Hello, and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to the Side B Podcast, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their life, from atheism or skepticism to belief in God. It’s often thought that belief in science excludes belief in God, that somehow they are not reconcilable, that one cannot be a serious student of science and be a serious believer in God. After all, Richard Dawkins once said Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Many atheist thinkers over the decades have touted the story of atheism as the courageous scientific progress of man, overcoming primitive superstitions and make-believe gods, that we no longer need a god of the gaps hypothesis to explain what we are now seeing in the world and through science.
Has Darwin definitively ruled out the possibility of God, as Dawkins suggests. Or is it still possible to believe in God and evolution at the same time, as Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and others contend. That evolution does not necessarily disprove the existence of God. Along with Dawn, we’ll also be talking today with Tim Stratton, someone who was quite influential in engaging Dawn on the issues of science and belief in a thoughtfully challenging, intelligent, and humble way. This should prove to be an intriguing story. I hope you’ll join in.
Welcome to the Side B Podcast, Dawn and Tim. It’s so great to have you both with me today.
Dawn: Thanks for having me.
Tim: It’s great to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
Wonderful. As we’re getting started, I’d like our listeners to know just a little bit about you both. So we’re going to introduce both of you one at a time. Dawn, why don’t you tell me a little bit about who you are now, and then we’ll get back into your story after Tim introduces himself.
Dawn: So my name is Dawn Simon. I am a professor of biology, and my specialty is actually molecular evolutionary biology, and I am at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Tim: Yeah. My name is Tim Stratton. I’m a professor at Trinity Theological Seminary and College of the Bible, teaching apologetics and theology. I run a ministry called Free Thinking Ministries. People can find me on YouTube under that name and also find my website, freethinkingministries.com, and yeah, I just have a passion for apologetics and theology and evangelism, and I think you’ll see some of that today.
Fantastic! And for those of you who are listening, we’ll put those sites and links in our episode notes. So let’s get started with your story, Dawn. Take me back to where you’re from, where you grew up. Talk to me about your family. Was religion or God part of your world growing up?
Dawn: So I grew up in a small town in eastern Iowa, so heavily Catholic. So we were a town of about 2,000 people, and we had two churches in town, both Catholic. And I come from a very large extended family, so my mom has a family of 12 and my dad has a family of 11. Everybody’s Catholic. My grandparents were definitely observant, and many of my relatives were as well. My parents were not particularly, though I did go to Catholic school and I went through all the sacraments associated with that. I would say, while I knew… I could win Bible trivia and I knew the rules. I don’t think I ever was a believer. Even though if you would have asked me as a third grader, “Do you believe in God?” I probably would’ve said yes because that was the right answer. That’s the answer I was supposed to give. My parents… we just didn’t talk about it. Ever. So, in general, my family left those kinds of ideas or beliefs about a higher being as personal. They’re not things to talk about. You believed or you didn’t, but you kept it to yourself.
And so I can distinctly remember having some questions at a young age. I had this Children’s Bible that had a picture and then one story per page that my grandma gave me for my first communion. And I liked it. I mean, I liked the stories. I definitely had the distinct impression that you just don’t ask questions.
Yeah. So you were growing up in a Catholic world, I guess, nominally Catholic, it sounds like.
You went through the motions. It was more ritual and perhaps rules. You were in a Catholic school. But you’re also telling me, even as a young child, you were inquisitive. You were what I would consider a critical thinker or even introspective or really thinking about the books and the beliefs that you were asked to believe. And you weren’t exactly buying it. It sounds like you were pushing back at an early age. That tells me a bit about you. So you went through Catholic school, elementary school. Did you go through middle school and high school?
Dawn: No. Our town only had Catholic school through elementary school, and then I transferred to public school, but we still had what was called release time religion class, where you would leave in the middle of the day, cross a parking lot, go to religion class in a building across the parking lot, and so I did that until I made my confirmation, I think in tenth or eleventh grade. So I wasn’t at a Catholic school but was still doing the release time religion classes.
So I’m curious. At that time you were actually confirmed in the Catholic church, how were you feeling and thinking about that? Were you buying into it at that point? Or were you feeling a bit conflicted about even going through the motions of that kind of sacrament?
Dawn: I wasn’t conflicted, in the sense that… I mean, it never really had a deeper meaning. It was just a thing we were supposed to do. And so… I remember that there were questions, like you had to pass some test, I think. I don’t know. The bishop asked you questions, and it was very nerve wracking whether you were going to get the right answers, and so I was really focused on just that. It was just like a thing to pass. And so I never thought too much about deeper meaning. I mean I was conflicted in the sense that I remember—I don’t remember it with confirmation, but around that same time, I really thought I didn’t believe in God. And I had asked my mom. I remember saying to her, “I don’t think I believe in God,” and it was super hard for me to say because I knew that was bad, and it made me feel like a bad person. And she didn’t have a thing to say about it.
