Erik Strandness reviews Justin Brierley’s new book
Justin Brierley has written two excellent books exploring the intersection of Christianity and atheism. In his first book, Unbelievable?: Why after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian, Justin engaged the common objections to Christianity put forth by the New Atheists and explained why, after listening to them for ten years, he was even more convinced of the truth of his Christian beliefs. In his most recent book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism grew old and secular thinkers are considering Christianity again, he explains why that same atheism didn’t age well and why he senses a renewed interest in Christianity.
Justin is the real deal. He has the respect of both Christians and atheists alike because as the former host of the Unbelievable? show he graciously allowed both sides to express their opinions and facilitated civil dialogue. He was, as the lyric from the musical Hamilton suggests, in the room where it happened, thereby making him eminently qualified to speak authoritatively on this subject. His book is entertaining, very well written and will appeal to everyone interested in this topic whether they be a historian, philosopher or church planter.
The rise and fall of the New Atheism
During his 17-year long stint as host of the Unbelievable? show, Justin had a front row seat to the raucous opening scenes of the New Atheist drama and then watched as the curtain fell on what turned out to be a lackluster performance.
His New Atheist obituary, however, isn’t a good riddance, but a fond farewell because he recognised that his atheist friends provided a much needed wake up call for a Christianity that had fallen asleep at the wheel. So, while chronicling the demise of the New Atheism, Justin also gave it credit for starting a renaissance in Christian thinking:
“New Atheism arrived with a whole bunch of awkward questions about science, history, and religious belief—questions the Church had not had to think about for a long time. But now, with the four horsemen at their heels, the Church was forced to put down its tambourines and guitars and pick up its history and philosophy books again. In short, New Atheism gave the Christian Church a kick up the backside that it desperately needed. Arguably, the last two decades have seen the greatest revival of Christian intellectual confidence in living memory as the Church has risen to the challenge.”
While Justin recounts the people, events and ideas that led to the collapse of the New Atheism, I think he also deserves some credit for its downfall because he introduced the world to a group of kinder-gentler atheists willing to thoughtfully engage Christians in dialogue, as well as providing a platform for many Christian intellectuals who were largely unknown to the Church laity.
Self help wanted, deities need not apply
The New Atheism didn’t just fail because of its inability to withstand Christian arguments but also because it encountered an unexpected postmodern foe that didn’t play by the scientific rules. But before we dance on the New Atheist grave, we need to realise that the postmodern undertaker has reserved a burial plot for us as well. Ironically, we have become teammates competing against a rapidly changing culture that is post-truth, post-Christian and now post-atheist. It appears that even Richard Dawkins has joined the Christian cabal by committing the “hate crime” of declaring that there are only two sexes. Christians and Atheists alike find themselves in the difficult position of promoting a metaphysic in a world that is incredulous to metanarratives.
Justin makes the case that atheism has little to offer us in this cultural moment because while it values objective truth, it cannot justify pursuing the good or the beautiful. It can create solutions but is unable to scientifically generate a categorical imperative informed by transcendent notions such as worth, compassion and meaning:
“Science can tell you how the Universe arose but not why it is there. Science can tell you what you consist of but not what you are worth. Science can generate solutions to poverty but not the compassion to implement them. Science can make you money but not purchase a meaningful existence.”
The New Atheism reduced purpose to survival, mind to neurotransmitters and religiosity to evolutionary spandrels thereby sucking the meaning out of life:
“New Atheism sought to tear down the last vestiges of the Christian narrative that once gave shape to people’s lives. But what has been erected in its place? The hopes of secularism have fallen flat. The rapid advance of science and technology has turned out to be incapable of delivering on its promise of a flourishing, connected and happier future. Indeed, the reverse is true. Technology and social media have only contributed to the meaning crisis.”
Nihilism is often equated with postmodernity, but what if nihilism was the finished product of the enlightenment enterprise and postmodernity was just culture’s attempt to get out of its modernist funk? Postmodernity, while grateful that atheism had knocked the Christian God down a few pegs, was still left disheartened because it had to create its own purpose and meaning, which is extremely difficult to do without divine credentials.
Sadly, its inability to accomplish this task has resulted in unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression. However, instead of appealing to the heavens for assistance it posts a self-help wanted advertisement stipulating that deities need not apply.
