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The Conversation You’re Avoiding: Justin Brierley

with Justin Brierley | January 1, 2024
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For the next 30 years, one million young people will leave their faith. Whether a person believes in God or holds atheist beliefs, author Justin Brierley knows there's a vital need for open conversation.

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Church attendance is rapidly declining. Whether a person believes in God or holds atheist beliefs, author Justin Brierley knows we need open conversation.

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The Conversation You’re Avoiding: Justin Brierley

With Justin Brierley
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January 01, 2024
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Shelby: Hey, this is Shelby Abbott. I just wanted to take a second to thank you if you gave to our matching program that happened in December. Checks are still coming in and we don't have all the numbers yet, but if you gave, I sincerely want to say how grateful I am for your generosity to help make FamilyLife Today possible. Thank you so much for giving and supporting this ministry. And even if you didn't give, and you've just shared episodes with someone; or even if you just listened, thank you for being a part of FamilyLife Today.

Alright, let's jump into today's episode.

Justin: I think we are living in a post-Christian culture. I think that's just been the reality, actually, for a while now: that we live in a culture where we still sort of have some familiarity with the Christian story, but increasingly, younger generations are growing up, unchurched without any real purchase on that story.

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Shelby Abbott and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.

Dave: I recently saw a 2018 Pinetops Foundation study that said over 1,000,000 young people will leave the faith per year for the next 30 years.

Ann: That is staggering and depressing.

Dave: Yes.

Ann: It's scary.

Dave: Pew Research maintains that, for every person who becomes a Christian, four more leave the faith. That's sort of the world—

Ann: —isn't that depressing—

Dave: —we’re living in—

Ann: —to you?

Dave: Yes. The question is, is that really true? What is happening and why? 

We have the guy who's going to give us the answer.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: It's not you, and it's not me.

Ann: No, it's not. [Laughter]

Dave: We've got Justin Brierley with us, from the UK, in Orlando. Just took a—what, a four-hour bus ride from Miami [Laughter]—

Justin: —from Miami, yes.

Dave: —because his flight got—

Justin: —diverted.

Dave: —diverted. But Justin, welcome to FamilyLife Today.

Justin: Oh, thank you so much for having me, guys. It's lovely to be here even if the journey was, yes, [Laughter] a little bit of a late-night one.

Dave: So, you're trying to fly into Orlando and couldn't get here.

Justin: That's right. The weather—that was the problem. You had a storm brew up, and the pilot circled a few times, hoping it would clear; but in the end, yes, [we] had to go to Miami and enjoy the four-hour bus ride back to Orlando. [Laughter]

Dave: That's a long way to go. [Laughter] We have never,—

Ann: —that's terrible!

Dave: —never had to do that. So, you're on fumes right now. [Laughter]

Justin: Well, look. I'm glad to be here. [Laughter] And what a wonderful campus you have here as well. Just such fun—

Ann: —it's beautiful, isn't it?

Justin: —being here. Yes.

Ann: And I'm glad you brought your son, Noah. He’s 18.

Justin: Yes, my 18-year-old son, Noah, [is] with me. We're kind of here in the US for a week or so, actually, doing a few different speaking engagements and things. But it's really fun when you have got a travelling buddy like your 18-year-old son.

Ann: And he's one of four?

Justin: He is, yes. We have a girl, Grace, 15; Jeremy, 12; and Toby, who's 8 years old as well.

Dave: By the way, we asked Noah what you're really an expert in, [Laughter] and he said, “For sure, we should ask you about football;” [Laughter] about soccer—

Justin: —he was lying.

Dave: —in England.

Justin: He was lying— [Laughter]

Dave: —yes? 

Justin: —if that's what he said. I know precisely zero about soccer.

Dave: Can you name five NFL football teams?

Justin: NFL football; I mean—

Dave: —because we come over and play in Longon!

Justin: My goodness! I’d probably end up giving you some baseball and basketball [Laughter] teams, because they all sound the same to me.

Dave: Well, I guarantee our producer, Jim Mitchell right now is [wondering], “Why are they talking [Laughter] with one of the premier apologists and theologians in the world about American football?” Right, Jim? That's exactly what he's thinking. [Laughter]

I was going to tell you a story about being in London with the Detroit Lions, but we'll leave that for another day.

Ann: Oh, good!

