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John Lennox: What Atheist Made Me Sweat? Plus Advice for Debaters

David Klinghoffer
Photo credit: Hans Reniersk, via Unsplash.

Oxford University mathematician John Lennox stars in the three-nights-only film Against the Tide: Finding God in an Age of Science, in theaters across the country on November 19, 20, 23. Get your tickets here, and don’t forget to bring family and friends! Professor Lennox has debated a number of very prominent atheists. Looking forward to the documentary’s release, he took time to answer some questions from Evolution News.

In your debates with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, and others, did the atheists ever make you sweat?

Well, Michael Shermer certainly not. But people sweat because they’re afraid. And there are two kinds of nervous reaction to public engagement. One is healthy, the other is not very healthy. Let me take the unhealthy one first. That’s where people are so concerned with their own reputation, what people will think of them, are they going to win the argument, are they going to get the most votes, and all that kind of thing. That I think, particularly for a Christian, is very risky. 

But then there’s the other kind, and that comes from the sense of responsibility. When I did that first debate with Richard Dawkins, there was a huge concern that I’m stepping out into the arena, into the lion’s den. I knew that thousands of Christians were praying [for me], but I had a huge sense of responsibility because these big formal debates were in a way putting Christianity on trial. And I was witness for the defense. And so that of course gets adrenaline flowing and all the rest of it. 

We can’t judge our own motives, and there’s probably a mixture of pride and everything else. But I think what was very important to me was the advice I got from a senior journalist, not a Christian, before I did any of these debates. And he said, “Look, don’t try and outwit them. But make sure when you’re finished that you have said what you wanted to say.” In other words, don’t just react to them. You’ve got something to present. And that was enormously helpful to me. 

So, I did those debates without going in and saying “I’ve got to win the argument.” My attitude is to try and win the person and be friendly with the person even if they get very hostile, as you can see in some of those debates, they did. Be friendly, because when people get angry, they’ve completely lost the plot. 

But at the same time, be truthful. Don’t be friendly in the sense that you fudge the truth. And I think it’s perfectly possible to speak the truth, and that’s what I tried as best I could to do. But some of the people were lightweight. And I won’t go into details there. But certainly, there’s huge pressure especially when things go wrong and you’re not given the right timings, as happened in the Dawkins debate and so on. But nevertheless, what encourages me is the number of people over the years who have come to faith in Christ through watching them and that’s very considerable. 

We’re looking forward to those three nights later this month. See the trailer here: