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EPISODE 78: Science, Philosophy, and Reality - Pat Flynn's Story

Philosopher and former atheist Pat Flynn assumed belief in the naturalistic story of reality but eventually found it lacking. Through further investigation, he found the Christian worldview made most sense of the universe and of himself.

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Hello, and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or skeptic but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of these stories at our Side B Stories website, at www.sidebstories.com. We welcome your comments on these stories on our Facebook page. You can also email us at [email protected]. We love to hear from you.

There are different stories we believe that help us make sense of the world around us and the world within us. Some are religious stories, some are scientific, naturalistic, or secular stories. When it comes to the question of God and what is ultimate reality, oftentimes we adopt the stories and beliefs of those around us without giving them much thought. And we quickly dismiss other beliefs as false, without much intentional investigation to arrive at a thoughtful conclusion. We may find something wrong with the other and reject it without much effort to really find out what we are embracing or whether or not it is even true. But there are those who don't just accept beliefs on face value. They are bent towards intellectual rigor and honesty, even if it takes them down an intellectual path they never thought they would go.

In today's story, philosopher and former atheist Pat Flynn thought carefully about things. Even as a child, he was haunted by the big questions of reality and existence. He wanted to make the best sense of reality, and it took him on an honest, diligent investigation, first towards naturalism and belief in atheism. But it was his continued thoughtful search for truth that led him out of atheism and towards belief in God. I hope you'll come along to hear his story.

Welcome to Side B Stories, Pat. It’s so great to have you with me today.

Jana, it is a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for having me on.

As we're getting started, I'd love for you to introduce yourself. Tell me a little bit about you, where you live, your family perhaps, and even your interests, your academic background. I know you are a generalist. So I'm just curious what all of that is all about.

Sure! Oh, boy! I'll try to keep it as concise as possible. I am a Christian. I’m a husband. I’m a father of five children. We have one boy, and the rest are girls, a full quiver, as I've heard it said. And we live in Wisconsin. I have gone through my master's in philosophy. And my interests include writing, research. I’ve been a lifelong musician, so I play in a local band here that keeps me pretty busy. I’m trying to fill the band out with my own family members. I have my own band and kickball team, I guess, the eventual goal here. I’m very much into martial arts and fitness as well. I'm sorry. Go ahead.

I was going to ask what kind of music?

Yeah. I am your just classic rock kind of guy. I grew up, some of my earliest memories, of just my mom playing her favorite Van Halen and AC/DC tapes in the car, so that just got me hooked at a very early age. I knew I just wanted to be a guitar player. But I'm very blessed to have the ability to pursue those interests and share it with my family and friends and stuff like that.

Yes. And you said martial arts and physical fitness, did you say?

Yeah. So it's very hard to describe what I do, because it’s sort of all over the place. But when I was going to school, for nothing fitness related, I was really into martial arts. I was on the competitive taekwondo team, and I grew up in a very inactive household. I was very unhealthy growing up. I was actually quite overweight. And in high school I decided I had enough of that, And I started out in my fitness journey through martial arts. I sort of just randomly walked into a martial arts studio. It was taekwondo, and the instructor at the time became a good friend and mentor of mine, introduced me just to sort of the basics of physical culture and physical fitness and nutrition and eating and things like that, so I fell in love with it, pursued it very heavily, and went and got all sorts of certifications and stuff, so I could personal train and do that as my job through college, and I started a YouTube channel, teaching kettlebells and basic fitness, and that kind of took off a little bit and led to some books, and I'm still doing that, to this day, so it is very hard to describe what I do because I do a lot of different things, from philosophy to fitness, in terms of my business and then a lot of just other side interesting hobbies and stuff I enjoy doing as well.

It sounds like you've got a full life, a good life. So let's start at the early part of your life. Tell us where you were born. Tell me about your family, kind of the world that you grew up in, and what that looked like in terms of any kind of touch of religion or God. Was it there or was it absent?

Yeah. It was there, but in a very thin and unserious sense. So I was born in Pennsylvania, and my dad's job moved us around quite a bit. And growing up, religion was there. It was there mostly, I would say, on one side of the family, with my grandparents, and I'll come back and maybe share a bit of that story later, because it affected me more than I realized at the time. And that's the fun thing about having conversations like these. You kind of think back, and there's always new layers that you discover about your own story that you didn't quite realize at first. My grandparents probably played a more significant role in my eventual religious conversion than I initially realized. But anyway, we were the type of religious family that are commonly called Chreasters. We would go to church maybe on Christmas and Easter, but it was even worse than that. We would really only go to church, at least at a certain point, on Christmas and Easter when the grandparents were in town. So it was there. It was present, but it was never seriously discussed. I was never properly catechized or anything like that. We never had religious conversation. I remember occasionally my parents would even make jokes about religion, so it wasn't something that was taken seriously. It wasn’t something that was lived seriously. So, however it was there, it was, I guess, a sort of cultural background, if you will. Otherwise it was a very thoroughly secular upbringing, for the most part.

Yeah. So it sounds like it was a part of your life, a very small part of your life, just something that you did every once in a while to impress the grandparents. And not much else.

Yeah. I think that's fair. It seemed unimportant. And so, when it came to a point in my life, without skipping ahead too quickly, where there seemed to be conflicts between the commitments coming from the faith, the little that I understood, and call it the wider scientific worldview, it was very much easy for me to let go of those previous religious beliefs or commitments.

What was religion characterized as? Or why would it not cohere with a scientific worldview for you at that time?

