Confessions of a Former Atheist
Former atheist Peter Byrom talks about how faith and reason brought him back to Christ. And, listen to an hilarious parody from Mike Burnette!
Confessions of a Former Atheist
Kevin Harris: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I am Kevin Harris. Happy New Year! As we come to the end of 2014, I have a little treat for you. Today you are going to hear from two very interesting, intelligent, creative, and charming people. No, not me and Dr. Craig, but a former atheist from the UK, Peter Byrom, and a producer from the states, Mike “MoonDog” Burnette, who has written a very funny parody in keeping with the season called Twas the Night of the Debate.
If you are not already, I hope you will become really passionate about the work of Dr. Craig and Reasonable Faith. After you hear from Peter Byrom in a moment, I don't see how you can help but be absolutely committed to an articulate, intelligent, reasonable presentation of the claims of Jesus all over the world. I will say to our non-believing friends – atheists, agnostics, those who hold views contrary to the Christian faith – I hope you appreciate the depths of the topics we discuss on this podcast, and that every effort is made to present opposing views fairly and accurately. Please keep coming back to these podcasts. We have some amazing conversations with Dr. Craig coming up. And if you are a follower of Christ, consider supporting Reasonable Faith financially. We depend on your gifts to keep us strong and providing resources addressing today's hottest questions all over the world. Just click the Donate button on our website, ReasonableFaith.org.
Now, here are two audio clips from our friend Peter Byrom. One thing that he is known for all over the Internet is his confrontation with Richard Dawkins on why Dawkins won't debate Dr. Craig. You will hear the audio of that confrontation in a moment, but first listen to his story.
Peter Byrom: I came from a religious background. My parents are Christian. But that Christian upbringing, whatever faith you might say that I had at that time, that didn't survive leaving my parents’ authority and going away to university. It was sincere doubts but also slightly less sincere desires. The two played off each other. The New Atheism and the Richard Dawkins books were perfect for that because they played up to both showing that atheism looked more attractive but also that it was more intellectually credible. So they were very persuasive.
What stuck with me the most from Richard Dawkins was that he defined “faith” as believing something without evidence or in the face of evidence. He would always be saying you need to base your beliefs on things that have good evidence, a good reason for them. So of course I completely agreed with that. Looking through YouTube, that was when I stumbled across William Lane Craig and his debates and his talks. That was very different. Something struck me about that as being very unusual because here was a Christian academic who was actually talking very precisely, very logical, and making his case from the ground up, appealing to the very reason and evidence that Dawkins was telling me I had to take seriously and look for.
I ended up needing to take a look at myself and actually realized there actually is good evidence for Christianity. So why haven't you become one yet? I was trying to hold out in living a certain way. I was running away from it, and that was silly, frankly. It was very silly to keep running away. It is not about following a load of religious rules or anything like that. It is actually about coming back to the relationship with God that we were supposed to have in the way that a child who has run away from home can be reconciled with her parents, for example. Really that was the realization. Just come home to it. Stop running away. It is silly, and you've no good reason to run away, and you've every good reason to come back.
Reasonable Faith is incredibly helpful and extremely important because when students do go to university they will be confronted in just the way I was with all sorts of objections and hostilities to Christianity and a secular culture which really can actually look very attractive if you are not firmly rooted in your faith and actually know why it is worth believing in the first place and being clear about what it is and why there are good reasons for it. I would strongly encourage people to support Reasonable Faith. It is at the forefront of defending Christianity here in the 21st century. It is doing incredibly good work. For me, it completely revolutionized my thinking. It made all sorts of light bulbs go on in my head. It revived my thinking, and it revived my faith. It is no coincidence that those two things go together.
Peter Byrom: It is fantastic to be here. I have been looking forward to this for a very long time. I hope that whatever I've got to say today can be helpful to you. Now, I think Michael Green put it very well earlier when he was talking about what typically happens at university when people go there and become students and so many fall out of the faith. That is exactly what happened to me. I had some Christian faith in teenage years. I had a bit of that. But then when it got to the point of university, that really did fall away. I just chucked it completely in the bin. Looking back I think that was for two reasons basically. First of all, I had genuine doubts. I actually did think, “What if this is actually all a load of complete nonsense? What if it is just made up stuff that is just believed by a load of ignorant, close-minded people in the deep south of the U.S.A – stereotypes, that kind of thing. What if it is nonsense? I should feel so embarrassed I even toyed with this stuff before.” There really were genuine doubts. There were questions that just didn't make sense to me, and there didn't seem to be answers out there. Of course at university you are flung the different challenges and the different opinions. They come at you with very strong force. But also, if I've got to be honest, I actually quite liked the idea of Christianity being false at the same time. It was actually looking pretty attractive. It is that point in your life where you've left your parents, you've shaken off their authority, and it is your opportunity to make your own independent stamp on the world. If you've shaken off your parents' authority, the last thing you want is a cosmic authority. I mean, get out of here! I don't want that! Get out of here! That was just a very unattractive idea. It was a combination of both those things, I think: genuine doubts, but also, yes, slightly insincere desires at the same time. Both of them really played off each other.
