Professor Alister McGrath is best known for his robust defence of Christianity in the face of aggressive attacks from atheists, led by Richard Dawkins. But he’s tiring of that, he says, and turning his attention elsewhere
Professor Alister McGrath looks the part. Dressed in a dark woollen jacket and surrounded by volumes of science and theology, the word ‘bookish’ springs to mind. But the image of a dusty theologian who only speaks the language of academia vanishes when we start to chat. Open, sincere and friendly, his responses are the distilled wisdom of his life’s work put into words that mere mortals can understand.
Nor is he cocooned in an ivory tower. His office at King’s College London, Waterloo overlooks the hustle and bustle of the IMAX roundabout, and the buzz of undergraduates in the hallways is something he evidently relishes. Engaging with the questions of students ‘keeps him on his toes’. “You’re always being forced to reopen questions and ask, ‘Can I give better answers than those I gave five or ten years ago?’”
Most of his teaching career was based in Oxford, including several years as principal of theological training college Wycliffe Hall. On the controversy over his successor there, Richard Turnbull (several lecturers and senior staff resigned, publicly stating their dissatisfaction with Turnbull’s leadership style and theological emphasis) McGrath remains tight-lipped, preferring to focus conversation on his current position at King’s College in London. Appointed last year as the chair of theology, ministry and education, he is still doing what he loves – teaching students about God.
In recent years he has become most associated with the Christian response to the works of Professor Richard Dawkins and the ‘new atheists’ through writing books such as The Dawkins Delusion (SPCK). As a former atheist with a career background in biology, he is well suited to act as Dawkins’ opposite number. Whereas Dawkins’ scientific education served to confirm his atheism, McGrath became convinced of the truth of the Christian faith as a science undergraduate. Despite developing a significant career in molecular biology, McGrath chose to teach theology after he was ordained in the Church of England. Given his current role as a scientist-apologist for the Christian faith, his career path seems to have been timed with divine precision. At the same time I sense that he wants to move on to fresh challenges, “I don’t think the new atheism is very interesting. The movement is beginning to wane. It’s lost its novelty value.”
It seems a bold prediction, especially in a year of Darwin anniversaries that has provided opportunity for strident atheist voices to claim ever more loudly that science has displaced need for belief in God. For McGrath, however, his scientific journey has been one of discovering an orderliness and rationale to the universe that cries out for an ultimate explanation. God explains where we come from, but also gives meaning to our lives now. His favourite quote comes from the pen of CS Lewis. “‘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.” Defending, explaining and introducing others to this worldview continues to be his abiding passion.
You’ve had a career in science and theology. Many would say they are two completely different arenas to work in. How would you respond?
I must admit that I would have thought that once myself when I was studying science as a schoolboy. I was really quite an aggressive atheist. For me the idea that science had anything to say to religion other than, “You are dreadfully wrong” would just make no sense at all. Then I went up to Oxford to study the sciences. I began studying chemistry, then did a doctorate in the field of biology and became a Christian. Obviously establishing the link between my faith and the natural sciences was a very big issue for me. It was a very challenging and exciting journey of exploration for me to try and work out what the relationship between these two things was. My vision is to get us to a point where the public don’t look at science through dogmatic atheist spectacles, which you find in Dawkins and The Independent and The Guardian (and I have to say also the BBC), but rather to say, “Let’s try to look at this afresh.” For me, there’s a real synergy between science and faith and I find that very exciting.
You were an atheist, what was it that brought you to faith in Jesus?
After arriving at Oxford University as an 18-year-old I began to re-examine my atheism which I had held for some years very trenchantly. To my disquiet, I began to realise that the evidence for this was much weaker than I had thought. I also began to talk to Christian friends, read Christian books, attend some Christian lectures. The intellectual case for faith was much stronger than I had realised. I don’t think I had fully understood the Christianity that I had rejected as a younger man. What drew me to faith initially was this very deep sense that it made much more sense of the world and my experience than anything else. Certainly much more sense than atheism. Faith makes sense in itself but it makes sense of everything else as well. That really drew me to faith in a very big way. I’ve moved on since then, my faith is much deeper now, but that was what drew me in.
You are married to a theologian as well [Joanna Collicut-McGrath]. Is the McGrath household a hotbed of theological debate?
