Conversations matter. The best sort of conversations spark creativity, deepen relationships and help us to see things from another person’s point of view. Yet good conversations about faith, doubt and belief are becoming harder to find these days. The echo chambers of social media often surround us with friends and followers who think the same way as we do. Meanwhile, the shrill tones of public intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists have dominated the conversation from the secular side.
When I began my radio show Unbelievable? over ten years ago, I wanted to reboot the concept of good conversations. The station I worked for, Premier Christian Radio, was already very good at a specific sort of broadcasting – Christians on the radio talking to Christians at home about Christian things. All of which is important and helpful.
But I wanted to widen the conversation. With less than five per cent of the UK attending church on Sunday, what if we tried talking to people outside our Christian bubble? The format of the new show was fairly simple. I would sit down with two guests, one a Christian and the other not, to talk to them about why one believed and the other didn’t. And we would title the show Unbelievable?
The question mark was essential. Each show would debate a question, with the intention of testing the central claims of Christianity – could they stand up to scrutiny? What were the alternative views? And, along the way, what could we learn from inviting people outside the Christian faith into our big conversations?
Hosting the conversation
As the show progressed over the following months, we began to cover specific issues: is scripture reliable? Why would God allow suffering? How do you explain the Trinity? At Christmas we asked if there was evidence for the virgin birth and at Easter debated the evidence for the resurrection. And it wasn’t just atheists and agnostics opposite the Christian guests. Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and those involved in esoteric New Age practices also featured on the show. Muslim guests would usually guarantee a lively debate and a big response from the listeners.
What if we tried talking to people outside our Christian bubble?
Shows featuring academics could be relied upon to be well argued, polite and safe. But those that featured opinionated guests and a zinging debate received the most feedback. Some shows were entirely unpredictable. I almost had to abandon a debate between a vociferous critic of Islam and a Muslim apologist when they began trading insults. I paused the recording and in my firmest voice told them both to calm down or we’d be unable to continue.
For the most part, however, the core of the show continued to be atheists and Christians getting together to dialogue. The show happened to be born just as the New Atheists were emerging as a force to be reckoned with following the publication of Dawkins’ bestselling book The God Delusion (Bantam).
I’d like to tell you that Unbelievable? was warmly received by the listening radio audience. But the show had a mixed reaction to begin with. I understood the listeners’ concerns. You wouldn’t normally expect to turn on a Christian radio station and hear an atheist making a sustained critique of some cherished Christian doctrine. To his credit, Peter Kerridge, the station CEO, decided that the merits of the show outweighed any potential discomfort for some of the audience. The programme continued to be broadcast in its Saturday afternoon slot. Those who enjoyed it listened, and those who didn’t learned to skip the 90-minute slot that the show occupied.
I knew the show wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Unbelievable? took listeners outside the Christian bubble, but many found it to be worth the risk. Bubbles are made for popping, and in our internet age both believers and non-Christians are only a Google search away from radical scepticism about Christianity. If Christians want to reach out and share their faith, they need to be prepared for the arguments they will encounter. And on Unbelievable? at least, they got to hear both sides.
When atheists listen to Christian radio
Over time it became evident that the programme was scratching where many Christians were itching, as listening to the dialogues gave them the tools to engage their faith critically and the confidence to share it. Surprisingly, the other demographic to begin tuning in were sceptics and atheists who enjoyed hearing their views being represented fairly and in turn were willing to hear the case for Christianity. But how did they discover a Christian radio show? Podcasting was the answer.
Once episodes began to be made available online and on podcasting platforms such as iTunes, the show began to acquire an increasingly transatlantic feel as listeners in the USA, Canada, Australia and other countries around the world began to identify themselves. As the show gained prominence, so the number of people regularly downloading the show (and plundering its back catalogue too) continued to grow. At the last count, almost 2.5 million downloads of the show are being registered per annum.
A frequent comment would surface in emails I received from non-Christians who had begun listening: “You’d never normally catch me listening to Christian radio…but your show is the exception.”
As my knowledge of the Christian and atheist landscape grew, so I began to identify where the key battlegrounds lay. I was able to secure some high-profile Christian guests to feature in conversation with atheist opponents such as the renowned British illusionist Derren Brown and the atheist-in-chief, Richard Dawkins himself.
Featuring some famous names from both sides helped to attract a wide audience. By seeking to model fair and courteous discussions, many stayed on to listen to the conversations week by week, whether the participants were well known or not.
The Infamous Episodes
Unbelievable? has not just been a forum for Christians and non-believers to interact. Many discussions between believers of different theological stripes also take place.
Some of the most memorable encounters have been with American megachurch pastors, albeit of very different kinds.
In 2011 when Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Collins) caused a theological stir with its apparent support of universalism – the view that all people will be saved – I invited him on to the show. We filmed a lively debate with Adrian Warnock, a more conservative Christian. The video went viral, introducing many new listeners to the show. But when we filmed Bell two years later, shortly after he had endorsed gay marriage, he appeared terse and defensive in debate with theologian Andrew Wilson. Unlike his previous encounter, I don’t think he had come wanting to debate the subject, and the awkwardness of the exchange caught on camera was just as palpable in the studio.