I just got to the point kind of about halfway through university of really thinking I could just ignore the whole question. Then one of the most inconvenient things happened – my housemate that I was living with (he wasn't even brought up Christian at all) became Christian – a really passionate Christian. That was seriously inconvenient. I was almost seething at him going, “I just about forgotten this. Come on!” Now, actually, I've got to be really grateful to him. It has to be one of the best inconvenient things that ever happened to me. That has got to be the way I describe it. But it gets worse because not only did he become Christian, one of my best friends who is a bit like me, he was Christian for a while but then I remember the day when he walked up to me and said, “Pete, you've got to read this book by Richard Dawkins. It is called The God Delusion. It is amazing.” These were two of my very best friends that I was living with at the time with totally opposite points of view. That just meant I could not ignore it. I was forced to look at it.
I hadn't properly looked at atheism yet. I hadn't really looked into it. So when I was reading the Dawkins books, the Hitchens books, the New Atheist material and seeing interviews with them and all the material that they had, there was a paradigm shift. I was thinking, “What if they are right? Yeah, they might be right here. Where is the evidence? Etc., etc.” What about this? What about this? I was rooting for them for a very long time actually. It kind of fed the sort of hostility that I was kind of feeling towards Christianity at that time. I can remember my friend would bring his friends over from church and I was just kind of thinking I mustn't go near them because if I end up liking them I am going to have to totally ignore them.
That was the interesting thing. Trying to be atheist or rather trying to hold on to it, I thought it would just be like just sort of throwing off some shackles and relaxing in liberation. It actually took up a heck of a lot of energy. It really did. There was this sense of waking up and needing to say to myself, “By the way, remember there is no God, right? Yeah, of course.” That just didn't make sense really. I just felt I had to investigate it. I had to keep looking into Christianity if only to really make sure that I could be comfortable about it being false.
The interesting thing is that through looking through the Dawkins and the Hitchens work and rooting for them, that was when I started discovering Christian apologetics. I had seen some Christians who were terrible at defending their faith. And I was going, “Yeah, wipe the floor with them Richard!” That kind of thing. But then slowing I was weeding them out. That was when I started to see, for example, his debate with John Lennox and just gradually discovering lots of other much more robust academically credible apologists.
I should check actually – who here has heard of William Lane Craig? Cool, that's a pretty decent number. He is another really big name in Christian apologetics who came over here in October. He is a philosopher and theologian. He is very well known not just for his published work but there are tons of video of him debating atheists. A lot of that is on YouTube and very easy to find. I was watching that thinking, “This is a bit unusual. The atheists seem to be having a pretty hard time here. He is coming up with some arguments that really are shaking them up a bit.” I was getting into his work and looking at that and investigating it because I took the Dawkins line where he said Look at the evidence; try and find out where the truth is leading. I thought that was a good idea.
But then I was noticing that actually the question was being raised on the Internet, “What if Richard Dawkins debated him?” That would be interesting. What ideas would they have? I thought that would be good. They could examine each other's ideas. But it turned out that he was continually running away from that debate with strings and strings of excuses for not engaging with this person who clearly had a lot of interesting stuff to say. That was very strange. That was one of the things that was almost turning me around. I was wondering, “Where is this running away coming from? I don't quite understand it.” This might be a good point to show the video. In the middle of quite an agnostic phase, I went along to one of the debates that Dawkins was there. And I thought loads of people are asking questions about this on the Internet, I want to find out what is going on here. So I thought I would jump in and ask him basically. This clip has gone around the Internet a fair bit:
Peter Byrom: Professor Dawkins, you are arguably the world's leading apologist for atheism. You have been invited on several occasions by arguably the world's leading Christian academic apologist, Dr. William Lane Craig, to engage in debate. I would like to know why this is not an example of the New Atheist doing what Lord Harry has described as avoiding the strongest possible arguments from the opposition.
Richard Dawkins: I have always said when invited to do debates that I would be happy to debate a Bishop, a Cardinal, a Pope, an Archbishop, indeed I have done both. But I don't take on creationists and I don't take on people whose only claim to fame is that they are professional debaters. They got to have something more than that. I'm busy.
There were about four excuses there. He has got about nine more that he's used. I think that kind of summed up what happened in a way where I was just realizing, “This stuff the New Atheism is bringing out just isn't holding water. Loads of it is based on emotion and rhetoric.” I just had to face that.
To draw it to a close, I spent several years investigating Christian apologetics and seeing how the atheists’ arguments – they just weren't working. I couldn't use any good arguments against Christianity myself. It made me realize that I've run out of arguments and objections. There is really good solid stuff here. So I just had to face up to the fact that all I was left with was the not wanting it to be true. I was still pretty stubborn. I kind of carried on a bit still sort of not really acting on it very much and still just making life decisions that were based on maybe being a bit more hedonistic or just trying to ignore it. But it really did get to the crunch point of just realizing, look, there are good arguments here. I'm running away from it. It doesn't really seem to be working. This is just stupid. Just come back to it. So it really accumulated. As my personal life and that kind of running away was going downhill, the interest in the apologetics was coming right up.
