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This includes the special ebook edition of the Alex O’Connor & Bishop Robert Barron episode Atheism or Christianity?, plus a “post-show” clip of Graham Oppy & Guillaume Bignon discussing French atheist philosophers.
About this episode:
Why do people convert to belief in God? Is it rational to do so?
Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean of Research at Monash University, Australia and a well-known atheist thinker. He engages with Guillaume Bignon a Christian philosopher from France.
Bignon’s book ‘Confessions of a French Atheist’ tells the story of his adult conversion to Christianity, which involved both an intellectual and experiential journey. Graham Oppy is the author of numerous books critiquing the evidence for God and religious experience.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: Biology, Belief, and Covid: Can Science and Faith be Reconciled?
- Episode 2: Conversion, Culture and the Cross: Are we ready to believe in God again?
- Episode 3: Is there a Master Behind our Mind?
- Episode 5: Robots, Transhumanism and Life Beyond Earth
- Episode 6: Are Millennials & Gen Z ready to believe in God?
Audio Transcript for The Big Conversation: Season 4 Episode 4
Rationality, Religious Experience and The Case for God
Justin Brierley (JB), Guillaume Bignon (GB) and Graham Oppy (GO)
JB: Hello and welcome to The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable, in partnership with the John Templeton Foundation. I’m Justin Brierley, bringing you another conversation with two big thinkers. I’m joined by Guillaume Bignon and Graham Oppy, to discuss ‘Rationality, Religious Experience and The Case for God’.
Guillaume Bignon is a Christian philosopher who experienced an adult conversion to Christianity as an atheist living in Paris. He tells the story in his recent book, Confessions of a French Atheist: How God Hijacked My Quest to Disprove the Christian Faith. And he draws out lessons from both philosophy, science, history and his own experience, to make the case for Christianity.
Graham Oppy is a leading atheist philosopher of religion at Monash University in Australia. He’s one of the most significant voices in the world on arguments for and against God, and among his many books there is the recent title, Is There a God? A Debate, written with Kenneth Pearce, which among other things, discusses whether religious experience can count as evidence for the existence of God. So we’re going to be very much discussing the role of religious experience today, as we hear Guillame’s conversion story, and whether it’s reasonable to believe in God in the 21st Century. So Guillame and Graham, welcome along to this show!
Graham let’s start with you as a newcomer to the show. Just tell us a little bit about yourself, how you became interested firstly in the philosophy of religion – what led you down that particular path?
GO: Okay, so I’ll go back a fair way. My family are Australian Methodist; I was brought up as a Methodist. When I was about thirteen, I thought about things for a period – six weeks or so – and came down on the side of thinking that actually there wasn’t a God, and the things that I was being taught at Sunday School and hearing about at church were false. And during my high school years, I spent lots of time arguing with people about religion – the value of religion and about God and so on.
Then I went off to university; I studied science and the arts – so I did a major in maths and a minor in physics, and then a major in philosophy and minor in history and philosophy of science. I was interested in philosophy of religion, but it wasn’t much taught. And in fact by the time I got to the end of graduate school, I hardly really thought about philosophy of religion at all, and I was thinking that I would end up working mainly in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. But when I came back to Australia after I finished my graduate training, I was offered some casual teaching to teach a course in philosophy of religion. And I started and I read stuff in philosophy of religion, and that resulted in some publications. I then applied for a research grant for a project to write about reformed epistemology; I end up writing a book about ontological arguments, and that kind of set the direction of my career. So I think it’s accidental that I became a philosopher of religion; it could easily have gone very differently.
JB: I’m tempted to ask, do you think of all things as accidental on your world-view, in that sense? Where do you kind of put yourself in terms of a label – atheist, agnostic, something else?
GO: Okay, so this is something that’s changed over time. So I’d describe myself as an agnostic in the first part of my career – in the same kind of sense or the same kind of way in which Bertrand Russell tended to describe himself as an agnostic; it was a kind of thought about certainty or how confident you should be. I’ve come to think that that way of thinking about the distinction between atheism and agnosticism is wrong. So I now call myself an atheist, but it’s not that the position has changed; it’s just the way that I think about the label that’s changed.
JB: Interesting, well maybe we’ll come back to that in some form. It’s great to have you on the show today – I’m really looking forward to this discussion with Guillame. I know you’ve read his book, so you’ll be interested I’m sure to interact with him on his story. Guillame, it’s great to know that you’ve been able to put this story down in writing, because I had you on several years ago on the show to talk about it, but you’ve gone on in leaps and bounds in your academic career since then and a lot more time to reflect on it. But for those who haven’t heard it, maybe could you give us a sort of potted account – some of the highlights of your story, what made a young French atheist decide to become a Christian in the end?
GB: Yes, sure, I’ll be happy to. I suppose I’m going to be the speaker and the subject or the object here, if we are going to be discussing religious experience. So I will not hit the entire story as it’s told in the book, and I won’t spoil it for the listener either. But I’ll try to hit some of the milestones that are important to discuss the religious experience itself with Graham, and then I’m looking forward to hearing whether I’ve done a big mistake in light of this story and experiences.
So I grew up in France; I grew up in the Catholic Church, but it was not very passionate – it was not a very sincere engagement in the church. And as soon as I was old enough to tell my parents that I didn’t really believe any of it, I simply stopped going to church, and my life was not very different. So I was an atheist from that point on; I affirmed that there was no God, but my life was not all that different – there was just no longer going to church. And as I grew and became a young adult, I was busy clearly seeking my own happiness in a number of avenues. So I was playing volleyball – I ended up playing in the national league and having lots of fun pursuing that. I was also playing music – I was playing the keyboard in a rock band, so enjoying that pursuit as well in the arts, to play as band, do concerts and just enjoy this. And then I studied maths, physics and engineering science, and I headed towards an engineering degree to be a software engineer, which I thought would provide wealth for a life well lived and enjoyed.
And I also at that time, one of my interests was women – as a French atheist my age in the French culture, this is one big important part of life. And I was starting to pursue women and to have relationships as one of the big goals to make me happy and satisfied as well. And in this very secular context in France, the likelihood of me hearing the Gospel was not extremely high. And through a set of very improbable events, I ended up going on vacation to the Caribbean. And then I went hitchhiking to come back from the beach to the house there one day, and then randomly a car of American tourists stopped – they were not even stopping to pick us up, but to ask for directions – and they were headed back to their hotel and they didn’t know where it was. And so actually, it turns out that the hotel was next door to where we were going. So they picked us up to show directions, and one of them was an American – a former model and actress – and I was immediately attracted, so I tried to seduce, to talk – and to cut a long story short we ended up in a relationship in the Caribbean.
And I discovered that she was a professing Christian, which I thought was an intellectual suicide at the time – I had no patience for belief in God or any religious practice; I certainly didn’t want any of this for myself. And also she had a view of morality that meant that she believed in abstinence before marriage, which was a huge deal breaker for me as well. So big problems associated with her religious beliefs. Nevertheless she was exotic and attractive enough that I really decided to try to pursue this, and that the problems would take care of themselves, I thought.