So she had no response.
Dawn: No. Nothing. Nothing. Because we have a… My mom’s cousin is a priest, and I remember thinking. I don’t know if I said it to her, but I was hoping that’s what she was going to say, like, you go talk to him. But that didn’t happen.
So did you ever think, “Well, perhaps I should go talk to the priest?”
Dawn: I thought I should, but it was too scary to do it, because I wasn’t supposed to think that, so it was bad, and I thought it made me a bad person, and so I wasn’t going to do that. I mean, I confided in my mom. And it wasn’t like she disapproved. She just didn’t have anything to say in response. And that’s kind of how my parents are in general. They’ll support me, but it’s up to me to figure it out.
Well, I think it was really quite courageous for her to reveal that to your parents, but I hear you when you say that… It sounds like there wasn’t a real safe place for you to go outside of your home to ask the bigger questions.
Dawn: Yeah. Absolutely.
Yeah. So did you take on the identity of an atheist then? Or is that something that came later?
Dawn: No. Yeah. I was really reluctant to call myself that. Always. I never got over the reluctance to say that I was an atheist. Well, and one thing was I had learned very early… I mean, and I don’t even know if this definition is right, but what I had learned was that an atheist is that you know for sure there isn’t God and an agnostic is you’re not sure, and so I’m not sure about anything. And so I thought being an atheist… I mean I really thought, “Who would say that?” Certainly not me because I’m, again, not sure. I mean I might be 99% sure, but to me, in my mind, atheist was you’re 100% sure there isn’t a God. And for me, I think I was always hoping there was. I didn’t see any evidence for it. I thought that was probably wishful thinking on my part. And so I would have said I was agnostic, but I didn’t think there was a God. I just wasn’t sure. And so that actually never really changed, even though, by most definitions, I think people would call themselves an atheist. It’s just that, because I wasn’t 100% sure there was no god, I wasn’t willing to take on that label.
Dawn: And so that never went away. And I tried to do things. I remember, in college, in graduate school, I started going to church, Catholic church, and that I went most weeks. It was something to do, and I could say I was trying, but it didn’t do anything for me internally. Nothing about me changed as part of that experience, Well, growing up, the only thing I knew to do was to go to church, in terms of trying to have faith or trying to believe in God. That was the only thing open to me, I thought. And so I tried that, and that didn’t work for me.
You know, and again, I think that really speaks to who you are, Dawn, in your desire for intellectual honesty and integrity. Because a lot of people will just take on the identity of atheist and really not think what that means. Like you said, you defined that, in order to be a credible atheist, or to call yourself that, you really have to know everything about all of reality.
Dawn: Yeah, right, right.
And you understood that. So to be that self limiting, again, speaks to your integrity. And your desire not only, again, just to be sure, but you’re also honest in the fact that you’re continually skeptical.
Because you’re constantly searching for the truth, and that is something that I think all of us can take a cue from, is really continuing to search for truth. So as you’re moving along, you have this interesting kind of oxymoron that you’re telling me. It’s like you want to believe, you just can’t because it’s not intellectually credible to you, but yet you’re going through the motions of church, but that doesn’t… It’s just more of a social outing, it sounds like, for you more than anything.
So that was college, and you pursued a degree in?
In biology. So you were heavily immersed in the sciences at that time.
Dawn: Yes, yes.
So I would imagine that your naturalistic worldview, that worldview without God, was being reinforced through your study of the sciences. Were you attending to any of that as how it related to the existence or not of God?
Dawn: I mean truthfully that didn’t play as much of a role as people think. I mean I specifically remember, in grad school, having this conversation with another person who, if he wasn’t an atheist, he was like me, agnostic leaning atheist, and we were both in the lab, and I remember saying to him, “People that think we have it all figured out don’t know anything about what we do.” I just remember saying, like, “There’s plenty of places for supernatural.” Not that I would be able to say exactly what those places were, but there’s so much unknown, and so I just remember having this kind of discussion. He was kind of philosophically minded, and we were having this discussion about the debate between intelligent design or creationism and then the naturalistic worldview. And we both thought that there was room to be a believer and an evolutionary biologist.
Dawn: So even though I was not in that category, I didn’t see inherent contradictions in general. Maybe specific claims, yes. But in general, I thought it isn’t as if we have things all figured out. We have 1% of things figured out. So it’s arrogant to claim that we don’t need anything else. And I was agnostic on whether we needed a supernatural being or not, but I knew there was plenty of unknown.
