The Revd Professor Alister McGrath
Biophysicist and theologian
Interview by Nigel Bovey
Born and raised in the churchgoing Northern Ireland of the 1950s, Alister McGrath was educated at Belfast’s Methodist College. Today he is a prominent writer on Christian thought and an outspoken critic of atheist scientist Richard Dawkins. He is the director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University.
It is easy to imagine that his journey from Christian background to Christian spotlight was straightforward. Easy, but wrong. He describes his teenage years as a time he was a ‘Marxist atheist’, a label he wore when he went to Oxford to read chemistry. He emerged from his studies with a first-class honours degree in chemistry (which was followed by a doctorate in molecular biophysics) and a vibrant Christian faith.
He later gained a first in theology, studied for the Anglican priesthood, was ordained and subsequently became a (non-honorary) doctor of divinity at Oxford. Alister doesn’t believe that being a Christian means having to commit intellectual suicide.
Alister, how would you describe your journey from atheism to faith?
As a child I never had any interest in Christianity. I went through the motions of going to church with my parents but neither my heart nor my head was in it. It was while I was at the Methodist College, probably aged around 15 or 16, that I became an atheist – somebody who deliberately and intentionally does not believe in God and thinks that anyone who does believe in God is mentally deficient or seriously screwed up.
Growing up amid sectarian violence, I concluded that if there were no religion, there wouldn’t be any violence. At the time Marxism, with its offer of political transformation and its aim of doing away with religion, was very attractive to me. I was also studying natural sciences. To me, science had disproved God. So I was a Marxist atheist who enjoyed sciences.
I went to university as a convinced atheist, but then I started to have one or two questions, such as: ‘If atheism was right, then why were so many people religious believers?’ I told myself it was because they were fools. Part of me was very happy with that answer, but part of me knew that actually it wasn’t good enough. Then I discovered some very articulate Christians at the university. They showed me that atheism was not as robust as I had thought.
Gradually I began to realise that I’d misunderstood what Christianity was. I had thought that it was simply a kind of ritualistic, mechanistic thing, all about keeping rules. I had no idea that it was really about a personal relationship with Christ. Discovering that changed things in a very big way. I discovered not simply that Christianity was true, but also that it was real. It was not just something that made sense but also something that could transform someone’s life. I decided I wanted to become a Christian. I can’t point to a single defining moment, but when I went to Oxford in the October I was an atheist; when I went home for Christmas I was a Christian.
As a scientist-theologian, you span the intellectual divide between two disciplines which are often seen to be in conflict. Are science and religion, specifically Christianity, mutually excluding?
No, they’re not. In fact, many Christians who are scientists would say they find that these two disciplines reinforce each other. There’s a very strong religious motivation for scientific research. If you believe that God made the world, you can get additional insights into God by studying nature. Science can’t answer the big questions such as ‘Why are we here?’ or ‘What’s life all about?’ In many respects, science is raising these questions but not answering them. Therefore it’s essential for a theological narrative of things to run alongside the scientific account. Science and Christianity reinforce and complement each other.
So science is not necessarily atheistic?
Science is neutral. It does not presuppose or imply atheism. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for example, is not by definition atheistic. Some people just interpret it that way. A basic assumption in science is that we do not presume God. But science does not in principle exclude God. Science simply says we are not going to bring God into things as a matter of principle. Therefore someone can interpret the sciences in an atheistic way or a Christian way.
Richard Dawkins asserts very strongly that to buy into modern science is to say that there is no God. But that is simply not true – scientifically or philosophically. There are a large number of Christians who are scientists who spend most of their professional careers disproving him on this point.
You’ve had evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins under the microscope for a number of years. In 2004 you published Dawkins’ God, in which (in the style of gamekeeper-turned-poacher) you attacked Dawkins’s atheistic worldview. In 2007, The Dawkins Delusion? was your response to Dawkins’s bestselling The God Delusion. What makes you want to challenge your Oxford colleague?
Dawkins scores points by misrepresentation – by presenting arguments in their worst possible light and by choosing extreme Christians as though they are representative of mainstream Christianity. He works on the assumption that his readers know very little about Christianity. He argues, for example, that God is a child abuser who encourages infanticide. He asserts that if you believe in evolution, you cannot believe in God, because evolution is by definition atheistic. But that is a very inaccurate interpretation.
Dawkins also interprets a Christian’s ‘faith’ as ‘blind trust’. To him, ‘faith’ means ‘running away from evidence’. But that’s not a Christian definition of faith. Christians will say that faith is about believing in a God who not only exists but who may also be relied upon utterly, someone into whose hands I can entrust myself, knowing that he’s going to guard me and keep me. People like simple answers to hard questions. That’s why Dawkins is so popular. When I was an atheist, I sounded like Richard Dawkins. I focused only on the things that fitted my theory. One of the things that made me stop being an atheist was realising that things are rather more complicated.
