How big a part does reason play in conversion to Christianity? Heather Tomlinson talks to some who found that it was rational argument, not emotional experience, which lead them to Christ
When I started my degree in molecular biology, I wasn’t a Christian. I had a vague belief in God and an interest in spiritual things, like many people. By the time I finished the degree, I was more convinced there was a God. Spending three years studying the intricacies of how living beings are made, observing the complexity and the wonder, left me certain there was a creator. It was a number of years before I started to seriously explore the Christian faith, but some seeds were sown by my scientific study.
Yet Richard Dawkins has been doing his very best to convince the public that atheism is the only outcome from genuine rational or scientific inquiry. This can only be seen as total rubbish: some of the most prestigious scientists in the world are Christians. Perhaps most notably, in Dawkins’ field at least, is the man who led the Human Genome project, Francis Collins – a highly respected scientist and an evangelical Christian. But there are many others in all kinds of sciences and intellectual pursuits.
Far from rational inquiry leading to atheism, many people have found that when they investigated with an open mind, they actually found faith from the process. Particularly in philosophy and physics, but also in other disciplines, the intellectual arguments for belief in God are getting stronger. And sometimes, rational argument played the major role in a person’s conversion to Christ.Philosophy and Faith
When Tom Price was a teenager, he was pretty rebellious. That meant rejecting the Christian faith of his parents, which he thought was ‘nonsense’ and ‘ridiculous’. At university, he asked the head of his department (computer science) whether computers would ever be able to think like humans, and he was stunned by the response. ‘It all depends on what you think is the answer to this question: “Is there something more to human beings, a spark or a soul, or are we just a biochemical machine?”’
This insightful answer led Price to switch to philosophy as a discipline. As he studied and engaged with questions through academia and the arts, his views on God started to change. ‘I came to the view through philosophy and watching films, that there was something to this Jesus, someone who was in touch with reality,’ he recalls.
This coincided with the conversion of the famous atheist philosopher, Antony Flew, to a belief in God, although not an orthodox Christian faith. Along with reading the philosophers Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga, Price realised that there were strong arguments for faith from the field of philosophy. ‘Even the atheists regard [theism] as an intellectually credible option,’ he says. ‘The theists weren’t being laughed out of court. They were being taken really seriously. This was not what I expected to see. It was infuriating because of my parents; I didn’t want to be like them.
‘I started to say to myself, it actually looks like Jesus is up to something, interacting with people’s lives. Jesus is probably God, and God definitely exists.’
Along with other rational arguments, Price was convinced. He gave his life to Christ, and felt a ‘tangible feeling of peace and forgiveness’. He acknowledges the role that rational arguments played to get him to this point. ‘My conversion was because of reasons and because of evidence and arguments, both from abstractive philosophy and film and arts, then it became more personal through an experience,’ he says. ‘Since that moment, I’ve had a real living conversation with Jesus. He’s not just an idea, he’s in my life. He answers my prayers and knows me.’ Price has fully reconciled with his parents, and is now a tutor for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, the leading establishment for the rational defence of the faith in the UK.
Rational arguments that also persuaded Price were those related to morals, and those related to the ‘fine tuning’ of the universe. In a nutshell, the moral argument is: If there is no God, how do you know what is right and wrong? It can be difficult to argue why things are wrong or right, without a lawgiver. From science there is another strong argument: The physical properties and laws of the universe are perfect for life.Persuasive Atheists
Despite this kind of scientific evidence for the existence of God, Dawkins and others have done a good job of deceiving people that a rational, scientific approach to the question of God leads one to be an atheist. This argument was convincing Peter Byrom, who works in design and the media. He had rejected his parents’ faith and thought Dawkins et al were really persuasive.