So I went back to Paris – she flew back to New York which was where she lived – and I started to think about religion and God, so as to be able to tell her that she should stop this and that we should be happy together. At which point, I started to pick up the New Testament to try to understand a little bit what she actually believes, and started to read the Bible as an adult. And I discovered that they tasted a bit different. I discovered the person of Jesus and found him to be really interesting and captivating. And as I was going to be starting to think about Christianity and consider the truth claim, I figured there was also one experiment I should do, which was to pray as an unbeliever. And so I said, ‘well, if there’s a God out there, I’m looking into this now, so that must be interesting. Why don’t you go ahead and reveal yourself to me?’ So I just started to consider those claims.
But I couldn’t even have ended up in church to visit, even if I had wanted to, because at the time I was playing volleyball. And so every weekend I was travelling around the country to play the volleyball game. And then shortly after I prayed that unbelieving prayer, there was an unexplained shoulder injury on my shoulder that I used to spike on the dominant arm, which meant that I could not play volleyball and I was off of volleyball courts for a few weeks. And so I went to a church to visit the church, to see what those Christians do when they get together, which was a very strange experience. I was very awkward, because I thought that even just investigating or even being present in the church was already an intellectual crime, and so I felt very awkward. I sat down and listened to…
JB: Were you kind of like seeing them almost as animals in the zoo, to be kind of examined, this sort of psychological experiment?
GB: Yes, that is the way I describe it, really like you went to the zoo. Because to me, I had never seen what she seemed to be, which was a genuine Christian who believes that there is a God and it makes such a difference in life. So to see all these people gathered and praying – they prayed like there was actually a God listening to their prayers – very strange to me. And so I sat down, listened to the sermon – I don’t remember a thing that the preacher said. But then I thought, okay, I’ve seen enough; I need to escape.
And so I jumped on my feet, ran out the backdoor. And I opened the door to escape, and as I had one foot out the door, there’s a big blast of chills that started in my stomach and went up in my chest and grabbed me by the throat, and I was frozen on the doorstep. And I heard myself thinking, ‘this is ridiculous, I need to figure this out’. And so I was stopped in my tracks. I turned around and I went straight to the head pastor and introduced myself. And he was amused to meet me, and he was very happy to discuss his beliefs and practices, and so we made an appointment. And so this pastor – his first name is Robert – we ended up having these discussions and relationship, that for a number of months I would come back and we would talk about some of the big practices and beliefs of the Christian faith – a bit of challenges, thinking. And through those conversations, over a period of time, my thinking shifted on a number of intellectual points – and we can maybe dive into some of those afterwards.
But some of the hurdles, some of the barriers that I had against belief in God came crumbling down. I thought that you needed to be absolutely stupid to believe in God, and that came crumbling down when I just met very sensible, intelligent people who believed this. I had a very strong feel that the Christian view of ethics was repressive and intolerant, and he was able to paint a much better picture and more attractive view of ethics and relationships. I thought that science disproved God – that there was an open wall between science and faith – and so I also reflected and was able to see that there was no strong objection against the existence of God based purely on my scientific knowledge. And then I also naively expected that if I was going to know that God existed, then I would need to have scientific proof of that – I expected knowledge to come from science, and I thought also that to know that God exists you needed to be absolutely certain. So all of those things came crumbling down when I reflected a bit on it and in my discussions with Robert.
And on the positive side, I also came to appreciate the teachings of the New Testament – I saw them as historical records of what allegedly happened to Jesus. And so I was challenged to think about whether this is actually the true account of what transpired in the life of Jesus. So the intellectual shifts are along those lines, and we can get back to that…
JB: Yes. And up to this point it’s been quite an intellectual journey, though you have had that rather interesting experience in the church. But as I understand it, your faith didn’t really come to life, in that sense – you didn’t kind of cross the line – until you had quite an interesting experience that kind of went alongside the intellectual journey.
GB: Yes that’s right. So the intellectual barriers were removed, and so the mind somewhat gave the permission to the heart, but to me there was still a huge missing piece that came in reflecting on the message of the Christian faith, that I discovered in reading the New Testament. And Pastor Robert had given me a little booklet that was working you through the basics of the Christian faith, and I was writing down my questions and coming back to him with my notes. And one question came back over and over again in my notes, and it was: ‘why did Jesus have to die?’ I just did not understand intellectually what was the connection between Jesus dying on the cross 2000 years ago and my life as a Christian, if I were to become one.
And in the midst of this questioning and reflections, also my unbelieving prayer life had shifted to, ‘hey, what if it’s true. God? If you’re out there, then I’m going to need you to reveal yourself to me more explicitly’. And the way I describe it is I was hoping for some sort of an open heaven, with the rays of light coming down from the sky, and a voice telling me, ‘welcome son’. And what God did instead is that he reactivated my conscience, and so I realised that there was something really immoral that I had committed in the weeks prior to that – that I had lied to everybody and to myself to hide it and supress it. And then through this time, just… this was God shoved it in my face, and I was afflicted with guilt – it was a very real powerful experience of just realising no, I’m not a good person, there is no coming back, there is no erasing it.
And in that place of pain out of the guilt, the message that I had been reading about finally clicked – made sense – and I realised okay, that’s why Jesus had to die – me. And so I came to understand that Christian message, that Jesus paid the price for our sins and that we can be forgiven and have eternal life, not because we are good – because I wasn’t – but because of our faith in Christ, where we benefit from his sacrifice on our behalf. So that message hit me like a ton of bricks, I accepted it – I trusted Jesus for my salvation – and the guilt evaporated and I experienced a spiritual rebirth.
So at that time – I must skip the details on how then I ended up in the US – but I ended up moving to the United States. And later on did I end up reflecting more on those things, studying more, ended up in seminary, got a masters in New Testament studies and later on a PhD in philosophical theology – so that’s how you get to…
JB: Yes, there’s a whole lot more to that story obviously that could be told, but you’ve given us a really helpful sketch of the journey that you went on, and it’s a very interesting one. And really helpful I think just to spend some time framing this discussion, because I think there will be various elements of your story that it will be interesting to draw out with Graham.
Graham, I don’t know how often you bump into these kinds of stories? You’re obviously a philosopher of religion – how often do you kind of encounter people with these intellectual journeys, but also these quite interesting religious experiences, and what do you make of Guillames?
GO: Okay, can I say one thing, just in kind of general response to the story that we just heard, and then maybe you can ask me that question again. So it seems to me that Guillame’s experience as an atheist was very different from mine. So from the time that I became an atheist, I had lots of friends who were Christian theists; I had friends that belonged to other religions as well. And over the course of my career, I’ve supervised PhDs by Catholic priests; I’ve supervised PhDs by other people who are Christians. Throughout my life I’ve had interactions with Christians, and I never thought that being a religious believer – being a Christian or being some other kind; being a Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, whatever – was irrational or crazy or anything like that. And that’s a really important difference between my experience of being an atheist and Guillames, I think – at least the way that it’s presented in the book. So I just wanted to say that at the beginning.
