If there is anyone in the UK who has done the most to put apologetics back into the Christian mainstream, it is Justin Brierley, the former radio host of the apologetics debate show called Premier Unbelievable. Once a week for seventeen years, Brierley faithfully brought together a non-Christian and a Christian to debate such topics as whether Jesus rose from the dead and whether the universe’s so-called fine tuning is evidence for a Creator God. Most of the time the conversations were urbane, but occasionally matters turned adversarial, with Brierley admitting on one occasion that he had to threaten both guests with the termination of the recording if they did not cease exchanging childish obloquy. That is certainly Brierley’s gift: to set conversations going with the consequence that Christianity is presented as an intellectually and morally robust faith and not the harmful superstition that it was caricatured as by the New Atheists.
Brierley recently moved on from Unbelievable and now instead of playing the part of the flecklessly neutral host who foregrounds others’ voices, he has found his own and has reinvented himself as a freelance apologist who podcasts, speaks at conferences, and writes. His second book, the loquaciously titled The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism Grew Old and Secular Thinkers are Considering Christianity Again, has just been published. The hypothesis of the book is in the title, but the book achieves much more and to some extent less than it aims for.
The book begins with what is in danger of becoming a cliché within any discussion of loss of faith: a quotation from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach in which the narrator metaphorically describes religious faith as a sea whose tide in the increasingly secular West is receding. Arnold wrote the poem in 1851 and it was published in 1867. Although the Victorian Age has a reputation of high church attendance and a public commitment to Christian moral ideals, culturally sensitive people such as Arnold were already sensing a growing undercurrent (to extend the sea metaphor) of skepticism. Arnold lamented Christianity’s ebb, for he foresaw that without Christianity, life would descend into spiritual darkness, ignorance, and war. What makes Brierley’s use of this metaphor new is an idea he picked up from a conversation about Christianity with the journalist Douglas Murray. Murray, who intriguingly describes himself as a Christian atheist, observed that tides go out, but they also come in. This set Brierley thinking, and, in this book, he believes he has the evidence not only that there is a renewed interest in Christianity among secular thinkers, but that there is good reason to think that this might lead to a resurgence of Christian faith among the general population. The tide of faith, Brierley divines, is about to turn.
Something had to move out of the way for there to be a renewed interest in Christianity. Brierley identifies the spectacular nonfeasance of New Atheism as paving the way. Whilst New Atheism dominated the Media and so-called social media from about 2006 until 2016, Christianity was derided as intellectually bankrupt and morally heinous. The acerbic biologist Richard Dawkins, one of the movement’s de facto leaders, became renowned for calling God a genocidal maniac. Another leader, the journalist and honey-lipped rhetorician, Christopher Hitchens, avouched bombastically that all religions poison everything. It seemed as if the Western world was hurtling towards an inevasible secular revolution and the rest of the world too. Yet no revolution came, and humanity is as religious and spiritual as it ever was. Even in the West, people according to surveys are far more likely to describe themselves as spiritual than as atheists and agnostics.
Brierley’s diagnosis of why this pugilistic, evangelistic atheism fell from its cultural perch is true. One cause is that it was riven with division over whether it ought to be simply a secularizing movement of people who do not believe in God or whether it ought also to campaign on social justice issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and intersectional oppression. These divisions never healed and so the movement slivered into many competing factions. A copious feeling of schadenfreude is almost irresistible at this point, for was it not the New Atheists who declared religion to be reprehensible partly because of its schisms?
Another reason Brierley gives for New Atheism’s quietus is that the existential story it told was that of materialism in which all that exists is matter. Materialism is the most popular philosophy within academe, yet it is a bleak view of existence, for by its lights, no one survives his or her death, and the universe is destined to end in a heat death, thus all trace of humanity and any other living being will be expunged. Brierley discerns that people want a different story that is sanguine. The grim nature of materialism does not thereby make it untrue, for truth is often ugly and dispiriting (think of the truth of a terminal cancer prognosis) and that is something that Brierley needed to state in his book. Talk of materialist and faith narratives and being on a journey of discovery is a la mode in our supposedly postmodernist world, but the question of whether any of these grand narratives is true cannot be obviated. Nonetheless, Brierley is right: the desire for another account of reality makes people open to the return of the Christian hope of everlasting life.
