’ve not actually signed up to it yet, but I think I sort of have, anyway. I’ve sort of morphed into this Christian.” And so I think I just made that decision. It was October 19, I think. Yeah. I think that’s when it was. Of 2011. And I made that decision. It was in a bed and breakfast in Cambridge after William Lane Craig had been doing a response to Stephen Hawking’s book, The Grand Design, and also when Dawkins had published one of his biggest attack articles in The Guardian, trying to smear William Lane Craig for being morally unfit to debate and all those kind of things. I just got to that point of, “Nope. You’ve got to get on your knees and pray and just get on with it. You are a Christian, Pete. You can’t escape it now. This is what you’ve become.”
So it was surprising to you, probably, in a way, but in another way, it was a very conscious… like you said, a very conscious, conscientious journey. It was a very thoughtful journey of exploration, of looking at both sides, of debating both sides, of listening to both sides of the issue, of thinking about what that might mean for your own life, and all of those things, but now, it’s been nine years since you’ve made that decision to go ahead and just believe. So how has your life been affected or changed? I know it was a morphing through that process. I would presume that that morphing continued in your maturity, as your understanding as a follower of Christ.
Yes. It certainly has. When you start out, you know that something has changed, but there’s still a lot of stuff that still needs learning and discovering, and you discover a lot more about yourself in the process. And there’s also a lot of dependency on the help of other people and guidance from other Christians as well when it comes to your own being discipled and being taught. Yeah. That’s huge, really. And you’re right, it is about nine years. It’s been a very long trajectory. The way I would sum it up, I think, is I think I started my journey and coming into Christianity mostly through the head, in that kind of maybe academic, intellectual sense. I think it started there, and then it sort of reached the heart or the emotions or the more deeper part of my being afterwards. It sort of went from the outside in in that way.
It’s extraordinary, really. It’s a real comparison to the life I was living before that, because it really should be said, the more that my conviction of the apologetics and the arguments for Christianity was going up, my personal life and the decisions that I was making in that very hedonistic lifestyle that was very much informed by that naturalistic model, sort of, “Eat, drink, be merry. Tomorrow we die,” that kind of stuff. I mean, that was plummeting. And I think that way of living had to collapse, and my own desperation, I think, had to be exposed as well. If you were drawing them on a graph, the academic or the apologetics conviction would be sort of on an upward curve, whereas my own personal situation, I think, was going down, and I had to basically restart my whole post-graduate life in terms of what do I do next? What job do I get? And that kind of stuff. So almost from scratch, really. It was a real restarting, and that just meant confronting all sorts of… I use the expression inner demons, but I think we can probably use that word metaphorically, but it’s been a huge trajectory of reconciling things with my parents and then getting a new journey of where to go with life from that point onward. I would say that the biggest transition was moving beyond apologetics into theology, in the sense of really needing to get good discipleship and biblical teaching. People like Tim Keller, for example, listening to his sermons, as well as the church that I was going to.
It’s been a process of discovering more about myself, and I think the biggest journey has actually been one that took me into a whole different area of Christian ministry, so up until this point, it’s all been about apologetics. It’s all been about academic stuff. This was when I had to basically encounter biblical counseling. This is the sort of stuff that’s produced by CCEF in the United States or Biblical Counseling UK in this country, the United Kingdom. That was founded by the late David Powlison, and that’s all about how the truths of the Bible and the truths of what happens to somebody once they’re saved and once they’re in Christ, what that actually means for people and their own identity, and for living their life and for all sorts of issues, like anxiety, depression, addiction, and all those kinds of things. It’s a biblical model of counseling and psychotherapy, basically.
The reason why I mention those sort of ministries, biblical counseling ministries, was that I’d moved to London and was freelancing, doing video and graphics work, at this point actually doing work to help Christian apologetics. Video, PowerPoint slide production for William Lane Craig’s debates, Premier Christian Radio, helping out with them, and I actually got into a time of acute anxiety, a ferocious battle with anxiety, and that was debilitating. It was extremely intense, and it got to the point where I actually started seeing a biblical counselor, somebody who was trained in taking the Bible and discipleship and applying it to what that means for people who are struggling with those sorts of things. And that was a big year of learning, a really big learning curve about myself, and growing a lot more in discipleship and understanding what it really means.
If Christianity is true, if there really is a God who we are accountable to and we are morally guilty before, but yet He has made that escape route of coming down in the person of Christ and being that sacrifice, paying for the sins and the crimes that we have committed, so that we can actually be reconciled to God and be counted as one of his children, as if we were as totally perfect and blameless as Christ… If that’s really true, then that has all sorts of implications on the everyday life and on these kind of issues. And what I’ve basically learned from that was that I was just suffering from an acute perfectionism, massive, massive perfectionism, making me very controlling and sort of enslaved to that kind of illusory pressure of never… “I must never inconvenience people.” “I must never make mistakes.” That sort of stuff. “I need to be in complete control of what I’m doing. Otherwise, everything’s a disaster.” That sort of stuff.