JB: Yes, and that’s a helpful distinction. Because one thing I know about you, Graham, is you’re very generous and open, and someone who doesn’t simply dismiss people because they’re religious. Now obviously there is that type of atheist out there, you know, and on the Internet especially. So it’s interesting that obviously though your experience as an atheist was very different in that respect… I mean, when it comes to Guillames own story, where do you begin in terms of a response to that, in terms of sort of you know… I guess you’re happy that he’s got to a place where he obviously felt happy and flourishing and so on in his own life? I guess you just wouldn’t see that necessarily points to the idea that there is ultimately a God behind it?
GO: So part of the thing here is that there are plenty of stories that go both ways. I mean, Guillames story is quite familiar – there are lots of people who are living a life where they’re kind of unsatisfactory; they’ve come to feel dissatisfied with their values, and they’re not really finding meaning in what they’re doing and so on. And then there’s this transition, and they end up in a place that seems much better – they feel like they’ve got values that fit to them; they find meaning in their life and so on. But their stories go both ways. And as we know in the West, there’s been a bit of a drift away from Christianity. There are lots of people who have stories like Guillames that run in reverse, and that’s going to be a kind of question about the kind of evidential value of the story. That’s not to cast any aspersions on people who go either way, right. It’s just that when you’re thinking about what’s the total evidence here, there are stories in both directions. So it’s not clear that the kind of existence of the stories is going to cut much ice, one way or the other.
But the point that you made, that it’s good to end up in a place where you’re comfortable with your values and everything… I think that’s right up to a point. I mean, I also kind of like the idea that you never really settle, but you can always improve, right. And so you don’t want it to turn into complacency. But on the other hand, you don’t want to be torn apart by dissatisfaction; thinking that your life is meaningless, that the values that you’ve got are ones you don’t really want to avow anymore and so on.
JB: But it doesn’t sound in your story Guillame, that you’re exactly… I think you were quite happy with your life, up to that point. I don’t think you were in some kind of existential despair and looking for purpose in life? It doesn’t sound like that was the kind of person you were when this set of events suddenly…
GB: Yes, so those events did bring me to this place of crisis – at least morally, with the activation of my conscience and the guilt that was associated with that. Prior to those certainly no, I was very happy and enjoying my life very much. There was one moment of questioning; existentially wondering what is the point of all of this? The point where I was starting to be successful enough in all of those avenues that I felt like, I was the dog who caught the car and then now what? So there was a bit of questioning there. But I quickly moved on and didn’t really retain much of a reflection about whether God is necessary to have a good meaningful human life. So any such question, that was more in passing.
As far as the experiences and going both ways, I guess the sheer existence of a person who changes their mind is not itself very strong evidence or a testimony. I’m hoping that obviously my story, I have no pretention that my story should be this knockdown argument, like, ‘you’ve heard my story, you should be a Christian, and if you’re still an atheist this is crazy of you to continue to resist’. But I do hope that my story has a little bit more weight that just simply saying: well some person changed their mind. I think that some elements in my story speak of providential design, in ways that are more expected if Christianity is true than they are if atheism is true. Particularly some of the unexpected experiences; some of the very improbable events that seemed to drive in the direction, you know, with the improbable hitchhiking, the improbable address of the hotel being next door to us, and then that experience coming out of the church when I was trying to escape. So those improbabilities in the story that kind of speak to a grand design, I think speak a little bit more than just, ‘hey, there was this guy, he changed his mind, so therefore you should do the same’.
GO: So I guess I wasn’t thinking… I was actually thinking about specific examples. So think about Anthony Kenny – he’s a very well known philosopher, he was ordained as a Catholic priest; he spent about five years as a curate. And then he… well, he became an agnostic over a period of time, and he’s remained as an agnostic ever since. And he’s written a couple of autobiographies that give accounts of what happened to him and what happened to his beliefs. It’s not like, you know, there aren’t really very interesting stories on the other side, right, with details, you know.
On the specific point about the kind of improbabilities – and this goes back to the thing that Justin said right at the beginning – there are lots of things in life that happen that really are merely coincidental, right. And there’s not problem thinking… There are seven billion people on the planet; there are these scripts – the conversion script is a very familiar script in our culture. It’s not at all surprising that there are lots of people who fall into it. And when they fall into it, there are certain coincidences along the way, right. So from the point of view of someone who thinks that’s a nice story but I don’t think that there’s any kind of supernatural that sits behind it – that’s the kind of the response that they’re most likely going to give. That’s not to impugn you for taking a different view about it, especially because it’s your experience, right. But that’s what I think that kind of response is likely to be.
JB: Yes. So from your point of view, the more rational way of looking at Guillame’s story is that these coincidences were coincidences – they weren’t divinely ordained and so on. I mean, why then, Guillame, you know, I’m sure you’ve met this kind of objection before. Why for you should we take your interesting specifics of your story as perhaps being more than just the outworking of what happens when seven billion people on the planet, interesting things happen, you know…?
GB: Yes, I mean I don’t know that I have an argument to give you for why you should believe that this is the way they should be interpreted. I think that it’s more of an experience that it seems very interesting to see those seemingly providentially probabilities, and they spoke directly to my existential situation as well. So it was a mix of the intellectual reasons, the barriers falling down, being challenged with the historical data about the New Testament, and the overall grand story with those improbable experiences that together, made for an explosive conversion story.
I think that’s perhaps one place where we can start exploring a bit the relationship between the intellectual and the experiential, with the religious experience. And we assume that they are both serving in a sense – at least in my case – they both serve to justify what happened to me; to make it that I’m not crazy that I became a Christian in that light. And perhaps it’s a good place to ask Graham a little bit about his view on those things. Because he’s on record in the literature for saying that, in light of the arguments at least and perhaps other things, it’s rationally permissible to be a Christian.
So correct me if I’m wrong Graham, right, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But I think you’re saying that the arguments leave it open, that it’s rationally permissible to be either one or the other – a theist or an atheist? And I’m curious if you think that this rational permissibility comes straight from the arguments, or does it come from perhaps a mix of arguments and a conversion story like mine. Would you say that the experience also contributes to make it permissible, that it is not a mere rational decision to make, that’s often the thing – what do you think?
GO: So I think you’ve characterised my view pretty accurately. So I think that the arguments are just on both sides – add them up, find the best arguments you can – they’re not compelling. So that is, they don’t compel people to arrive at a particular position – the arguments just aren’t strong enough. I do think – this will speak to part of what you’ve said – I’ve read quite a few sort of autobiographical sketches by contemporary Christian philosophers; there were a couple of books that came out in the eighties and nineties, where lots of philosophers of religion in North America kind of told a little bit of their life story. It turns out that quite a few of those philosophers claim never to have had a religious experience; they’re Christian philosophers, but they kind of regret the fact that they never had anything like Pascal’s Night of Fire, or even anything sort of remotely like that. And so I’m inclined to think that you don’t need the experiential foundation in order for it to be rational for you to be a Christian; the kind of considerations that you might put together as a purely intellectual case, it seems like that can be enough. So the kind of people I’ve got in mind, I’m pretty sure that Bill Alston was one person and I suspect maybe that Alvin Plantinga is another, maybe I’m not remembering the details quite correctly. But I think that he also said that he’d never had anything like that kind of…
I mean, of course, religious experience might mean other things. It might mean like going to church and joining in the singing – I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about something that’s the kind of thing that in the historical record, in the literature, is the kind of thing that might lead sort of pretty directly to conversion, something like that.