Dave: Tell our listeners what you do, because what I just said is really accurate. You are one of the premier [people] in the world to discuss what we're talking about. When I said, “You're an expert;” you really are. This is your world.

Justin: Wow. That's very kind.

I've been trying to create conversations, essentially, between the Christian and non-Christian world for the last 20 years or so; all my broadcasting career, really. It started with a show I developed in the UK called Unbelievable, which was a podcast radio show where I would bring Christians and non-Christians together for dialogue and debate. And that really just grew, especially once we started podcasting and a video channel.

So, in the end, lots of people were listening all over the world, including agnostics, atheists, and people of other faiths. It was just this wonderful place for a meeting ground between different perspectives. I hosted so many conversations on belief, faith, [and] “Does God exist?” It was really kind of getting going as well at the time when this phenomenon called “The New Atheism” was riding high in the public consciousness.

So, it was great to be able to be on the cutting edge of some of those conversations. Over time, I was able to broaden that out to other theological conversations and things. It's been an amazing ride. Along the way, I have developed my own case for faith. So, I not only host conversations now between skeptics and Christians, but I'm often the one putting the case for faith as well, in talks or in debates.

I published a book several years ago called Unbelievable?: Why After Ten Years of Talking with Atheists, I'm Still a Christian, and that was my case for faith, really, after hosting all these conversations. Then, the new book is sort of where we're at now, really in our culture, and where I think the God conversation has gone in the last few years.

Dave: Well, let's talk about your latest book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism Grew Old and Secular Thinkers are Considering Christianity Again. The stat I opened the program with—is that what's happening? Are people walking away in droves, or is there something else that we're not hearing?

Justin: Well on the surface, I'd say that is what's happening. That's what the statistics are telling us. Every time we get a new survey, either in the UK or the US, the picture seems to look the same; increasingly, more and more, especially of a younger generation, are describing themselves as “non-religious.” They don't have any particular religious affiliation, and so on.

We've seen sort of a huge decline in church-going in mainline denominations, both in the UK and the USA. I think, even in some of the more evangelical strongholds here in the US, you're starting to see the stability there starting to waver as well.

I think we are living in a post-Christian culture. I think that's just been the reality, actually, for a while now; that we live in a culture where we still have some familiarity with the Christian story, but increasingly, younger generations are growing up unchurched without any real purchase on that story.

Ann: Justin, let me ask you, just quickly: parents in the US—that freaks us out.

Justin: Sure.

Ann: Our kids aren't following the way we've been pursuing Jesus. Is that true for parents in the UK? Does that worry them; the believers who are loving Jesus?

Justin: Of course! I think it's bound to worry any faithful Christian parent who wants to see their child and their family grow up in the faith. I think it's increasingly difficult, because there are so many pressures on our young people. It's far more difficult, I think, for that faith to sort of stick and stay sometimes.

Now, this all sounds rather depressing, doesn't it, at this point? [Laughter]

Dave and Ann: Yes.

Justin: But the point is, I would say that, sometimes the statistics are one thing, but I often see that there are things going on in the background that aren't always reflected in some of the statistics.

So even in the UK, although there's been a long period of church decline, when I look at some of what's happening on the ground in certain churches and networks and streams, I see lots of signs of hope. I think there are actually interesting signs of certain parts of the church which are actually flourishing. There's been a lot of immigration in the UK and a lot of the African-Caribbean churches are actually overflowing with people, and young people, and so on.

There are parts of the Church of England which, although lots of people have criticisms of it, there are some really wonderful church networks within it, such as the Holy Trinity Brompton Network run by Nicky Gumbel and others, where they're seeing wonderful work of planting into dead and dying churches, and seeing, suddenly, new life develop and large congregations developing.

So, the picture isn't always what it appears to be, just from looking at statistics. Sometimes, I feel like what we're looking at in the West is a kind of the inevitable dying off of some of the old structures; some of the kind of nominalism that developed in Christianity over a generation or two. Sometimes, that has to happen for God to bring a new life. It's like pruning back a plant in order for the green shoots to be able to come through. I just refuse to believe that God’s finished with the church—

Ann: —right!

Justin: —either in the UK—

Ann: —right.

Justin: —or the USA.

The new book is actually identifying what I think is a really interesting trend, which suggests that the atmosphere is changing. Now, you may not see that yet reflected in the statistics, but I think something is happening further upstream that we may see have a big impact later on.

