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EPISODE 76: A Scientist Searches for More - Dr. Alister McGrath’s Story
Former atheist Dr. Alister McGrath dismissed Christianity and embraced science as the only way to understand the world until he began to see problems with this limiting view. Once he opened the door to alternative views, he found the biblical worldview provided a more comprehensive and grounded view of the world and of himself.
Hello and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or skeptic but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of our stories on our website at www.sidebstories.com or through our YouTube channel. We welcome your comments on these stories on our Facebook page, and you can also email us directly at [email protected]. We do love hearing from you.
In the world of ideas, some people are experts in their field. They are scientists or historians, theologians or philosophers. They have a particular understanding of the world from their unique expertise, academic training, and personal perspectives. Sometimes, however, a concentration on one area of thought can skew the vision of the whole. The risk is that some become so specialized that all other sources of knowledge become subdued to their own unique slice of understanding of the world. With expertise in one area, it can become harder to see how that one piece of the puzzle relates to the bigger picture of reality. It can lead to a false confidence that their small area of knowledge explains the whole when perhaps it may not.
In our podcast today, you'll hear from former atheist Dr. Alister McGrath, who holds three PhDs from Oxford, one in science, one in theology, and another in intellectual history. He's also the author of more than fifty books. Although he dismissed belief in God due to his belief in science and the naturalistic worldview, he changed his mind. Now, he is one of the world's greatest proponents of the necessary integration of a wide range of knowledge in order to best understand and explain what we observe in the world and in ourselves. And because of his broad academic accomplishments and years of coursing through the strengths and weaknesses of diverse ideas, including atheism and naturalism, he has the unique ability to see the big picture, integrating sub-specialties into a whole and making sense of all of reality. Through his erudite mind, he contends that the Christian worldview is not only the best explanation for what we see and experience in the world, it also provides the best story for our lives. In his view, the Christian story best answers the big questions of who we are and why we're here. It best fulfills our deepest longings, as compared to other worldviews. I hope you'll come along today to hear his story of moving from atheism to Christianity.
Dr. McGrath is also going to introduce us to his new forthcoming book, Coming to Faith through Dawkins. Many of you might recognize the name Dawkins as referring to Richard Dawkins, a recognized biologist and one of the four horsemen of the New Atheist Movement. This book is filled with twelve stories of former skeptics and atheists who were once enthusiasts for the claims and the writings of the New Atheists, but they became disillusioned by the arguments and conclusions of Dawkins, causing them to look deeper and with more objectivity at religious faith and became Christians. They became convinced that the authentic Christian faith is in fact more intellectually convincing and robust than atheism. I'm looking so forward to today's podcast.
Welcome to Side B Stories, Dr. McGrath. It’s so great to have you.
Well, I'm delighted to be here. Thank you very much for having me as a guest on your program.
Terrific. As we’re getting started, Dr. McGrath, you come to the table with much gravitas, I must say. And I would love for our listeners to know exactly a bit about your academic background, your three PhDs at Oxford. You’re an author of over fifty books. There's so much to say, but I also know that you have a new book coming out, Coming to Faith through Dawkins. So could you introduce us a little bit to who you are, your academic background, and even your new book?
Yes. I’d be delighted to do that. I'm a person who began as an atheist and a scientist, and then I went to Oxford University and began to realize that things weren't quite as straightforward as I thought. I was an atheist when I was a teenager. I thought life was very, very simple, that science disproved God. I came to Oxford, discovered it wasn't really quite that simple, so I discovered Christianity, and that was wonderful. And then I moved on from there to begin to explore the relationship between science and Christianity, eventually studying theology, and then moving on to begin a detailed study of the Christian faith and also learning how to teach it. I think that was very, very important for me, because being able to teach faith is really important. It helps to understand what's really important and what really matters.
And, as you say, I’ve written lots of books, including textbooks, but the most recent book I've written is this very interesting account of how a lot of people in effect felt moved to read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, and then, when they began to read it, discovered it didn't make sense at all and actually that it seemed to be rather inadequate and instead discovered Christianity. So we'll talk about that later, but that was a very exciting project.
That’s really wonderful. So, let's get back into your story. You encapsulated it there, as an atheist who came to Christ, but let's start at the beginning of your story, because, as you know, we all embrace a story with our world, with our worldview, and I wonder of the worldview in which you were brought into the world. Talk to us about your childhood, where you were born, your family. Was God part of your family? Was Christianity or worship in any way a part of your world?