And that’s when the truths of the Christian worldview really hit home, when you learn that stuff, and you come to discover, no, actually, your identity does not sink or swim with your achievements, with mistakes that you make or successes that you have. You are not in control. You cannot be in control. God is the one who’s in control. It’s about what he wants to achieve, rather than what you want to achieve. And that God can use all sorts of things in your life, including suffering, to refine you and help you learn and even to bring you into a closer relationship with him. And so I think that’s been quite an astonishing trajectory. You said over this last 9 years. I’ve been learning so much more about myself and what my own inclinations are and actually learning that actually, if you grow in discipleship as a Christian and grow into what it really means to be in Christ, then actually the outlook is so much better.
Even if you’re in bad life circumstances, what those circumstances mean for you is radically changed. And it truly is. It’s a new type of freedom. Because it means that, again, you’re not living for performance. You’re not living to justify yourself. You’re living for genuine relationship, whether that’s relationship with other people but ultimately God himself. And that means that the relationships that matter the most and your self identity cannot be destroyed by… well, death for a start. But it also can’t be destroyed by your failures or wrong choices.
So that’s the existential, I think, significance. I’ve gone from accepting that it’s true to having that lived understanding, I think, of what it actually means for your life.
It sounds like you’ve made an enormous transformation in your life, as you said, just going from your head to your heart to your life, and understanding who God is, who you are, and all the freedoms that come with that, even though it seems constraining from the outside, that when you are a Christian, you see actually it’s extremely liberating, because you’re living in the reality of an unconditional love and acceptance and belonging and an immensely valuable identity when you’re in God. So I think that there’s something paradoxical about that, something very ironic, and as you were looking from the outside as an atheist, seeing that belief in God was a control that you did not want and now it’s a control that you actually love because you see that it’s out of love for you that you live. And you live in an incredible freedom. Thank you for that vulnerability and that transparency, Peter. That’s quite amazing.
Well, I think it’s… Well, you’re welcome. I think it’s important because I think the other thing that I’ve been learning as well, and it goes back to what I was saying before about, it’s never just intellectual. There are all these issues. I mean all that stuff I was saying about perfectionism. I mean that will have been true right the way back at the beginning of my university years or even earlier. All of that would’ve still been going on. That would’ve been part of my reasoning process or why I went one direction rather than the other, and I think that it’s the same for everybody. There are unlikely deeply, deeply personal issues that are always involved in this process, and I think… Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s certainly a mistake to say, “Oh, just have a simple faith and don’t think about this stuff. Don’t ask questions.” I mean that’s a lethal thing to do. If you live a life where you don’t question anything, and certainly if you want to be a Christian or whatever. I mean, if you just try and stick your fingers in your ears and don’t grapple with questions, all sorts of things are going to start falling apart at the slightest challenge, and it’s vital to do that. So I think the intellectual side needs to be included, but it’s never only about that. It’s the full dimension of what it is to be human really. The best summary I’ve heard is, my friend the philosopher, Peter S. Williams, describes it as it’s your head and your heart and your hands. It’s what’s going on in your thinking, whether that’s consciously or assumed, perhaps unconsciously, but then there’s the heart as well. What am I actually wanting and desiring? What are my passions? What’s driving me? Or conversely, what am I afraid of? There’s all of that going on, and then, with hands, it’s just, okay, what do you do? What are the actions that you then end up taking? It’s the interaction of all of those, I think. All of that is going on at any one time, with everyone I think.
Again, it’s just beautiful to me how you have had such an intentionality towards not only searching for what is true and real and life giving but you’ve really made it your own, and you continue that discipling process, which is really critical in whatever stage you are. That we’re always looking towards growth and understanding. And I just appreciate that with you. In closing this today, Peter, because you have been on both sides of the fence, as it were, as an atheist and as a Christian, you understand it from the inside out, I’m looking for some advice as to what you would say to the skeptic, perhaps who, as you once did, had perhaps a very negative stereotype of Christianity but hadn’t taken time to take a closer look. What would you say to someone like that, who may be curious?
Yeah. Well, it’s just fascinating to imagine and try and think of who might be listening to this and what it must sound like to them. I can remember being at university and being in a particular mindset where, unknowing to my friend, I’d snuck a copy of one of his sermons and was just listening to it on my MP3 player while I was out on a walk. And I heard one of them say something critical of one of the New Atheists, and I just got so angry, I think I was in a field, and I shouted and tried to tear down a tree branch or something. That’s one of my more turbulent moments, you know?