Dave: What is that? What's happening?

Justin: So, I've been running this Unbelievable show for a decade and half or more. The point of the show was to bring Christians and non-Christians together. A lot of those debates were these very bombastic debates in the early years—

Dave: —yes.

Justin: —between these New Atheist characters.

The New Atheism was this very militantly anti-God movement, and it was fronted by four so-called “Horsemen of New Atheism”: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, well-known biologists in the UK. They had all written best-selling books against God, against Religion. [They] even had an advertising campaign in the UK. There were London buses bearing the slogan, “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying, and enjoy your life.”

Here in the US, you had the Reason Rally. I don't know if you remember that—

Dave: —right. 

Justin: —back in 2012. Tens of thousands of atheists and agnostics pitching up at Washington, DC to protest for science and reason. But the point is, this was part of a big cultural movement—

Dave: —yes.

Justin: —at the time—

Dave: —right. 

Justin: —where, I think, a lot of Christians felt like, “Yes, Christianity was really under attack in some sense”; that there was this really dogmatic, strong—and it was very derisive as well, of faith.

Those were the kinds of individuals I was engaging with for several years on the show. But I did notice that things started to change on the show, and a lot of those conversations started to be replaced by people who were still not Christians. They were still secular thinkers, but they increasingly wanted to distance themselves from that New Atheist movement. They would more frequently say, “Well, I'm not a Richard Dawkins kind of atheist, Justin;” when they came on. I think it's because they came to realize that that movement itself started to look quasi-religious, almost. It had its high priests, these four horsemen. It had its sacred texts—

Ann: —interesting.

Justin: —these books. It had its sort of orthodoxy: scientific materialism, and if you strayed from that, you were a heretic.

So, the point I make in the book is that religion never really goes away. It just gets channeled into different things. We've become religious about something. It's just a question of what, and some people got very religious for a while about atheism. That was really what New Atheism was.

I noticed that a lot of the secular thinkers were starting to distance themselves from that movement and starting to take Christianity seriously again. I think the reason for this was that, ultimately, the New Atheism didn't give people ultimate answers to what life is about. They sort of tore God down, but they didn't replace God with any positive ethic. That's the problem. People need something to live their lives by; they need a story to live their lives by.

What I was finding was that, more and more, secular thinkers I was bringing on my show were saying, “Well, maybe we do need something like Christianity;” because they were noticing a meaning crisis developing in Western culture. They were saying, “Well, how do we address this? Maybe religion, maybe Christianity, does have something to offer after all.”

So, I tell the story of a number of these new secular thinkers in the book, but who are actually opening the door to Christianity again for a lot of thinking people.

Ann: I was thinking that, as I was reading your book, and I was thinking, “If there is no God, to me that feels so hopeless. What do they base their joy and their future on if there's nothing?”

I wonder about that. As people go into this world of, “I don't believe. I'm an atheist. I'm an agnostic,” where do they find their hope? Do you think that's what you're saying is what was drawing some people back?

Justin: I think, absolutely, it is; because, in the end, atheism is a sort of negative statement.

Ann: Right.

Justin: It's about what you don't believe in. People need something positive to live for.

Now, I think the New Atheism tried to build something, and they tried to build it with just science and reason. They said, “Look! Science can be our guiding philosophy. We're just going to search for truth.” But the problem is, science is great for some things—it's great for exploring the world and the universe—but it doesn't buy you meaning or value or identity.

What I think a lot of the New Atheists have realized (and some of them are actually saying this about their own movement in hindsight); they're saying, “We cleared the way by getting rid of the Christian story for people. We didn't leave it open for people just to become rationalist, Atheist scientist-types. Actually, all kinds of other ideologies have swept in in its place, because people are still inherently religious. They're still going to be looking for something to make meaning. Science wasn't enough; reason wasn't enough.

So, a lot of them are saying the reason why we're seeing a lot of—for instance, on the progressive left—woke ideologies suddenly becoming kind of sacrosanct and having this real identity for people is because they've replaced God with a gender or sexual identity. That's become their new god, if you’d like.

A lot of them are realizing [that], whatever they thought of Christianity, some of these new ideologies are far more concerning to them, ironically, than Christianity ever was, because these are in their backyard. These are in academia. These are quasi-religious kinds of movements that they're suddenly realizing, “Oh, gosh, we didn't realize what we were actually opening the door to.”

