Speaker, author, neuroscientist and apologist Sharon Dirckx shares her own journey to faith and explains why she believes we are more than just our brains
Listening to Dr Sharon Dirckx is inspiring. What stands out is her graciousness to those she converses with. Acknowledging the views of others, she listens attentively and respectfully, then carefully articulates her answers.
Whether engaging with philosophers and scientists, talking to curious students or, during our interview, Sharon appears at ease.
Questions propelled Sharon on her own faith journey at university. On arrival, she was an agnostic who had loved the sciences since her mid-teens. An A-level biology teacher that she looked up to had put a copy of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins in her hands.
Sharon said that she “absorbed the view that we are gene machines and the core of our identity is caught up in the material, and the ability and the necessity to pass that genetic material on”. She believed you could not be a thinking person and believe in God at the same time.
The Q&A route to faith
Within her first week at university, Sharon attended a Grill a Christian event, relishing the opportunity to ask or ‘grill’ Christians with questions.
Sharon raised her hand and asked about the compatibility of science and God. She shares: “I was given an answer that really set me on a journey of asking a lot more questions and grilling a lot more Christians.”
Although she did not have answers to all of her questions, she said: “I felt that I had enough answers to know that it made more sense that God existed than he didn’t. It made more sense of why science is possible. It made sense of my own sense of being.
It made sense of the fact I was experiencing difficulties and suffering in different ways. I got to the point where I felt I had enough information to actually choose to believe.”
A memory that stands out for her is cycling to join her Christian housemates at their student group after church. She reflects: “I have no idea to this day why on earth I got on my bike at home and cycled to their church on my own, except to say that God was drawing me and I was part of something that was bigger than myself.
The overwhelming feeling I had as I did that was that I was coming home. I was returning to something and to someone.”
Sharon with Justin Brierley, Apologetics & Theology editor
Sharon studied biochemistry at the University of Bristol, but became fascinated by Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners after seeing her friends work with them.
Eventually swapping test tube investigations in the lab for a growing interest in MRI, Sharon pursued an internship in Switzerland upon graduating. She became involved in MRI research while working for a pharmaceutical company there.
She achieved a PhD at the University of Cambridge in Brain Imaging followed by a post doctorate at the Medical College of Wisconsin in the United States. This research examined the reward networks in the brain, working with people who were users of cocaine.
With her background in neuroscience, there is much to be gleaned from her knowledge and experience. However, she would be the first to say she is more than just her brain! In her book Am I Just My Brain? (The Good Book Company), Sharon explores this question and what it means to be human: We are not simply the neurons in our physical brains. We also have a conscious mind that can think.
In her recent discussion on Premier’s The Big Conversation with Dr Iain McGilchrist, she explained that “although science makes the connection between the mind and brain, it doesn’t say anything about the nature of that connection”.
She said: “If the forces of nature are not enough to explain consciousness, then maybe ultimate answers to that question lie beyond the forces of nature.”
How do we make sense of consciousness? The best explanation Sharon suggests points to a conscious Creator: “if a conscious unity of three persons in one being has existed from the beginning, then we didn’t start with matter, we started with consciousness – a conscious being.
Therefore, for conscious human beings to arise at a later point, is entirely consistent with the starting parameters.”
On The Big Conversation, Sharon shared how being more than just your brain is good news: “If you are just your brain, you are fading away. But if you are more than just your brain, then, even if your brain degenerates, you do not.
There is still a ‘you’.” For those with degenerative brain diseases, brain impairment or mental illness, the reminder that their worth and dignity are not based on their brain state but on who they are is vital. Sharon is encouraged by 2 Corinthians 4:16, as she points out that “we are all ‘outwardly wasting away’, whether that is rapidly or slowly, but ‘inwardly we are being renewed day by day’”.
Christian neuroscientist Sharon Dirckx in conversation with brain psychiatrist Dr Iain McGilchrist on The Big Conversation with Justin Brierley
Listening and answering well
During her time in the States, Sharon had regular conversations about the Christian faith with others. She said: “I just began to ask myself why that was. There seemed to be a naturalness about it: both people asking me and the conversations that I was having.”
With guidance from a woman in her church gifted in evangelism, she began to do one-to-one Bible studies in coffee shops. Individuals asked her questions and she wanted to seek out answers.
Realising she had a passion for and gifting in apologetics (giving a reasoned defence of the Christian faith), she attended The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA). Taught by apologists including Michael Green and Alister McGrath, this began her transition toward becoming an apologist herself.
Preparing to engage with all manner of questions, the first thing Sharon does is assume she is “speaking to people that know full well what it is to suffer…many of whom will be hurting and in the midst of very real battles and struggles”.
Suffering is “the most universal of experiences” and “we all know what it is to suffer but in all kinds of different ways and at different magnitudes”. Having that connection with individuals is crucial.
There are questions that come up time and time again, which apologists need to be ready for, but answers are given with the context and the person in mind. Sharon demonstrates wonderfully what it means to listen to, answer and love the questioner with gentleness and respect.
By listening well and helping individuals to think through difficult questions, she is leading many toward a saviour who cares for and loves them deeply.
3 questions to ask when preparing to engage with others about Jesus
1. Am I in contact with people that God loves and would love for them to know him?
2. Is the way that I live causing them to think about what they believe and how they live?
3. How can I better understand the person I am engaging with and show them that I am listening to them well?
Sharon Dirckx is a speaker, apologist, neuroscientist and author of Why? and Am I Just My Brain? Watch Sharon’s discussion with Iain McGilchrist, ‘Is there a master behind our mind?’ at thebigconversation.show (the Big Conversation video series is hosted by Premier Unbelievable?’s Justin Brierley, who facilitates conversations and debate exploring science, faith, philosophy and what it means to be human).
Watch The Big Conversation with Sharon Dirckx here