Well, I was born in Northern Ireland back in 1953, which is a long time ago. And my family were conventionally religious. I suppose that’s the best way of putting it. And I couldn't see what faith was all about. It made no sense to me at all. What I discovered as I was growing up was that I was really interested in the natural world around. In other words, I really knew I wanted to be a scientist. I think that was a thing that really drove me. And as a teenager, I think I bought into this idea that science and religion were at war with each other. And therefore, if I wanted to be a scientist, I had to say no to God, no to religion. And I did so without really having looked at that critically, so I did that and became very involved in atheism. I became interested in Marxism, which gave added intellectual resilience to my atheism.
And then I began to have some doubts about my atheism as I prepared for moving up to university. I think that it seemed to me initially that things were very, very simple, that atheism was just the obviously right position for a thinking person. And I then began to realize there are problems here. I mean, I believed there was no God, but I couldn't prove there was no God. It was a faith position. And that rather unsettled me. And so I began to realize that things were just not as simple as I had thought. So-
So I said, “Well, look, when I get to Oxford University, I’ll sort everything out,” but it didn't work out the way I expected it to.
Wow! Okay. There was a lot there. I'd love to slow walk through a lot of that. Let's go back to even when you were starting to question your Christian… you said the conventions of Christianity in which you were raised. You started to question that. You started to doubt that, as it sounds like a teenager or in your earlier years, when you started encountering science. Let's kind of camp out there for a minute. What was it about science that you understood at that time in your life that was incompatible or made you push back against your Christian upbringing, as it were?
I think the key thing was this: Science proves everything. Religion, Christianity, just asserts various things and isn't able to prove it. So I think I was intolerant of uncertainty. I wanted to be sure about things. And therefore I wanted to inhabit a world where I could know everything for certain. And so I think that led me to the conclusion that science would be able to answer all of my questions. And if it couldn't answer my questions, then they weren't real questions in the first place. So I think that was the really important thing. It wasn't so much that science disproved Christianity. It was that it offered a different quality of knowledge, much more secure, much more reliable. And that’s what I was looking for, something that was safe and secure.
Okay. So would you say that they were, in that sense, non-overlapping magisteria, in that Christianity and God and that world, they, like you said, made assertions, but they weren't seemingly grounded in as concrete a way as what you could find in the sciences. So it sounds as if you were moving toward more of a scientific view or lens of the world, but, with Christianity, was that something that you weren't dismissing? You were just saying that it perhaps didn't give as substantive answers as science, so you were turning your attention to something else. It wasn’t as if you immediately went into atheism. That form of knowledge was not as robust or confidence building as what you could find in science.
I think, to begin with, it was exactly as you've described, that in effect my initial feeling was, “I want something that is reliable, that I can trust, that can, in effect, give me secure answers.” And that was saying, “Well, Christianity is a different kind of thing.” But then I began to buy into this idea which I heard from many people, which was that Christianity and science were incompatible, that they were at war with each other. And that moved me in a slightly different direction. In other words, saying, “Well, look if I love science, I cannot be a religious person, because these are incompatible. They're at war with each other.” Now, you might reasonably say, “Well, where did you get that idea from?” Well, it was in the intellectual and cultural environment. I just bought into it rather uncritically, and in fact, I spent the rest of my life kind of undoing that. But I think it was very, very… That was a very widespread perception at the time, and certainly I bought into that. So in many ways what you could say is, I began, in effect, by saying, “I'm looking for secure knowledge, and I don’t think Christianity gives it, but that doesn’t make Christianity wrong. Science gives that to me.” And then, taking this one stage further and saying, in effect, “Because science is so good and because science and faith are incompatible, that means I have to choose. It’s one or the other. I choose science.” So I think that's really the kind of teenage logic that lay behind my decision.
So when you embraced science then as incompatible with religion or faith, then did you, at that time, label yourself or identify as a naturalist, a materialist, an atheist, even in your teenage years?
Yes. I did self identify as an atheist. I would say, “I’m an atheist.” And I would make it quite clear that I was saying not that I don't believe in God, but I believe there is no God. It was a much more positive, aggressive form of atheism. And I think also there’s a cultural element here, which is I found religion rather stuffy back in Ireland. And proclaiming myself as an atheist kind of gave a sort of frisson, a sort of edge to life. I felt I had a sense of superiority over other people because I was intellectually superior. Now I know that sounds very, very arrogant but that’s the way I was back then, when I was a teenager, and it seemed to me atheism put me on the right side of history. Back in the late 1960s, that was the way things seemed to be going, and I wanted to be part of a movement that had a future. So there are a whole series of things, science and culture coming together and moving me in that direction.