So, it's been very interesting to see that even people like Richard Dawkins and some of these other New Atheists are suddenly—they're not talking about religion anymore. They've all basically taken sides in the culture wars, and it was really those culture wars that ultimately smashed through New Atheism. I think it's just part of that religious nature that people have. They will always turn to something to try to give themselves meaning and purpose and identity.

Dave: So, in a sense, there's a deconstruction going on. Often, at least here in America, in the Christian world, deconstruction sounds like a bad word. But often, it's not a bad word. I mean, you can deconstruct and lose your faith, and that's tragic. Or you can deconstruct what you thought you believed or grew up with and go, “Oh, there are things I believe that aren't even true. I find out I'm stronger my faith because I've gotten rid of some of the things [that] I thought were true, that are not true. This is what is true from the Word of God.

Justin: Yes! 

Dave: Is that what you're seeing on both sides?

Justin: I think I am. I think we talk a lot, don't we—yes—about deconstruction in Christian circles—

Dave: —yes.

Justin: —and I think that's something we need to take seriously and address; but I also see people deconstructing their atheism.

Dave: Right.

Justin: I actually see people who have come to realize that the answers that they were being given by the New Atheists simply weren't enough. That didn't make sense of their lives either. And that's why we had the rise of some of these interesting secular thinkers like Jordan Peterson, who is a quite well-known Canadian psychologist who has drawn huge crowds—

Dave: —yes. 

Justin: —to talk about, especially, young men looking for meaning and purpose in life. And what does he give them? He doesn't give them a purely scientific account of reality. He sends them back to the Bible. He says, “If you're looking for meaning and purpose, this is where to find it. It's in these ancient Scriptures. It's in this ancient wisdom.”

I just find that fascinating because, again, this is not a Christian per se who is doing this. Yet, I've seen so many people walk through the door to Christian faith because he's made it an intellectual option again. He's taking faith seriously. He's saying, “We are inherently religious, and so, if you're going to choose a story, well, the Christian story is a pretty good one. It's done a lot of good for Western culture. Most of our values are actually founded on the Christian story.”

So, when I see someone like Jordan Peterson, who, admittedly, is a somewhat controversial political pundit as well, but when he delivers these lectures or speaks to people on his YouTube platform, he is essentially acting almost like a Christian evangelist half of the time. He genuinely sees the Christian story as the best way of understanding what life is ultimately about. He does it, kind of, from a psychological perspective—

Dave: —right, right—

Justin: —but, as I say, it's given people enough rationale for Christianity for them to start taking it seriously. I've seen so many people, as I say, who have gone the whole way and decided, actually, “I can make sense of this.”

Ann: Can you think of a conversation you had with one of those people that were on one side, but now you see them contemplating and wondering?

Justin: Yes; I've got a friend called “Dean” in Australia, and I had this psychologist, Jordan Peterson, on my Unbelievable show several years ago, and he then put that conversation out on his own podcast. Dean was a follower of Jordan Peterson's, and he then discovered my show and started listening to some of these conversations on faith.

We struck up a friendship, and he has told me his story; that he sort of just became an atheist as a young man. He had a vaguely, in Australia, Anglican upbringing, but it didn't stick. He just assumed that these New Atheist speakers—Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins—just had the truth; you know, that life ultimately was about science and matter in motion, and everything could be explained by biological forces.

But I think he's an artistic soul, Dean, and it never fully explained his experience. He's a poet; he's a writer; and he's a nurse in an intensive care unit as well. He was—

Ann: —wow.

Justin: —living on the frontline of life and death for a lot of people. I think he gradually came to realize that that way of looking at life—that reductive way of looking at life—just didn't fit all of the experiences. That's why he went looking for something else, and he found it in Jordan Peterson, first of all, and found that the way he was framing life as being about much more—that there is a kind of an ultimate meaning and ultimate purpose that we can strive for—just made sense to him.

Then he heard Jordan Peterson start talking about the Bible, and then he heard him on my show, and then he started to discover, “[Do] you know what? This Christianity thing that I just assumed was irrelevant to my life—” He started to realize, “Gosh, there's an awful lot of sense in this.”