One of New Atheism’s objectives was to remove religion from the public square and confine it to the sphere of private belief. Religion would have no further role in shaping the politics and culture of the West. One of the strengths of Brierley’s book is that it highlights the historical fact that the West with its political and moral culture is a product of Christianity. Therefore, if the West jettisons Christianity, it destroys the foundation on which it rests and loses great moral axioms such as the equal value of all human beings and the duty to care for the vulnerable. Brierley references the novelist and historian Tom Holland as one who has come to the powerful realization of how much the West is a product of Christianity and that there does not seem to be a viable alternative to Christianity. Yet, this idea is hardly new. Was it not Friedrich Nietzsche, that era-shaking philosophe and dyspeptic recluse of the latter 19th century, who wrote of such a thing from his mountainous Swiss refuges, and terrified of the abyss into which a godless civilization was headed, romantically imagined those free spirits who would forge a new morality in the face of life’s tragic meaninglessness? It is surprising that Brierley makes no mention of Nietzsche, but perhaps such a tortured, towering genius would be too disquieting a figure for the good-natured, smiling audiences of Brierley’s middle-brow prose.
So, who are the non-Christian intellectuals who are showing interest once more in Christianity? Brierley summons an impressive list. Apart from the aforementioned Holland, there is the Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who is notorious for challenging identity politics and feminism’s equal outcomes mantra and who derives his advice for living from the Bible. There is Peter Boghossian, a former philosophy professor, whose hostility to religion was so great, he penned a book by the forthright title, A Manual for Creating Atheists. Boghossian now spends much time challenging transgender ideologies and regards Christians as valuable allies in this. Another member of the list is the virtuoso of style, Douglas Murray, mentioned earlier as the origin of the metaphor of religion’s returning tide. Despite his disbelief, Murray recognizes the extraordinary value of Christian virtues on an individual and a social level. Another journalist who has come to value religion is Bari Weiss, the former writer for the New York Times, who recognizes, as indeed Christopher Hitchens did despite his atheist credentials, the abiding importance of the religious impulse. Dave Rubin, the once progressive left comedian turned right-leaning commentator, is exploring Judaism and Christianity, and has no time for what he regards as the intolerant liberal-left. To this stellar list, Brierley adds the feminist icon, Germaine Greer, who has praised her Catholic school for presenting her with strong female role models in the form of the nuns who taught her, Brett Weinstein, the evolutionary biologist, who though he denies any religion is literally true, sees metaphysical truth in it nonetheless, the actor David Suchet who converted to Christianity from reading the epistle to the Romans and the Gospels, and the former eco-activist Paul Kingsnorth who, to his great surprise, found himself converting to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
It is of note that most of the above intellectuals are highly critical of progressive politics in the form of transgenderism and some have taken contemporary feminism to task. Brierley acknowledges this in his short biographies on each thinker but avoids asking the contentious question as to whether a Christian consciousness, or one that is sympathetic to Christianity, is antithetical to radical leftism (it is). Brierley’s refusal to take a political stance is the Brierley of Unbelievable: the one who scrupulously maintains public neutrality on factious secondary matters for the sake of maintaining an audience. But it is an interesting question and one that Brierley in future interviews ought to address.