Yeah. So I remember one of the…., you always look back, and you try to analyze, “Where did things take a turn?” And I can actually remember quite specifically. This was in the sixth grade, so this will reveal my age. I was in the sixth grade when 9/11 happened, and I didn't really appreciate it at the time, but what happened is I was faced with what are probably the two most prominent objections to the existence of God. And they weren't explicit in my mind, but they both hit me that same year. And the first one came from when my science teacher was outlining, as much as you would get in the sixth grade, the origins of the universe story. Big Bang cosmology and all of that. The very basics. But it was obvious enough that, “Hey, this doesn't seem like the story I was taught from the Bible.”

Right.

Right? Of creation and Adam and Eve. And where's the snake and all that, right? So in a very elementary way, you can see that there was a conflict here, right? These stories just didn't seem like the same story.

So it seems like science has got this. Science can explain it. We don't need God. That's the first objection I was hit with in the sixth grade. But sixth grade was also when 9/11 happened. And I remember because we watched it on the TV. We were one of the schools that got in a lot of trouble afterwards for letting all the kids just see it happen. This was very traumatic for a lot of kids. And this really opened my eyes—not that I never had any difficulties in life before this—to the profound problem of evil. This was an awful, terrible thing that happened. We watched it on television. And yeah. Many kids were frightfully traumatized. I'm sure I was to some extent as well. So that year was pretty significant for me. I didn't throw my hands up and declare myself an atheist on the spot. But whatever happened that year was the beginning of a seed of doubt that would continue to grow over time, as I started thinking more seriously about bigger questions, becoming more interested in philosophy, which I did in high school. That would sort of veer me down a naturalistic atheistic path. I can definitely trace it back to that year in the sixth grade. I always found it very fascinating because, many years later—I'm sure we'll get to this—I discovered Thomas Aquinas, and when he considers objections against the existence of God, he considers two. And the two he considers, and for Aquinas this is interesting, because he usually considers like a million objections to positions, but for God, he only considers two. And the two he considers are the problem of evil and essentially the science objection, but for him it was, “Aren’t the principles of nature enough? We don't really need God to explain anything.”

And so I connected, “By golly, those were the two objections that I was hit with,” even not explicitly, in the sixth grade, and they really rattled me at that time. So yeah, it's a more complicated story than that, but it definitely, I think, really significantly started there, my doubt and movement away from whatever little religion I had.

As you were moving away from religion what did you consider religion to be?

Yeah. That’s a wonderful question. I guess I didn't consider it to be much of anything, because I didn't really think about it a whole lot. And the only times I really did think about it were in these instances where it seemed like whatever I was told about religion, which I guess would have just been a broad view of Christianity, a sort of crude, kindergarten sort of theology, if you will. The truth is, I probably didn't think about it hardly at all, except for, in that very thin way that I could see that there were two different stories being told.

Right. 

They didn’t fit together. One of them seemed…. Yeah, one of them seemed unimportant and trivial and outdated and that nobody around me took seriously, including my family, and the other one seemed like the credible story that smart people believe. So it was very easy for me to dismiss the other one, if that makes sense.

Right, right. Without thinking about it too much. It just seemed like, for you, the natural path to go was towards naturalism, right?

Yes.

So as you were walking along this journey Was it something that you took seriously, that you started looking in more strategically? Or was it just by entering into the scientific view of reality that that’s just something you gradually embraced more and more, through your studies and I guess into philosophy.

Yeah. Yeah, it's interesting because there's always different influences in your life. And I had a lot that sort of pointed me towards an atheistic, naturalistic direction. And from many different areas, so I already mentioned my love for music. And for better or worse, probably for worse at the time, but things seemed to all come together in a positive way. Most of the music I was listening to, and most of the people I admired in music seemed pretty anti-religious. And these were people that I kind of admired, awesome musicians. “They’re cool. I want to be like them, and they seem to be against this sort of thing.” So that was something. Other writers that I was really into, especially by high school. I was really into Mark Twain. And I can remember a kind of important point in my thinking was there was an essay by Mark Twain called “What is Man?” And it's an essay really pushing a very hard sort of determinism, an essay against free will, and man is a sort of machine, where history just passes through us. Rather than our being able to affect history in any sort of meaningful way. I remember being really jarred by that because, I guess, even at that time I was so committed to an idea that I had both agency and free will. But I didn't know how to answer it or respond to it at the time, and it actually seemed pretty convincing.

So it wasn't anything directly in science that cinched me. It was these other considerations. And from there, I did start getting into philosophy proper. Another writer that I found fairly early on that was very interesting to me was a guy named H.L. Mencken. And he was a crotchety old atheist. And he always railed against religion.

And he had one of the first books out in English at the time on Nietzsche. And so at some point I picked that up. And that sort of opened up that world to me. The world of sort of the old atheist, existentialist, absurdist perspective. And I was gripped by it. I was fascinated by it. I was haunted by it for many different reasons. I couldn't turn away from it. I was intermittently convinced by it. And I say intermittently convinced by it because, the deeper I went into the naturalistic worldview, the more it seemed fundamentally at odds with other things that I was still committed to. I mentioned free will and stuff like that. So yeah, intermittently committed to denying things that otherwise seemed undeniable.

And at around this point—I forget how many years down the line we are—I start to…. Even though I would have considered myself a naturalist at the time, more and more tensions within that worldview were starting to bubble up. Because I am interested in trying to make sense of reality. I always was, even going way back before the sixth grade. I remember I'd be at my grandparents’ house, and I would look out their window and ask, “Why is any of this?” “Why is any of this?” Your big questions of contingency. I didn't think of it at that time, but it’s like, “Why is any of this?” Or, “How do I know any of this is real?” “How do I know I'm not dreaming, sleeping, or any of that stuff?”