He started going back to church. Now, at this point, I think Dean would say that he's a kind of interested agnostic. [Laughter] He hasn't quite made his mind up. He's still got questions; but he finds the Christian story far more intriguing than he ever realized he could find it. Again, it's because he's gone on this journey of being dissatisfied with the atheist/materialist story of reality and starting to realize just how rich and deep the Christian story is.

But it's these prophets from outside the Church who actually introduced him to it again.

Dave: Now, somebody like you who studied and has a foundation, not just experientially, but intellectually, do you (or have you) struggled with doubt?

Justin: I started a show where I put myself in the firing line every week [Laughter] of potentially having a crisis of faith! [Laughter] Because I was inviting these very cogent—

Dave: —yes. 

Justin: —atheist skeptics on, to ask their difficult questions. There were some where I definitely had one or two sleepless nights.

I remember when I first read a book by Bart Airman, who's a well-known critic of the New Testament; an agnostic himself. I read this book, questioning the historical reliability of the Gospels, essentially; and it gave me a real pause for thought. But of course, when I brought on Peter J. Williams, who is a Cambridge scholar of the Old and New Testament, opposite him, I quickly realized, “Well, there's always two sides to every story.” Over and over, for me at least, it's been proved that Christianity can stand on its own two feet intellectually.

Now, that's not to say that some of my ideas haven't had to be tested and changed and nuanced along the way, because we all change and grow and develop in our faith. But in the end, I found out that my faith has become much stronger because I can see the intellectual depth that's there. My belief in the Bible is, perhaps, more nuanced than it was when I first began; but I've got even greater respect for how extraordinary this set of documents is in terms of both their historicity and the way they continue to speak to generations of people.

So, for me, it's been a very positive thing, having my faith challenged, because it's helped me to grow as a Christian.

Dave: If a man or woman, or a boy or girl, is listening right now and they are really struggling with doubt; maybe they’ve grown up in the faith [and] they have a real faith, but they're just where you've been; [where] I've been. Skepticism or doubts are just flooding their mind. What would you say to them?

Shelby: I'm Shelby Abbott, and you've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Justin Brierley on FamilyLife Today. That's a really great and important question that Dave just asked, and we're going to hear Justin's answer here in just a minute. I'm really excited to hear it.

But first, Justin has written a book called The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God. This book really outlines the dramatic fall of New Atheism and the birth of a new conversation on whether God makes sense of things like science, history, culture, and the search for meaning. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com to get your copy. Just click on “Today's Resources,” or you could give us a call at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”.

Alright, Dave asked a really important question about struggling with doubt. What would he say? How would Justin respond? Well, let's hear his answer:

Justin: The first thing I'd say is, don't bury the doubt, because then it tends to fester and get worse, and it'll come up in some form or another. Acknowledge it's there, and just understand that doubt is part of faith, okay? Faith is not being certain about everything. Faith is actually about trusting in a God we do know, despite the fact of the things we don’t know about.

I would say the first thing to do is to go and look for good Christian speakers, apologists, and books where they can start to address some of those issues. Don't expect all of your questions to be answered; but do expect to find that there is a good historical core. There's what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” There's something that makes sense of life, I've found, at the center of this. Sometimes, you have to hold on to that—the things that you can have this confidence in—while holding somewhat loosely the other questions we may have that we would so dearly like to be answered.

Often, I think, we don't really fully understand the big picture of Christianity until we've started to put a lot of other pieces together. So, for me, deconstruction, as it's sometimes called, sounds like a very negative thing, but actually, you can reconstruct [For] lots of people, there's an important process of pulling things apart, looking at them. But actually, the point of that is so that we can put them together again.

For me, you can do that. I know many people who have done that. For anybody who's listening and is thinking, “Can I do that?” I would say, ”Keep praying, firstly. Don't stop doing that, but keep looking. Keep searching.” I do believe what Jesus said in the Gospels about “anyone who asks, receives; anyone who knocks, the door will be open to them.”

It's true! Your faith might look a bit different by the end of it, but actually, I think it'll be a stronger, wiser, deeper faith because of it. So don't just deconstruct. Work out how you can reconstruct.

Shelby: Why is it important to prepare young people to face questions and objections to their faith, rather than shielding them from the secular world? Well, tomorrow, Justin Brierley will be here with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about that and so much more. We hope you'll join us.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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