Used with permission and originally posted on Wesley Institute’s website: http://www.wi.edu.au/news/big-questions-documentary-series-grenville-kent
Dr Grenville Kent, film producer, and lecturer in Old Testament at Wesley Institute, has been involved in an ongoing project over the last few years, creating a 13-episode documentary series titled ‘Big Questions: Does God Exist.’
He recently interviewed Professor Daniel Dennett, leading New Atheist, author of Breaking The Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon, philosopher and neuroscientist. In the personal story below, Grenville reflects on this recent ‘episode’ of his ‘Big Questions’ journey, and the imperativeness of ‘friendly dialogue’ in an often unfriendly debate.
Listening to Atheists
I shouldn’t have told the taxi driver I was going to the Atheist Convention. ‘So they’ll sit around saying there’s nothing up there, it’s nothing?’, he said in a Middle Eastern accent, fingering his prayer beads. ‘These people are mad!’
‘It’s a bit more than that… ‘, I started to say.
‘These people want two men to marry each other, but they can’t have no children, which proves them they’re wrong. These f***ing people ought to be shot.’ He drove on angrily, making the wooden cross swing faster from his rear view mirror. Did he remember that the man on it never forced anyone to obey, and was killed by religious intolerance? I kept quiet. Some beliefs are more like prejudice, out of reach of reason.
Is this what atheists put up with? If you were parented or taught by a believer like this, atheism might look open-minded and attractive.
Inside, comedians started carpet-bombing religion. ‘To anyone who has lost a child, let me say: God loves you, so he’ll burn your baby in hell forever and ever and it’s your fault. You didn’t ask a paedophile priest to hold him and dribble water on his head to wash away the Original Sin of his ancestor Adam, who the church officially says never actually existed.’ First people wince, then there is deafening laughter and applause from the 4000-strong crowd, twice as many as last year. Yet as I listen, I realise they’re attacking another god, a God of Straw, not the God of the Bible.
Outside, Muslim protesters were chanting that Christopher Hitchens, the atheist writer who recently died, would burn in hell. I don’t feel qualified to judge.
I notice the T-shirts. ‘Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.’ (Witty line, but there aren’t many people in either group.) ‘Forget Jesus. The stars died so you could be born.’ ‘Smile, there is no hell.’ ‘God is not my drug of choice.’
The conference has the celebrity atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, P.Z. Myers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali – and is called a ‘Celebration of Reason.’ Reason is worth celebrating, and I want a faith that is reasonable, not blind. But where did we get reason? Did mere matter become conscious on its own? Did the human brain, easily the most complex object we know, assemble from chemicals by chance alone? Or is it more likely that our reason came from another Mind? I’m producing a film about this in the Big Questions series.
I find some atheists want honest dialogue, while others take cheap shots and attack straw man arguments, acting like intolerant fundamentalists – but I’ve heard some Christians do the same. Is anyone actually listening fairly? We need respectful dialogue, not tribal warfare. Atheists have reason and intuition, the ability to love, some innate knowledge of right and wrong, a sense of purpose – because they are created in God’s image, whether they recognise it or not. Some have never heard good reasons to believe, and have rejected illogical church dogma. Some have been abused by Christians. Many are influenced by scientists who act like all the evidence goes one way, and who wallpaper over large gaps in the naturalist account of how we got here.
I know of only one way to reach them: friendly dialogue.
Peter (1 Peter 3:15) tells Christians to do three things. One, ‘Consecrate yourself to Christ as Lord.’ That is, recognise your own need of a Saviour and spiritual transformation. That leaves no room for smugness.
Two, ‘Be always ready to give a reason for the hope you have.’ A reason (Greek apologia) means a reasoned defence, a logical case for something. So, as atheists are becoming a growing segment in Western countries, the church needs to take their view seriously and come up with a response, a logical case that explains why faith makes sense, not just as a private feeling. I’m encouraged to see Christians reading authors who do this – John Lennox, Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zaccharias, John Dickson and Alister McGrath. (You can find their talks on YouTube.) Most times when I talk with an atheist, I realise my ignorance on yet another topic, and go home to dig deeper.
Three, ‘Do this with gentleness and respect.’ I need to respect people who have prayed and felt unanswered, who feel they’re on a mudball hurtling through space, unguided, unparented, trying to make their own meaning and purpose and to live their lives as best they can. I need to respect their intelligence in how I present Christianity. Wouldn’t the Creator of the brain value their thoughts and experiences, even as he tries to persuade them towards truth? Didn’t he welcome the probing questions and fingers of ‘Doubting’ Thomas? If a loving father is calling them home, how could I possibly represent Him by arrogance or rudeness? I need to take a different road from my taxi driver.
And so I sneak into the convention centre’s Prayer Room – it’s not like anyone was using it – and ask for love and logic as I interview celebrity atheists. I pray that I’ll really listen, and make films for that will begin to answer their real questions. I hope they will join me in questioning, wondering and enquiring in God’s big universe. Forever.
*Photo: Dr Grenville Kent (right) with Professor Daniel Dennett (left).