So, for whatever reason, I was always haunted by the big philosophical questions, for as long as I can remember. And I thought maybe I would get answers to them through a particular naturalistic avenue. And initially, that seemed like I was going to. Like the scientism has got this. And that's what led me down that path, but the deeper I got into it, the more I realized, “No, this is not. This is not adequate to handle reality. This is not adequate to explain the things that I need to be explained for me. And in fact it seems the deeper I go into this worldview, the more it has to eliminate or explain away things that are so fundamental, I don't think they could be coherently denied.” Call them like a slew of [UNKNOWN 19:51] facts, if you will. Things like free will, consciousness. Consciousness was a big one for me. The moral landscape, the objective moral landscape. Moral duties and values and stuff like that.

The more I kept going into this atheistic, naturalistic paradigm, the more it seemed like I was being forced, unless I was willing to really contrive the worldview and hypothesis, the more I was being forced to say that these things aren't what they seem to be, that these things aren't real in the way that they sure seem to be real. They're illusions, I’m suffering under delusions, or things like that. Maybe I'm not even real, right? Maybe I'm just like a bundle of particles, right? Stuff like that.

And at some point, those tensions came to be too much, that I realized, “I don't know what the truth is. I've been trying to find it. I have no idea what the truth is. But this is definitely not it. This is definitely not it. I have made a mistake. Somewhere, I made a mistake and have set down the wrong path.” And that's when I…. I didn't become a theist, I didn't become religious immediately, but I at least sort of took a step back and told myself, “I need to take another look at things. I need to consider new perspectives.”

And this was definitely post college now at this point. I would have been married with at least one or two of my children by the time I reached that point.

It strikes me that oftentimes there is a dismissal of God or Christianity or faith and an embracing of the other, a godless worldview, without really looking deeply into what it is that someone is embracing. They may know what they're rejecting, or they may not even know fully what they're rejecting. But they don't really know what they're fully embracing. And it sounds to me like, I guess because of your curiosity, your inquisitive mind, your tendency to think about the big questions, that you were willing actually to look into the bottom of the box and see where the implications flow from the ideas of naturalism. And that they lead to really kind of a dark or a dismal place that is unlivable. It reminds me of how Francis Schaeffer talks about that we are God's creatures living in God's world, and when our views and our lives don't match with reality, there's a tension that comes that has to be resolved. And it sounds like you had a sense of cognitive dissonance about that, probably a bit of existential dissonance about that as well, because ideas aren't just merely theoretical.

It's true. When I moved away from religion and towards naturalism, I didn't fully understand it. I mean, there's a lot there to dive into. It took me years and years of studying different thinkers and looking into different issues to really feel like I kind of understood the naturalistic paradigm, and to be totally fair, there’s many different naturalistic thinkers, and they think about things in many different ways. But the core commitments to me seem something like this: There's a naturalistic grand narrative, and it's committed to a broad scientism, where whatever else reality is comprised of, or whatever we can know about reality, it's going to come from the sciences, preferably the hard sciences. So whatever exists is going to be what chemistry and physics tells us about or at least shouldn't be like repugnant to that sort of micro-physical base. So you’ve got atomic theory, and you've got evolutionary theory, and that's supposed to more or less explain it all. And then you try to run that through, and you try to…. I mean first I think there are just certain things that that can’t even begin to explain, just obviously so, like, “Why is there anything instead of nothing instead?” That is obviously a question so broad that science can't touch it. I mean, science is etiological. It looks at how physical processes unfold over time and how they relate, but it cannot, in principle, answer the question of why are there any physical processes.

So immediately, there's a huge question that naturalism just seems wholly incapable of answering, at least within its own framework of knowledge or epistemology. I didn't realize that at the time. I came to realize it later. But even within it, you start to get these big issues of explanatory problems. I identify three—of morality, of consciousness, of free will—where at least to me, it seemed like these realities are so obvious. They’re more obvious than any potential step in an argument for naturalism against them. But I should, I think—and I did—be more willing to give up whatever the commitments are that are pushing me towards naturalism than these basic, obvious realities, these very basic, obvious realities. And that's sort of what I did. When I surveyed the range of naturalistic options, of trying to make sense of not just consciousness, but rationality as well, formal thinking, and stuff like that. There's a lot of deep technical issues that I never found anything close to an adequate answer for in naturalistic accounts, meaning, semantic content. The moral dimension, as we spoke about, human freedom of the will, contingency, but even, going out from there, data concerning religious experiences, mystical experiences, near death experiences.

There’s just a whole lot of things in the world that we need a good explanation for. And naturalism, even in some of the points where it can offer kind of an explanation, I found that theism offers a way better explanation, ultimately. There's some where naturalism offers no explanation at all, but even where it might have an explanation, the theistic one is almost always a lot better. And then you’ve just got to have something to say about the problem of evil at some point, which is… I wrestled with that as well, obviously. But, to your point, is yes, I didn't know fully what I was stepping into at first. That became clear over time, as I tried to take it seriously and find answers, because that's what I was really interested in, were answers fundamentally.

But nor, when I realized I was on a wrong path, did I go back and adopt theism right away. I just sort of threw my hands up and said, “I don't know what's going on here. I think I know enough to say that this is the wrong path, but I don't know what path to take after this.” So I, I guess, returned to a more agnostic position, just wanting to consider other perspectives.

I’m just curious of your opinion before we step forward in your story. You read a lot of very astute, you know, the brights, the intellectuals who were convinced naturalists. I wonder… again from your perspective. It’s often touted that the naturalistic view is the more rational view, the more rational belief, but yet as you so clearly defined, there are a lot of things that don't make sense with reality, when you look at the depths of naturalism, that it doesn't make sense that I'm not choosing this or that, that it has actually forces or impulses or environmental pressures that are causing me to think or what I'm saying or where I'm moving or the choices I'm choosing. That seems so counterintuitive, yet the atheist oftentimes grabs hold with gusto to this worldview that, when you look at it closely, doesn't seem to make sense. It seems that they are making irrational choices in order to remain on this position. Why do you suppose that  ?