So I do want to be very aware… And equally, there’ve been other times when it’s just been a pleasure to interact on these things and just have the discussion, in a very relaxed way. So I don’t want to make any assumptions about where people are in terms of their own journey. I think generally… What would I say to somebody who’s skeptical but may be curious about Christianity, belief in God? I think, by way of reassurance, I think I’d want to say I think we’re living in a time where views get very polarized, where it’s very easy to think that, because somebody is a member of one group or one set of something, that therefore a load of other characteristics must be true of them as well. So, for example, if someone’s a Christian, then they must be some kind of Bible-thumping, far-right-leaning,-Trump-voting person or whatever. Or if someone’s an atheist, then they must be some sort of horrible leftist heathen. You get all this just pathetic, really, really sad stuff, unfortunate stuff going on, where people just caricature people and put them in groups, and I think that an important thing to do is to really try and be careful about separating out what things really imply which.
It’s not true, for example that, if someone’s a Christian, that therefore they’re necessarily going to be politically right wing, for example. There are people that are Christians that think that more socialistically ways of managing countries or societies work better, for example. It’s not true that the only people involved in the arts and performing worlds are secular. There are Christians involved there as well.
I think the important thing to do is really just to be able to separate things out and enjoy the process of asking questions and inquiring about particular avenues of exploration. Asking questions about, you know, so when it comes to things like the historical question of whether Jesus existed, just engage with that as a question in its own right, you know? Who was Jesus? What are the arguments on both sides? What does it say about Him in terms of what He did, what He achieved, what’s documented? I think make a point of just trying to identify what the different points of view are and just try to explore them. I think asking questions is crucial. There’s not enough question asking going on at the moment. It’s always good, I think, to… If you find somebody with a different point of view, just keep asking them questions about it. Get them to unpack it and explain it in as much depth as you can get them to. Especially if it’s an argument or especially if it’s a disagreement. A lot of disagreements just fall flat on their face and turn into silly arguments where people are talking past each other because you think, “I have to jump up and basically be on the defensive immediately and tell the other person immediately that they’re wrong.”
But actually, one of the most valuable things you can do, if only as a sort of recon exercise I suppose, is just keep asking people. So get them to clarify exactly what they mean. This is a great Koukl thing from Stand to Reason, his principle, which is get people to really spell out what do they actually mean by what they’re saying. Don’t just assume that you know what they mean when they use a particular word or talk about an issue. Check with them, what do you actually mean by that? So if somebody says something like, “I don’t believe in evolution.” If somebody actually says that, you need to ask them, “Well, what do you mean by that? What kind of evolution are you talking about? Are you talking about any change of any kind in the animal kingdom? Or are you talking about something different or what?” And conversely, if somebody says, I think the Bible is fairy tales. Again, ask them, “What do you mean by that? Do you think it’s untrue? Inaccurate?” And ask them for the evidence. It is actually, funnily enough, that Dawkins principle, which is ask them for the reasons about why they think what they think.
So I think just be curious, I would say. Take individual lines of exploration and just question them. Do the questioning process. Get as much data as you can by being intrigued by the other person, and ask them to explain more of it to you. And I think that has to involve—it also has to involve questioning your own assumptions, though, as well. You’ve got to ask yourself, “Okay, what am I believing?” Or even, “What am I holding as most valuable to myself? And if there’s any logical train of thought going on here, what would the logical outcome of that train of thought be? Am I living consistently with things that I say I believe, or are there some holes there?” So I think just be curious. Ask loads of questions about specific issues instead of letting it fall prey to the polarization that we’re surrounded with in our culture.
I think that’s fantastic advice all the way around. If there’s anything you would like to add even for the Christian. The Christian needs to learn to ask questions as well. But there’s always this… Seemingly, at least in culture today, there’s this cursory understanding and this misreading of Christianity, that it’s not good, it’s not true. Sometimes it’s earned and well deserved, and sometimes it’s unearned, but how would you speak to the Christian who is trying to present Christ in a positive way to those in culture who seem to misread?
I think I’d say pretty much everything I’ve just said for the atheist. I think those apply as well, because equally, Christians can jump the gun and think that they need to jump in and be on the defensive or run away scared. Fight or flight, either of those two. And I think there needs to be… We need to really put our money where our mouth is in terms of showing that we’ve got the confidence. If this is true, if we really are saved and in the care and the wisdom of an all-powerful, all-good God, with a redemptive plan, who knows what He’s doing and is in control, then it just seems crazy, the idea that there would be any questions that would be something to be afraid of. I think actually… I mean, there was a poll conducted, I think it was a Gallup poll a number of years ago. This is something that the Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland was pointing out. He was saying that apparently the biggest reason why people left churches and left the faith was because they had questions that either nobody could answer or weren’t being taken seriously. They were just being given a superficial faith that wasn’t being exposed to the difficult questions and the challenging questions, because every difficult question and every challenging question is an opportunity to grow in more depth in your faith. I mean, think of it, if your faith is false, you’d better find out as soon as you can, so you can ditch it, get rid of it, or if it’s true, well then, it’s going to be an opportunity to grow even deeper in it.
