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George Brahm examines why the Christian atheist’s dialogue with Esther O’Reilly was so important
The recent Douglas Murray-Esther O’Reilly dialogue was different from most Unbelievable? conversations, to say the least.
Murray is a prolific humanist writer and social critic who has authored two bestselling books so far, including the recent The Madness of Crowds. A member of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ (IDW), he finds himself in the odd position of being a self-professed non-believer who nevertheless has great respect and admiration for Christianity and the positive role it has played in building Western civilization - to the point of calling himself a ‘Christian atheist’.
O’Reilly is a prolific Christian conservative writer, social critic, and up-and-coming public intellectual whose work has focused both on promoting Christian humanism and commenting on the ‘meaning crisis’ and the IDW movement.
The two have too much in common to function as sparring partners, and true to form, managed to agree on almost every single point during the course of the discussion. And yet, they also managed to put out the most satisfying Unbelievable? conversation I’ve heard over my four years of listening to the show. How did that happen?
Introducing the ‘Christian atheist’
Early in the conversation, Murray explained why he identifies as a ‘Christian atheist’. He was brought up in the church, something he maintained till his late 20s. Despite losing his faith in God since then, his overall worldview remains deeply influenced by his Christian roots; to use the words he likes to borrow from a fellow Anglican-turned-atheist Don Cupitt, he “still dreams Christian dreams”. In fact, this is something that distinguishes Murray from the New Atheists, all of whom he is (or was) acquainted with; he not only disagrees with the idea that Christianity poisons everything, but further points out that “you cannot take Christianity out of the West and have anything that’s recognizably the West”.
A manifestation of this ‘Christian atheism’ shows up in one of the sections in Murray’s book - a powerful interlude in which he posits that forgiveness is a more virtuous and viable alternative to the ‘cancel culture’ that we find ourselves in.
It was no surprise, then, that O’Reilly brought up the issue of forgiveness, when asked about how the West had substituted the Christian narrative with toxic identity politics. She pointed to the case of Amber Guyger, a white policewoman who negligently killed an African-American man in his own home, and how Brandt Jean, the brother of the man she had murdered, publicly and heroically chose to forgive her for what she had done at her sentencing.
The curious thing, O’Reilly noted, was that many who reacted to this incredible story chose to racialize it - to make it about an African-American man performing an act of ‘black forgiveness’ and whether or not it was appropriate for a black person to forgive a white person in that way - thereby eliminating the individuality of the people involved, which was what made the story so powerful in the first place.
Murray concurred, before making one of the most surprising admissions you will hear from an atheist. Many of Christ’s moral teachings can be found in other sources that pre-date Christianity, he said, but the “stand-out exception to that” is “the revolutionary moral insight” that Christ showed by calling on people to love and forgive their enemies. The very idea, Murray says, is so “counter-intuitive and world-changing”, and the sheer amount of grace on display makes us marvel at moments like the one between Brandt Jean and Amber Guyger.
This tendency to marvel, Murray points out, can only make sense if our conception of forgiveness is uniquely rooted in the teachings of Christ. As he points out in Madness, the West’s desire to do away with its Judaeo-Christian foundations is reflected in the rise of ‘cancel culture’ and our general inability to forgive one another.
I suspect that Murray has inadvertently provided a solution to a challenge posed by one of his former mentors. During his many debates with theists, the late Christopher Hitchens was known to make the following claim - "I challenge you to find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion; it is impossible, you cannot do it.” We could read this charitably to mean that every moral action accomplished in a world with religion can also be accomplished in a world without it.
If Murray is right, a world without Christianity cannot account for what makes forgiveness a morally admirable response in the face of evil. In an atheist’s world, Brandt Jean’s actions would not just be meaningless, but foolish; not avenging the murderer of one’s kinsmen would be a sign of weakness, worthy of elimination by natural selection. As Chesterton put it, it was Christianity that came in with the sword and “divided the crime from the criminal”, allowing Jean to love his brother’s murderer as a fellow image-bearer of the same God. And I strongly suspect that Murray would agree with me here.
On sanctity and identity
As the discussion progressed, Brierley shifted the focus to another notion that Murray and O’Reilly have both passionately defended in the past, namely the sanctity of human life. In fact, both of them agree that the pervasiveness of this notion in the West cannot arise apart from our Judaeo-Christian foundations.
Murray pointed out that our inability to construct a meaningful understanding of the sanctity of the individual apart from religious principles is a “real vulnerability of the godless worldview,” a problem he considers worth pointing to, despite not knowing the solution. He also admitted to fearing the ramifications of jettisoning our religious narratives. He referred to the case of Nancy Verhelst that O’Reilly mentioned earlier in the discussion - a woman who underwent a gender transition in a failed attempt to resolve her mental health issues, before being euthanized by the Belgian government. Both the medical experiment that was the gender transition and the ensuing act of euthanasia, Murray points out, were done in the name of ‘solving’ Verhelst’s problems.
“But what is the ‘solving’ bit of that?” he wondered out loud. “I'm just struck by the number of questions behind the case that just aren't asked or thought about, and we sort of wave it aside…I think that future generations will look at something like that and say, what were they thinking? What were they thinking?”
Borrowing from Christian thinker Nancy Pearcey, O’Reilly noted that modern society has committed itself to a “Gnostic divorce of the body from the soul”, treating the body like a shell with no significant worth. It is easy to assume, then, that mutilating your body will do no real harm to your ‘self’ per se.
Brierley then asked O’Reilly to speak on what Christianity had to offer those who were in a crisis of identity.
