Review: Unbelievable? Why, After 10 Years of Talking With Atheists, I’m Still a Christian

Quakers like words, and they produce enough of them, but if there is one form of words they are perhaps sceptical about, it is probably that type that is called ‘Apologetics’. Apologetics have been with Christianity since the very beginning; Christ himself engaged in them with his disputes against the Pharisees and Sadducees, and St Peter himself, as Justin Brierley notes, advises Christians to ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks of you the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3.15). Indeed, Christianity has been arguing with the world ever since its foundation; and whereas in the first century AD the opponents were either, mainly, the Jewish legalists or the pagans, now the enemy on the doorstep tends to be the atheists with their assault on Christianity in particular and religions in general. But as I say, Quakers tend to be apologetics-averse and for two very good reasons: first, because they are not a credal-type of religion, and so just as this makes them trickier to attack, so they have less reason to rebut and dispute; and this leads to the second reason, which is that the lack of creeds is quite deliberate in that early on Quakers realised that words, and forms of words, led to ceaseless wrangling – and even actual violence – that contradicted the spirit of Christ and what His inner meaning is: namely, peace and love. For these reasons, then, Quakerism does not much engage in apologetics, and prefers to be more experiential than intellectual in its approach to true religion.

I am a Quaker myself, so obviously I think this is a good thing. But I can also see its danger; and one such danger that I frequently encounter and is directly attributable to the lack of apologetics – or ‘think-through’ – is that acceptance of a wishy-washy kind of love that accepts everybody and so proclaims that all religions are equal, we are all on the same path, and we are all – eventually – going to the same destination. To me this (not the acceptance of all people but the belief consequent from it) is self-evident tosh because, were it true, there would be no reason to become a Quaker; indeed, why adopt any religion at all if all roads lead to the same place? The answer that one simply prefers being a Quaker is so weak because it leads one into the wilderness of entire subjectivism, and all that that entails, which includes deep atheism and the undermining of all true morality (which Quakers, wishing to emphasise the power of love, are most keen to sustain).

Thus, a book like Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable”, on the face of it, is not a book that many Quakers are going to like. It is published by SPCK, so has an evangelical flavour anyway; it is overtly argumentative (though in a deeply respectful way – more anon on this); and it explicitly supports traditional and credal Christianity (an anathema to many Quakers). So, should you buy or read it?

Well, in my opinion, absolutely yes: I loved the book, and I think all fair-minded Quakers will. I wasn’t aware before I read it that there is a radio station in Oxford called Premier Christian Radio (available in podcasts, so you don’t need to be in Oxford) whose flagship programme is called, Unbelievable?, and on a weekly basis for the last ten years or more Justin Brierley invites two guests (it started with one atheist and one Christian, but expanded to include other religions) to debate their beliefs, and he hosts/referees this. It has led to some phenomenal guests either appearing in the show or in his being able to contact and interview; for example, famous types like Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins on behalf of atheists, and people of the stature of Alister McGrath and William Lane Craig on behalf of Christianity. The thing is, and what is so refreshing, is the respect and devotion almost, that Brierley pays to the ‘opposition’. There is no doubt he is a Christian and where his loyalties rest, but it is clear too that the best arguments for atheism have seriously challenged his position, his beliefs, and he has had to do some very heavy wrestling to be able to remain standing in his faith.

What we get in this book is a wonderfully respectful account of the very best arguments for atheism, often using the words from the ‘expert’ atheists themselves; and we get some of their adversaries’ ripostes and gems of wisdom too; and we get Brierley in the middle trying to make sense of it and, critically, truly anxious to avoid trivialising the matters or ever appearing smug about them. Towards the end of the book he observes, perhaps ruefully, but accurately: “In the end, nobody gets argued into the kingdom of heaven”.

Because he starts from this respectful, opening, and listening base, the net result is that I think this is one of the best books on apologetics I have read – and I have read a lot. There is a clarity here which is a joy to read, and especially to follow his thinking as it emerges. It would be too much to describe all that he covers, but in my view there are 4 main (‘main’ in the sense that ordinary people can get it – not just philosophers and theologians) arguments for the existence of God and subsequently of Christianity: one, the argument from design and the structure of the cosmos; two, the argument from the existence of objective morality; three, the historical argument, which includes discussion of the Bible and other related historical documents; and four, the one that Quakers especially like, the argument from personal experience. The pros and cons of each of these arguments are superbly covered in this book, and I found myself gaining new insights and perspectives from reading it.

For example, he quotes Os Guinness tellingly: “The Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true”. Or, take the surprising riposte to atheism’s most effective argument against God, the problem of pain and suffering. Brierley, whilst exhibiting due compassion and humility in the face of what often appears to be its full enormity, then turns its cutting edge wholly against the atheists themselves: “Within Christian belief, suffering is at least a mystery we can hope to make sense of. In atheism, it is simply meaningless.” That – that – is perfectly put. It’s all very well atheists going on about ‘How can a loving God allow… ” but what do they offer by way of exchange? Absolutely nothing at all, except we die, we rot. A more hopeless and useless position, it seems to me, cannot be imagined. If the situation of human life is bad with Christianity, then, Brierley is suggesting, atheism only makes it far worse.

There are nuggets of insight and information everywhere in the book. I was amused towards the end by a statistic that Brierley quotes that, despite the disproportionate noise that atheism makes, on a global level atheism is shrinking as a proportion of the world’s population: “In 1970, atheists made up 4.5% of the world’s population. That figure shrank to 2% in 2010 and is projected to drop to 1.8% by 2020″. However, Brierley certainly doesn’t wish for them not to exist! Au contraire, he fully acknowledges what he has learnt from them, and how their existence how sharpened his own Christianity; for the truth is, it is so easy to become complacent about religion and dismissive of other people’s perspectives, and to retire into private spiritual ghettos. The Dawkins of this world, then, provide – despite their intentions – a salutary wake-up call to Christianity to get its act together, and to get its thinking right.

Finally, there is a lot in this book – since I have already mentioned Dawkins – about science and its supposed incompatibility with God. Clearly, Brierley rejects this notion and adduces a lot of authorities and ideas which also reject it too. But there is a wonderful quotation which he uses as an epigraph to Chapter 2 that is worth quoting in full: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”. This is attributed to Werner Heisenberg. How wonderful, how appropriate!

If you are interested at all in strengthening the intellectual basis of your Christian faith, then I strongly recommend you read this book.