Yeah, I appreciate your humility there. Kind of a modest epistemology, if you will. That you understand our limitations of where we are, and there’s just so much that we don’t know. But we’re always looking to make the best explanation of the things that we do know, right? And experience.
Dawn: Right, right.
So you were moving along, and I’m curious, too, before we move too far. In embracing this agnostic, atheistic leaning direction, as the critical thinker that you were, were you looking at the implications of that godless worldview and what it meant for you in terms of your life, meaning, purpose, direction, any of that?
Dawn: No. So I wasn’t thinking like that exactly. I mean I definitely felt empty without God. But I wasn’t thinking in terms of bigger picture, like what is life without God like? Because that’s what life was for me. So I didn’t have to think, “What would it be if there was no god?” because I already thought there was no god. So I knew what that felt like. And, again, I would have to put that into, like, mystery category. Why do we continue to do anything at all? I don’t know. But there’s a desire to do. So even if there’s no implications later, there still is inherent kind of driving force to do good, be good. But I wasn’t thinking about that in a philosophical sense, just kind of one foot in front of the other, keep moving forward kind of thing. And I was struggling. It’s not as if I was comfortable with that idea. I was struggling.
Dawn: And I remember there was a podcast, actually. This was during my postdoc. So after you finish your PhD, scientists often do additional training called a postdoctoral fellowship, and so I was in Canada doing my postdoc, and I heard this podcast about how somebody lost their faith. And it felt very similar to me. They grew up in a Catholic home, and she talked about her brother dying, what that meant, and I just thought, “Well, this is it. This is really what I think, and I finally, finally admit it.” I wasn’t happy about it at all. It was like a punch in the gut. Yeah. But I just thought… I’d been trying really hard not to come to this conclusion, but that’s what I actually really think. And so that’s when—during my postdoc years was when I started, if not to other people, admitting to myself that I didn’t think there was a god.
So you were finally closing that door. And so what happened next in your journey?
Dawn: So I got this job, the job I currently have, in Kearney, Nebraska. And I came here, and this was a place different from any other place I had lived. Just in general, people are super friendly. I’m also an introvert, so I didn’t always, always appreciate that. I mean I appreciated the sentiment, but I did not appreciate needing to talk to people all the time, or people clear across the street waving, waving, waving, but you don’t know them. And they want to say hello. So extremely friendly, helpful community. And then the second thing is very open about religious beliefs. And that… I really didn’t like that part. So, for example, at the dentist’s office, they’re playing religious music. Go to the coffee shop, there’s Bibles on the table. And I just felt like it was everywhere, and people are so comfortable and so open with their faith. And I didn’t find it pushy in the sense that it wasn’t like people treated me different or were always trying to talk to me about it, but there was just evidence of it everywhere.
Dawn: And so I had this thing but the same people were super nice, some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and so I had this issue where they’re obviously very religious, very, very nice people, seemed happy, had something I didn’t have, or it seemed so, and so then at that point I was like, “Okay, I’ll try church again. Let’s see. I’m going to really give it an A+ effort here.” And so then I started going to the Catholic church, and even at one point I was like, “I’m going to read the Bible straight through.” And so I started at Genesis. It didn’t go super well. I got to Noah’s Ark, and I was done. And so I was kind of in that, and I had stopped. I had stopped going to church. I mean I went, I don’t know, for maybe a couple of months. And there was something… Because I grew up in that environment, there’s something comforting about the ritual, but I didn’t feel any closer to God. What I felt like was I just… I gave it an effort. Like, “I don’t see what these other people are seeing. I wish I did. I don’t see it.” And so this is that point when I met, Tim, actually.
So, Dawn, as you’re moving along, then, and you’re in this community that’s very different than what you know, how does your story change? What is it that makes you want to really re-investigate seriously this issue of God?
There were a series of letters to the editor in the local paper about evolution. I don’t remember what instigated that exactly, but there was a series of letters and then comments about those letters, and I was just ashamed. I was ashamed by some of the responses coming from people at the university. And I should note that some of these people were using pseudonyms and were behaving very badly, just unkindly and very badly. And then there was this person, Tim Stratton, who was commenting on a lot of them but was kind. I didn’t agree with anything he said, honestly. But he was kind. And was offering… anybody that was writing responses, he was offering to meet with them and talk to them in person, and so I had this impression of this person, Tim Stratton, who I didn’t know who that was at all. That at least he was kind.
So, Tim, You were on an opposite end of those who were at the university. I guess it was on the topic of evolution? Is that what you were talking about?