GB: Yes, so in terms of justifying Christian belief; making it rationally permissible – you’re open to saying that the arguments could do some of that, that an experience could do some of that as well, presumably? Neither sounds like it’s strictly necessary, but they could separately justify Christian belief, along the lines that you suggest?
GO: Yes, so I think that you could be a Christian and think that the foundation of your belief really lies in these amazing experiences that you had, or you could be a Christian that thinks, actually, when I weighed up all of the considerations, my judgment was that this was where the truth lies. And either of those could work.
JB: Yes. Let’s go to a quick break and we’ll come back on this. And I’d love to spell out maybe just some examples from your own story Guillame, of where you feel that the religious experience kind of tallied up with the intellectual journey you were going on. And maybe we can continue to talk about this idea of whether, you know, just what the value is, ultimately, of religious experience as evidence for God. And you know, ultimately, whether being a Christian or any other sort of religion can be a purely intellectual thing, or whether there has to be a sort of experiential element to it – all of these questions would be great to get to as we continue this conversation.
We’re talking about ‘Rationality, Religious Experience and The Case for God’, here on The Big Conversation today. My guests are Graham Oppy and Guillaume Bignon.
JB: Really interesting discussion today between my guests Guillaume Bignon and Graham Oppy, here on The Big Conversation. We’re talking about religious experience, and Guillames book, Confessions of a French Atheist: How God Hijacked My Quest to Disprove the Christian Faith, tells his story. And he’s done it in a brief form on todays show as well, of going from atheism to Christianity – both intellectual and experiential, kind of story behind that. Give us some more details Guillame, of what some of these specifics sort of improbabilities were, that you feel you’re justified in seeing ultimately the hand of God behind, and how that kind of goes hand in hand with the intellectual journey you were on during this?
GB: Yes sure, so I’m going to give the narrative, so again just pinpoint them at key points. I think there are some improbabilities that are best interpreted as God bringing about the fact that he wanted to make me a Christian. So the initial random hitchhiking – the fact that the car stopped to ask for directions, not even to pick us up and that they were headed towards their hotel next door to the house that we were staying at. The fact that then I had my shoulder injury that was really not explained – it’s not like I had an accident or anything. Just out of the blue my shoulder started to hurt at the practice and the doctors couldn’t see what was wrong, and they just said you just need to stop volleyball – that freed me to get to the church on Sunday. And then obviously the experience at the church when trying to escape, that I was stopped in my tracks and I had this big blast of chills, very unusual – that’s again best explained by God reaching out and stopping me in my tracks, to send me to the pastor. Then a pure coincidence – or whatever breakfast I had in the morning – caused something in my stomach… It’s a bit difficult to explain – and I’m not saying that Graham should be speculating about what caused this – I’m saying these are some of the improbabilities that I think are quite well explained by God providentially controlling all of this, to bring me to faith and justify me.
Obviously afterwards there was the relevance of the Christian good news, which met nicely in my existential struggle with the timely reactivation of my conscience. And then there’s another very improbable thing that happened shortly after my conversion, which is in a move to the United States for many weeks the visas were completely frozen at the embassy. And maybe fifteen also of us that were waiting for visas in my company were told that there was no status – we couldn’t be told anything, we would just have to wait until they tell us the visas are granted. And at that point I also figured that I needed to start talking about my faith, and that it was one thing that perhaps God was willing for me to do before I moved to the U.S. And I took my mum to dinner – this is when I finally told her that I had become a Christian; was a very nice relief, was a good experience. And the next day the visa was granted for me, and none of the others who were waiting for the visa in the same situation. Once again, nothing that you cannot dismiss as coincidences, but just a very, very visible hand of providence throughout the story that kind of moves it along towards me becoming a Christian and entering up here in the U.S.
JB: But are all of those sort of experiences… Do you kind of give them that particular interpretation because you’re now a Christian, as it were, and so it makes sense: ‘yes, there’s a God, so I now believe that God was behind all of these’? Whereas obviously someone from Graham’s position who does not believe in God, is bound to kind of in a sense weigh it differently and say, ‘well, yes, great that it happened for you Guillame, but these things could happen by chance, let’s accept it’?
GB: Yes, I think that’s right. And I don’t think I’m in a position to use that as to strong-arm him and to say, ‘no, no, no, look, you absolutely have to believe that Christianity is true, in light of those experiences’. I think I use them to first… I have several goals in this book. First, entertaining – so I think it’s a fun story to tell and I want people to take it to the beach and enjoy just the story of a life completely changed with very fun circumstances. And then I’m trying to also give a compelling account of what God does in the world today, to change the hearts of people who hate religion and then can be turned around and actually embrace the beauty of the Christian gospel, and obviously present some degree of reasons for why people should become Christians.
Now obviously I also discuss some of the arguments in the book, and I don’t expect Graham to be impressed by my popular-level presentation of the arguments for God’s existence. He’s very familiar with them, and he’s very good at pointing out which premises he’s not going to be accepting as a naturalist. But this is kind of the exercise that I try to do in the book there. But if you take those as simply justifying Christian belief, right – as showing that I didn’t lose my mind in the process, that Christian belief is justified, that it’s sensible, that even I enjoy good arguments, even if they are not good or successful in the way that Graham would require. All of that I think is accomplished by this.
And it’s probably things that Graham gives me the permissibility – the fact that it’s justified, that it’s sensible, that I’m not crazy in following those things – are all things that I think Graham grants. And so perhaps I should cash that cheque and run with my winnings and not necessarily go for the million dollars, which would be to perhaps show that atheism is irrational in that light. I don’t have the strong incentive to do that with this material; I’m very happy to simply take what Graham is telling me, which is that yes, Christian belief is justified; it’s perfectly permissible and may be even sensible in light of my experience.
GO: Okay, so one thing I’ll add to this – which is probably something that you’ll be able to just accept as a kind of additional point in your favour, right. It might be that the particular arguments that you give in the book are not ones that are going to be overly impressive to professional philosophers. But you can just reflect that amongst professional philosophers of religion, there are plenty of theists, plenty of atheists. And it’s not like somehow or other if you kind of progressed up a bit further, you’d realise that actually there are super compelling arguments on one side or the other. It’s kind of mysterious, I think, how it could be that you’ve got people who have devoted their lives to thinking about the arguments, and they disagree about a whole lot of stuff. If you really thought the arguments were compelling on one side over the other, it would be a complete mystery what’s going on with those people.