My wife and I often talk about theology and I think we talk about it in two major contexts. Because we’re both writing books we often swap notes, but also, of course, we’re both ordained ministers in the Church of England and therefore we both preach every Sunday and so we very often compare notes on sermons. It’s a very stimulating environment.
Were you ever tempted towards full-time pastoral ministry?
Oh yes, in fact that was my initial intention. I actually began to study theology because I knew it would be useful for going into ministry. I did not expect to discover that theology was so exciting – that took me by surprise. I thought it was like learning the basics of car mechanics, a tool which you had to acquire. I didn’t realise it would be so fulfilling intellectually and therefore I began to see that my true vocation might lie partly in being a teacher. Although my full-time job is as a professor at King’s College, on Sundays I help out in parishes and preach so I’m able to actually have both worlds which is very exciting.
I imagine some people might think of theology professors as disconnected from real life – tinkering with the mechanics but not driving the car very much. Is there a danger of that for you?
I’m always aware that as a theologian I’m thinking about things that a lot of people couldn’t care less about and that is a real danger. On the other hand one of my jobs at King’s College is to help clergy deepen their own understanding of their faith, make more sense of their ministry and do their job better. My natural tendency these days is to ask, “What is the practical value of the area I’m exploring? How would I preach this? How would this enable me or my many friends to become better pastors?”
In your 2004 book The Twilight of Atheism you claimed that atheism is in decline and yet we seem to be seeing more militant atheism than ever now, don’t we?
That’s right. In The Twilight of Atheism I made the point that atheism has kind of, in a way, run out of ideas. Therefore I made the point right at the end of the book that what happens to atheism is not going to be shaped by ideas but by cultural developments. The driving force for many atheists that I speak to is the presidency of George W Bush which to them represented the rise of a very religious world view in American politics and beyond, which they see as a threat, and I see the stridency of much atheism is a response to this. I’m wondering what’s going to happen now that George Bush has been replaced with Barack Obama. He affirms his faith in a very, very strong way and certainly many atheists have been deeply distressed by that. I think it’s very, very interesting.
My own feeling is this: Actually the new atheism is not really very new, it’s the old arguments recycled, what is new is the aggressiveness. Subsequently it’s attracting a level of scrutiny and examination which it did not attract in the past and the judgment of many is that atheism is dogmatic, it’s aggressive, it’s simplistic and actually it’s not the sort of thing we want.
You coined the term “atheist fundamentalism” – so is the new atheism like a new religion?
I think that’s right. Some atheists say, “Of course we can’t be fundamentalists because we don’t read religious texts,” but that is to miss the point of what fundamentalism is. Fundamentalism is a very dogmatic mindset which in effect divides the world into two: the saved and the damned. I think that here is a religion in its own right – it has its own popes, its own sacred texts, you’re not allowed to challenge those. I was at a very interesting discussion the other day and I said, “Of course Dawkins does make quite a few mistakes in The God Delusion.” A student immediately said, “No, no, that’s wrong. It’s an infallible text. It’s right. You can’t say he’s wrong.” And I said, “Why not? He is.” He said, “If you do, my life will fall to pieces because I’ve built my life on that book.” I’d love to know how many people are in that kind of situation.
Richard Dawkins and his followers describe you and others who write in response to The God Delusion as “fleas” – minor irritations, feeding off his success.
I think if you initiate a debate you’ve got to expect other people to want to join in, especially if you initiate a debate by flagrantly misrepresenting the other side and making arguments that frankly are indefensible. Certainly Dawkins does appear to have been really quite annoyed by this and treats me as some kind of person who’s trying to gain some kudos by engaging with the ‘great and mighty’ figure that he is and thus, in effect drawing attention to myself by doing so. All I am doing is putting my hand up and saying, “If you don’t mind, can I just ask some awkward questions?” I am, in a sort of way, a whistle blower.
There are now so many whistle blowers, particularly people such as the literary critic Terry Eagleton, who are simply making the point that Richard Dawkins (and his fellow traveller Christopher Hitchens) have produced works of such gross intellectual superficiality that they really do need to be challenged. I am very, very glad to have handed the battle on to other people.
What would it take to make someone like Dawkins change his mind? A road to Damascus experience?
