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An interview with Patrick Flynn on the Existence of God

Patrick Flynn’s profile picture shows a guy with glasses and bushy beard making a his arm muscle pop while wearing a red-white-and-blue USA tank top. He doesn’t look like your typical Catholic dad of 5 kids or like an Aquinas-studying philosopher. This man-of-many-talents has spent much of his life wrestling with questions about the existence of God and what that means for his own life. In The Best Argument for God, he shares the results of years of questioning and study and research.

I was delighted to have the chance to spend an hour getting to know Pat on the phone. He’s knowledgeable and conversational, happy to share his own story and what he’s learned. Although I’ve never questioned God’s existence, there were may other parts of his quest that did ring true with me, such as his search for truth and meaning in life. So how does someone get from once-a-year-Christian to atheist to Catholic? Read on to find out.

"I love when people are questioning. I think the hardest thing is when people are indifferent. I was questioning – but the questioning leads to further questions and further study and further inquiry." ~ Patrick Flynn, author of The Best Argument for God

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TKM: Can you tell us about your childhood and how you left the church?

Patrick Flynn: My upbringing is fairly typical of a lot of people my age in America, where we had some very faint background of religion in our lives. I was baptized but never had any sort of proper formation or catechesis. We were your typical “Chreaster family” where my parents took us to church on Christmas / Easter or when my grandparents were around, which was not often. I did go to Sunday school here and there but it was more or less a bunch of shenanigans with other children rather than significant formation.

By the time I got to sixth grade, I encountered two fairly significant objections to the religious worldview. I didn’t think of them as direct objections, but looking back, I see they were. My science teacher began outlining the origins of the universe – Big Bang Theory and such – and that was enough for me to see this was a different story than I heard in Sunday School. I was introduced to the classic science vs. religion debate or the idea we don’t need God to explain anything.

The other thing that happened in middle school is 911 – the terrorist attacks brought the problem of evil came into my life in a profound and direct way. We watched it all unfold on live television in the classroom. It was very dramatic. It wasn’t like I threw my hands up and declared myself an atheist, but those planted seeds of doubt in my mind that developed over time.

In high school, I was very interested in philosophy and the old atheists, and by the time I was in college, I considered myself a philosophical naturalist.

TKM: Where did your search for meaning take you after that?

Patrick: I was always interested in the big questions of life and thought philosophy could answer those. Science is a powerful tool but it’s limited, so philosophy would give me the answers on an existential level. I really just came to see that the naturalist paradigm did not and could not provide adequate answers to the most significant questions to me – questions of origin (why is there anything rather than nothing), why do I have a strong moral intuition (people can be wrong in their moral judgement and how we account for that?), what about free will, what about consciousness (which can’t be explained just by physics and chemistry – what makes us “us”?).

These problems caused me to ultimately abandon atheism and naturalism. At one point, I threw up my hands, not knowing what is true but being sure that this wasn’t it. So I took another look at other philosophical schools of thought, and traditional thinkers from Plato and Aristotle on. I found they do have some really rigorous and sophisticated lines of thought.

What fascinated me was the various arguments these philosophers gave for the existence of God. This is natural theology – what can we know about God from the armchair. What you find in pagan, Jewish, Islamic and other traditions is all these thinkers who argue from the state of the world to the existence of a necessary and perfect being. They have very sophisticated and convincing argument for why there has to be a God.

If there’s a changing thing, there has to be an unchanging thing. If there are finite things, there has to be an infinite thing. There has to be an anchor to reality that can explain and ground all this other stuff. All these things have to find their source in something that’s completely unlike this contingent, finite stuff.

What fascinated me about this is how scientific it was. You have all these thinkers from different times and backgrounds reaching the same results. I found it very cool and quite convincing, and so I devoted myself to this study of natural theology, trying to understand the arguments for God and find the ones I thought were strongest, and looking at the best objections against them. I came out quite convinced that there are a number of very good arguments for God that don’t rely on miracles or revelation.

That doesn’t get you to religion, but to a broad theism, classical theism, that there is this eternal, necessary being that somehow diffuses itself and creates the contingent, stable order that we have today. It doesn’t answer every possible question of life but it opens up the possibility of the religious question, whether there is something more to the various religious claims that have been made in the world, and whether there are various signs or indicators that some or one of these are true.