And this is part of the reason why I don’t think the arguments are compelling, but it does mean that it kind of doesn’t matter. So this is kind of for people who are listening as well, right. I mean, if you develop an interest in arguments about the existence of God, you don’t have to become Alvin Plantinga or John Mackie in order for it to be worthwhile to think about the arguments. But it does help to recognise that no matter how high up you go – not matter what level you play this at – there’s nothing that compels opinion to converge in that particular place.
JB: I mean, you obviously found it compelling yourself though Guillame. And that was because of the confluence in that sense of the intellectual journey you’d been on, and these experiences you were then having. And to that extent, I mean, do you think that a purely intellectual approach could ever compel anyone? Obviously Graham feels that ultimately, when you look at it in the cold light of day, neither arguments for atheism or arguments for theism are compelling – and so, as you said, it’s permissible to simply hold to one or the other, or presumably be an agnostic, somewhere in between. But you did feel that there was obviously strength to the intellectual arguments for Christianity, but would that alone have been enough do you think, or was it really necessary to have this experiential element to it?
GB: Well in my case, the experiential element was necessary, and that’s what brought me over the line. I think that I would be slow to say that it’s absolutely necessary for everyone, to come to have at least an intellectual belief that God exists. And it’s going to come down to how we pass the arguments. I mean, the various arguments – cosmological arguments, Fine-Tuning arguments, moral arguments and all sorts of arguments that Graham discusses in his writings himself – they seek to establish that God exists, and they do so by providing various premises which, if true, support or entail that God exists.
Now obviously, the job of the atheist philosopher there is going to be saying, ‘which are the premises that I don’t accept’ – supposing that the logic is valid, they have to reject a premise. So they say, ‘this premise, I’m not convinced’ – well then the argument is going to be moved back, where an additional argument is going to have to be given in favour of that premise. And it’s going to have the same sort of structure – additional premises that, if true, support that premise and so on. So you follow the premises by additional arguments like this. And I think it’s perfectly fine for a person to realise, yes, now we’ve hit the bedrock of something that I thought is true, and I have to follow the arguments with that conclusion, and God exists. That move has been made by many sensible philosophers who discovered, yes, those premises are true – and now I have to accept the conclusion.
Now Graham goes very far, and always can point out one that, ‘no, I’m not committed to’. And then we come to considerations of plausibility – which one do I think is more plausible than the other. And here again, our plausibility… I think that’s a point that Graham makes in his book, in the debate with Kenny Pearce – plausibility is going to vary with the person, because our commitments – our plausibility’s structure – are educated by our commitments in the first place. So it’s possibly that it’s the stalemate, which we reach when we go all the way to the bottom of the argument. I’m convinced that some of them reach some really solidly true premises that are very hard to deny, and Graham obviously disagrees with me because he finds them deniable, in light of his world-view commitments. But those arguments serve well if we reach those true premises. And then if they don’t, and we are at stalemate on the arguments, then I would say perhaps what’s missing is an experience. Graham has not been convinced by those arguments – perhaps we’re waiting for some sort of divine experience to tip him over the line and take him where the arguments couldn’t take him.
GO: So can I add one thing here…
JB: Have you ever sought any kind of experience Graham or sort of… sorry, go ahead…
GO: So there are a lot of arguments on the other side. For example, there’s a case for naturalism, which I’ve set out in various of my works, which has lots of bits in it. And the same thing is going to be true about that case, as is true for the case for God. Like if I give this case to a theist, they’ll trace down, they’ll find the premises they don’t like – I can dig further and give arguments for those premises. Eventually, right, we might reach bedrock, and there might be people who are persuaded after all that naturalism is correct. I mean, there’s a kind of symmetry in the story at this point – it isn’t all a story about the arguments for, as anybody who’s listening will know. There are some arguments that are taken very seriously – that is some arguments against God that are taken very seriously, having to do with things like evil and divine hiddenness, and so on. And theists who are reflecting about this need to think about, okay, in those arguments, which are the premises that I don’t like, what am I committing myself to in rejecting those premises and so on. So that was a small thing that I wanted to add to what Guillame was saying.
JB: Yes. I mean, ultimately in your experience, Graham – and this is I guess a subjective sort of analysis – but do you find that people who are on one side or the other – atheist/theist or whatever, maybe in academia, maybe in philosophy or religion and so on – have they kind of come to it with a commitment, and then they’re kind of looking at the arguments from that perspective? Or I mean, do you ever find anyone who’s truly kind of genuinely open to one or the other, and willing to be convinced by the arguments? Or is everyone really coming kind of with the decision made ahead of time, and therefore that’s bound to influence how much weight they’re going to give to the cosmological argument or whatever argument it may be?
GO: Okay, so one of the interesting questions here is whether you can be a committed agnostic – that is, committed to agnosticism, right. Because there are people who are genuinely agnostic – my younger friend Joe Schmid, is an example of somebody who genuinely is an agnostic. I’m not sure – because he’s only just finished college, I’m not sure – how committed he is to agnosticism. But there are certainly people who are very strongly committed to agnosticism and won’t budge – it would be very hard to budge them in either direction. So the question about commitment is not as straightforward as you might have thought.
JB: Yes, because you can be committed to agnosticism as much as atheism or theism; yes, that’s an interesting point. I mean, what about you Graham? I know this makes it personal in that way, but do you feel like you could be persuaded by a really great argument, or would it take some kind of experience that just was somehow undeniable in your personal psychology or whatever, to kind of shift you towards theism?
GO: So that’s a really difficult question, right. I mean, at this point, people often… Think about Hume, talking about in the Dialogues, about the voice in the sky – so people ask, you know, what would it take? And the answer is I have no idea, right. I mean, I don’t see that something like that – a voice that speaks to everybody in their language, right – that’s just not on the cards for our world. And even on a… most Christian stories, that’s not on the cards, right.
JB: But if you did have… because this is the interesting thing, okay. I did a conversation with Peter Atkins, who you may be familiar with – the Oxford chemist who’s a very different kind of atheist to you, let’s put it that way, Graham. And when I asked him what could persuade you, he genuinely struggled to think of anything that could move him from atheism to even slight belief in God. Because even something like Jesus appearing to him in a vision in front of him, he said, ‘well, I would just assume my brain had malfunctioned’, you know. He was so committed in a sense to naturalism, that every kind of experience he ever had, that someone else might attribute to God, he said, ‘I would have to assume… my naturalism comes first, there’s got to be some explanation, I could never consider the divine one’, in that sense.
Now I’m not saying that’s your perspective of course. But I’m saying, I suppose, where is that point for you, at which you would say, ‘yes, if that happened, I think I’d be pretty convinced that maybe there is a God after all’?
GO: Yes, so I guess I’m inclined to think about this somewhat differently. I mean, I’ve read a bit about conversion stories in both directions, and there are all kinds of ways that you can end up being led to change your beliefs. And it can be a bit like with Guillame – an accumulation of small things, right, that leads you from one position to another. And I just don’t think that we’re in a position… like I’ve been in a position to think about, ‘what would it take?’ You know, ‘what accumulation of small things would it take to shift me from where I am to somewhere else’? To shift me from being atheist to agnostic, say, what would that take? I really just think that we’re not very good at thinking about those kinds of things; we just kind of don’t have a very good capacity for answering those questions.