And so there has to be a real willingness to ask questions and expose ourselves to questions being asked of us. I think that’s very important. And I think when it comes to communicating Christ and engaging with people, again I think it’s the same stuff about you need to ask them questions, you need to find out where are they starting from. Don’t rush to assume that you know the person that you’re talking to or what their issues are or their questions are or even what the emotional baggage is. You need to take the time to get to know them and find out. Get to know… I mean why should we expect them to want to get to know us or get to know Christ if we’re not willing to get to know them? We have to show that we’re willing to engage. And I think that… Yeah, just take the time to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who doesn’t believe what you believe and just think, “How would I explain this? How would I explain what I believe in a way that doesn’t presuppose any particular special words or jargon or anything like that? And that can actually be understood by the other person?” And you’ve got to be able to find out where they’re beginning at and just see where to go from there.
You shouldn’t pressure yourself to leap into, “Oh, I have to make sure I crowbar in a Bible verse and a really, really quick summary about Jesus and the atonement, so I can tick the box and say, ‘Look, I’ve been a good Christian. I’ve done my job. I’ve left them with a Bible verse. Now, the Holy Spirit will do everything else.'” Because that’s basically using… I mean it’s true the Holy Spirit uses our conversations. He uses God’s word. And He ultimately is the one that brings about the changes and brings people to faith, but you can’t use that as an excuse for not having a conversation where you actually want to try and help the other person understand something. The whole point of using words is that the understanding of what the word means is supposed to happen in the head of the person you’re talking to. It’s about what are you helping them to understand when they hear it? Rather than just words coming out of your mouth. So just take that time to understand where the other person’s coming from, and think, “How do I communicate in light of what’s going on with them?”
That’s tremendous advice. I think we all need to step back and take time and listen seek towards understanding. That is just tremendous. Peter, thank you so much for being a part of this program, the Side B Podcast. I loved hearing your stories and your insights and your fabulous voice, your theatrical voice. You’ve given us so much to think about it, and it’s just been such a pleasure to hear you.
Well, the university drama degree was good for helping me be clear on the podcast, I suppose.
I think, early on… I think I gave a definition of faith that was Dawkins’ definition. That he said that faith is believing in something for which there’s no evidence. I think the only thing I would just say to round it off is that now my understanding of faith is very, very different. It’s not that… When someone says I have faith or you have faith in God or whatever, it’s not saying, “I believe in something without any evidence.” The whole point of it is that you’re saying, “I believe in something because there is evidence, and I’ve made a judgment that that evidence is strong enough for me to trust it,” so that’s what I would say. Or you could look at it the way that C.S. Lewis put it, which is that faith is… I think he said that faith is holding to what your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.
I love that!
Yeah. So by that, he’s actually saying… It doesn’t mean that you believe and commit to something without reason. It’s the opposite. It’s when everything about you, when your feelings are all over the place, you cling to the solid stuff, which actually is the reason and what you’ve learned and what you’ve experienced and what you have judged to be reliable. So if I say I have faith in a certain person, I don’t mean that I’ve just blindly never met them before and suddenly trust them. I have a ton of evidence about my experience with that person, and I say therefore I can trust them. Or if you’re getting on an airplane, for example, people sometimes say you have to have faith to go on an airplane. And I think that’s true. Because you need to have a good basis for trusting it. You’re not just going to step on any old piece of plywood. I mean, there is evidence to say that airplanes are generally very, very safe, and the risk of an accident is very, very low. You can’t guarantee that it won’t happen, but still you have to make the judgment call. Is there enough reason for me to step onto it and trust it? So I think that’s what I would say, which is… it’s not about committing to something because there’s no good reason. It’s because there is good reason, and that reason is strong enough for you to trust it, so it’s all about trusting and having a good basis for that trust. It’s very personal in that respect.
Yes. We trust people, don’t we? And thank you so much for clarifying that. That’s extremely clarifying. Yeah, it’s extremely clarifying.
Thanks for tuning in to the Side B Podcast. If you enjoyed it, subscribe and share this new podcast with your friends and your social network. I would really appreciate it. For questions and feedback about this episode with Peter, you can reach me by email at email@example.com. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll be listening to the other side.