TKM: Why do you think finding meaning in life matters so much?

Patrick: If naturalism is true, there’s no grand narrative, no wider purposes over and above the purposes we might invent for ourselves for life. If your worldview is run by a principle of indifference, there’s nothing at the root of reality, then there’s no grand narrative, everything happened by a fantastic fluke.

Does that mean you can’t invent a meaning to your life? Of course not. Many people do, even many atheists. I’d say that’s great if you do, because there are many people who are depressed, who don’t have the willpower to invent a meaning for their lives.

What theism can say is that meaning is not dependent on your mood. There is a purpose to your life. There is a being who loves you even when you don’t love yourself. What most of us are looking for is not just a meaning we can invent for ourselves, but a meaning that we can discover about reality, even apart from ourselves. And that’s what a theistic worldview can provide.

TKM: Why were you driven to keep looking deeper for answers to your questions?

Patrick Flynn: That’s a complex question and we’re all human so we’re complex beings. One was intellectual; I really wasn’t finding an intellectual satisfaction in the naturalist paradigm. Another was moral; I couldn’t find a moral meaning. And the last was spiritual; I can’t downplay the nudging of the Holy Spirit.

There’s also the personal side. I’m a father to five kids and having kids makes you have different questions, once you experience the profound love that comes along with having kids. It’s a new perspective, new data that needs to be accounted for.

The soul’s upward yearning was always there for me, even when I didn’t believe in a soul. St. Augustine says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” That was always the case for me, even when I wouldn’t have admitted it or recognized it.

TKM: You mention the difference between intellectual conversion and spiritual conversion. Can you expand on this?

Patrick: As I worked my way towards the Catholic faith, once I had gotten to theism, it really opened me up to looking at the historical claims of Christianity and whether there was any merit to them. Long story short, I think you can make a strong case for Christianity and Christ, historically and theologically. Then I looked at the early church and that got my head to Catholicism. But that was just my head.

One Christmas Eve, my wife was making a lovely dinner. She was not baptized, didn’t really have any faith background and had followed me into atheism for a while. I felt this pull to go to a Catholic Mass and she’d made this nice dinner and was a bit upset when I said I have to go to church tonight. She didn’t really get it, but she let me go and I went to Mass.

It was really snowy. It was dark, horrible weather, hard to see, but I got there. I’m not a spiritual experience guy, I’m pretty dry on the feeling side, but once that Eucharistic prayer was completed, I just knew. I knew where I was going to be for the rest of my life and no matter what I had to bring my wife and family along.

By the grace of God, He gave me the ability to transform as a husband, and I got my wife’s attention and she became open to considering Christianity and Catholicism. Not too long after me, she was baptized and confirmed in the church herself. That night was my moral and spiritual conversion, even though my head had been there for a while before hand. It’s interesting for me to demarcate those two, as they were distinct.

TKM: Why did you decide to write The Best Argument for God?

Patrick Flynn: I stumbled into apologetics. My background and what I love to do is philosophy but through the various writings I’ve done, a lot of Christians and Catholics found it useful for strengthening their own faith and for charitably engaging with atheistic critics. So I began doing a lot of work on the apologetics front, arguing for the existence of God, writing for outlets like Word on Fire and Catholic Answers. I really enjoyed it. I love doing philosophy and the fact that it was useful to people was encouraging to me.

The Best Argument for God by Patrick Flynn

So I wound up writing The Best Argument for God as my most up-to-date and definitive statement about natural philosophy and natural theism. I think a strong case can be made for the existence of God. I wanted to write a book to fill a gap that I saw as I was studying and surveying the literature out there. The gap is a solid middle brow effort.

Unfortunately, when it comes to apologetics, there’s a lot of stuff on the popular level that’s not the best (sometimes the arguments are very weak, or even very wrong and misrepresent the atheistic worldview, which is frustrating, as I came up in that worldview and I don’t think you’re going to win people over by not understanding them).

When it comes to professional philosophical literature, there’s a ton of amazing stuff, brilliant and intellectual thinkers, but most of that isn’t accessible to everyday people. I wanted to hit something in the middle, give the best defense that was still accessible to people who are really interested in this subject and willing to think through difficult philosophical questions, and to present the arguments in a way that was simple but not diluted or distorted.