I’m not going to go the way that you said that Peter Atkins went, though I do think, given how old I am, that it’s kind of unlikely – and how much time I’ve spent looking at the arguments – it’s unlikely that an argument’s going to come along. I don’t think that we sort of come up with new arguments – devastating new arguments – so rapidly, that there’s going to be an argument that’s going to make me change my mind. But even there, of course, that’s an epistemic possibility, right. I say this about all the arguments. My claim about the lack of persuasiveness of the arguments is also qualified by… of all the arguments that we’ve seen so far – it’s not about future arguments as well.
JB: Yes. Guillame, just your thoughts on…
GB: Yes, I agree the likelihood that something fundamentally new in the arguments that appears and convinces Graham is low; I think that the probability is fairly low. What it would take to change his mind, ‘given how old I am’, I would say yes, perhaps it’s very improbable – thankfully the God that I’m praying too, depicted in my book, is a God who brings about the very improbable. So I’m not losing hope that something might happen. But yes, apparently my prayers that this show would be cancelled because Graham came with a different opinion, has not been fulfilled so far!
And as far as bringing about the improbable, I have hit on a number of the different pieces of my conversion story that I’ve very strongly interpreted as God providentially acting like this. I really liked what Kenny Pearce said in the book, in the conversation with you, Graham, about looking back and interpreting the ordinary in light of the extraordinary. So that we do come to a possibility structure where we are able to analyse and interpret correctly even a somewhat natural experience as something that’s extraordinary, because we’ve had the extraordinary experience. And he likens it to the scientist who has the extraordinary measurement of quarks, and comes to the knowledge that this is really what stuff is made of. And then he says, well, they didn’t make that conclusion on the basis of just looking at chairs and tables – they made that with very strong, interesting experiments. But now that they know that, they can at the normal and say well, yes, this is made of quarks – this is what we know now.
And there’s a bit of that in terms of seeing the providence of God. So obviously Graham takes a very different interpretation of my story, but I am amenable to see a number of pieces that come together that really speak of providence – in light of some of those extremely improbable events – that I’m now able on a daily basis to see the hand of God moving providentially. And so it kind of fuels the Christian life in ways that I think are intellectually rational, to simply interpret the normal in light of the extraordinary. And those extraordinary pieces didn’t stop at my conversion; so there’s a number of different fantastic stories of events like this that happened to me afterwards, and it continues to fuel this thirst to see God working in my life.
One of which ironically happened in connection to this very show, which is that I had not really picked up any hard-core philosophy books in a number of years, because my own research interests were more on theology and philosophical theology and researching justification. And so I hadn’t really bought philosophy in a few years. And then out of the blue, I became a bit curious and thirsty to order some material, and I went online and ordered Graham’s book, Is There a God? And twenty-six minutes later, I had an invitation in my mailbox to debate Graham Oppy on the existence of God and related questions. So I have the timestamp on my emails – this is really what happened! Now obviously there are great coincidences – you may make of it what a naturalist should be making – but I think I can be excused if I see again God’s providence in bringing about something really special.
JB: What do you make of that… that’s a really interesting story, Guillame – I mean, Graham, there you go! God using your book to prove his existence, in an ironic way. I mean, okay, so Guillame says, ‘look, for me, it makes sense for me to interpret me ordering your book and then Justin completely out of the blue inviting me to come on the show with you, twenty-six minutes later’ – that for Guillame is a sign that there’s a God doing stuff behind the scenes.
So what do you do with that, Graham? I mean, do you think Guillame should be more sceptical of these experiences? Or is he kind of justified, because he does believe in God, as he says, interpreting ordinary things in extraordinary ways, because he believes there is actually something rather extraordinary going on behind the scenes.
GO: So I’m curious to know what he thinks about my story. Because if I tell the story in more details, there are quite a lot of coincidences that are required in order for me to end up being an atheist philosopher of religion. And so Guillame might see the hand of divine providence in that, but if there is a kind of hand of divine providence there, it’s working in a fairly curious kind of way, I think.
GB: Yes, and here there are a couple of options for me. The first one is to point to mystery and saying that God has morally sufficient reasons to allow this great evil to have happened to you, that you became the flag bearer of the opposition. Or against, if you say that look, if this is going to make it even more glorious when God converts you and we can announce to the world that Graham Oppy has become a Christian…!
GO: Right, but I suppose it seems kind of likely to me that I go on being an atheist until I die. I mean, of course there are things you can say, there are kind of post-modern – from your point of view – there are post-modern conversions probably, so you know, you might have a story. But it’s hard to see from your point of view what great good I’m bringing to the world.
GB: Yes, so I don’t have a very strong explanation for what justifies God in his ways of this. It gets into some very classical debates of Christian philosophy and theology itself, on the nature of God’s providence over human free will. I know we do have a God in the Bible who says he will have mercy on who he has mercy, and compassion on who he has compassion. So I happen to take the Calvinist view on those matters, so it seems consistent to me that God would not try his hardest to get every single person to become a Christian; it seems to me that he has morally sufficient reasons for why he saves some and not others. But it certainly raises puzzles that I do try to address in my work on free will and divine providence.
JB: I mean, for you is this a sort of problem then, that if there is a God, we should be seeing more people be having these experiences like Guillame, Graham? Is there a kind of probabilistic thing here that, well, if there was a God behind this whole show… I mean, sometimes I know people, when it comes to religious experience, have another objection. Which is, well, lots of people in lots of different traditions have religious experiences, so is that God or… but not all of these different religions can be true at the same time. So are those the kinds of concerns you have as well?
GO: So I think that the second kind of concern is much more interesting to me – the diversity of religious experience and the diversity of interpretations that are put upon religious experience; makes it quite difficult to see the evidential value of testimony to religious experience. Once you know about the kind of history of this testimony and how specific if is – you don’t find people in Australia in 1700 testifying to the existence of Jesus, right. And nor do you find them… We don’t have kind of oral history coming down to us, but people having experiences that we would now interpret as being experiences of Jesus, they may have stuff to say about experiences connected to ancestors and the Rainbow Serpent – but that’s what you get.
And the point there is not that you couldn’t tell some story… So in the book – the debate book with Kenny Pearce – Kenny Pearce tries to make a case that what’s going on there is that those people are actually having experiences of the Christian God, it’s just that they don’t realise that they are. And I argue that that doesn’t sound really very plausible to me, when you think about the details – about the Rainbow Serpent. But, you know, we could go backwards and forwards on that.
JB: Yes, well let’s do that. I mean, what do you say to that particular objection which obviously for Graham is disconfirmatory of the Christian view? Because people do have very varied religious experiences, and there are people who have never heard of Jesus and never do, and yet have completely different sorts of conceptions of God and so on, Guillame?
