The Faith of an Atheist
A discussion with Alister McGrath
Interview conducted by John Halford
JH: Many Christians, when confronted with arguments against the existence of God, become intimidated and go on the defensive, as though the absence of scientific proof of God makes atheism a scientifically sound position. You don’t do that. Why not?
Alister McGrath: I persistently make the point that the evidence available is not—by itself—sufficient to bring us to a secure position of belief or disbelief. So if you arrive at either of those positions, you do so as a matter of faith. Atheists find this very threatening and they often get very angry. But I keep pressing the point—and they eventually give way.
"I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen—not just because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else."
We have a generation of Christian leaders who seem to be genuinely intimidated about the credibility of their faith. They feel that they will not be taken seriously by the culture. They don’t really have a deep sense of the truth of the gospel that enables them to regain confidence in the gospel itself, and also to rethink the ways that we present it.
JH: Apologists for atheism—such as Dr. Richard Dawkins— present atheism as the only approach a thinking person can come to. Dawkins can be quite withering in his approach. It is perhaps not surprising that many representatives of Christianity are afraid to enter the arena with him.
AM: Dawkins has clearly overreached himself. When I take people through his arguments, it becomes obvious to them that atheism is a faith, instead of a certainty supported by scientific argument. But until I have done that, they have not realized that it is a faith that, like Christianity, also has its fanatics and fundamentalists.
JH: What do you make of the current discussion about Intelligent Design? On the one hand it seems to offer a sensible approach to understanding the anomalies in the theory of evolution. But many scientists who believe in a Creator are suspicious of it.
AM: Intelligent Design is mounting an effective challenge to the idea that one can explain every aspect of the world using evolutionary theory. The atheistic implications of Darwinism need to be challenged. The Intelligent Design lobbyists are also right to point out that there are areas that contemporary evolutionary theory can’t explain. That is an important point to make because often you will find that evolutionists claim that the theory explains everything. But there are big gaps. Those are the strengths of the Intelligent Design idea.
I think my concern is that there are weaknesses as well. One is that some ID people point out gaps that we can’t explain, and argue that God helps us explain them. But if we had this conversation in ten years time, those gaps might not be there any more. It is the old ‘God of the Gaps’ problem. So my concern is that what is today unexplained eventually might become explained.
I suggest a better approach is to say that the fact we can explain things at all is very remarkable. My argument, like John Polkinghorne’s, is not the individual gaps that science has problems explaining at the moment—it is the big picture itself that needs explanation. Scientifically it is easier and more acceptable, and it avoids this difficulty with advancing knowledge.
This builds on a point that we find in many 20th-century writers, like Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein, to name two examples. The argument here is that the intelligibility of the universe itself requires explanation. It is not the gaps in our understanding of the world which point to God, but rather the very comprehensiveness of scientific understanding that needs an explanation. In brief, my argument is that explicability itself requires explanation. And Christianity gives us that explanation. It tells us about the "big picture." I’m a C. S. Lewis fan, and I think this quote is one of his best: "I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen—not just because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else." And the Christian worldview helps us see why the sciences work.
JH: Your personal journey is from aggressive atheism to a vigorous support of Christianity at an intellectual level. What caused you to change sides?
AM: I think it was a process of about two months. I was, as you say, a very aggressive atheist as a schoolboy. I believed the sciences had made belief in God impossible. I believed that atheism was the way of the future, and that religion was an evil relic of the past.
So nowadays, when I read books expounding atheism, I can say: "that was me, once." I can recognize the tone of voice very easily. There were several things that made me change my mind. I began to discover while still at school— although the implications didn’t crystallize until later—that the sciences cannot disprove God. Scientific knowledge is provisional. We think this now but as time goes on we might change our mind. But I didn’t see in my atheistic reading any recognition that scientists change their minds like this. I began to realize that maybe people might think atheism was right today. But what is further down the line? It was a nagging doubt—not yet a conversion.
Then I discovered two things when I went to Oxford University. One was that I had misjudged Christianity. It was far more intellectually resilient and more spiritually exciting than I had imagined. Christianity gave me a lens that let me see things. I found it to be true then, and have ever since.
The other thing was not just intellectual—it was personal. I noticed that my friends who were Christians had something about them that I did not have. It is extremely difficult to describe this. A sense of peace and purpose. An inner conviction. They discovered something that was not just true but was real. I have often reflected on how important that is.
I believe passionately that Christianity is intellectually true. Yet it also has the capacity to transform people’s lives. It’s a double-edged approach. Here is something I believe to be true, and I can argue its truth with anybody. But it also has the capacity to change someone’s life. In our postmodern culture, the criteria of truth seems not to be "is it right?" but "does it work?" I assure you that Christianity does work!
JH: Does the fact that you came to your Christian understanding from a position of a scientist and an atheist help you to think more profoundly about the truth of the gospel?
AM: I understand the atheist mind-set. I know the arguments that I used to use as an atheist. So I keep asking myself how I can develop approaches that are going to make sense to atheists and challenge their belief system.
That is natural for me because of my history and my experience. I think the difficulty is that if you have been a Christian all your life, you haven’t really developed an understanding of how the rest of the world thinks. We need to raise up a generation of apologists and evangelists who are able to enter into the mind-set of atheism and postmodernity, to be able to speak to it in terms it can understand, using arguments that are persuasive.
JH: It seems that the kind of person who makes a good pastor may not be effective in the role of evangelist or prophet.
AM: Pastors face challenges. They must be good pastors and preachers, and we can’t be good at everything. To engage with our culture demands a certain set of skills and tools that are not in the normal pastor’s toolbox.
My concern is that the churches do not seem to be encouraging Christians to think of themselves as public intellectuals. And we need people to engage with the issues that are being raised by others. If we don’t do this, the battlefield is left to the other side. Although there aren’t many of us doing this kind of thing, it is extremely important to be in there getting on with it.
JH: C.S. Lewis once described Christianity as being like "a big hall with many rooms leading off it." The job of the evangelist is to get people into the entrance hall. It is in the rooms that you find the warmth, companionship and food. Unfortunately some of the rooms aren’t very friendly. The church is often not the product that we would like it to be.
AM: You have put your finger on a major issue. The gospel is radiant and wonderful—but its embodiment in the church leaves lots to be desired. I often wonder about this. If evangelism leads people into the church, will they want to stay there?
So I keep finding myself going back to Jesus. How does he interact with individuals? He sits down with people in a way that would often have been scandalous in contemporary Jewish society—but he accepts and welcomes them. In Jesus, I see someone who is strongly challenging prejudices. That observation doesn’t always give the answers, but it certainly sets things in perspective! •
Alister McGrath is the Director of the Centre for Evangelism and Apologetics at Wycliffe Hall, and a Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University. He is the author of many books, including Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life and The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World.
Originally published in 2006 in Christian Odyssey