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Postmodernism, while dimming the epistemological optimism of the enlightenment, has only succeeded in making the dark night of the soul grow even darker. Justin, however, sees rays of hope peeking through the gloom but surprisingly finds them emanating not from a light on a hill but from an intellectual dark web. He is confident that Christianity possesses the intellectual, emotional and spiritual resources necessary to make life meaningful, but finds that they have been promoted most effectively by those outside the Christian bubble such as social commentator Douglas Murray, psychologist Jordan Peterson and historian Tom Holland:
“Meanwhile, Murray finds himself haunted by the faith he once held, saying, ‘I’m now in the self-confessedly conflicted and complex situation of being, among other things, an uncomfortable agnostic who recognises the values and the virtues that the Christian faith has brought.’”
While the popularity of these “parachurch” academics has made Christianity once again fashionable, it has also exposed the weakness of the church in conveying that same good news. It is this ineffectiveness that Justin addresses at the end of his book by offering advice to the Church so that it can take advantage of this surprising rebirth of belief in God.
To the church in…
Justin has heard all the intellectual arguments before and considers them important but recognises that they have been largely exhausted, and a new apologetic is needed to address the postmodern critique. Justin senses “a new great awakening” priming young people “to hear this story afresh” but wants to help the Church make that narrative compelling.
He offers three recommendations; embrace reason and imagination, keep Christianity weird and create a community that counters cancel culture.
Embrace both reason and imagination
Justin, as former host of Unbelievable?, recognises that all the scientific and philosophical arguments for God’s existence testify to a very smart, very good God but leaves the beatific vision largely hidden. He spent many years hearing arguments for the Good and the True but is now intrigued by the apologetic power of the Beautiful found in the Christian imagination:
“As we meet the incoming tide of refugees from the meaning crisis, the Church needs both apologists in the academy and storytellers in the arts. We need people in the mould of CS Lewis, showing not only that the story is true but why we have wanted to believe in it all along.”
Keep Christianity weird
Justin has witnessed Christianity accommodate itself to the surrounding culture to the point that it is indistinguishable from every other club or organisation the world has to offer. Part of the attraction young people feel towards postmodernity is that it is weird and stands in stark contrast to a culture largely built upon enlightenment principles.
Sadly, Christianity has failed to take advantage of its own historically “weird” message to attract this growing demographic and become one more institution vying for power rather than a countercultural force capturing the imagination:
“While there’s no advantage to creating unnecessary barriers, the lesson appears to be that churches shouldn’t dumb down their worship or their doctrine in order to win new converts. They should demand more, not less, of the people who come through their doors. Embrace mystery, expect the supernatural, and keep Christianity weird.”
Create a community that counters cancel culture
Unfortunately, Christians have also dabbled in cancel culture. We start Twitter wars (I guess now they should be called X games), we meme it out with other memers, and become heresy hunters’ intent on bagging progressive Christians, all of which makes us just as micro and macroaggressive as the rest of society. Justin notes that “grace is the antidote to cancel culture” and encourages churches to embrace it especially when interacting with those whom they disagree.
It is a recommendation that comes with significant gravitas because Justin spent nearly two decades of his life modelling what respectful dialogue should look like between people with diametrically opposed views:
“The Church needs to be a place of countercultural grace in a polarised, moralistic and unforgiving society. Grace is the antidote to cancel culture, and people are desperate for it. Perhaps the greatest witness the Church can offer society is that, even when we disagree, we can still love each other.”
Justin, while seeing a resurgence of belief in God, remains concerned that if it isn’t the Judeo-Christian God then we may not be able to weather the postmodern storm. We are already witnessing the rise of the “nones” and must be careful that this doesn’t lead to the fall of the Church.
Justin’s book has given us a unique perspective on this important cultural moment and the Church would do well to not only heed his warning but also embrace his optimism:
“Yes, we should be grateful for all that the Judeo-Christian heritage has gifted the West—human rights, democracy and freedom of speech among them. However, as any student of history will tell you, these are rare fruits, uniquely cultivated in the soil of our specific Judeo-Christian heritage. How much longer will those concepts endure if the Christian identity of the West continues to wane and, in its place, multiple competing stories of identity and meaning continue to spring up?”
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.