Tim: I think that’s right and intelligent design in general. I was, at that point, really new to apologetics. I was a youth pastor at that time, and I saw that many of my students were losing their faith or becoming atheists in front of my face, because I kind of answered their questions. And so I went on a journey to see if there were good answers to their questions. What Dawn noticed was that I was arguing and trying to be nice and respectful and loving at the same time, and I think that got her attention. I do think some of the arguments that I was giving back then are horrible, and I wouldn’t give them anymore, and some of them are still good. But I like what Dawn says. At the time, she didn’t agree with any of them, but she noticed something in my tone, I guess.
Dawn: Yeah, absolutely.
You know, that really says something, I think, that even though the content wasn’t exactly perhaps or anything that she agreed with, she appreciated the manner in which you communicated as particularly juxtaposed to those who were her colleagues, who weren’t putting their very best foot forward.
So, Dawn, his contribution and his tone, did it cause you to initiate some kind of discussion with him? Tell me what happened after that.
Dawn: I think because of this series of articles, my colleague invited someone to come to speak at what’s called a Science Cafe, so it was supposed to be outreach to the public, and the topic was on evolution, and so… before that I thought probably Tim would be there, and I Googled him so I knew what he looked like.
Dawn: Yeah, I did. And so I was on the lookout to meet him. And my only intention was to meet him and tell him I appreciated the tone of his arguments. I mean, I just wanted to thank him for that and to kind of also speak up that we all were not like some of the other people that were responding. And so I met him there, and then, I think within the week, we had connected on Facebook?
Tim: I ran into you at Qdoba, the burrito joint.
Tim: Right after that.
Dawn: That’s right. We did. We did. That’s exactly right. Yeah. And so then he or I added the other one as a Facebook friend, and then this started a very long series of messages back and forth, like… I think at that point I said, “Actually, I’m closer to an atheist,” and so I was putting all my cards on the table there. And I think, if I go back and look, I bet several times I’m sort of trying to end it, saying, “Thank you so much for your patience!” Just because I didn’t have any kind of… I didn’t think somebody was going to be able to answer my questions. And I didn’t want to waste his time. But the other thing I appreciated very early was that it felt like give and take. So I would not have been as interested in those conversations if it felt like he was teaching me but I wasn’t giving back anything in return.
Tim: Oh, yeah!
Dawn: So I would ask questions. He would ask questions. And so we sort of came to understand each others’ beliefs that way. So that was kind of the initial part. And it was purely intellectual. I had no, no thought that this was going to lead to some kind of change in my life. And at one point, he said “Maybe God put us in each others’ paths for this reason,” and I remember thinking, like that’s so nice of him to say, but it’s just not going to happen.
So, Tim, talk with me about the way that you were… As obviously a thoughtful communicator and really appreciating this conversation you were having with Dawn, what kind of questions or topics or things were you talking about? Were you just question asking? Were you trying to present some kind of evidence or arguments? How was this conversation proceeding?
Tim: Yeah. The way I remember it. Like I said, this was when I first started getting into apologetics, and I think at the time I’d just enrolled at Biola University, started my master’s degree in apologetics. So as I was getting stuff from my classes, I was giving it right to Dawn, and so I was offering the Kalam cosmological argument and the moral argument and the ontological argument and the fine tuning argument, any argument I could get my hands on. As I was learning it, she was basically learning it along with me. And I was even trying to argue against evolution at that point, too, and then she asked me if I’d be willing to read some books on it, and I’m like, “Sure,” so she gave me some books to read. I remember one in particular from Jerry Coyne, right?
Tim: And I was reading through that. If we’re going to be taken seriously, we better understand that which we are arguing against,” and I realized that I hadn’t done so. And so I really appreciated learning about evolution from Dawn, and I wasn’t just going to reject it. I figured if she was willing to listen to me, I’d better be willing to listen to her, and I learned a lot in the process. And while at Biola, then, I started thinking about, “Wow! Could an omniscient and omnipotent God create via evolution?” and it seemed to me that if God was both omnipotent and omniscient that He could. He would have the power to do so, and He would know how to do it. And I think you could even relate this to the fine tuning argument, the fine tuning of the initial conditions of the big bang or the early universe. So I didn’t see a problem there.
Not that I necessarily said I affirm this view, but I kind of had Dawn in mind. I wanted to see, could I come up with a model here, for Dawn’s sake,
Long story short, I was willing to learn from Dawn, and I think… So being willing to learn from her and listen to her and the fact that the tone was good, that we were respectful to each other and we weren’t like, “You stupid idiot!” I think those two things worked in favor of us having a really good conversation, and she was then willing to listen to me. Over a long period of time, I felt like almost daily we’d have some interaction, over Facebook Messenger most of the time, and argue.
Facebook is bad for tons of reasons, but I always point to this as something good that happened because of it. And I know it was definitely a very intense time, because I was really wrestling with big issues at that point.
It’s curious because it sounds like you started the conversation really not wanting to be convinced.
