The beauty of grey - finding reasons to believe

Simon Smart reviews Roy William's God Actually exploring reasons for believing in God

There are at least two situations where it would be good to have Roy Williams by your side. The first is in a courtroom with him acting as your lawyer, the other as your guest at a dinner party. In the first case you could feel supremely confident that he could marshal vast amounts of evidence into a coherent and compelling argument in your favour. In the second, Williams could be relied upon for sparkling conversation on an array of topics from philosophy to science, history, politics, literature and art. And if the conversation were to turn to the existence of God … well then Roy could really be given the floor.

God Actually is Williams’ first book and a welcome addition to the large and lively ‘conversation’ taking place all over the web and in bookstores around the world. Does God exist? Has science buried God? Are we better off without religion? Is faith merely fantasy? Each of these has been fertile territory for best-selling books and blogs of all types in recent years. Williams has entered the fray to put forward a case for God and why these days he is convinced by the truth, logic and beauty of Christianity. 

It wasn’t always so. He describes himself as, for most of his life, an agnostic leaning towards atheism. A successful litigation lawyer in a city firm for twenty years, Williams says he was the product of a relentlessly secular environment. As far as religion went he was a disinterested sceptic.

The birth of his first daughter challenged his worldview and sparked something of an existential struggle for the hardened lawyer. He wouldn’t be the first to have been bowled over by the miracle of birth, but very few have pursued answers to the nagging questions evoked by such an event with such thorough and unrelenting determination. The book is a testament to the detail and seriousness with which he took the search.

Williams sees his audience as primarily people like him – intelligent professionals who know a lot about some things and almost nothing about religion. He confesses he would previously have been impressed with a book like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion because it would have allowed him to mock Christianity without ever engaging with it seriously. What began as an essay to himself about why he came to believe evolved slowly into the book that he says aims to encourage readers to refrain from cynicism long enough to engage in serious, tolerant thinking. He hopes that ‘some might reassess the all-too common attitude that Christianity is a refuge for charlatans, kill-joys and well-meaning dopes, and is certainly not something for “sophisticated people.”’

God Actually is, if not an antidote, then at least a formidable challenge to the more strident efforts of vocal atheists such as the self-styled ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ as they have come to call themselves – Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett. Williams engages with and carefully deconstructs their arguments. He doesn’t write with the fluidity or wit of a Hitchens (very few can) or the caustic unyielding Dawkins, but he does display sensitivity to his audience and a nuanced understanding of the arguments not evident in his opponents. Sceptics who take the time to read the work will be grateful for this. Williams after all knows and is sympathetic to the way his interlocutors think and feel.

You get the feeling that Williams’ conversion was an agonisingly slow and painstaking process. He read everything. He wrestled with the views of those vehemently opposed, profoundly devoted and plenty in between. Finally, like C.S. Lewis, the writer who perhaps influenced him the most, Williams became a somewhat reluctant convert. Through the journey of penning his thoughts, his convictions have deepened and widened.

Williams builds his argument from a firm basis for belief in God. He focuses on three main phenomena – the universe itself, the human mind, and the existence and nature of human love. He then narrows his focus to Christianity and why he believes it looks like the most compelling and credible religion. Attention is given to the historicity of the gospels, and the life and miracles of Jesus. Williams rightly locates the place on which Christian faith either stands or falls – the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he gives a compelling account of why he believes this event to be a reality. At each point of his argument, Williams’ tone is one of respectful engagement. ‘This is how the evidence looks to me,’ he says. He leaves the reader to make up her own mind.

From there Williams addresses some of the more pointed objections to Christian belief including the existence of suffering and evil, the association of the Christian faith with right wing politics, along with the question of other religions. Later chapters deal with the afterlife – heaven, hell and judgement.

A crucial and unique element of Williams' thesis centres on ‘doubt’ and ‘uncertainty’, not as obstacles to belief but as pointers to God. There is beauty and truth to be found in the ‘grey’ of these issues suggests Williams, and his argument, closely related to the question of free will, is intriguing. It contrasts starkly with Dawkins’ insistence of scientific proof for things beyond the natural world – a category mistake according to Williams.

The breadth of material covered in this book is simultaneously its strength and weakness

Williams writes with a sense of humility that is endearing. He is clear about who has influenced him and quotes from conservative and liberal theologians, poets, novelists, philosophers, scientists, atheists, and journalists. He is certainly not afraid to listen to those with whom he disagrees. He is unencumbered with formal theology – some will find that a weakness and in places it is – but it seems to free him up to explore deep questions with honesty and openness. The result is a refreshingly clear body of writing.

The breadth of material covered in this book is simultaneously its strength and weakness. Williams covers an astonishing range of topics – nuclear physics to censorship; common law to nuclear war; Just War to childcare. Mostly he pulls it off. He is less convincing on the afterlife and the issue of suffering where the logic of the argument appears strained.  

Williams is very strong in the area of science⎯the wonders of the universe and human life as well as the complexity of the human mind as evidences for theism. He understands the larger objections to his case, and answers these with convincing and complex answers. He is no anti-evolutionist but can’t see how evolution can adequately explain the religious impulse:

  ‘I simply cannot accept that Man’s extraordinary capacity to discover and understand the underlying laws of the universe, and to speculate about our origins, is a mere incidental by-product of a favourable genetic mutation affecting the human brain. (142)  

Throughout he writes in an accessible fashion without losing the sophistication of the argument – no small or easy task.

There is a disarming honesty in the way Williams speaks about his gradual conversion and his personal battles with depression. This honesty is reflected in his argumentation that may well leave him as a lonely figure in this debate. Indeed he speaks of a sense of isolation and it is no wonder that he feels it. Clearly no longer welcome in the atheist camp, at certain points he will have managed to get out of step with both conservative Christians, liberal Christians and those of other faiths. This is born out of an authentic search and should not be counted against him.

What should be most acknowledged is the graciousness in the way he writes, the sensitivity he exhibits to opinions other than his own while not stepping back from his argument. The work is imbued with an appreciation for where he has come to on his own journey. It is a large story. It is multi-faceted as such a topic must be.

So while you might not get Williams back into court to act for you, or to come to dinner, his book will offer much to those open to some vigorous thinking on faith, God and Christian belief.

Simon Smart is Head of Research and Communications at CPX