‘They’re demanding evidence, and where is the evidence?’ thought Byrom at the time. ‘They were looking extremely convincing. I really felt like I did have to investigate the issue, if only to make sure I could be comfortable about Christianity being false.’ Some Christians he observed did a terrible job at defending their faith, but then he came across some of the heavier hitters, who have found their niche since the publication of Dawkins’ The God Delusion. John Lennox, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, was particularly persuasive, as was the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. Their debates with atheists are available on the Internet, and Byrom was fascinated. ‘I was seeing the atheists… having a lot of difficulty... [There were] some really challenging arguments,’ he says. ‘It did look like there was much more credible evidence and reasons for Christianity than Dawkins was saying. There were some really good, very clearly articulated, sophisticated academic arguments for the truth of Christianity.’
As the rational arguments lost their strength, Byrom found himself questioning his position. ‘I had to realise I couldn’t use intellectual objections as a smokescreen or shield from Christianity. I couldn’t hide behind arguments. It was almost like a big hand coming down and yanking a shield away. I was left exposed, thinking, “What else do I have left?” You have to check: Am I trying to run away from all this for personal, emotional reasons?’ Last October, Byrom became a Christian.The Foolishness of the Cross
There are those who say that there is no rational argument for God, and we should be happy with that. John Wilkinson, a pastor at LCBC church in Pennsylvania, USA, in his book No Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith (IVP) argues that we shouldn’t expect faith to be rational, because it isn’t. When he went to Penn State University to study philosophy and religion, he was faced with an atheist ‘Goliath’ – a professor who ‘saw as his mission to suck the faith out of every student’. Wilkinson was no exception, and he faced a crisis of faith. But this was not addressed by a counter-argument using reason and wit. Instead, he told God that he chose to believe in him. ‘Shortly after… I felt a very calming and soothing presence,’ he records. ‘Something like a warm hand on my shoulders. I heard, “there, now we can begin”.’ Wilkinson seems to think that we can ignore rational arguments for God, and the science behind it, and instead we should celebrate that Christianity is irrational.Faith Needs Reason
Chris Sinkinson, a lecturer in Old Testament and apologetics at Moorlands College, says it’s important to know the reasons for belief beyond emotional experience. ‘I think it is crucial to present a rational case for faith. In our postmodern culture, people need to understand faith not based on the feelings we have, but fundamentally based on it being true, publicly true, true to the way things really are.
‘I worry that we are in danger of creating very shallow discipleship where people are drawn to the emotions or the feelings that go with Christianity, but their minds aren’t really converted,’ he adds. ‘One of the most obvious apologetic questions is, “Why does God allow suffering?” It really disturbs me that it causes Christians to stumble in their faith, as if no Christians had ever considered that question before. In the Bible the problem of suffering is present on pretty much every page. It’s a question that shouldn’t take us by surprise.’
This can be a particularly acute problem for young people as they go to university. If they have not been given a clear understanding of the rational case for Christianity, when they meet the rational cases for other points of view, away from their parents, then they can lose their faith. ‘There can be tragic examples of those who fall away because [they are] not equipped to deal with objections or alternatives,’ says Sinkinson, who is also the author of Confident Christianity: Conversations that lead to the cross (IVP). ‘We need to know why we believe what we believe and we need to be equipping young people to handle this changing culture all around us.’
Ruth Bancewicz, at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, says Christians also need to be careful that they are not presenting faith as irrational, or insisting that science opposes faith. ‘For some academics, reconciling science and faith has been a battle, because it was presented to them as a battle when they were younger,’ she says.
St Paul talks of the ‘foolishness of the cross’ (see 1 Corinthians 1:18) – but only for those ‘headed for destruction’ (Philippians 3:19). The good reasons for believing can and do draw people to Christ.
‘MY OWN CONVERSION WAS VERY INTELLECTUAL’Alister McGrath is now one of our best-known theologians, and president of the Oxford Centre of Christian Apologetics. But as a child he was a committed atheist. It was when he went to Oxford University to study chemistry that he discovered rational reasons to believe...