TKM: What advice would you give to someone who has a friend questioning God’s existence?

Patrick: I love when people are questioning. I think the hardest thing is when people are indifferent. I was questioning – but the questioning leads to further questions and further study and further inquiry. I’m very confident when someone goes in with an open mind, looking at the best arguments on both sides. I want to encourage that inquiry, the deep philosophical investigation.

When people question the existence of God, it can result in a deep spiritual understanding. A lot of adults have a very Kindergarten conception of the divine, so this questioning can be very fruitful, as long as it is done with a genuine wanting to know the truth, and not with animosity or bias against religion. God is truth so that can’t ever be a bad thing.

Read the best thinkers, read Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine, Duns Scotus, St. Thomas Aquinas. The Catholic tradition is so rich with so many brilliant thinkers that have wrestled with so many tough questions. That really impressed me about Catholicism, the size of the intellectual muscle of the church. People have suffered poor formation in recent years but the resources are there, you just have to find them.

We are seeing a resurgence of apologetics. You aren’t alone; there are countless brilliant minds who have wrestles with all the hardest questions you’ve thought about, and even harder questions you haven’t thought about, and they address them.

And read and study prayerfully – God, help me find the truth, help me find the answers. If you’re agnostic, pray the agnostic prayer – God if you exist, help me find my soul, help me find you. Encourage friends in that enquiry.

TKM: How can Christians approach these conversations without a know-it-all attitude?

Patrick: When I was a naturalist or atheist, I was very put-off by that, and I still am. We need a spirit of humility. As St. Paul says, “Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy” (1 Peter 3:15 MSG) and with gentleness and respect.

First, I like to listen to where people are coming from and understand their perspective. Some basic social skills go a long way. People like to feel they are being listened to and not being preached to. Keep things casual, personal. The way you frame things is important. If I’m talking to someone who brings up an objection, say the existence of evil, then I acknowledge, “Yeah, that’s a good argument. I struggled with that too, but here are 3 things that I found helped me understand this better.” Engage in a co-operative conversation rather than a combative conversation.

TKM: What was the most challenging part of writing The Best Argument for God?

Patrick Flynn: It was definitely bringing together many different areas of research. There are many different branches of philosophy, some of which I was very strong in, and some areas I had a decent familiarity with but hadn’t given the deeper specialization necessary, so I was forced to research through some other areas of philosophy much further than I had before, and then pull all these lines of research together to build a cumulative case for God’s existence.

Being able to pull together these branches of philosophy and present them in an interesting and accessible way was a huge challenge! The Best Argument for God had to be rewritten several times but through much sweating and tears I did get it done.

TKM: Who is your favourite saint and why?

Patrick: St. Thomas Aquinas, as he was most significant to me in my conversation. It’s not just him himself but there’s this great tradition of Thomism – everyone who followed in his philosophical footsteps.

The thing I love about St. Thomas is that he was the first great medieval philosopher, but I think he was also the last great classical philosopher. Thomism is the completion of the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle; they’re all under the same big tent. Thomism is still being refined and developed today. He was not only a great sympathizer of Plato and Aristotle, but he also added significant advances of his own.

He had a brilliant mind. He’s a great model for not only what to think but also how to think, how to understand the opposition and present it in the strongest possible terms, and having the intellectual courage to engage in positions that are contrary to yours, and to have the determination and grit to see the philosophical project all the way through. And of course his saintly life can’t be understated. He’s my confirmation saint.

TKM: When you’re not studying philosophy, how do you enjoy spending your time?

Patrick: My family is a big part of that. I have five kids. I love to play music; I’m a guitarist and play in a band in the Milwaukee area. I’ve been spending more time with that than philosophy lately. After writing a book you sort of need a bit of a break. I’m doing more fun things just to recharge. I like fitness and working out too, so I try to keep a couple different hobbies here so I’m not stuck in all these dry philosophy books.

More about Patrick Flynn

The Best Argument for God is available from Sophia Institute Press, Amazon, or your favourite Catholic bookstore.

Patrick Flynn can also be found writing about fitness and working out at Chronicles of Strength. He’s the author of several fitness-related books.

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