Yeah. That’s a wonderful question. I don't know I have a totally great answer to it, but I can speak from my experience. One is, again, I think, related to superficial understandings of religion and worldview comparison. Like I had starting out, right? So you think that there is the worldview of religion, which is often presented in a hokey, superstitious fashion, and there's the worldview of science. And we should like science. Why? Because it's powerful. It does stuff. It has given us great technology. We’ve been able to tame a lot of nature and build impressive things and treat formidable diseases. So clearly science is cool. It’s a sort of “Science rocks!” argument, right? You shouldn't go beyond science. But then the immediate question to ask is, “Well, does atheism have a monopoly on science? If I go with science, do I have to go with atheism or naturalism?” And the obvious answer is, “No, it’s not.” So the, “Science rocks!” argument is irrelevant, at least initially. Because science fits just as well with deism. In fact, I would go further. I would say the fundamental core commitments of science, properly understood, are a far better fit within a theistic worldview than a naturalistic worldview.

What are some of these commitments? Well, that the world is intelligible. That reality actually makes sense. That something like the principle of sufficient reason is true. That there are coherent questions that we can ask, and to all those coherent questions, there is a coherent answer. And as many philosophers will tell you, if you accept that principle of sufficient reason, that sets you up for a pretty powerful argument for the existence of God. But it seems like something like that’s sort of lurking behind science. At least we're kind of operating according to that. That's sort of what is driving the scientific enterprise, that reality can be figured out. That we're not just going to wind up with tons of brute absurdities, things that just are with no explanation whatsoever.

Science also has a great number of moral assumptions that you should investigate honestly. You should report your findings honestly. You shouldn't lie about things. Okay. It seems like we want a foundation for that. Science, I would argue, in a deeper sense, is committed to a sort of broad essentialism, that there are things that have common natures that we can really learn things about through controlled experiments, and then, yeah, think that that's going to hold in a stable, regular way in the wider scenario. But that's a traditional commitment of theism, right? That God just gives existence to certain natures, stability, order. These things are below, supporting science, and are the sort of things you would expect from a theistic worldview. They're not the sorts of things that you would expect from a naturalistic worldview.

What's a naturalistic worldview? Well, it's a worldview where whatever else fundamental reality is, it's run by a principle of indifference. There's no entity down there in the basement of reality that is totally benevolent or malevolent. It's just totally indifferent, right? But the problem is like, if that's your bedrock principle, whereas theism’s is actually a principle of absolute perfection, right? There's not much you really expect from that. I mean, what do you expect from a principle of indifference? The answer is nothing. I don't expect anything from that.

So then you’ve got to start complicating your hypothesis in various ways to try and account for the data. But that's not a great thing, because we think the more you have to complicate your hypothesis, the more likely it's going to turn out to be false. We think of simplicity as a theoretical virtue, whereas theism is a very simple principle. You know, God is this being of pure perfection, pure actuality, and from that, through a motivation of goodness, we can kind of expect a world like ours, with all these structures and order and stability and intelligibility and beauty and the moral dimension, all the stuff that makes sense of science. So I would say it's the superficial thing that I think leads to comments like, “Theism is irrational,” but when you take a more substantial look, Jana—and this is a philosopher I like very much, Alvin Plantinga’s famous thesis. He’s got a book called Where the Conflict Really Lies, and that's exactly his thesis.

He says, “Okay, superficially, you might think there's a conflict between science and the religious worldview. But once we take a deeper look, the real conflict is between naturalism and science,” and he got all sorts of arguments for why that's the case, but I think that's fundamentally true. And I think the fundamental issue is people are still operating on those superficial looks, those superficial inspections, as I was. This is not to say…. Of course, there's many smart, professional naturalists out there, very, very smart, and they would disagree with that. And we would just have to have those arguments. But that isn't most people. I think most people, when they say things like that, it’s because they've only taken that superficial look. But also the smart naturalists, the professional ones that I talk to and like to read and engage with, they don't say theism is irrational, not most of them anyways. They're mostly interested in trying to just show that naturalism isn't irrational. It's kind of the reverse of what you see on the popular level. They're just trying to more or less say, “Okay, theism is….” Most of them are happy to admit that theism is a very reasonable position. But they're just trying to show that a naturalist position is reasonable as well, so once you kind of get to the smartest people in this debate, you don't usually see language like that anymore. It’s much more… not just sophisticated, but modest, I would say.

Nuanced.

Yeah, nuanced and modest.

And through this time, it sounds like this is taking us through university, with the study of philosophy, and on into marriage. Did you ever have any touch points with any intelligent Christians who were willing or able to discuss these issues with you at all? Or were they just absent?

Yeah, that's a good question, and the answer is, for the most part, until I had really already sort of taken the turn to Christianity, no. Pretty much all of my friends, with one exception of somebody who was very, very faithful but not coming from a philosophical perspective at all but was still a very good example to me and again I think influenced me more than I realized at the time through that example. All my friends were not only not religious. I would say many of them were quite anti-religious, so it was really kind of a lonely study, largely conducted up in my attic in my old house for many, many years, reading and researching. And then, once I had finally more or less worked my way to the Christian perspective, then I started getting the boldness to want to reach out to certain people and make connections. So they were there, and they helped very willingly, and I have formed many wonderful friendships from that. But, starting out, no. And I suppose it was just sort of the environment I crafted. I was not a religious person, so it sort of makes sense that my surroundings, my friend group, and my peers, and everybody else in my life was just not a religious person, either. And that's a hard thing, too, because once we started to make—and I say we because my wife had her own conversion, quite different than mine, but running alongside of mine. It causes you, or encourages you at least, to change your environment in pretty dramatic ways. And as always, stories are complicated, and not everything about my conversion was intellectual.