Culturally speaking, there was a lot of religious unrest in Ireland. Did that feed into your perspective of: “Religion perhaps may not be true, and it may not also be good.”
I think you're right. I think that one of the thoughts I had was this: In the late 1960s, religious violence did become a problem in Northern Ireland. My logic went like this: If there was no religion, there’d be no religious violence, so get rid of religion, all the world's problems are solved. So it was very simple. In fact, it was really very simplistic, but that's the way I thought at that time. So in many ways, I think I was kind of, in a way, buying into a number of reasons why I fought religion was wrong. Violence and inability to intellectually justify itself. And also this perception: Science and religion are incompatible.
So I felt I was moving to an intellectually coherent position which was a stable position. And that's one of the reasons why I think I did not expect to review my positions at all as we moved ahead.
So yes, it felt like a safe, secure perspective. As you say, I think it's often the case that those who are intellectually driven find that atheism or at least presume that atheism is a more intellectually superior position as well. And that I'm sure in some ways felt, as well as the way that you thought, that it was the right place to be for you.
I think that's right. I think that I felt, “This is the right place to be,” and more than that, that I'd sorted this question out, that I now know what I think, and I won’t need to revisit this question. So I thought that I’d closed down the discussion and could move on to other things.
So at that time, when you had decided that science was the direction you wanted to go, what did you think religion was, other than it may be potentially dangerous? But how did you perceive Christians, Christianity, during that time?
I had read some Sigmund Freud, and I knew about this idea of religion being a wish fulfillment. And that seemed to me to be a self-evident truth, that actually religious people were inadequate people who in effect needed something to give them stability and security, and there was no God, so they invented a God. And I thought, “Well, that's all right for them, but I don't need this.” Now the problem was that, deep inside me somewhere, I think something said to me, “Maybe atheism is your wish fulfillment,” in other words that actually maybe I was constructing a worldview that suited me, rather than one that was true. Now, that thought went through my mind several times, but I did not follow through on it, I think partly because I found it a little bit disturbing. I thought I sorted everything out. I didn't want to reopen the question.
Yes. And when you close the door on another worldview and think you leave the superstition behind, it's not something you want to reopen, in a sense. I can imagine there would be some resistance to that. As you were pursuing what seemed to be a very positive aspect of being grounded in the naturalistic worldview, did you… I mean you're obviously a very intellectually driven, logical, analytical person. Did you look at the logical implications of that worldview? You obviously were very well read. I'm sure you read Russell and Nietzsche and those people who actually understood that all that glitters is not gold, in a sense. There are some dark sides or despairing sides if you embrace fully the naturalistic worldview.
Well, I agree with you completely. What I realized was atheism was very bleak. It was very austere. There’s no real meaning in life. What you see is what you get. But actually I persuaded myself that, because it was bleak, I had accepted it because it was right. In other words, there was nothing to attract me to this position. I’d accepted it simply because it's intellectually right, and therefore, in effect, there was no benefit to me in doing this at all. I simply being moved by its truthfulness. Now, of course, one of the things that began to trouble me a little bit by 18 years old is, “Well, have I really been as critical about atheism as I was about my early viewpoint?” And of course the answer is no. That kind of why I had bought into this was because it seemed to me to be progressive, it seemed to me to be what the future was going to hold, and some rather clever people I knew held this position as well.
But I think I did have face up to the fact that if atheism was right then life was pointless. There was nothing to do, really, other than trying to make the world a better place and live a good life. But deep down I had this nagging feeling. “I don't think it's quite as simple as this,” but I didn't have a way forward. I felt, “This is where I'm going to stay, and therefore I've got to face up to the fact it's bleak, it's austere, but that's the way things are.”
So you had to, in a sense, live with this dissonance, whether it's cognitive dissonance or existential dissonance or something that you had a deep longing, perhaps, for something more, but that's just the way that it was. And you were sober minded, and you were intellectually honest, so you wanted to maintain this path that you had set yourself on, I guess. So how long did you live in this, in a sense, state of tension? Or did you ever start questioning naturalism itself?