But there must have been a tipping point at some point, where you actually found the person who was willing to engage in doubts and questions in a serious way and a respectful way, and so it was the first time in your life, I think, that perhaps you—you not only felt safe, I guess, to do that, but also somehow with a renewed interest.
It was initially just intellectual, and there were some of these arguments that I had heard a little bit of because of the class, because of teaching evolution, that sometimes we do this part where we talk about common objections at the end, and I try to just let students talk, and I try not to talk so much, but I needed to understand the objections, and so initially I thought, “This will be great for that. He’ll be able to explain some of these objections that I just don’t understand.” And so initially… And I had done some work. I had gotten some books to try and understand that, but I just couldn’t quite get it. And so initially that’s what I thought it was going to be, is that he’ll help me understand the opposing arguments and then that’ll be great and that’ll be that. But then we started going through… The argument that convinced me was when Tim was developing his Free Thinking argument against naturalism, so it’s kind of the early stages of that, so we were going through those premises and arguing a lot, and at one point it blindsided me.
Dawn: I mean, so it’s intellectual, intellectual, intellectual, and then one night, and I was getting ready to move, and I wasn’t sleeping. This was like 3:00 in the morning, and I was packing, and I was just thinking, “Gosh! I really think we have free will,” like, “I can’t be certain. I can’t be certain.” So this was one of the things also that would not have worked for me if Tim did not make clear that we don’t have to be certain, that you can have some doubt and still be convinced. So I was like, “I can’t be certain about free will.” I had tried and I was making myself crazy trying to think of, “What experiments could we do to show that there’s free will?” and just could not and had read scientific literature of people trying to show it and just couldn’t figure out a way to definitively know.
Dawn: But I had this revelation that, “Oh, I think we do have free will,” and then the very next thing was, “What does that mean?” That means there’s God. And then it was like… yeah. I get a little bit emotional talking about it because it was… Like I said, I felt blindsided by it because it was all intellectual until we had gone through the arguments, so I knew the argument well. I just was stuck on this… I thought either we think we have free will or we do have free will. And I just… I have to live my life with what I think is true, and what I think is true is we have free will, and if we free will, there’s a God. And I was just… I didn’t know what to do with that. I was crazed that night.
When you have that sense of… like this is profound and this is actually true and perhaps God does exist, I’m sure that’s a very sobering moment for you in many ways because you had, for so long, not believed. I mean really your whole life.
Dawn: Right, right.
Tim, for those who don’t know the free will argument, really that’s a novel thing for someone to think about. “What do you mean I don’t have free will?” or, “If I have free will, that means there’s a God.” Could you, in a nutshell, just tell us what that is.
Tim: You bet. So the free thinking argument is an argument that demonstrates… Well, the free thinking argument against naturalism. It starts out just by saying, if naturalism is true, that the human soul does not exist, right? Because the human soul would be a non-natural or a supernatural, immaterial, nonphysical type of thing, so if naturalism is true, the soul does not exist. And then I would say, but if the soul does not exist, then humans do not possess libertarian freedom because everything about humanity would be caused and determined by something other than humanity, namely the laws and forces and events of nature.
Tim: So yeah, number one, if naturalism is true, we don’t have a soul. Number two, if the soul does not exist, libertarian freedom does not exist. Three, if libertarian freedom does not exist, then important kinds of rationality and knowledge do not exist. That is, if something causally determines you to affirm a false belief about X, then it’s impossible for you to infer a better or true belief about X, and I think that hit Dawn hard because the goal of the scientist is to infer the best explanation from all the data. But if something else is causally determining her to affirm a false belief about X, then she can’t infer the best explanation of the data. She can’t do science, right?
Tim: But then the next premise is we can infer better and true beliefs. We can do science. So therefore you have some conclusions. Therefore, humans possess libertarian freedom. Therefore, the soul or some non-natural aspect of humanity seems to exist. Therefore, naturalism is false, and then I argue that the best—speaking of the best explanation, that the best explanation of all of this data, souls and libertarian freedom, is not just God but the biblical view of God, and that really starts a new argument.
Yeah. Thank you for explaining that. So then, Dawn, back to you. When you had this sudden awareness or realization that you actually believed, what happened then? Did you call Tim? Did you think, “Oh, I need to think about this,” or what next? Or what kind of God?
I’m sure I wrote to him immediately. And then I think… Again, he was still helping me know what to do. And so he suggested that I start with the book of John, that I read and also just pray to God, which was novel.
Tim: Notice that I didn’t say, “Start with Genesis.”
Dawn: No, you did not say start with Genesis.
Tim: I know that wasn’t going to be good for her.
Dawn: And so then the next part was kind of… So there is a God. Is it the Christian God?
