A casual chat with his mum has lived with church leader James Glass through the years.
I can’t remember the date, not even the year, never mind the day or the month. But I do remember the conversation.
It took place between me sitting in the back seat and mum sitting in the driving seat of a now defunct brand of British car, possibly a Hillman or a Morris Marina. And it was after another gruelling day of study in the village primary school.
The haze surrounding the detail, however, in no way diminished the importance of what was said. In fact, the significance of the conversation seems to have grown as the details surrounding it have become more vague.
It unfolded something like this:
Me: “Our teacher told us today that we all came from monkeys.” (I guess I added something about evolution and chance.)
Mum: (She must have responded initially with some statement about God being our Creator, then said:) “When you look around it’s hard to believe that all this came into being by chance.”
I can’t remember what I replied. I think I was just silently convinced. It was hard to believe then that ‘all of this came into being by chance’, and it’s much harder to believe 40-plus years on from that profound snatch of motherly commentary on the theory of evolution.
What I didn’t realise then, and what my mother probably didn’t realise, was that she had put her finger on a very powerful argument for the existence of God. Neither of us, I imagine, had ever heard of Sir Fred Hoyle’s question about the chances of a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard containing all the pieces of a Boeing 747, producing a fully assembled plane.
In fact, he never made the statement until 1982, so my mum definitely had not been influenced by Sir Fred!
Nor were we aware that one day the leading atheist of his generation, Anthony Flew, would pose the question ‘Who wrote the laws of nature?’, and claim that atheism’s inability to sufficiently answer that question was a pointer towards theism. It’s impressive when Anthony Flew comes round to your mother’s way of thinking!
But we didn’t know any of that. My mother hadn’t time in those days to read apologetics books. Perhaps it was growing up as a Presbyterian that helped, what with the Shorter Catechism and all that! Or perhaps she recalled Romans 1 and Psalm 19. Or perhaps, sensible Christian woman that she was, she just found the whole ‘we got here by chance’ thing too hard to swallow.
And, for what it’s worth, I’m not misrepresenting the atheist position by talking about chance. Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion sources the beginning of the world to the ‘anthropic principle’, which amounts to – his word, not mine – ‘luck’.
But back then we didn’t know all that. Nor did I fully appreciate that the way the statement was made implied that to disbelieve in a Creator God was to believe in something else. Disbelief was not a neutral position. It required faith just as much as belief did. No, I didn’t consciously appreciate that at the time, but I think that somehow, at some sort of subconscious level, I realised that to disbelieve in one thing meant that you inevitably believed in another.
Looking back on that moment, what was, and remains, even more impressive is the manner of my mother’s reaction.
There is a lazy stereotype perpetuated in the media – sometimes in the Christian media as well – that Christian families that have fundamentalist beliefs aren’t much fun.
Of course, some Christians are miserable, but they have no monopoly on misery. I’ve met plenty of miserable atheists and humanists. I follow some of them on Twitter. We weren’t miserable. We had lots of fun. And we were relaxed about things. Mum wasn’t fazed by my enthusiastic heresy. No note of panic. No outrage. No ‘I must be a terrible mother’ meltdown.
Mum responded in the same way that she might have said ‘There’s a Breakaway biscuit in your lunch box’ or ‘Take your anorak. I think it’s going to rain’. Or ‘remember your football boots’ – very important when you’re on your way to being the next Kevin Keegan.
It is only in recent years that I have become fully aware of the significance of Mum’s statement. Not just as a statement in itself, but in the way it has shaped my thinking over the years. I have had the privilege of discussing faith with people who are much cleverer than I am and who have atheistic world views. Even when I struggled to counter their arguments or found myself at some sort of intellectual impasse ‘it’s hard to believe that this all came into being by chance’ inevitably comes to mind.
But it’s not just a default, a god-of-the-gaps kind of fall-back position. It’s a cornerstone of the way I think about faith and the reasonableness of the Christian faith in particular.
While Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris might wipe the floor with me in a public debate, they could never convince me that my mother’s argument contained any fatal flaw.