Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College, London, Alister McGrath is well known for debating with the high priests of the ‘New Atheism’ including Richard Dawkins. He was Principal of Wycliffe Hall Theological College in Oxford until 2004, is an Anglican Priest and has written many books including ‘The Dawkins Delusion?’ and ‘Why God Won’t Go Away’. He spoke with Ali Herbert.
Were you brought up as a Christian? I was born in Belfast in Northern Ireland and spent my first 18 years there. I then came to England to go to University and I’ve been here ever since. I grew up as an aggressive atheist and I think there were a number of things that fuelled that. Firstly I was studying the Sciences at school and that seemed to me to demand that you were an atheist. And secondly when I was growing up it was the late 1960s and it was very fashionable to be a Marxist in those days. After all, what 16 year old can resist fashions?
How did you begin your journey towards Christianity? During my last year at school I stayed on for an extra term to do my Oxford scholarship exams and found I had time on my hands. Other people decided to go and explore the world for the rest of that year but I decided to stay on at school to learn German and Russian – but also to think about things. I began to read books about the history and philosophy of Science, and began to realise that perhaps the sciences weren’t quite as straightforward as I thought.
What happened next? I went to Wadham College in Oxford University to study chemistry but also began to be really challenged about what I thought about deeper things. Gradually I began to realise that atheism was a faith position – in other words something you believe, not something you can prove. And I began to realize that it wasn’t even a very good faith position. Christianity was much more intellectually robust. And so I experienced an intellectual conversion. It wasn’t shining bright lights or great emotional releases. It was just ‘This is right, that’s for me.’
How did your intellectual decision grow into a living faith? Slowly! I saw Christianity initially as a change in the way in which I thought. Then gradually I began to realise that it affected my behaviour – for example going to church. Then over a long period of time I began to realise that Christianity was about engaging your imagination, your emotions, everything – not just the way you thought. And therefore although reason was the way into faith for me it didn’t stop there. So part of my own personal journey of faith has been discovering that there is far more to the Christian faith than simply believing certain things.
What is the most compelling evidence for Christianity? There are many things you can point to. As a scientist it is very difficult to make sense of the world without bringing God in somewhere. You can say, ‘Look, the world just happened. End of discussion!’ But to me that is just brushing a deep question under the carpet. There is also a question of the very deep intuitions we have: there has to be more than this world we see, there has to be justice, there has to be something that keeps us going in life. It’s not just one thing, it’s the realisation that if there were a God (and if this God is like the God that Christians believe in) then actually it gives you a way of looking at the world that makes far more sense than anything else.
How did you first begin debating with well-known atheists? It probably came about because I just happened to be around when these debates started to happen. Much of the ‘new atheism’ is based on the sciences and of course my own background made me quite well adapted to engage in these debates. I have to say I think these debates are thoroughly unproductive – it’s a bit like shooting past each other. But the extremely important thing is to show Christians and the general public that the new atheism is intellectually weak and can be challenged quite easily. And I did this with people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.
Why has there been so much fuss and anxiety about this wave of atheism? The new atheism is very good and very loud at saying that belief in God is a delusion. But that is just an assertion and not an argument. I think Christians feel intimidated by the volume rather than the quality of atheist criticisms. The sort of Christians who get messed up by this are those who don’t think through their faith or who haven’t been taught well. We’ve got to make sure in our teaching and our sermons that we explain what Christians believe, why we believe it and the difference it makes.
Some of the debates have included unpleasant personal comments aimed at you – do you find that difficult or hurtful? You just think: my goodness if their arguments must be really weak if they have to resort to personal abuse. But I won’t repeat it. If they use abusive language about me, I’m not going to use it back. I’m a Christian, and always try to be gracious in debate.
You have written a book called ‘The Twilight of Atheism’ do you really believe that? I’m saying it has run out of steam. It’s just recycling the same old ideas. And when the ideas have been tried and tested and they don’t work, the only option you have is to turn up the volume and get more abusive. And that’s what we see in the new atheism. There aren’t using new arguments. They’re just making the same old points more aggressively and more loudly.
Do you ever struggle with doubt? Yes I have and I’ve written a little book on this. It’s very understandable for Christians to doubt because they do want to be sure about things. And we have to realise there’s a limit to what we can know for certain. The same is true for atheism. Atheists have great doubts – Richard Dawkins won’t admit to it but others will. They say, ‘We think you’re wrong but we can’t prove it and we always have this nagging doubt that you might be right.’ Anyone who has a belief system whether Christian or Atheist has this problem, because they can’t prove what they believe – even though they think they have good reasons for accepting what they do believe.
Is it true that people know only what Christians are against and not what we are for? Many Christian leaders need to reflect long and hard about their public statements because they’ve been very good at critiquing others, but not so good in their positive affirmations. Leaders need to think about how they present themselves and how they present the Christian faith. People now think of Christianity as being legalistic and negative, very judgmental – I don’t see that in the New Testament!
How do we change this view? I think we need to go back to the New Testament and look very hard at the way Jesus related to people – even people who clearly were on the wrong side of everything. Are we being like him? The old slogan ‘what would Jesus do?’ is an important starting point and I’m worried that in our attitudes to various things we are just not doing what Jesus would do.
You have a very busy life so what do you do to unwind? My wife and I like to go hill-walking so that’s our way of relaxing. It’s very hard to take holidays and what I find best is short breaks – a weekend to recharge the batteries. But the thought of taking two weeks off… well I just couldn’t do that! I won’t retire, I’m just going to keep going!
Alister McGrath’s books including ‘The Dawkins Delusion?’ and ‘Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging with the New Atheism’ are widely available. His most recent book ‘C.S. Lewis: A Life’ is now available in hardcover published in April by Hodder & Stoughton. This is an edited version of an article originally printed in Woman Alive magazine. www.womanalive.org.uk