I think I stayed in that position for about two years. And I think that there were a number of things that made me realize, “This position might not be right,” but that didn't immediately mean I was moving towards Christianity. It just meant, “Maybe this position isn't as safe as I thought it was.” And I got a place to study chemistry at Oxford University, got a scholarship to go there, and while I was waiting to go to Oxford, I began to read some books on the history and philosophy of science, and one of the things that troubled me was that I began to realize that many scientific theories that people had thought were secure or were right were subsequently abandoned because they were seen to be wrong. And so I began to realize, “What about what we presently believe? What will happen then? Will, in the future, somebody say, ‘Well, we used to think they were right, but they’re wrong actually.’” And I began to realize science was rather more uncertain than I had realized. I think that began to make me realize that perhaps things were not as simple as I had thought.
And also, alongside that, I began to realize that I could not prove that atheism was right. I think that's a very important point, because I had told myself this is right. But every now and then I'd say, “Well, how can I prove that to myself or to somebody else?” and the answer came back, “Well, actually you can't.” And I began to realize actually it was a form of faith. “I believe there is no God, but I can’t prove that,” and so it seemed to me I had simply chosen a different faith position, which made me realize, “Maybe there are other faiths I should be thinking about, but up to this point hadn't really considered at all.” But that was really as far as I got, because I thought, “Look, when I go to Oxford University, there’ll be lots of clever people there. They can help me sort myself out. And I'm sure they'll be able to resolve all these questions, and then I can be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” But that didn't work out like that.
I'm curious. There are a lot of clever people at Oxford. I wondered if there were any clever Christian people who were also scientists who were in your world who could give you an embodied example of someone who actually was intelligent yet embraced God and science at the same time.
Well, the answer is, once I got to Oxford, I discovered lots of people like that. One thing that I began to realize was actually there were lots of very intelligent scientists who were also Christians who could give very good reasons for saying there isn't a problem here. And I hadn’t really met people like this before. So the personal witness of these people was very significant and saying to me, “You may have got this wrong. You may have, in effect, not thought this thing through properly. You've got some rethinking to do.” So I think that was a very important moment for me as I began to realize that perhaps I’d been a little bit precipitate in my judgments, that perhaps there was more to be said about this. And I think that really began this process of rethinking and reconsideration, which eventually led me to embrace Christianity.
Before, Christianity was, in a sense, wishful thinking. That was the category you had for it in your mind. So I would imagine moving from that place intellectually to a place where you could actually believe it as something that represents reality in some way would have been a process. It sounds like you are, again, an intellectually honest enough person that you wouldn't believe it just because it sounded good. It had to be substantive or robust in some way in relating to reality. It had to be true.
That's quite right. And I think there are two things here: One was that these were intelligent people I was meeting. And it was obvious to me their faith was real. That in effect it was something that had captured them, that had animated them, that was giving them purpose and direction. So it made me realize there were some very intelligent people who clearly saw this as meaningful and were able to live this out. So again, you know, personal witness, embodied witness. “Here is someone who has internalized this and is living this out.” That was very important because I tend to think of religion as kind of thinking certain things, but it makes no difference to you. But these people were saying, “No, no. It changes my life. It gives me a reason to live,” and really living this out. So that side of things was very important.
But also, I think, beginning to express the questions that were bothering me and realizing that actually there were answers to these questions. Maybe not always ones that I could entirely accept, but really there were answers there. And I began to realize that I had kind of not really encountered Christianity in its most vigorous forms, that actually I had rejected, if you like, a misunderstanding or a caricature or a diluted version of the real thing.
So that's always been very important for me now. When someone says to me, “Alister, we don't think Christianity is up to much,” my primary question is going to be, “Well, have you understood what it really is? Let me tell you.” Because very often people misunderstand or perhaps misrepresent, but they don't really get what this is all about. And I think, for me, discovering what Christianity really is, about the head and the heart, I think it's very, very important, not simply for our own personal lives of faith, but also in trying to explain to people outside the realm of faith what Christianity is all about and the difference that it makes.
So I think you're very, very right about that, that oftentimes Christianity is caricatured and reductionistic in the way that people perceive it as almost a throwaway and a dismissal without really looking at the robust nature of it. Again, to kind of tease some of this out, when you started questioning naturalism. I mean, there are a lot of assertions and presumptions, I guess, that are made by those who are atheists or naturalists that in a sense science will provide the answers. What things about naturalism in and of itself were causing you to question it that also helped you open the door towards a better or more full explanation?
