Andy Bannister is a funny apologist. His book The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (Monarch, 2015) combines intellectual sharpness with witty humour as he deals with the ideas of modern atheism. As director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and Adjunct Speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Bannister has a lot of experience in defending the faith. We got to talk to him about his ministry and ideas.
What made you integrate humour in your apologetics?
Over the 20 years or so that I’ve been involved in Christian ministry (most of it focused on reaching sceptics) I became frustrated with the fact that so many really great books explaining the Christian faith never find their way into their hands of atheists or agnostics. Most evangelistic and apologetic books are simply read by Christians. Now on the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with that: Christians need to be equipped to share and defend their faith. But I wanted to write something that would actually be read by sceptics. The question was how.
Then I came across a quote by C. S. Lewis. Asked why he had taken up writing fiction (like the Narnia books) Lewis explained that too often the front entrance to people’s minds is guarded by “watchful dragons”: things like cynicism, pride, and poor arguments. But story and imagination could let you “steal past those watchful dragons”. That was a revelatory moment for me: maybe I could use a whole different approach, something completely fresh, to engage with atheism. And that’s what The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist does—but rather than creep past the dragon, it uses comedy and wit to tickle the dragon’s nose, so that whilst it’s busy laughing, we can bring truth in through the front door.
Just this morning a friend emailed to say she’d bought a copy of the book but before she could start reading it, her son (a sceptic and an atheist) had picked it up and started reading it. He spent the day texting her photos of paragraphs he liked. But he also said that in between the laughter it had “made him think” and they’re now talking more deeply. That, in a nutshell, is what the book is designed to do. Give The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist to a sceptical friend and say: “You may not agree with everything, but I promise, you’ll laugh out loud and have fun reading it.”
What, would you say, are the main problems with atheism?
I think there are two tests for a worldview: (1) Is is intellectually/philosophically consistent and (2) is it existentially satisfying. I believe that atheism fails both tests — our atheist friends have to smuggle in values/concepts from outside of atheism (truth, beauty, meaning, purpose, consciousness, reason, logic, maths) etc. in order for atheism to “work”. And then, second, the consequences of atheism are entirely unliveable. I cover some of that in the chapter on meaning in The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist.
If atheism cannot account for human rights and morality, would an atheist society eventually become oppressive and immoral?
If the society were consistently living out atheist principles then, yes, I think so (and we’ve seen that to some degree tried in the experiment that the Soviet Union undertook, along with atheistic China, North Korea and other social experiments). However, in practice, “secular” societies like Sweden, the UK, etc. tend to live on borrowed Christian values. Human rights is an example: the idea that human beings have value, dignity and significance is a Christian idea — the atheist writer Luc Ferry in his Brief History of Thought is very willing to admit this, for example.
What can the church do to make the Christian faith more publicly visible?
Christians need to repent of our tendency to make Christianity a “private” thing, rather than an idea for the public square. And then, in the power of the Spirit, think through how to make our Christian faith relevant to every aspect of life, whether we are in the workplace or the university. If Christians spoke up with confidence, answered people’s questions with clarity, and loved our neighbours with compassion, who knows what the Lord might do through us.