Well, sure.

So there’s always a lot going on and a lot to unpack.

Absolutely, yeah. Conversion entails something more than intellectual. Yeah. So let's go back to that place, then, where you were having some tension or issues with naturalism and feeling some sense of dissatisfaction and you were thinking perhaps naturalism wasn't it, but you weren't willing to look, at that time at least, towards Christianity. Take us there.

Yeah, sure. So my immediate… I did have one friend that was religious at the time. He was a Hindu actually, a pretty devout Hindu, and we’d never really talked religion much, but I was always sort of interested. A very smart guy, very, very smart guy. And still a great friend of mine. So my immediate interest was, I guess this is just the bias of a secular American upbringing. It's like, “Okay, well, whatever else might be the case, it probably isn't Christianity.” I still had this very anti-Christian bias. So I started looking towards Eastern thought and paganism. Eastern thought and paganism. So, just through my study of philosophy, I always had like a passing introduction and familiarity with the old pagans, Aristotle and Plato. So I really wanted to go back to those guys, a large part, but I also was very interested in Eastern thought at large, particularly Buddhist thought as well, and other thinkers that I had read independently. I know they had thoughts on religion and really just belief in God and spiritual practices.

In fact, one book that I remember early on reading was Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy. And that was a very interesting book for me because, you know Aldous Huxley was the guy who wrote Brave New World, and I remember liking his work a lot. And his book, The Perennial Philosophy, was sort of a statement of religious pluralism, a broad religious pluralism, like, “Hey, you know, all religions, they're all true but false,” and that's a sort of naive way of stating it, but the more sophisticated way of stating is like, “Look, all religions are groping towards some transcendence, some transcendence that is… it's there, it's real, but they're all wrong. They’re doing the best they can, but here's their commonalities, so we can see their commonalities,” and I'm sure you’ve heard the line, and your listeners are familiar. And his book was an interesting read on that. And it sort of opened me up to sophisticated, what seemed otherwise non-traditionally religious people thinking about God.

And the same thing with going back to the other pagans and Aristotle and Plato and all these guys. They all seemed to believe in God. It wasn't immediately clear that it was the same God that Christians believed in or stuff like that. But all this started to really get me interested in the God question in general and ultimately projects of natural theology. Is God something we can think about? Are there reasons to believe in God? And if so, can we know anything about God? Is there one? Is there more than one? Is God the universe? Is pantheism true? Is monotheism true in some form or another?

So I got sucked into that. I became utterly fascinated with the God question first and foremost, because it seems the most fundamental, right? We’re getting at the basement of reality, because whatever else God is supposed to be, God is supposed to be the fundamental explanatory principle. So I went down that route for quite some time and read as much as I possibly could on it and became increasingly convinced of the classical theistic paradigm, that a robust monotheism is true, that was the best explanatory worldview, and in terms of religious beliefs at the time, no firm commitments, but I guess I was sort of broadly attracted to this religious pluralism idea. But at the same time—and again it's hard to—my memory isn’t great, but at some point I came across Thomas Aquinas and the great Thomistic tradition, the people who follow Thomas Aquinas and a lot of great philosophers in that tradition that had a great influence on me, from Bernard Lonergan to Norris Clarke, and I was really impressed with these thinkers, really impressed, and the way I always like to present it and think about it is some people think of Aquinas as like the first great medieval philosopher. I always think of him as the last great classical philosopher. To me, he's a guy who just pulled all of the threads together, into this beautiful tapestry, this beautiful coherent picture of reality, soup to nuts, metaphysics, ethics, all of it, human anthropology.

He just seemed to be able to answer those questions that I was looking for answers to. Questions of why is there anything? What are we? How are we supposed to live? How metaphysics informs ethics. And the beautiful thing about the Thomistic picture is it seemed not just comprehensive but systematic, great coherence, and it didn't cause me to have to eliminate any of those core commitments that I thought were so important. I was able to ground them.

Now, the problem, I suppose, of reading a bunch of Thomists and Dominicans, especially Thomas himself, is they talk a lot about Christianity. And these people are really smart And I was really interested in it from a philosophical perspective, but you can't really ignore that. You can’t really ignore, like, “Okay, could somebody who I think is this brilliant, this correct about one thing, be so totally wrong about another?” And maybe. I mean, sometimes that's the case. I think there are many brilliant naturalists, and they have a lot of great contributions, but I think that they are totally off on other things as well. So maybe that's the case. But at some point along the way, I began to become seriously interested in the question of Christianity. And also the truth is, looking into the different Eastern religions didn’t really cut it for me. I think they have a host of philosophical issues or just weren't very philosophically deep at all, and so that wasn’t doing it for me, I guess, especially the sort of broad Buddhist stuff that I was into at the time.

So this is where I took the turn towards seriously looking at Christianity, and to me, the most obvious thing at that point was to see if there was any sort of credible historical basis for it. And that's where I became utterly fascinated by the Christian apologetic scene on that front and read as much as I could on it for my own fascination and just to try and answer my own questions, and ultimately I came to the conclusion that there is a very credible historical basis for the core claims of Christianity-

… the incarnation and atonement, resurrection.

Who were the authors reading?

Well, somebody who I know influences a lot of people whose work I found very helpful was Dr. William Lane Craig. He's got a nice little book called… I think it was called The Son Rises. I remember finding that book very helpful. And then, going much deeper into that, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, I found really, really helpful. Dr. Brant Pitre has a book, The Case for Jesus, which I found really helpful.