I don’t know. Let me make it clear, I’m very critical of Richard Dawkins’ ideas but I wouldn’t want to criticise him as a person. Why not? Partly because I think the Christian way of valuing things is seeing everyone as bearing God’s image, therefore I would not dream of being disparaging or rude about anyone else. They matter to God. Also, I read the New Testament and I often wonder, what were the first Christians praying to God about Saul of Tarsus? “Dear God, please take this irritating person away from us.” But actually God on the whole does some rather surprising and interesting things. So, I’m very happy to wait and see what happens. My personal view is that Richard Dawkins is so painted into his corner, so trapped, that actually he wouldn’t be able to set himself free.
Have you ever had periods of doubt in your own faith? Have you ever wondered if you were deluded after all?
Well, certainly in my early time as a Christian I would often wonder, “Have I made a big mistake here?” I’m a veryintellectually honest person. I often challenge myself, saying,
“Why do you believe this?” If I couldn’t give a good answer I’d be worried. I think actually that’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up being a Christian apologist – because I had to be an apologist to myself before I could be an apologist to anybody else. For me, it’s not so much the ideas of Christianity that cause problems, it’s the way Christians behave. That’s what people notice. I think that the Christian Church has perhaps not been the best ambassador for the Christian gospel that it could be.
So it’s behaviour rather than beliefs that have given you most reason to doubt?
That is right. Maybe I’m not typical in this respect but the question that often goes through my mind is “if God is so good, why are his followers so awful?” I am sure I’m just as bad as anyone else but I do sometimes wonder why it is that some Christians who take upon themselves leadership positions often don’t seem to have the personal qualities that I would expect. I would expect a leader to be Christ-like. Sometimes I see leaders as really not exhibiting that quality at all. Of course, God is able to take even weak and foolish people and do great and wonderful things in them and through them. I just sometimes wonder why he doesn’t hurry up and regenerate people more quickly!
Your latest book is on the history of ‘heresy’. For some people the word will conjure up medieval images of people being burned at the stake. Do we need to rehabilitate the word?
I think we do. The real problem is that in the middle ages heresy changed its meaning, it became a religious teaching that either the Church or the state found challenging and of course the easiest way of dealing with challengers is you lock them up or you burn them at the stake. You want to discourage other people from having these ideas. In this book called Heresy what I try to do is to ask, “What is this idea? Where does it come from? Why has it become so sprinkled with stardust recently via Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code?”
What I argue in the book is this: the early Church set out to say, “Let us give the best account possible of who Jesus Christ is and what God is like,” and that meant exploring intellectual options and sometimes these turned out to be destructive in the long-term. In many ways heresy is an approach to Christian faith which is destructive. It looks ok at the time but actually, in the longer term, it’s simply inadequate as a basis for faith. So, in many ways the quest for orthodoxy is the quest for authentic, reliable, trustworthy ways of expressing the Christian faith. The Church had to explore all the options and to some of those they had to say, “Look, sorry, there’s a kind of no entry sign here: Heresy.” But others of them really worked well, that’s orthodoxy.
You’ve been a major player in evangelical theology. What are the key challenges facing evangelicalism today?
I believe passionately that evangelicalism can meet the challenges of today, the question is whether it has the leadership to actually do that in the years that lie ahead. Crucially, I think that we lack role models. I look at people like John Stott, Jim Packer, Michael Green, people who are now in their 80s and I thank God for their leadership and their vision but I wonder if God is missing out on a generation because I don’t see people of that calibre coming behind them.
I very much hope that a new generation of leaders will emerge because I don’t think that my generation has done its job very well. I’m very hopeful that a new generation will arise that is willing to face the challenges rather than simply looking back to safer places.
What’s the best thing about your job?
There are so many good things about my job, but the thing I love most is when I’m trying to explain a point which is perhaps difficult but also important, and then to see a student grasp it. Suddenly they say, “Ah, that makes sense. I can do something with this.” That’s when I feel I’ve actually been helpful to that person. The really exciting part of my job is seeing people beginning to realise what this is all about and wanting to go and do something about it.
Alister McGrath was born in 1953 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He studied and researched molecular chemistry at Oxford University from 1971. During this time he converted from atheism to Christianity. Ordained in the Anglican Church in 1980, McGrath went on to teach theology and apologetics as tutor and then principal of Wycliffe Hall. In 2008 he became chair of theology, ministry and education in the Department of Education and Professional Studies at King’s College London. He is married to Joanna Collicut-McGrath. A prolific author, his latest work is Heresy: a history of defending the truth (SPCK) – read the review here.
NEW! - Listen to Justin Brierley's full interview with Alistair McGrath here!