Science, then, does not have all the answers. So what insights can Christianity give to seemingly insoluble questions, such as: Why does God allow suffering?
I don’t think we’re ever going to explain suffering completely. Christianity doesn’t offer us a neat theory of suffering. It speaks to us of a God who is present in suffering. In other words, when we suffer, we don’t suffer on our own. Psalm 23, for example, says that even in the valley of the shadow of death God is with me. How did God redeem the world? Through suffering – the suffering of Christ, his Son. It was a suffering that one day will bring about the complete elimination of suffering from the world.
There are no easy explanations but there is this reassurance of a God who has been through suffering and will be with us as we suffer. The fact that we find suffering so distressing is actually saying something very significant, as if there is something built within us that says: ‘This isn’t right.’ I believe this instinct comes from God. And it’s saying that things won’t be like this for ever, one day it will be changed. There is more to life than the physical world and God urges us to find it.
Based as it is on rational observation and explanation, what can science add to the idea of miracle?
It is commonly said that science disproves miracles. It doesn’t. Science says that there are certain things that by their nature are very improbable. So improbable, in fact, they shouldn’t happen at all. Science can’t say things can’t happen, merely that they are very improbable. For the Christian, miracles seem to have this tendency to happen around Jesus. For the Christian, therefore, modern science makes these events all the more remarkable and it forces us to ask the question: ‘What is so significant about this man who does all these things?’ Science does not disprove the resurrection of Jesus. It says that the resurrection cannot be explained by a natural process. The question is not so much ‘How did the resurrection happen?’ but ‘What does it mean?’
Physicist Sir Isaac Newton pictured God as a watchmaker, with the world running strictly to predetermined patterns. His cause-and-effect physics has been enhanced by chaos, quantum and relativity theories. How do you see God? A watchmaker, winding creation up and letting it go? A puppeteer, pulling the strings and putting words in people’s mouths?
I don’t believe we are simply puppets whom God manipulates. Nor is God someone who leaves us to our own devices. God is one who guides. He shows us the path to take but expects us to make the decision whether or not to take it. One of the most astonishing things about the Christian gospel is that even when we take a wrong path, God is still able to use us. God wants the best for us, and tries to guide us back on to the right track, but he doesn’t impose on us – he doesn’t deny us our responsibility.
One area of contemporary scientific thought is the quest to explain life in one formula – the theory of everything. Will that ever happen, or is it a scientific holy grail?
Stephen Hawking says it is unattainable. But I think it’s worth attaining because if you believe God made the world, it means that there is some intrinsic rationality to the world which reflects the wisdom and the justice of God. The theory of everything says there is one big thing that explains everything – one place where the buck stops. But that’s exactly what Christians have been saying about God: the buck stops with him. God can explain but does not need to be explained. The theory of everything – the method of making sense of the world, the theories that we know – could simply be an explication of the mind of God.
When it comes to Christian ideas about how the world started, there are a number of models. Could you explain them, please?
All Christians take the Bible very seriously and say that it is of the utmost importance to remain faithful to what it is saying. The key question is how to interpret the Bible. Are, for example, the first three chapters in Genesis literal history? Or are they something deeper than that?
There are four main positions within Christianity. Young Earth creationism says the Earth is about six thousand years old and was made pretty much in the form that we see now. This conclusion, they say, is a natural reading of the Book of Genesis. Another school of thought – old Earth creationism – while agreeing that God made the Earth and everything in it within a limited time frame, says that there are gaps within the Genesis account. For example, God creates the universe, then there’s a gap and then he creates something else. In other words, the universe is extremely old but God made the Earth and us at a much later stage. That, again, is a perfectly legitimate way of interpreting the Book of Genesis.
A more recent development is Intelligent Design. This is quite similar to old Earth creationism, but the talk is not so much about ‘God’ as about an ‘Intelligent Designer’. The basic argument is that we cannot explain the way the world is by purely naturalist explanations. We have to invoke an Intelligent Designer to explain what we find. This argues that a purely Darwinian account of the world cannot give a total picture.
The fourth approach is theistic evolution. This sees evolution as the way in which God providentially exercises his creative processes and brings the world into being. This approach finds a lot of favour among Christian biologists and links in well with some parts of the Book of Genesis, particularly those that talk about the Earth bringing forth things, which seems to imply there’s some kind of ongoing natural process.
Each of these ideas has its strengths and its weaknesses. But underlying each of these approaches is the very firm insistence that the world is God’s creation; it is his world not ours; it was deliberately brought into being – and so were we.