Dawn: So Tim was, at that time, teaching a Sunday school class on apologetics, and so I started… I wouldn’t go to church, but I would go to that. And so we went through Dr. Craig’s book On Guard, I think, and went through all the arguments there, and then a pivotal moment or time was he showed this debate between Mike Licona and Bart Ehrman, and I remember, oh, boy, I was rooting for Ehrman. So he showed this… I just… I mean because I just… I don’t know what my deal is, dragging my feet every step of the way.
Tim: The resurrection in general.
Dawn: The resurrection, yeah. The resurrection. How can that not be true? And I again just… It’s not that I was sure, but I was more sure than not, so I was… Tim and I would often talk about percentage. What percentage sure are you? And so I was above 50% sure. I don’t know how high, but the idea was that that’s the thing that I thought was true. Whether I was 100% convinced or not, that’s the way I needed to live my life at that point. So I think that was in the spring, so when we first starting talking in the fall of 2012, I think, and then in the spring was when I was going through the classes with him, and then we watched the debate during that time. And I still wasn’t calling myself a Christian yet. And then I had a question… Yeah, I had a question to Tim about the resurrection, like why did Jesus have to die? It didn’t make sense to me that there wouldn’t be some other way. And he gave a sermon at church about that, and so then after that sermon, then I started calling myself Christian. That was the final thing that I needed answered.
That is a really tremendous question. And I think it’s really a stumbling block for many people. Why did Jesus have to die? And I don’t know if you want to give a little 60-second response to that.
Basically it had to do with how our broken relationship’s restored. What does the offended party have to do? What does the offending party have to do? And really cached that out and connected a whole bunch of logical dots.
Tim: And yeah, I think you can make a pretty good case that, “Wow, this is why the Creator of the universe had to enter into the universe to die for those who He loved within the universe.”
You know, as we are going on, it just strikes me how perfectly God placed you, Tim, in Dawn’s life as someone who is incredibly logical and analytical. And you obviously are made from the same cloth. And you’re able to think through things in such a way—you don’t just say, “Believe!” You know, “Why don’t you just believe?”
Tim: Right. That’s what I used to do. As a former youth pastor and a bad youth pastor, that’s what I did.
Tim: And I realized that doesn’t work.
Because, for especially the skeptic, they just don’t take things just because you throw them out. You have to have a good reason. And it sounds like you were the perfect person in her life who—it’s not that you knew all the answers, but you’re willing to look and engage and learn alongside and you’re both searching for truth but in a very deep, logical, and analytical way, and there’s something to be said for that, and it’s really a beautiful thing.
So you came to a place not only that you believed intellectually, Dawn, that God exists and obviously you were convinced at some point that Jesus rose from the dead and perhaps that verified the claims that He, too, was God. But that it was more than an intellectual assent. It was something that you… Someone to whom you gave your life.
And affiliated and you were willing to put on that label of Christian. That was a tremendous change.
Talk with me about that and the change that has come in your life as a result of really becoming a Christ follower.
Dawn: Yeah. So this is a harder part to talk about for me. I think partially because of my personality and also because of my job, I was not super excited to use the term at all. And just the other part that was difficult, well difficult about, “What does this mean?” was that I’m not sure if my family are believers, and most of my friends are not believers, and so there was one point that… I mean, I was disturbed. I was distressed by my conclusion. So it wasn’t like all rainbows. I mean, I felt pretty bad about it for a while. Like you had said, for me it wasn’t enough just to say, “Believe.” It seems like for plenty of people it is, but for me, I needed more, and God gave me more.
Dawn: So there are so many gifts that I’ve been given, but I don’t often feel like I do enough with those gifts, but in terms of how it’s changed my life, I wouldn’t even be thinking like this. I would just… Let’s rewind to when I was saying one foot in front of the other. I’ve always tried to be a kind person, but there’s a different obligation to that, to helping others and living your life for more than just yourself, and that’s… It just changes, so I don’t know if it has changed my actions as much as the mindset of why I do things or what things I try to keep in mind as I live my life.
Yeah, yeah. It’s an ongoing process for all of us, Dawn, isn’t it? I mean, every day is a gift even-
Dawn: Yeah, yeah.
… and time is a gift and what we do with that, it’s a struggle for us all. I’m imagining that there are listeners who are curious about your perspective, too. It may be very much like Tim’s in terms of what would you say to the person who doesn’t understand how science and faith can go together? They look at you. You’re a PhD in evolutionary biology, or molecular evolution, but yet you call yourself a Christian, a believer in God. How do you reconcile those or put those together? Or is there a problem at all?