Referring to a point earlier in the conversation when Murray had pointed out that the tossing out of Judaeo-Christian values in the West had led many to adopt a kind of toxic identity politics as their religion, O’Reilly reiterated the dangers of finding one’s identity in superficial markers like race or gender, or a social cause like environmentalism. These transient things are bound to ultimately let you down. Our identity needs to be rooted in something more permanent and fundamental, she said, which in Christianity happens to be our identity in Christ.
O’Reilly takes a deeper plunge into these issues in an essay she penned for an upcoming book on Jordan Peterson’s thought titled Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson. A particularly powerful segment of her essay focuses on the “decoupling of humanity from ‘personhood’”, critiquing modern bioethicists like Peter Singer. From behind the façade of ‘animal rights’, they pose a significant challenge to the traditional understanding of human sanctity, seeking to equate our value with that of other animals. (This is a point she also addressed in a piece for Premier Christianity.)
One of the quotes she uses to summarize the decay of the notion of sanctity under secularism comes from Murray himself, “The more atheists think on these things, the more we may have to accept that the concept of the sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive Judeo-Christian civilization.”
So, why still an atheist, Douglas?
Two-thirds of the way through the dialogue, Brierley decided to pull out his ‘evangelist’s hat’. There is a serious crisis of identity in the West, he said, and Murray seems to agree that all secular attempts to solve it have ended in failure. Could this not be an argument for an ultimate Being that gives us meaning, dignity, and purpose?
Murray’s response was a thoughtful one. Many have asked him, “Now that you’ve noted all these problems with secularism, why don’t you just believe in God?”, to which his response has always been that he genuinely finds it difficult to accept certain aspects of the Christian argument, regardless of whether he recognizes the terrible things that happen in Christianity’s absence. Belief in God, he noted, cannot be faked or forced. O’Reilly chimed in to say that she wouldn’t be among those who say, “Come on, Douglas, why don’t you just believe?” She also noted that if men are rational animals, then God must deal with them as such, and hence there can be evidence that fully satisfies man’s search for these truths, both intellectually and spiritually, as opposed to requiring a blind leap of faith. The historical reliability of the New Testament, for instance, is one such piece of evidence, since it attests to the truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. This evidence is available to all who wish to judge it, point by point.
Then, in an interesting turn of events, Brierley asked Murray what it would take for him to make a return to faith in God and Christianity. “I think I’d need to hear a voice,” Murray said. “Oh, literally a voice from beyond?” Brierley asked.” “Oh yes,” Murray replied, “I mean it literally.” He further admitted to being fascinated by the lack of such experiences in the West when compared to places like the Middle East or Africa, and the utter incredulity with which Christians in the West treat individuals who either expect or claim to have had such experiences; after all, “that is and has historically been one of the ways in which religion has thrived, in visions.”
I have two observations to make here. First, it is easy to interpret Murray as giving an excuse for continuing in his unbelief, but the way in which he qualifies it leads me to see this as an uncharitable interpretation. Rather, he seems to be asking a sincere question, “Why don’t we take these sorts of experiences more seriously in the West, why don’t they happen more often, and what’s wrong with wishing for them?” (O’Reilly agrees with this interpretation in a blog post she wrote as a follow-up to the dialogue.) And this is a question worth addressing, which brings me to my second observation.
As a Christian, I believe that God has set the times and places in which each individual in history must live (Acts 17:26), and he reveals himself to individuals at various times and places in different ways, based on the means that they possess. Those of us placed in the West today are faced with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the evidence uncovered in favour of the historical reliability of the Gospels - something that most people throughout history didn’t have access to, and many in the world continue to lack access to.
To answer Murray’s question, then, we have historical evidence for Christianity today that is far superior to an isolated personal revelation. As O’Reilly put it in the dialogue, we can test and establish the claims of Christianity just as we can test and establish anything else in history. And for this reason, Murray’s query, while admittedly sincere, is not one that should bother the Christian.
Something happened in Galilee
Near the end of the dialogue, Murray once again admitted to something fascinating. Earlier in 2019, he had taken a trip to Israel, where he spent a lot of time around Galilee in particular. Upon his return, a Christian friend of his asked him whether he had ‘felt’ anything when he was there. Murray said that he did feel something; throughout his time in Galilee, there was one thought that he couldn’t get out of his head, “Something happened here. Something happened here.” Something, but he wasn’t sure what.
O’Reilly ended the discussion with a beautiful story about the time Winston Churchill met the evangelist Billy Graham (a story you can read here), and Graham’s declaration that he had a hope in his life thanks to the message of Christ in the New Testament. “It is that same hope that I would extend to you now, Douglas,” O’Reilly said, “because you seem like a man who could use it.”
This was a fitting conclusion for a dialogue that felt like a breath of fresh air in the landscape of Christian-atheist discussions. An honest and open-minded atheist like Douglas Murray is always refreshing, but pairing him with a fellow humanist in Esther O’Reilly, someone who could both empathize with Murray’s perspective but also offer something unique from the Christian one, was an utterly brilliant move on Brierley’s part.
My hope is that this discussion encourages Christians to look into the work of humanists like Murray who force us to look beyond the archetype of the village atheist that we have constructed in our minds (no thanks to Richard Dawkins and Co., of course). At the same time, I hope it encourages non-believers to look beyond the stereotypical ‘Don’t think, just believe’ kind of Christianity that they have been brought up with, and toward the thoughtful Christianity of O’Reilly and others. But most importantly, I pray that Murray himself continues in his earnest struggle to find truth. For I am certain that it will one day lead to a satisfying conclusion, when he finally discovers what really happened in Galilee.
George Brahm is a philosophy student based in Canada. He also runs Cogent Christianity, a group blog on philosophical, theological, and cultural issues.”
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