So it is possible for somebody to a Christian and to believe in evolution?
Yes, it is. Evolution is not, by definition, atheistic. Darwin saw his theory as reconcilable with the Bible. He struggled with his Christian faith towards the end of his life, but that was because his daughter had died very young, not because of his ideas on evolution.
Some Christians will be uncomfortable with the idea of believing in evolution, particularly because it raises the question of how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis. That’s a very big issue in its own right. All I can say is that, with complete integrity, there are many Christians who see evolution as illuminating the way in which we understand Genesis and as giving us an enhanced vision of how God brought the world and humankind into being. People can make evolution atheistic, but it doesn’t have to be.
Alister, why is it important to you that God created the universe?
Well, firstly, it is saying that neither the universe nor humankind is an accident. We are meant to be here. It affirms the idea of purpose. It also raises the question: Why are we here?
Secondly, a God-created universe tells us that the world itself is not divine. In the ancient world, people thought the sun, moon and stars were divine and had to be placated, otherwise there would be trouble. But the doctrine of creation says that if you know God and you’re right with him, then ultimately there’s nothing to fear. We don’t have to worry about occult forces.
Thirdly, creation is a beautiful reflection of the fact that the God who made everything we can see also made us and cares for us. In Christian thinking, however, the world as we see it is not the world that God made. It is a fallen world. The created order is showing suffering and pain. Christians believe that at the end of all things God will bring about a place where there is no more suffering, no more pain, no more death. In other words, Eden will be restored. This inspires Christians to bring about those conditions now.
That is why, over the years, so many Christians have worked towards the alleviation of suffering, illness and poverty. And why we still do. The Christian doctrine of creation says we’ve lost our way but it is redeemable. Which is, of course, why Christ came.
Do you believe that the creation account of Genesis 1 and 2 is literally true?
The idea that God created the world is literally true. That belief is not only in the opening chapters of Genesis but throughout the whole Bible. In the opening chapters of Genesis, we find a particular way of thinking about how creation took place. It is trying to set before us, in a way that is true but not necessarily true at the absolutely literal level, how God did this. We are asked to try to make sense of this, bearing in mind that there is not simply this passage on its own but a whole range of other passages that are trying to help us understand what it means to say that God created the Earth, and God created us.
Would you say that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and if so, what do you mean?
Yes, it is. By this I mean that the Bible has an origin and an authority which no other human text has. I also mean that, as I read the Bible, the same God who was responsible for this text will illuminate my mind as to its meaning and how to put into practice what it says. It is said that the Bible is like a wax nose – you can twist it to mean what you like. Talking about the inspiration and authority of the Bible doesn’t lead us to the conclusion that there’s only one way of interpreting it. That’s why it’s important for Christians to test what we conclude from our reading with other people and with the Christian creeds.
Did Adam and Eve exist?
I’ve no doubt that there was an Adam and an Eve in the sense of some primal figures. Throughout the Bible, Adam and Eve also are often used as representatives of the human race. The Bible includes a number of different literary forms – history, prophecy, allegory, poetry… Each needs to be identified and interpreted in an appropriate way. The difficulty is trying to decide which category a particular biblical passage belongs to. If, say, we were to take poetry as literal truth, when the poet writes about ‘mountains dancing for joy’, we might end up in some difficulty. It is important to appreciate each level of meaning, really to try to come away from reading the Bible with an enhanced sense of its richness, rather than simply saying every bit has to be interpreted in exactly the same way.
Can somebody be a Christian and believe that the universe came into existence through Big Bang?
Big Bang theory is a good approach for Christians to adopt. Early in the 20th century, the prevailing wisdom in the scientific community was the steady state theory. In other words, the universe has always been here and while it may fade away at the edges it is being replenished from the centre. Big Bang changed all that. Interestingly, many atheist scientists were strongly resistant to Big Bang not on scientific grounds but because they thought it sounded too religious.
The key point here is that Big Bang is a major scientific advance which seems to reinforce what Christians have always been saying – God created. For many Christians, this is simply a scientific version of the Christian doctrine of creation. Big Bang doesn’t explain everything but it raises some very big questions, including, put crudely: ‘Who pressed the button?’ There’s an easy Christian answer to that. It can be explained in very complicated ways but the basic idea is that God was there right from the beginning. Just as it says in the Book of Genesis!
Photo credit: Matthias Asgeirsson
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Is it possible to believe in God in the modern era of scientific discovery? In a series of in-depth interviews, scientists from fields as diverse as botany, immunology and physics talk about their scientific research and their faith in God.
All the interviews on these pages were conducted by Major Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The Salvation Army newspaper The War Cry © The Salvation Army. For further reprint permission, please contact The War Cry.
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