July 18, 2018Interviews, Leadership

The Big Conversation: A Q&A with Justin Brierley on Engaging Intellectual Thinkers around Issues of Faith

By modeling good conversations about faith between people on both sides of the debate, we can hopefully improve the discourse globally.
The Big Conversation: A Q&A with Justin Brierley on Engaging Intellectual Thinkers around Issues of Faith
via Creative Commons

Ed: So what exactly is The Big Conversation?

Justin: The Big Conversation is a 6-episode video debate series in which I sit down with some of the biggest intellectual thinkers from the atheist and Christian world to debate some of life’s biggest questions.

It began with the Canadian psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson in conversation with atheist psychologist Susan Blackmore. Peterson has risen to enormous prominence in recent months and is attracting many young men with his approach to finding meaning in life. They had a very lively debate on the question “Do we need God to make sense of life?”

Blackmore said ‘no’ and Peterson said ‘yes’.

Ed: Is Jordan Peterson a Christian then?

Justin: Good question! I actually spent the first and last part of the program asking that question of him.

He has consistently refused to be pinned down on his personal religious convictions. When I pressed him on it, he described himself as a “religious man” who was “conditioned in every cell as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian worldview.” The closest I could get to whether he really believed in God was that he lives his life “as though God exists,” saying, “The fundamental hallmark of belief is how you act, not what you say about what you think.”

However, he stands strongly against the new atheists who claim that religion is a force for evil. In fact, he came out strongly defending Christianity as the worldview that has shaped the values and freedoms we hold dear in Western civilization. When Susan Blackmore pressed him that certain secular Scandinavian countries are doing fine without religion, he reminded her that such post-Christian nations in the West are still “living on the corpse” of their Christian heritage.

Ed: Who else is appearing in the series?

Justin: We have a range of contributors from the UK, USA, Canada, and Australia taking part, including Daniel Dennett, Keith Ward, John Lennox, Michael Ruse, Andy Bannister, and Peter Singer.

The atheist thinker and writer Steven Pinker took part in the second episode. His new book Enlightenment Now claims that science, reason, and humanism are the drivers of social and moral progress in the world. And he’s not very complimentary about the role of religion. So I invited Nick Spencer, author of the book The Evolution Of The West: How Christianity Has Shaped our Values, to engage with him.

They had a fantastic back-and-forth, covering questions such as whether Christianity or the Enlightenment birthed the scientific revolution, and whether secular humanism can provide an adequate grounding for our belief in universal human rights. I think Pinker was pleasantly surprised to meet someone who was his intellectual equal in this conversation, and willing to defend Christianity against his humanist perspective.

The third episode of the show is a little more down to earth! It involved two very well-known figures in the UK.

Derren Brown is an illusionist and mentalist, famous for his TV and stage shows. He’s also an author of books such as Tricks of the Mind, which both reveal his love of stagecraft and psychology and tells the story of how he lost his faith in Christianity as a young adult. The other guest, Rev. Richard Coles, is a priest in the Church of England and a well-known media figure on radio and TV. He also had a highly successfully (and often wild) pop career as part of The Communards in the 1980s before converting to Christianity and pursuing the priesthood.

Their interaction is much more a conversation than a debate as they discuss their different views on the search for happiness. Brown’s latest book Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine brings the wisdom of Greek stoic philosophy to bear on how to lead a content, fulfilled, and meaningful life in the absence of God. Conversely, Rev. Richard Coles argues that following Christ won’t necessarily bring happiness, but that he has personally found it to be the path to ultimate meaning.

Ed: What do you hope The Big Conversation will achieve?

Justin: We are putting a lot of effort into bringing this video series to a wide audience. My first hope is that it will introduce them to the Unbelievable? show and podcast where we engage these kinds of issues every week.

It’s often a revelation to see that two people with diametrically opposed points of view can still have a fruitful and rewarding interaction. By modeling good conversations about faith between people on both sides of the debate, we can hopefully improve the discourse globally.

I also hope that the series will help Christians to better understand their atheist counterparts, and that atheists will be given a window into why Christians believe as they do.

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