And, to me, I didn't need it like proven beyond any doubt. This is the important point I try to make to people. Because at this point, I was already pretty committed to a philosophical worldview that seemed to, in a sense, make probable something like Christianity, right? There's a background there, where you might expect something like this. So then if there just is a historical case to be made, and you've already got that philosophical background, there’s a fittingness there, where I think it becomes eminently reasonable. That, at least for me, it didn't need to be proven beyond any shadow of a doubt whatsoever. It's just, “Oh, no, this fits.” This historical data fits really well with this philosophical paradigm that I’ve already found myself in. It's just sort of thing I might expect, if you will. Even looking at it sort of retroactively, that would flow from essentially two things, classical theism and the obvious fact that there's something screwy with the world, right?

Yes.

Something like Christianity makes a lot of sense of that. And the fact that there's any historical case to be made for it, let alone a strong historical case—I'm sure people are familiar with the usual historical apologetics around the resurrection—was sufficient for me to at least begin to say to my wife at the time—this was a very awkward conversation because she was never baptized, and she grew up quite anti-religious. To say, “Hey, I think we should take a look at this,” and at this point we had two children, I think? And we haven't gotten to that side of the story, but obviously, being married and having kids gives many perspectives on different things as well.

Yes.

Especially for her. I think that was a big thing that opened her up to considering certain things. So that was it. And then, kind of together but in different ways, we started seriously thinking about it, slowly trying to actually put ourselves around other Christian people and Christian communities, and things gradually went from there.

So you became, I guess, intellectually confident, convinced, maybe not with certainty, that there was the possibility, a real possibility, of a transcendent source who informs all of reality. Again, through Aquinas and understanding some of his arguments for God or the existence of God, those made sense. And then, from that flowed, “Okay, if God exists, then the potential for Christianity and Jesus is true.” Just super fast, for our listeners, what arguments does Aquinas present in a nutshell that seemed to be convincing for you of God existence?

You have this cause/effect type of first cause argument. Okay, there's all of these things that need to have existence imparted to them, in order for them to be actively present in reality. Is this something that can just kind of go on indefinitely or in a circle or anything like that? And Aquinas has many arguments to say no. In this type of causal series, what he calls a per se or hierarchical causal series, he argues it's necessarily terminated. If there were not a primary first cause that possessed the causal property of existence inherently, then it would never be in any of the intermediary causes or effects.

But for Aquinas, that's going to be a pretty remarkable first cause, because it would have to be something whose essence just is existence. It would just be “Exists!” with an exclamation point. And for Aquinas, that's God, because he's got a deep metaphysics of existence, a theory of the transcendentals, where goodness and truth just are existence under different aspects, right? So it turns out that God is a being of pure existence, is absolutely going to be a being of pure truth, of pure goodness, that is a fundamental first and primary cause of everything else that exists. The direct, immediate, efficient cause of everything else that exists. I found that argument convincing then. I find it even more convincing now, the more that I've studied it.

Again, I didn't need it proven from history completely, because there's all this sort of philosophical stuff going in the background. “Yeah. That makes perfect sense. Right.” So that's what did it. That's what did it for me. But hopefully I can show the link there between his arguments for the existence of God, how they can actually inform and set you up, I think, for the Christian story being the true story as well. And that did a lot for me. It still does.

It provided an adequate foundation for the historical aspect of Christianity. So it was this beautiful kind of cumulative case, in a sense, of philosophy and history. Plus I would imagine, too…. It was fitting, speaking of fitting, it fit with your sense of self, of your existential needs and desires for things to make sense of reality and who you are and your person. Like you say, your continuing self or your consciousness, or those kinds of things. It began to provide answers all the way around. And so it gave you a place that I guess intellectually allowed you to enter into, from an experiential perspective, Christianity.

I now had a worldview where those commitments fit. They could be located in a grand narrative comfortably, whereas those commitments could not be located in the grand narrative of naturalism. That’s not insignificant. That's not insignificant, right? Aquinas’s view of the world, with his focus on substances, his fundamental helps make a lot of sense of human consciousness and free will and all this and God as a primary first cause. The commitments fit within that narrative. They don't fit easily or at all within naturalism. That's not an insignificant thing And I would just ask people to consider that.

Yeah. It feels like… at the beginning, when you were leaving… you left the God story behind for the science story. And now you're not leaving science behind but you're seeing how science fits well within the God story, where it didn’t in the godless story, I guess, in naturalism.

Yeah. That’s right. I think the science. And yeah, I don't think science settles these bigger questions. There's certain things that are interesting in the sciences that might be relevant to certain arguments here or there. But I do think, as a whole, science makes a lot more sense on the theistic or the deistic picture.

I was kind of sneaky, kind of like slink into the back of a church every now and then and kind of scope it out and just keep my head down. But I just felt so pulled at this point to try it out—and try it because it's more than an intellectual thing. And talk about core commitments. One of the core commitments—this was really big for my wife, but it was for me, too—is love! She had her first kid, and she always tells this story. She felt such a profound sense of truly transcendent love that the sort of atheism she was at the time, where this is all just axons firing for survival purposes, she just kind of knew immediately, on the spot, that’s false. “I can't explain why it's false, but it's false.” This is so far beyond that. Now, of course, that's not going to convince somebody. A committed atheist will say, “Well, that's just still a delusion, pressed in you from evolutionary forces.”

But here's the thing: If you have an experience like that, of such an overwhelming “seeming,” call it, or obviousness of the reality of love, and you've got two stories: Science is neutral between them. It might even fit better with one. And one story says, “Hey, actually, the foundation of reality is just a fountain of self-donating love.” And the other one says the foundation of reality is just in different physical bits, that somehow, through a process of combination, produced delusions that you call love. I mean, which one are you going to go with? The other one, it's a lot better. I'm going to go with that. So, for my wife, the kid thing and that experience of just incredible love was big for her. And it was for me, too. I mean having kids really does change things in a profound way.