The real decisive moment, actually, was when William Lane Craig came along to do a speaking and debating tour last October, I got heavily involved in that. It was fantastic just meeting him and his wife and the other people involved and just seeing more of the arguments and drawing it together. There actually was a moment, I think, that really changed it. I was speaking with his wife Jan, who is a lovely lady, and she actually said to me – I explained I was sympathetic to Christianity but I'm not quite there – and she said, “Pete, if you don't think you can give absolutely everything to Jesus, don't become a Christian. Don't do it.” That really shook me. I thought that all Christians would just want to beg people to come and join us. “No please, come on! Come on!” And she actually said, “No, if you can't commit to it, don't do it.” That really gave me pause for thought really. That was when I realized this running away was silly, and the arguments don’t work.
That in summary was what I think the great impact for apologetics had for me. The sincere questions that I had, the answers were there – really good, deep answers that I could really look into and see how credible the Christian worldview is – but also the insincere stuff that was going on with me. I just had to realize the insincerity of it. I couldn't hide behind the intellectual objections. I think that is the great thing that apologetics can do. Not only can you address the sincere questions; I think it will also expose some of the people that maybe have more emotional, personal reasons who hide behind the intellectual questions because I was doing that. It is great to come back and stay properly as a Christian this time. Thank you apologists everywhere. Thank you for listening.
Kevin Harris: And from our friend Mike “MoonDog” Burnette, Twas the Night of the Debate.
'Twas the night of the debate and all through the hall,
all the thinkers were thinking, and spoke as were called.
Only a premise would stand between a more logical view,
as conclusions were made, and accusations were spewed.
William Lane Craig began with reasons to believe there's a God,
the atheist appealed to a spaghetti monster – how odd.
Bill spoke of the origin of the universe, fine-tuning, and life,
his kalam cosmological argument cut like a knife.
Objective morality and the resurrection was shared,
as he silenced his challengers with reason and care.
The thinkers were all nestled all smug in their thoughts,
the audience anticipating how each challenge would be fought.
With visions of “nothing and infinity” in their heads,
the opposers did stammer and weave a big web.
And Bill in his sweater and colorful tie,
laid out the facts no one could reasonably deny.
When out in the audience there rose such a clatter,
as he said, “Out of nothing, nothing comes!” – it didn't seem to matter.
“We just happened,” they shouted, “and that's all there is.”
“Stop believing in fairy tales, and this made up God biz.”
MoonDog was hosting and dished out advice,
“Please stick to the facts and everyone play nice.”
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a bearded man with a book Warranted Christian Beliefs kept near.
A little old defender, so lively and bright,
I knew in a moment, “St. Plantinga” was in the fight.
More rapid than eagles, his proteges came,
and he whistled and shouted and called them by name:
“Now Moreland! Now Habermas! Now, Strobel and Sharp!
On Licona! On Turek! On Koukl and Copan!
To the top of the stage! To the top of the hall!
Now defend away! Defend away! Defend away all!”
Invalid arguments flew, as a wild hurricane flies.
Truth often traded for a pack full of lies.
When they met with an obstacle about a “Big Daddy in the Sky,”
up to the microphone the discoursers did fly.
With color coded PowerPoint slides of arguments galore,
cases were made for God's existence that no one could ignore.
His eyes, how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
(No changes needed here for Santa or St. Plantinga.)
The atheist all groaned with each point that was made,
But offered no evidence in their ad hominem parade.
Plantinga grinned as he laughed and said, “Really?”
“That's the sort of thing one might think if they were, say, just plain silly.”
He spoke lots of numbers and letters to explain
that without the notion of a God, we couldn't know anything.
He filled all their minds with thoughts never heard,
but always provided some thoughts from the Word:
“Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Light.”
“Oh, and I have 22 arguments for theistic belief,”
But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight,
“'Merry Christmas to all' is a properly basic belief!”
Kevin Harris:: Good job, MoonDog! If you are not familiar with some of the names in that piece – like Alvin Plantinga, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, Paul Copan, and others, let this be a tool for you to become familiar with their work. You will become familiar with top scholars when you spend some time at ReasonableFaith.org. Again, consider becoming a financial partner with us. It will truly be a blessing to hear from you and keep us strong all over the world. Just click the Donate button at ReasonableFaith.org. We appreciate it. I'm Kevin Harris. We will see you next time on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.
 This audio from Peter Byrom is from his 2012 Unbelievable Conference presentation which can be viewed starting at the 8 minute 50 second mark here: http://www.premier.tv/media/t/1_yey548ws/13105891
Dr. Craig spoke two years later at the 2014 Unbelievable Conference, which is available on DVD at http://www.premierchristianradio.com/Unbelievable-Conference-DVD-CD-twinset (links accessed December 28, 2014).
 Total Running Time: 20:49 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)