Dawn: I don’t think there’s a problem at all. I separated out, and I teach my students this, that in science we use methodological naturalism, such that, by definition, we’re studying the natural world. Biology is the study of life. So what’s outside of the natural world isn’t in science. Not that there’s no influence of supernatural but that, just by definition, the rules of science are we do not include that. So if I’m in a lab and I’m doing an experiment and I can’t figure out why, we can’t jump to supernatural influence. We wouldn’t make progress. It’s separate from whether or not you think there are supernatural influences. You can believe that there is and still not take it into account because the process of… We have a process that we use to make progress, and so, for me, not that they don’t intersect, but the way that I look at science or the way I do my job, it doesn’t come into it. I’m trying to be as objective as possible, making the inference with the best explanation.
Dawn: I mean, in my life, every single thing I do, I try to make the inference with the best explanation. And I’ve never really seen the problem. And I think also because I’m a scientist, I’m pretty used to ideas changing with more information, and so I don’t get hung up on on that.
And I think it’s arrogant to think that we will figure all this out. On either end, that we’ll know God’s mind or that, as a scientist, I’m going to be able to recreate what happened billions of years ago. I mean it’s arrogant to think we’re ever going to reach that step, but if you have a possibility, that should give you reason to believe that reconciliation is possible.
Tim: And I think Dawn’s exactly right. When she’s going into the lab, she’s, for lack of maybe a better term, assuming methodological naturalism. She’s not looking for supernatural everywhere.
Dawn: Yes. Right, right, right.
Tim: Even though she believes in God and that God created the universe and everything.
Dawn: Right, right.
Tim: I mean Psalm 19:1-2 says, “Day after day, your creation pours forth speech. Night after night, it delivers knowledge.”
Dawn: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Tim: So God’s word is telling us, “Study nature. Do science,” right? That’s what the Bible is saying.
Tim: Do science, study what God has created. So if you study the nature that God has created, it’s not necessary to look for… What’s the term that you like to use? Tinkering?
Dawn: Tinkerer, yeah.
Tim: The Tinkering God or whatever. No need to look for that once you affirm that He already created it supernaturally.
Dawn: Yeah. And actually that’s another thing, is that I think that’s one of God’s greatest gifts, to me personally but to humanity in general, is that He allows to figure some of this out. We get a glimpse. We can use our brains, and He gives us enough resources to be able to make inferences for the best explanation and understand how He created. I mean I just… That’s the part where faith comes into my work, that part, is that I’ll just be blown away just at what we’re able to figure out. It didn’t have to be that way. We didn’t have to have these tools to be able to make inferences. He gave us this gift.
That’s right. All the more reason to really appreciate that free thinking argument, right?
Dawn: Yep. Absolutely, absolutely.
Yeah. You have to have a grounded rationality because you can observe a predictable, rational universe and all of that.
Tim: That’s right.
So it all comes together. As we’re wrapping up, I think I would like to hear really from both of you in terms of advice that you would give to someone like yourself, Dawn, who is just a skeptic at heart. Someone who really is looking for truth and wants to have valid reason and rationality for their belief. They want to have grounded, warranted belief. What would you say or how would you advice someone like yourself? Or who might be searching with that kind of intentionality and thoughtfulness?
Dawn: I think one of the things that helped me a lot early is when I came to that conclusion, exactly that. I’m just looking for truth. Whatever way it goes is what I’m going to believe. I don’t have to be invested in there not being a God or there being a God. I can just simply say, “I’m looking for evidence, and I’m going to come to the conclusion that makes most sense to me.” And so that takes a lot of pressure off and takes a lot of emotion out of it, which I think often is a hang-up for that, so I mean if you have the idea in your head that you’re just looking for the truth… Also, you can think for yourself. So maybe you really admire one person, but that person, there’s part of the arguments you don’t like. Well, it doesn’t have to be the whole thing or nothing. You can look for pieces of evidence all over.
Dawn: I tell Tim this all the time, that there’s all of these arguments for the existence of God. I think about three of them are good. So I mean I’m not an easy sell, and I’m not convinced… I don’t care if there’s a hundred. If there’s one that is convincing to me, then I go with it.
Tim: That’s all you need.
Yeah. Anything you would add as advice to the skeptic, Tim? Anything you would encourage them?
To the skeptic, I’d say really evaluate your life and even in your innermost being and your subconscious thoughts, even, if you can. Are you resisting the Holy Spirit? Are you resisting the arguments? Are you resisting? I know many people who’ve said, “Look, I want God to exist. I don’t want atheism to be true,” but then when you start arguing with them, even in a polite way, they get very emotional and defensive, and it seems clear to me, “Well, you are not a nonresistant nonbeliever,” and Dawn seemed to me to get to the point where, at least I thought she is definitely a nonresistant nonbeliever, and if that’s the case, then she was going to be open. Some times more than others. Yes, she is the most skeptical person I’ve ever met! To this day! No matter what we’re talking about. Skeptical! And I think it’s a gift, though.