I also have the ability to upset megachurch pastors of the more conservative sort. A 2012 interview with US church leader Mark Driscoll, in which he caused controversy by criticising the quality of British preachers, led to him publicly attacking my journalistic integrity on his blog as well as questioning my theological credentials. I released the full recording of our interview online so that listeners could judge for themselves what had actually transpired, including the unforgettable experience of Driscoll turning the tables and grilling me on my doctrinal soundness. It went on to become the most downloaded edition of the show, ever.
A two-way street
I don’t expect a one-hour conversation to change the mind of those who come on to defend a particular view. However, there are many people who are quite open to changing their minds in the course of listening at home (or in the car/train etc via podcast). They are the people the programme primarily exists for. Debates are somewhat pointless if they merely reinforce each side’s views. But good conversations have a habit of getting beyond the rhetoric and point scoring of a debate, and instead opening up a space for genuine learning. At its best, the show causes people to rethink their views and make room for new ways of understanding.
That means I’ve been privileged to hear all kinds of interesting stories as people have written in to describe their reasons for belief and doubt. Often the emails are from Christians explaining how the show has helped them approach difficult questions and strengthened their faith in the process. Others come from non-Christians who have been turned from hard-boiled sceptics into curious agnostics by the show. For some the show has been instrumental in a journey to Christian faith. People like Marc who wrote to tell me that he was as antagonistic an atheist as could be imagined, but that the show, combined with the influence of a loving pastor, had brought him to faith. He ended his message by saying: “If your programme could reach someone as far gone as me, you’re doing something right.”
However, since this is a programme that brings the two sides together, the traffic flows in both directions. There are many atheist and agnostics who write in to say that they are more convinced by the non-Christian speakers’ arguments. I also receive messages from ex-Christians telling me that the show has confirmed their movement away from faith as they listened.
As someone who is an evangelist at heart, I’m naturally inclined to hope people move towards rather than away from Christianity when they listen, but I’ve never felt compelled to ensure that the traffic only flows in one direction. It would be impossible to host the free-flowing conversations that the show consists of and not expect people to make up their minds in different directions. Indeed, I never cease to be amazed at the opposite conclusions that different people often come to after hearing the same conversation.
I can’t control how the debates will play out, but as a Christian I’m happy to do the best job I can in setting up the conversations and hosting them fairly. The rest I leave to the listeners to decide, believing that God is at work through the show, even when an atheist does a worryingly good job of putting their points across! Yes, it may be less ‘safe’, but in an age of fake news and even fake spirituality, people are looking for authentic conversations on faith to help them make their own mind up.
How come you still believe?
In the meantime, hosting the weekly programme has provided me with a ten-year course in theology and apologetics. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the programme, I invited listeners to send in questions for me to answer. One of the most common was: “How come you still believe?”
A brittle faith can be tempered into a tougher one
That’s a fair question, and for an atheist for whom every argument against Christianity looks like a slam dunk, I can imagine that my persisting Christian faith looks like a wilful denial of the obvious. But two people can be listening to the same conversations for years on end and still reach very different conclusions, me included. Ten years on, I can honestly say that I am more confident in my Christian faith than when I began the show.
That is not to say my faith has remained unaffected. Numerous beliefs have been refined as I’ve grappled with the sweep of scripture in all its variety and there have been a few periods of unsettling doubt when presented with cogent critiques of Christianity. Plenty of issues are still filed under the heading, ‘I haven’t a clue’. I don’t think doubt will ever evaporate, and why should it? Faith in the absence of doubt sounds more like certainty, and we are rarely provided with those kinds of proofs for our beliefs.
‘Iron sharpens iron’ (Proverbs 27:17) is a verse often used by believers to describe the way they can benefit from mutual spiritual encouragement. But I have found the same applies when believers and nonbelievers dialogue. One’s worldview may take a few knocks in the process but, if the conversation is entered into in the right frame of mind, a brittle faith can be tempered into an altogether tougher, sharper one in the end.
Being present for so many conversations has gradually given me the tools to sift arguments, sort the wheat from the chaff, consider the weaknesses in other worldviews and determine what seem to be the most significant arguments in support of Christianity. The cover design of my book telling the story of the show, Unbelievable? Why after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian (SPCK), shows a blackboard overflowing with diagrams, ideas and theories. In writing it, I’ve aimed to clear a space to explain why, after hearing so many of them, I still consider Jesus to be the most compelling answer to life’s deepest questions.
We are all called to give an answer to anyone who asks us about the reason for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15). But if we aren’t having good conversations, we are unlikely to ever be asked in the first place. So go and talk to someone…who knows what could happen?
Click here to download a free chapter of Justin’s book: Unbelievable? Why, after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian (SPCK).