While both Australian Graham Oppy and Frenchman Guillaume Bignon are known as philosophers with a specialization in religion, they come at it from very different perspectives. Perhaps most surprising is a point on which they both agree – it isn’t irrational to hold Christian beliefs, as they discuss in “The Big Conversation” episode 4.
A former atheist, Bignon came around to belief in Christianity through a series of extraordinary coincidences that set him on an intellectual journey to find the God of the Bible, which eventually transcended his idea that he needed scientific proof.
“I naively expected that if I was going to know that God existed, then I would need to have scientific proof of that – I expected knowledge to come from science, and I thought also that to know that God exists you needed to be absolutely certain,” he said, adding that for him, “It was a mix of the intellectual reasons, the barriers falling down, being challenged with the historical data about the New Testament, and the overall grand story with those improbable experiences that together, made for an explosive conversion story.”
While Oppy is still an atheist, as a student of many different religions, he sees belief as a very rational experience for a wide variety of adherents. “I never thought that being a religious believer – being a Christian or being some other kind; being a Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, whatever – was irrational or crazy or anything like that,” he said, acknowledging that this sets him apart from many other atheists, including Bignon himself in his pre-belief days.
Based on Bignon’s story of several unexplainable “coincidences” that led to his conversion, the conversation then turned to whether that sort of experience is in itself evidence for God or necessary for one to believe. Again, the two were in agreement, with Oppy adding: “I’m inclined to think that you don’t need the experiential foundation in order for it to be rational for you to be a Christian; the kind of considerations that you might put together as a purely intellectual case, it seems like that can be enough.”
Opry and Bignon spoke to whether there might be some supernatural, experiential type of event or a new argument that would be enough to make a confirmed atheist such as Oppy believe. But in the end, he admits he and most other atheists just don’t see the world from that kind of perspective.
“To shift me from being atheist to agnostic, say, what would that take? I really just think that we’re not very good at thinking about those kinds of things,” he said. “We just kind of don’t have a very good capacity for answering those questions. Though I do think, given how old I am – and how much time I’ve spent looking at the arguments – it's unlikely that an argument’s going to come along.”
Throughout the episode, Bignon gets more specific about some of the experiences that led him to embrace faith, including coming to an understanding of why Jesus had to die. Other parts of the conversation explore the diversity of religious experience and their many different interpretations, with Bignon defending what sets Christianity apart from other faiths. “But from a naturalist point of view, that’s kind of going to look like special pleading,” Oppy contends. “Because you have this nice uniform account of everybody else, except for yourself. And then the naturalist says, ‘we’ll just extend it to you as well.’”
Justin Brierley, host of “The Big Conversation” and Director of Apologetics and Theology for Premier Unbelievable?, expects listeners will enjoy this episode for both the topics covered and the friendliness of the discussion. “Graham’s respect for Guillaume’s belief was apparent, as was Guillaume’s concern for Graham’s spiritual condition,” he said. “I was encouraged by the conversation and I know others will be, as well.”
“The Big Conversation” season 4 launched 20th May with a debate between renowned atheist Richard Dawkins and former NIH Director Francis Collins. The second episode featured former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in a discussion with author Paul Kingsnorth about the idea of spiritual conversion, which released June 3. Episode 3 launched 17th June , featuring Iain McGilchrist and Sharon Dirckx as they explored brain science and God.
Episode 4 is available at www.thebigconversation.show.
Future guests include cosmologist and astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees, and physician and author John Wyatt who currently serves as senior researcher at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge. For a millennial perspective, the season includes a live presentation by popular podcast hosts Mikhaila Peterson and Jon McCray on the topic, “Are Millennials and Gen Z Ready to Believe in God?” at 3 p.m. EDT 12th July .
“The Big Conversation” video series from Premier Unbelievable? features world-class thinkers across the religious and atheist communities discussing faith, science and what it means to be human. Premier Unbelievable? has amassed millions of followers throughout the world, most notably in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. The series is produced by Premier Christian Radio in partnership with the John Templeton Foundation.