I had planned to write my 50th article on the topic of the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person.” Regrettably, as a person wholly bound by it, time has slipped through my fingers and I’ve had to postpone the article until the new year. So, I thought I’d write a much lighter piece to finish off the year – a short article about, well, me and how I ended up on the intellectual road on which I find myself. I ask the reader to forgive my self-indulgence.
I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during what are known as “the troubles,” a rather volatile mix of religious and political hatred that took the lives of several thousand people, maiming and traumatising thousands more. Neither of my parents were Christians (still aren’t) but we used to attend church with my devout Grandmother – an old traditional Church of Ireland church (similar to Episcopalian for American readers). I hated it. In fact I hated it so much I was regularly taken out during services due to my poor behaviour, and eventually my parents decided to leave me with my heathen Grandfather (whose only worship took place in the evenings at the bar counter, and whose idea of Holy Communion was 6 pints of Guinness followed by 12 shots of Irish Whiskey) each Sunday morning while the rest of them went to church.
Thus ended my experience with formal church services for a number of years. Church just wasn’t on my radar…until one of my best friends (Davy) seemed to undergo a rather dramatic change, telling me one day he had been going to a small Pentecostal church and had got “saved” and why didn’t I come with him one Sunday morning. It was a very different church experience from what I had hitherto experienced. But through conversations with Davy and others in that church I began considering the “great things of the gospel” (to steal a phrase from Jonathan Edwards) for the first time. I remember in particular a man called Clark Mills who seemed to radiate peace, and whose company and conversation had a profound impact on me. One day, without much drama, I joined my friend Davy in a prayer and became a Christian. I was 15 years old.
But, unlike so many Christians I didn’t live in a spiritual bubble. At this point in my life my father was an aggressive atheist (though he tends towards theism these days), and one of my best friends – Jon Donaghy – was an atheist. The latter was to prove a big influence in my intellectual direction.
If I was to pick out one single episode that greatly influenced me, it was an argument I had with Jon one day in his house – we were both around 17/18 at the time. The topic was whether or not there is a God. I don’t remember much of the fine details of our debate but I do remember not coming off terribly well. Blurting out “you can’t get something from nothing” was about as close as I came to making a philosophical argument. But the discussion lit a flame under my ass and made me investigate whether theism made good rational sense, or if I had been deluded. I’ve never been pacified by simplistic Sunday School theology that tells us to “only believe” or “just have faith.” These kinds of responses just irritated me. So, I began reading popular works of philosophy. One particularly influential book I came across at this time was “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe” by William Lane Craig. This was the first time I had seen someone getting philosophical about the existence of God. I was mesmerised that books like this existed and began to read widely. (My only regret was that I wasted so much time on books advocating young earth creationism, a topic I now regard as so silly that I refuse even to debate it with anyone).
When I went to university I was initially enrolled as an undergraduate chemistry student; turns out I enjoyed my high school chemistry class far more than the subject itself. At the end of my first semester I had planned to leave university altogether when Jon advised me to switch subjects to something I liked. It was too late in the academic year to switch so I ended up taking the rest of that year out, enrolling the following September on a degree programme I knew I’d like: Theology & Philosophy.
I was at the time attending a Presbyterian church, and I remember telling an elder what I was going to study. “Theology” – “Oh, that’s great.” “And philosophy” – And with a frown he added: “you need to be careful about that philosophy.” Studying philosophy was the one of the best decisions I made, and frankly I found it far more “faith friendly” than theology. With a few exceptions theologians tended to irk me greatly, largely for their sloppy reasoning, but also their penchant to vie with one another to see who can concoct the silliest theory. Philosophy by contrast made me come alive.
My Philosophy of Religion teacher was William Crawley. William used to be a trainee Presbyterian minister, but after leaving the profession (and subsequently describing himself as a “lapsed Protestant”) he works as a journalist and presenter for the BBC. William massively influenced me. He had a wonderful manner, was argumentative, funny, and iconoclastic. (He had also been a youth leader in the Presbyterian Church I had been going to during my mid-late teens, so I enjoyed the advantage of already knowing him). Moreover, it was through William and his classes that I came across a name that forever changed how I think about religion, faith, God and related topics: Alvin Plantinga. William had written his Ph.D on the epistemology of Alvin Plantinga (he was quite critical of it, in fact), and I remember thinking that this was a guy I had to read. So I did…
Despite the best efforts of philosophers such as William Lane Craig or Richard Swinburne, I found myself uneasy about the kind of approach they adopted. My problem was that this was not how I had come to believe in God at all. It seemed artificial, even contrived. True enough, there is some excellent work being done by philosophers of religion in the area of natural theology, but it always seemed rather distant to me – more like a purely academic exercise than anything else. I had been working on a few vague ideas in another direction when I read Plantinga’s essay “Reason and Religious Belief.” This was one of those glorious moments when I found a philosopher saying so much that I wanted to say but far better and with far more intellectual clout than I could ever muster. He took the few broken bones I had been playing around with, and built them into a skeleton, adding flesh, skin and hair! Moreover, it seemed to resonate with how I actually came to believe in God. Whatever you think of Plantinga I think it’s difficult not to appreciate that he really does grapple with the reality of how humans come to believe the things they do. Contrast it with “artificial” approaches by theists such as Swinburne or atheists like Paul Draper, both of whom appear to treat theism like a sort of quasi-scientific hypothesis which stands or falls on its ability to explain some body of data. As much as I respect Swinburne (and I’m fascinated by his work on morality and consciousness), his argument for Christianity is one of the most contrived pieces of philosophy I have ever read. It reads as if he coolly sat down one day and reasoned his way to believing that God exists, that God exists as a trinity, that he would want to become incarnate, and that he would want to stamp his revelation with a great miracle, like, say, umm, a resurrection. The truth is no-one comes to believe these things in this way – not even Swinburne.
It has been the influence of Plantinga more than anything that weakened my earlier enthusiasm for natural theology. Those who have been reading my blog this year will notice that of the 50 articles included here I don’t think there’s a single argument for the existence of God. In fact, I suspect the topic I’ve written about most (and plan to write about further in the new year) is the problem of evil. There’s a two fold reason for this. Firstly, as an intellectual problem I find the problem of evil intriguing, though unsuccessful. However, and secondly, I still think evil presents problems – at least it does for me. The levels of the evil and suffering in the world appals me. Whilst I don’t think there’s a good argument from evil against the existence of God, I’ve sometimes had my belief greatly shaken simply by my experience of evil and suffering. I suffer from both anxiety and depression and have been suicidal on two occasions in my life. Sometimes the universe looks too black and horrible for there to be a God, at least to my eyes. And yet, in my more rational moments I’ve never been convinced by arguments from evil.
I plan to write on two of the best such arguments from evil in the new year: those advanced by William Rowe and Paul Draper. In keeping with my preference for responding to arguments against theism rather than offering arguments for it, I’ll also be writing on arguments which I consider the best (or at least most promising) in the atheologian’s arsenal: arguments against the coherence of the concept of God, starting with the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person.”
But for now I’ll draw this article to an end and wish my readers a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Stephen J Graham