GB: Yes, so I think I’m not sure I’m going to put all of my weight on Kenny Pearce’s answer. But there is something that is strikingly convincing in there, which is that he doesn’t have to have an explicitly Christian framework for every single religious experience that he claims serves to establish God’s existence, but that they at least serve to undermine naturalism. And then he should have some sort of a theological explanation for why that’s in a strange context, or why the people are making wrong interpretations or wrong claims about their experience. And then there are some experiences that he will have to dismiss. I mean, I thought it was hilarious when you brought – what you call that, cephalonomancy, I think it’s on page 234, where these people are boiling animals and you said – and I quote – ‘I say that boiling a donkeys head is not a reliable way of getting knowledge of the future’. I thought it was a hilarious line! I’m fully with you on this one. And you know, this is a claim of a religious experience, and I do agree that as a Christian we do have to dismiss this as not authentic, right. So it’s not like it’s a true experience of God, but wrongly interpreted. I think that no, this is actually incorrect, and we stand with the naturalist in our interpretation of that one.
But I don’t think that this is special pleading for the Christian. To say that no, this experience is no good – mine is actually reliable – and I can’t conclude that God exists on that basis. It’s just going to be a difference experience. Now mind you, if the person boiling that persons head turned out to make incredibly accurate prophesies every single time he did that, then I might have to rethink what’s going on with the donkey here. But until he does, I think it’s okay to maintain differences across the various religious contexts, and say no, but probably my experiences, I have not seen anything that convinces me my experience is either derisory or misinterpreted. And so I stand by what I’ve experienced; it seems like the God of the Bible has reached out to me.
GO: Yes, and maybe I can add one thing…
JB: Why don’t we go to a quick break, and then I’ll come back to you Graham. Let’s go to a quick break and we’ll see what Graham has to say in response to that in just a moment’s time. Guillaume Bignon and Graham Oppy, joining me on the show today – ‘Rationality, Religious Experience and The Case for God’, we’ll be back with The Big Conversation in just a moment.
JB: Welcome back to the show, we’re talking about religious experience. Guillaume Bignon had a really interesting conversion from atheism, as a French atheist to being a Christian, now lives in the States, is a theologian and philosopher. Graham Oppy is an atheist, a well-known philosopher of religion, but has never had any particular experience that has wanted to make him change his mind on that; he’s never met an argument that would particularly convince him of theism either. But we’re having an interesting discussion on sort of what value, what evidence, we can place on religious experience, specifically, on today’s show.
Did you want to come back to what Guillame was saying in that last segment, to do with boiling donkeys heads and whether these religious claims, you know, are evidence for something – what did you want to say, Graham?
GO: So I just wanted to make a point about how astonishingly diverse and vast the range of divination practices actually is. And it’s not just that Guillame is going to agree with me about the boiling of donkeys heads. He’s going to agree with me almost right across the board, about attempts to define what God or the gods want – to divine what God or the gods want – are going to be mistaken, from his point of view. And he’s going to dismiss them on more or less the grounds that I’m going to dismiss them. But he may make a kind of exception – I expect he will – maybe it’s not exactly divination, but for certain things to do with prophesies and miracles associated with the Christian religion. And from a naturalist point of view, that’s kind of going to look like special pleading. Because you have this nice uniform account of everybody else, except for yourself, right. And then the naturalist says, ‘we’ll just extend it to you as well’.
JB: Yes, so how do you deal with that one, Guillame? Because yes, if you’re going to discount the Mormons and the Muslims and the Buddhists and everyone who’s got their claim to prophesies and religious experiences and everything else, but say, ‘ah, but the Christian stories, those are all true’ – is it special pleading?
GB: Yes, it’s going to be special pleading if we don’t take into account the reasons. I think it is going to boil down to this to justify this. So obviously there are quite a bit of experiences that I currently have to dismiss in principle, because I don’t have the specifics, right. So what I’m hearing over the donkey boiling head and predicting the future there, I don’t have any specifics. So I have to say, well, it doesn’t sound right; I really don’t think that’s really accurate. But for me to be accused of special pleading, I would need to have zero or equal reasons across the board, and then I pick one that I prefer and say, ‘no, this one is good, but I don’t have any better reasons’. I think I am in a position to say that I have better reasons for Christianity, for Christian belief and for interpreting my own story as genuinely experiencing the living God, than I do about the boiling of the donkey’s head. So it’s going to come down to an exercise in comparing reasons, and I suspect that my view is going to come out on top. But admittedly I don’t have all of this data in front of me that I can compare and say, I’m just going to say I’m not engaging in special pleading, I think it’s going to boil down to the reasons there.
GO: So there are some religious traditions that clearly are rivals to Christianity in their breadth, scope and depth and so on. So do you think that you would have had to have thought really carefully into, say, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and so on, in order to be justified in dismissing all of them?
GB: I don’t know. I think that the presence of religious experience or at least claims of religious experience in those other traditions doesn’t have to be exclusively dismissed as being inauthentic, right. So I mean, God can reveal himself in all sorts of contexts, some of which might be non-Christians, and yet without thereby affirming the religion. So if I think of my friend Nabeel Qureshi, who was a former Muslim who became a Christian. He tells his story in the book in format, in tones, very much like mine – of explaining his conversion story and using it to pepper it with apologetic discussions of Christianity versus Islam. He clearly tells of stories that are very providential in the same nature – of very improbable events that God seemingly orchestrates from the time he was young – where he was clearly in a Muslim context, and in which case he concluded that yes, God exists, and that he’s there and that he cares for his life.
And I don’t need, as a Christian, to dismiss that as being genuinely God revealing himself to Nabeel in his young age. But then I follow his story, and he turns out to become a Christian – again, with a series of visions and dreams and various intellectual conversations mixed in. So similar ingredients to my conversion story, happening in a Muslim context. And yet, in my view, by my lights, supporting the Christian understanding of God in all this.
GO: But of course there are conversion stories that go the other way as well. So that raises a question about the evidential value of whether you can really claim that Muslim religious experience supports Christianity, right. It’s going to be kind of tricky, people have gone the other way. If you were going to make that move, would you just make the reverse move?
GB: Yes. And I’m not aware of very strong stories of conversion from Christianity to Islam that involve some very improbable events that I’d be hard pressed to dismiss as coincidental. Now again, the cynical are going to say, well who gets to decide what’s coincidental and what’s not? But I think the probabilities can be compared, and clearly, in the experiential context, I think I’m justified in my interpretation as it stands.
JB: I mean, if you have got, say, a Muslim and a Christian, and they’ve both had very powerful experiences that led them to their particular faith position, Guillame… I mean, at that point, to kind of decide, well has one or the other got the right… do you then have to go to the intellectual arguments, and say, well, does Christianity seem to make more sense as an intellectual option, or does Islam? I mean, is that the decider, at that point, between two perhaps equally convincing religious experiences, as far as the converts are concerned?