Brierley’s list of public intellectual superstars certainly proves the point that it is possible these days for Christians and non-Christians to have debates without resorting to the futile mudslinging of the New Atheists and indeed, sad to say, some Christians. It is true also that Christianity has become respectable in the eyes of some. But are these names enough to be able to suggest, as confidently as Brierley does, that a profound shift in the zeitgeist is on its way? I am not so sure as Brierley. Most opinion within academe across the West and most of the Media remains either in opposition to Christianity, indifferent to it, or neutral. Brierley’s second metaphor expresses his optimism: these public influencers are the ‘first fruits’ of a cultural sea-change. That may be the case and I hope and pray that Brierley is right. But there have been times past when there has been a renewed interest and conversion to Christianity by conspicuous people and yet the decline of belief was not arrested. Take, for instance, C. S. Lewis and his generation of prominent Christians and theists such as Dorothy L. Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Owen Barfield. What added to the attraction of their message was the urgencies of World War Two which drove people in their thousands to pray in cathedrals for national deliverance. Yet this powerful combination of intellectual and creative brilliance and new fund devotion in the face of impending invasion and doom was insufficient to turn the tide of British Christianity’s decline. The question that Brierley needs to face to strengthen his case is what is so different about today’s crop of public minds who are warm to Christianity or who have embraced it that we can expect culture’s tectonic plates to shift?
In chapters four, five and six, Brierley lays aside the prophet’s mantle and dons the philosopher’s cloak. He addresses in admirably lucid prose three challenges that were at the heart of New Atheism and which remain at the centre of the skeptics’ challenges to Christianity’s truthfulness: the Bible’s historicity, Christianity’s relationship to science and whether matter is all that there is. The usefulness of these chapters is that they present alongside stock defenses of Christianity new insights from a range of experts who are either Christians or who are sympathetic to its worldview. Thus, we meet the brilliant polymath, Lydia McGrew, who argues that there are undesigned coincidences between the separate Gospel accounts that testify to their verisimilitude. We also meet the world-leading historian of science, John Hedley Brooke, who sees Western science’s quest to understand the universe’s order as having been inspired by the Christian idea of a Creator. We also encounter the climactic research of brain scientist, Aaron Schurger, who has done much to assert the existence of human free will contrarily to materialist determinism. These chapters are a valuable part of the apologist’s arsenal when dealing with New Atheist animadversions that the Bible was the product of savage, iron-age sheep drivers, psychotic Jesus-freaks and hysterical epileptics, that the papacy was and is the greatest enemy of scientific progress, and that talk of souls and free-will is medieval clap-trap. As Brierley was a perceptive summarizer of the views of his talk show’s guests’, so he is again in print for the benefit of believers and unbelievers alike.
Brierley’s book is also very practical. He asks the poignant question of whether the Church is ready to receive all the many people who he anticipates will come asking about salvation. He doubts it is and he presents three things he thinks the Church ought to do to accommodate curious newcomers. Of the three measures, the most interesting is Brierley’s view that the Church must capture with its Gospel message both the imagination and reason of people. This idea appears to have been inspired by Oxford psychologist and panpsychist Iain McGilchrist for whom the best cultures are those that honor equally the imagination of the brain’s right hemisphere with the reason of the left hemisphere. For apologists such as me for whom apologetics have been a purely reason-based activity, this is a radical and much-needed adjustment. Brierley rightly sees an appeal to the imagination as the means to making Christianity attractive to unbelievers. It is not enough to make people see that Christianity is true; it is imperative also to convince them that it is desirable that it is true. Once a person draws both conclusions, his or her conversion is not long in coming.
One final point in closing. Brierley makes the same mistake as yours truly has done and that is to assume that all atheists are materialists and cannot avoid the conclusion of moral relativism. Most atheists are materialists, but there are those who argue for non-material realities such as a godless afterlife. There is also a tradition within atheism of arguing for moral objectivism. It would help Brierley’s case if he acknowledged this and addressed these arguments also.
Should you buy this book? Yes, of course. It is accessible, intelligent, and written for the cause of the Gospel. But whether the receding tide of unbelief is about to turn into the incoming tide of belief is a question of be ready, for it may happen, but it may not. As I have said: I hope Brierley is right, but these are matters of God’s sovereign will and our faithfulness in intercession. It is a matter of wait and see.