But me, I needed philosophical arguments and systems on top of that, too. But everyone's experience is a little bit different. But providentially the conversion of me and my wife lined up in such a way that we were able to consider things in our own way but on a similar time frame, if that makes sense. And it was hard because, not only was it just going and trying to meet other Christian people, but speaking frankly, there were a lot of lifestyle changes that had to be made. We weren't exactly living according to Christian values and biblical teaching. But again, conversion is more than intellectual. There's that moral conversion.

And if nothing else, I think, as wrong as I have been, and I'm sure I still have many things I still need to work out now, I've at least always tried to be consistent in what I believe. So it seemed absolutely right to me that, if I think this is true, and I think this is right, I've got to reform my life. My whole family has got to reform our lives. We have to conform ourselves to living according to what Christ taught and biblical teaching and all that. So that was tough, but it wasn't as tough as I thought it was going to be. And that experience not only convinced me more of the truth of Christianity but the reality of grace as well. Because there were certain things that I thought, “Oh, that’s going to be impossible.”

Right.

But they're not. They’re not. And there's that other experiential dimension. I don't want to call it a testing. I don't think that's the right word. But the openness and the praying, for God to help you to do this, to live according to what Christ taught, be open to grace. I became personally convinced of that, just through the shifts we had to make in our lives.

I love that you say conversion is not merely intellectual. It’s not. You can believe without surrender. And it sounds like you have submitted to the God Who created all things, Who created and purposed you, too, and is very personal to you, in ways that allowed you to experience the fullness of Him and the fullness of goodness and beauty and truth. What an amazing story that you have.

Is there anything else you'd like to add to your story?

Oh, I mentioned my grandparents. Here's another line of providence, so I can tie it all together, because I said they were the one part of my family that…. They were such beautiful people, and my grandfather, when he died, he was the kind of guy who…. Everybody in the state came to his funeral because he was always just giving to others, and he was extremely devout in his faith through his entire life. And everybody loved him so much. And growing up, I always thought that that was like independent of his religious beliefs. “Oh, he’s just a good guy and just believes that kind of stuff.” Now I realize no, this was integral to who he was.

And in my atheist years, I was very materialist, and I was materialist, ironically, in two senses: I was materialist in the philosophical science, but I was also materialist in the consumerist sense. I wanted things, wanted to be successful and have the business and write the books and all that stuff. And I remember when my grandparents passed, and this was at a time when I was really kind of going… I forget exactly where I was in the conversion. I was definitely on the way towards Christianity. I remember one of my uncles gave my grandfather a very, very, very expensive watch, and I was going to inherit it. So I was kind of excited about that, right? But what happened is that watch went missing. So when I went to go get my inheritance from my grandparents, the watch wasn't there. And literally the only thing left in their house was just some religious icons. That’s it. That was the only thing that was left in their house. For me. That was it. And, to me, that was essentially God yelling at me at that.

How old were you?

It couldn't have been more obvious.

How old were you at this time?

I would have definitely been out of college-

An adult.

… prior to full conversion. Probably mid-twenties, something like that. Mid-ish twenties. And it was just one of those lines of providence. It was so, so obvious, more obvious to me than any immediate mystical vision could have been. Of the life I was supposed to leave behind and the life I was now supposed to live, from the people that meant so much to me, and what was left behind from them.

So that's what I think I'll finish with.

Yeah. It felt very personal, almost a gift not only from your grandfather but from God Himself almost.

Yeah.

So, Pat, as we're turning the corner here, I'm thinking about those who might be connecting to your story, those who are very cerebral in a good way, intellectual, deep thinker, someone who doesn't mind doing due diligence or just even looking at you and going, “Wow! He really looked at this honestly and deeply and found it to be true and real,” and life giving, it sounds like. And I wondered what you would say to someone who was listening in who might actually be open to consider God, whereas they may not have before.

Yeah. That’s a wonderful question. And there's actually a book that I liked very, very much. I discovered it later on. But I always felt like, if I had this book sooner, I felt like maybe it would have sped things along a little bit. And it's a book by a friend of mine, Dr. Michael Rota, and it's called Taking Pascal's Wager. And the reason I like this book a lot is he not only updates Pascal's Wager and makes it sophisticated and incorporates contemporary findings of the positivity of religious belief in the here and now life, not just the potential for the hereafter. But he does a really nice job of presenting what he thinks is the cumulative case for Christianity. So if people are interested in the philosophical and historical perspective, done by a professional philosopher in a way that's careful and nuanced and argues that you don't need it to be proven with 100% certainty. And of course there are philosophers out there who think you can get an extremely high degree of confidence in these things.

But the way he presents Pascal's wager is he says, “Hey, if you think that this is 50/50, then it becomes eminently rational.” And this is Rota’s advice, it becomes eminently rational to at least begin a life of really just seeking. He doesn’t say you have to believe it, because you can't just switch your beliefs overnight. But consider the arguments, and he presents different arguments from fine tuning and first-cause arguments and the historical case for Christianity and discusses the problem of evil and hiddenness in, I think, a really fine way that's, again, thorough, but also accessible for people who might not be professional philosophers. And says, “Look, given what you have to gain versus what you have to lose, if you think that this is at least a toss up between Christianity and atheism, what you should do is you should begin a life of religious seeking.” You should start to pray even as an agnostic. You can pray as an agnostic. “God, if there is a God, save my soul if I have a soul.” Go start hanging out around Christian people, and this is sort of what I did at some point anyway, right. I sort of began that life of religious seeking.