GB: That’s one very possible route, yes, that then we can compare notes on their solidness, on the strength of the historical evidence that we might have. So it’s now a conversation where the naturalist is not necessarily taking a particular view of one over the other. And Nabeel, in his conversion story, in conversations with David Wood, went back and forth quite a bit discussing the historical reliability of the New Testament, of the Qur’an, and the sources surrounding Mohammed and Jesus. And intimately wrestling with the argument in favour of the resurrection of Jesus, that all of this came piling in… And again, what else am I going to say as a Christian! But it seems to me that the evidence is much more strongly present in the Christian faith than it is on the Muslim view – that’s going to be the intellectual refereeing that you can engage in, if the purely experience seems to be on the par, which I still don’t think it is.
JB: Presumably though Graham, you would have trouble ever, ever accepting that there is enough sort of evidence, from the Christian historical perspective, to kind of get you to that kind of…
GO: Well, there’s an interesting question here about the kind of comparative evidence for Christianity and for Islam. And a lot of it… I assume that the scholarly debate about the reliability of the Hadith and how much weight you should put in the kind of chains of authentication for the various sayings of the prophet, is going to be very hard assess as a non-expert – as someone who doesn’t speak in Arabic and so on. So I don’t think that it’s going to be at all straightforward to weigh the strength of the historical cases for Islam and Christianity…
I mean, just to make one point. The existence of Mohammed is kind of testified in sources when he was alive, right. So there is a kind of difference there straight off, that there’s very little… I mean, of course, people who don’t accept Islam are sceptical about the story about how Mohammed got the Qur’an, right – the kind of visitation from the archangel and so on. But in terms of the historical stuff and the archaeological evidence… And partly this is just a function of recency; we know a lot more about the rise of Islam – about what Islamic culture was about immediately after Mohammed – than we know about Christian culture in the first 150 years after the death of Christ, right. So it’s going to be hard to… I mean, depending on what you’re trying to authenticate, it’s going to be hard to argue that the historical evidence for Christianity is stronger than the historical evidence for Islam, I think.
JB: Guillame, any thoughts on that?
GB: Yes, so I’m trying to see if I want to get into a debate on Islam versus Christianity with Graham – it may be he’s not the right person and I’m not the right person either. Maybe you want David Wood to defend the Christian faith against Islam. But now, from popular level apologetic material that I consume, certainly – and I’m friends with people who research this very seriously – the historical evidence for Christianity is pretty much superior to that of Islam. In terms of the quality of the sources, the number of the documents, the historical reliability of the things that we find in the New Testament – they get the geography right, the names right. So the reliability of the New Testament is very well attested. I recommend the work of Peter J. Williams on this – he’s done some really solid work on defending the reliability of The Gospels on historical grounds.
You find nothing of the sort for the reliability of the Qur’an. And as far as explaining the experience of Mohammed getting the Qur’an, I think that the Christian doesn’t even have to explain it around naturalist terms. I think that the Islamic sources themselves say that Mohammed himself thought that it was demonic as an experience, and then he was later on convinced that no, actually, this was the archangel Gabriel. So there are options there to interpret. But the reliability of the sources from comparing those… And to take the word that you’ve used, I don’t think that it’s straightforward, but I think that a careful examination of the sources gives Christianity clearly on top.
GO: So I think I’ll go back to the thing that you said at the beginning – probably it’ll be dangerous for us to try to explore this question further. And maybe that will also apply then to the question about whether and why there might be more historical documents relating to Christianity that there are to Islam. Because one of the things that really kind of matters is the dating of the documents. There are lots of copies that were made in 600AD of documents that were written earlier. It’s largely a function… and that there aren’t pagan documents of various kinds, is largely a function of Christian dominance. Which means that Christians were very concerned to preserve their own documents; they weren’t particularly concerned to preserve all kinds of pagan documents. And in some cases, they were actually kind of concerned to destroy them, right. So the argument from weight of documentation is actually not that compelling, just putting it in a general form.
GB: Well I’m not using the number of sources as a reason to think that, ‘oh, look at that, God must have miraculously preserved this information’, you know. However we explain the presence of the wealth of those documents, one way or another, it doesn’t really matter to the fact that there are lots of documents that therefore allow us to have a good reliable account of what they at least believed. Now obviously, just because they write it down doesn’t mean that it’s true. But it terms of accessing what was claimed – what is the historical account that is made – I think the wealth of sources speaks for itself, regardless of how we explain how we got to have that number of documents.
GO: So that’s right. The question about the reliability of the sources is something else and maybe we just won’t go there.
JB: We may not have time to open that particular whole conversation. We’ve done it though in the past. I can recommend some great other Big Conversations between someone you just mentioned, Guillame – Peter J. Williams and Bart Ehrman, and where they really dig into those kinds of questions around the reliability of the New Testaments. But that’s all available in our archives obviously. It’s just been a really interesting conversation though, thank you so much for the back and forth, Graham, on this whole question of religious experience and so on.
I mean, ultimately, Graham, it strikes me that you’re not the kind of atheist who says, ‘Christians who claim religious experiences or hold to their faith are crazy, deluded, whatever’ – you see that if it makes sense for you it makes sense for you, and if it doesn’t make sense for you it doesn’t make sense for you. I mean, ultimately, here’s a cheeky question to finish off with. Would you be interested to be proved wrong? Would you sort of, if it turned out, when you do meet the end, you did meet your maker – would that be a pleasant surprise or not so pleasant surprise?
GO: I guess that depends how it turns out, if that’s the way it goes, right. And that seems quite unclear to me too, right. So there are very different – what will I call them – different sets of views within Christianity. So Guillame mentioned before that he’s a Calvinist. If you ask certain kinds of Anglicans, you’ll get a very different kind of story about – for a start, universalism is a view that’s common across a range of Christian denominations but not others. And maybe I’ll be looked upon very favourably by the Christian God – who knows.
JB: Well Guillame, any final thoughts, as we close out today’s show?
GB: Well yes, maybe I need to get back to that claim that I should be cashing my winnings, given what Graham has given me, that… it was in print, so I already had this before we started this conversation. But he does grant the rationality of Christian belief that can be justified on the basis of the arguments and of my religious experience. So in that sense, he’s not like the French atheist philosophers that I interact with in great part in my book as well – the Michel Onfrays, the Baron d’Holbachs, the Jean Meslier – who all decry the rationality of Christian belief. So Graham gives us this, that religious experience justifies belief here in our case. And then there’s the evidential value of my experience that is raised, like, what does it accomplish? I don’t want to say that I can strong-arm anybody with my experience, to say, ‘well now therefore you ought to be a Christian’. But perhaps more modestly, I want to say that this is an invitation, right. So that’s kind of what I try to do with my book – telling the story. I’m saying, ‘look, this happened to me and this is an open invitation for you to try and reach out and see if God knows how to catch you in the way that he thought to catch me’.
JB: Well thank you both for a really interesting conversation today. I’ll make sure there are links to both of my guests – Guillame and Graham – where you can find their books as well, with today’s show. Do make sure to check those out and you can continue reading and investigating the arguments on both sides. But for now, thank you very much Guillame and Graham.
GB: It was a real pleasure, thank you.
GO: Thanks Justin.