Tim: And sometimes maybe I’m too optimistic, and so her pushing back on my optimism with a little bit of skepticism is good, and I think we’ve been able to meet in the middle on so many things. And so then I would just say to those who are having conversations with skeptics or nonbelievers in general don’t wipe the dust off your feet too quickly. I see too many Christians just say, “Well, I had a conversation with them once, and I’m wiping the dust off of my feet and walking away,” to quote scripture. I just last week was with somebody who led his friend to Christ after 30 years of sharing the gospel and doing apologetics with him. Thirty years! This man finally accepted the truth and accepted the evidence. Followed the evidence where it was leading and gave his life to Christ.
Tim: And, Dawn, I felt like our conversation was a long time, but it wasn’t close to 30 years. I mean it was several years, though, right?
Dawn: The bulk of it was a year.
Dawn: I had questions for a long, long time after that.
Tim: Right, right.
Dawn: So I mean it was several years, but from agnostic-leaning atheist to Christian was right around a year.
Dawn: But hundreds of pages of texts.
Tim: Yeah, that’s right.
Maybe that needs to become a book. Yeah.
Tim: We have it.
Tim: We might have to publish that. We’ll see. I don’t know. We’ll have to edit it, that’s for sure.
Dawn: Edit it for sure!
Tim: Yeah. There are some things that I’m sure I said back then that I would be ashamed of now. But I’m sure God can use imperfect arguments at times, too. So just keep having the conversation and love each other and respect each other and don’t be jerks.
Tim: And even some of Dawn’s colleagues, one guy in particular, we used to probably hate each other, but now we’ve even kind of developed a friendship with each other. We stopped being jerks to each other and are able to have these conversations. And so, yeah, just have fun conversations, and at the end of the day, trust God with it. But you gain friends and develop critical thinking skills in the process. For me, it strengthened. Dawn came to faith in Christ. My faith in Christ was strengthened, and it seemed to expand. I saw a bigger view of our Maximally Great Being through the process as well.
That’s wonderful! Wonderful advice both ways, both to skeptics and to Christians, Tim. And finally, Dawn, if you were to talk to the Christian, especially with the example that Tim was in your life, patient, kind, diligent, very thoughtful and intelligent, meeting you where you were, open, all of those things, how would you advice the Christian to engage with the nonbeliever, maybe perhaps the nonresistant nonbeliever.
Dawn: That may not be nonresistant?
That may or may not be resistant, I guess.
Dawn: I mean the biggest thing, I guess, was just to show humility and to show… You don’t have to be sure, you know? You can learn from each other not to… I don’t know… think less of a person that has doubts? And to make them feel like the doubting part is okay. That was huge, that I knew it was okay to doubt. I mean, if he would’ve said, “At some point, you’re going to be 100% certain,” I would’ve said, “Okay, we’re done.” You know? This idea that certainty isn’t the goal. I mean, we’re not trying to be certain. We’re trying to have a relationship. Relationship with God. It’s not about being 100% certain, and so those were the huge things. And just, yeah, to be kind. I mean it shouldn’t be so hard, but that’s… Think the best you can of the other person.
Yeah. I’ve heard… This is actually wisdom from my husband, that we have a hermeneutic of either trust or suspicion towards the other. And I think, to your point, I think that we do need to trust, really, that the other person is coming from a good place until they demonstrate otherwise.
Dawn: Right. Until they prove otherwise. Right.
Yeah. It’s kind of innocent until proven guilty. Because we really do want the best for the other. That’s what love is, and some of that’s just being patient, and it’s giving the benefit of the doubt.
So wow. What an amazing story this is, and how rich it has been to have both of you in the conversation today, to give life to your story, Dawn, and to Tim, just to bring such insight and wisdom in how you walked alongside—both of you. You’re walking together in this process. And I think that humility and that respect, mutual respect, really stands out a lot.
So thank you so much for, again, your time and just coming forward and telling your story. Like you said, it’s not an easy thing to do necessarily.
Especially as a professional as an evolutionary biologist and someone in the academic world. So I applaud you, Dawn. It’s courageous. So thank you.
Dawn: I appreciate that. Thank you.
All right. And thank you, Tim, of course.
Tim: You bet. My pleasure.
Thanks for tuning in to the Side B Podcast to hear Dawn Simon’s story. You can find out more about Dawn and Tim Stratton, as well as their recommended resources, in our episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you enjoyed it, I hope you’ll follow and share this podcast with your friends and that you’ll rate and review it as well. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.