‘I think when I was younger I took the view you could only believe things that could be proved, so atheism was the only intellectually respectable way of thinking. That didn’t leave you with very much; it was a very metaphysically bleak way of looking at things.
I came up to Oxford. I’d done a lot of reading on the philosophy of science and began to realise that science wasn’t as straightforward as I thought. [Science] was about saying, we’ve got good reasons for thinking things are right, but we can’t actually prove these things. When I arrived at Oxford I was going through a period of thinking that maybe atheism [wasn’t] as secure as I thought it was. My fear was, I’m 18 now, I’ve got to sort things out, I’ve got to go through things one more time and then I’m done, closing the whole thing down.
What moved things on was beginning to talk to some Christians, and thinking, ‘This thing does make a lot of sense.’ There was a growing realisation that intellectually atheism was weaker than I thought, and Christianity [had] a lot more going for it than I realised. I can’t put my finger on a definite moment when I said I’m going to become a Christian. I know that when I left home I was an atheist, [and] when I came back for my first Christmas, I was a Christian. At some point in those eight weeks, something happened.
Everyone is different. I’m the kind of person who likes to make sense of things. I know from many conversations that a lot of people come to faith for completely different reasons. My own conversion was very intellectual. It wasn’t that I needed to be loved, or looking for purpose. It was much more about, ‘This Christianity stuff actually works; it gives us a better way of understanding things.’ It was my starting point.’
‘GOD WAS USING THE BARRIER, SCIENCE, TO BREAK THROUGH MY AGNOSTICISM’Graham Swinerd is a retired scientist, specialising in space science and engineering, and now a visitor at the University of Southampton. His conversion began with a realisation that the physical properties of the universe were finely tuned for life, while sitting by a swimming pool on holiday...
Before I came to faith, I spent 50 years of my life as an agnostic scientist, and believed that God was irrelevant. My view at that time was that there certainly wasn’t any need for God, as science had explained everything – the usual ‘science delusion’.
The change in my life, which occurred 11 years ago now, came out of the blue. I had always known the anthropic principle – that the universe has to be structured in order to support life, otherwise clearly we would not be here to contemplate it all. However, on a family holiday in 2001, I began to think about this a little more deeply. The explosion in knowledge of the universe, it seemed to me, had given the anthropic principle a fresh and sharper edge. I realised that if you changed the fundamental characteristics of the universe – the masses of the subatomic particles or the strengths of the fundamental forces – life wouldn’t be possible. And it wasn’t just moderate changes. Our newly enhanced understanding of the universe was telling us that if you change the fundamental parameters by a fraction of 1% then you find that you change the universe in such a way that it would be devoid of complex chemical or physical entities, like people. So the universe does seem to be an extremely unlikely place, and it’s become a challenge to the physics community to explain why it is so finely tuned so that we can be here.
What was happening was that God was using the barrier, science, to break through my agnosticism. What it did, I suppose, was to put me into a place in the autumn of 2001 where I could contemplate going on an Alpha course. On the course, I remember that my fundamental philosophy at the time was that I wished to understand everything before I believed it. That was the scientific outlook that had driven my life for 50 years. It was clearly a naïve approach, and an impossible task.
We could have spent time around the table discussing it forever, and the discussion would not have moved me. The turning point for me was the course ‘away day’, where the focus of attention was the Holy Spirit. They had this session which I thought was a bit weird at the time, inviting the Spirit to come. On the day, I felt that the Spirit put a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Hey, this is about you as well.’ It is difficult to describe. It was an unwelcome thing at the time, as it was an affront to my philosophy of life. It was that afternoon that you could say I came to faith, but it took me a long time to realise what had happened, and to come to terms with it.
The average layman thinks we understand the origins of life, because that’s the way the media talks to us. But in fact we don’t understand where it all came from, how life came from non-life. There are so many mysteries yet to be revealed and examined in this amazing universe in which we live.