And the reason I like it is he's not saying believe it, because that's very hard to…. As somebody who converted myself, it’s very hard just to switch your beliefs overnight. He's saying create a new disposition for yourself. In what you’re reading, how you're speaking, who you're speaking to, who you're hanging around with, and let things just sort of happen from there. And I always felt that that was very tender and brilliant advice. So I think I’d just like to offer that from Dr. Michael Rota. It’s called Taking Pascal’s Wager. For people who want both the practical and intellectual side of that. I always found that book to be really well written.

That sounds like great advice. And, as someone who obviously was an atheist for quite a long time really and now you're a Christian, how would you advise us to engage thoughtfully or meaningfully, lovingly, in whatever way, with those who don't believe to make belief more attractive, so that they will actually look to see it is really the best explanation for reality.

Yeah. That is a wonderful question. It is something that I have had to reflect on, in my own, obviously, wanting to do that, wanting to share Christianity with other people. And what I've come to realize is there's broadly sort of two types of skeptics: And I want to say this with as much charity as possible. There's a skeptic that I was, which was just a confused person, right? Somebody who really wanted to know what reality was about, if it could be understood, and I rejected religion insofar as I thought it was not a good grand narrative. It was not a good story. But I wasn't hostile to religion. I never had a bad religious experience. I never suffered abuse by religious people. I was never picked on or any of that. So I didn't have an issue of the will towards religion.

But the truth is, there are a lot of skeptics out there who do have an issue of the will toward religion. It is not, or not just, an intellectual problem. So my mistake was I thought that everybody was a skeptic like me. I thought, “Well, if we just sit down and talk about this for long enough….” And that's not the case. People are more complicated. And mine, again, as I said, was not just an intellectual conversion. There's a lot going on there, but I can at least fairly say I did not have any major issues with religion either personally or in terms of political perspectives or anything like that. I didn't have that hostility for whatever reason, justified or not justified, with religion.

So I think I was in a position where I was sort of like the ideal agnostic or skeptic that, once I read enough and heard enough of the arguments, there wasn't some major issue with the will there, right? So if you find people like that, great! Arguments, philosophical conversations, apologetics, good. But we cannot—it’s not just the matter of what is said, but the manner and how we present that stuff. And this is what covers everybody else, right? There are going to be people who have had very bad experiences or for other reasons are committed against religion. It often tends to be political, if we’re being honest. So what do you do? You have to be the example. You have to be ready, yes, to give a reason for the hope that is within you, but always doing it with that gentleness and respect.

And this is where I talked about my one friend before, I think, influenced me more than I realized at the time. She was not a philosopher, didn't think about these questions as philosophers do, but there was a radiance about her and the life she lived and her pursuit of just wanting to be a saint that I found really kind of quite admirable and beautiful. So I think that's the other side of it, is living that Christian life, understanding that, for a lot of people, it's not just about giving arguments. It’s very easy for those who are sort of philosophically minded to just want to get into debate mode and just clobber people with facts and logic or whatever people say these days.

But I realize the usefulness is actually somewhat limited of that. It's the life you live overall, how you interact with other people, how you treat other people and building those relationships and friendships first that makes it so you can actually… that gives you the fertile ground for conversations that then can be productive. And that's a lesson I've had to learn and relearn many times over the years. So I would just say, whatever that lesson is, try to keep it in mind.

That is a perfect way to close. And your intuitions about and thoughts about that are exactly what I’ve found in speaking and researching former atheists, and it seemed to me that the majority were moved towards openness by the question, “Does God matter?” rather than, “Does God exist?” and that they moved towards a change in the will because they saw something that was attractive that they wanted, that they were lacking. And then they were willing to determine whether or not it was true, rather than the other way around. Although, like you say, there are those who are more intellectually bent and are really driven to make intellectual sense. But it is the combination of both. And I appreciate your nuancing there, because I think a lot of us right hearted but maybe wrong headed just to present an argument when there's really something else going on.

So anyway, thank you. Wow! What a story. Pat, what a privilege it is to have spoken with you. You have brought so much depth and life, I think, to this conversation. You are picture of…. You’re a beautiful character narrative to the statement that belief in God is irrational. You are the living contradiction to that, because you have demonstrated, both through your intentional journey intellectually but also understanding how ideas have consequences, how you can't just hold something theoretically and just go along and try to have sense in your life. You really do have to be honest and be willing to change your path when things aren't going the right direction or when they aren’t making sense. It reminds me of a statement that C.S. Lewis said, something to the effect of, “If you’re going down the wrong path, it’s not going to do you any good to keep going down the wrong path. At some point, it makes more sense to turn around and figure out the right path.” And that's what you've done. And I know that so many listeners are going to be inspired by you, motivated, and maybe even challenged by your journey, and I hope in a good way.

So thanks so much for coming on today and telling us your story. I almost wish we had just a lot more time because there's so much we could still tease out, but we'll come to a close now. But thank you so much, Pat.

Thank you, Jana. It's been an absolute joy. I really appreciate it.

Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Pat Flynn’s Story. In the episode notes, you can find out more about his podcast, his recommended resources, and his soon-to-be-released book, called The Best Argument for God. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our email, [email protected]. Also, if you're a skeptic or atheist who would like to connect with a former atheist with questions, please contact us, again at our email, [email protected].

This podcast is produced through the C.S. Lewis Institute with our wonderful producer, Ashley Decker, our audio engineer, Mark Rosera. You can also see these podcasts in video form on our YouTube channel through the excellent work of our video editor, Kyle Polk. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you'll follow, rate, review, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.

 


COPYRIGHT: This publication is published by C.S. Lewis Institute; 8001 Braddock Road, Suite 301; Springfield, VA 22151. Portions of the publication may be reproduced for noncommercial, local church or ministry use without prior permission. Electronic copies of the PDF files may be duplicated and transmitted via e-mail for personal and church use. Articles may not be modified without prior written permission of the Institute. For questions, contact the Institute: 703.914.5602 or email us.

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