I think there are a number of things that did trouble me. One was that naturalism does raise a lot of questions. And you’ve mentioned several of them. Why is there something rather than nothing? What about the capacity of a human mind to make sense of things? I mean, you can say, from a naturalist perspective, that the way your mind works might be understandable. But that doesn't necessarily mean it finds its way to the right conclusion. So I found myself wondering if, in effect, naturalism was a kind of circular way of thinking, which in effect had to presuppose its own conclusions. And so I found myself worried by that. But I think also one of the things that really, I think, brought this home to me is that science is simply unable to answer many of the deepest questions of the human heart and the human mind. And you know, if these are valid questions, and they must be valid because we have raised them as thinking human beings, then perhaps the inability of naturalism to answer them, other than saying, “Well, you know, that's the way nature works,” suggests that naturalism isn't adequate, that more needs to be said.
So I think, for me, really I began to think we need more than the natural sciences, we need more than naturalism if we are going to make sense of our world. I think the problem I had was that I found there were different kinds of naturalism. The form I rejected very strongly was my core dogmatic naturalism, that there is only the natural world, and that is it. I could understand somebody saying that there is a natural world and that is our most secure form of understanding. But for me, even built into human nature is this deep desire to ask questions, the kind of thing that C.S. Lewis talks about in his argument for design. We have a sense that there's something beyond, there’s something really significant that we haven’t grasped yet. And all a naturalist can say is, “Well, that's just delusion.” But it's a very important delusion. And if we're thinking those thoughts, maybe we're meant to be thinking those thoughts, maybe they’re clues to the meaning of the universe.
So for me, naturalism was really inadequate. It seemed to, in effect, shut down questions before you really got into getting good answers. So I began to look for better answers than that.
You know, Lewis is so amazing, but even rationality itself, he elucidates that there's not even grounds for your own rational thoughts if you are coming from a naturalistic worldview. There are so many presumptions that are made that we are rational beings. And this is the most reasoned way to look at the world, naturalism, but yet they can't ground their own rationality itself. Or the predictability or rationality of the universe, the intelligibility of the universe. How do we even conduct science if there's no predictable, rational, intelligible universe, and where does that come from? How do we explain that? But yet there are a lot of things that are taken for granted within the naturalistic worldview that are not explainable apart from a transcendent source that informs reality itself. So those were the kind of things that were causing you to question, I presume.
Well certainly those questions were all going round in my mind. And I would add one more. And it's this: Science has to work on the basis of the uniformity of nature. But how do we know that's right? In effect, one of these assumptions we have to make, which we can't actually show to be right or prove to be right, we have to make that assumption. And it helped me to really understand that there were certain grounding assumptions we have to make that we can't prove to be true, but nevertheless we think are reliable. And I began thinking that that’s also true about God, actually. This is a grounding assumption, and it makes complete sense of everything. And if it makes so much sense, why not just say, “Look, it's right. Let’s step into that way of thinking and see where it takes us.”
So as you were observing this embodied Christianity that was… they were intelligent, and it was informing their life, and you were seeing something different. I presume that you were seeing the holistic nature of how things can all fit together, heart and mind, but also the fullness of the universe and how it explains all of reality. Can you… for those who are listening, I'm sure there are some thinking, “Well, how can Christianity explain all of reality? That's not what Christianity does.” But yet all of these big questions, whether they're in the universe or in our own humanity, it does seem, when you look at it fairly, that it does provide the best explanation for what we observe, both in the cosmos and universe and in our own humanity. I think you're probably one of the best people to understand the fullness of the whole story of Christianity and how it explains life and all that we know it in the best possible way.
Well, I think I draw a lot on G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, who I think are very good at making this point, that Christianity gives us a big picture. It's not just saying, “This is right. That’s right.” It’s saying, “Here’s a way of looking at things which makes sense of the world and makes sense of us.” And in many ways faith is about stepping into that big picture and experiencing and realizing how well it works out and how well it can be lived out. And to me that's very, very important. In fact, it says to us, “Look, things make sense. The world is coherent. You can live life out.” In fact, your individual story is given meaning and dignity and purpose by the bigger story of God Who created us and redeemed us. So it's very much about realizing that actually Christianity makes sense of our world and makes sense of you. And for me, that's one of the things that's so important. Christianity gives us a lens through which we can look at our world and ourselves, and it brings things into focus.
And for a lot of people, they are looking at the world through the wrong lens. Richard Dawkins says when you look at the world, you don't see any purpose or meaning, but he's using the wrong lens to look through. That's why I think it's helpful to think of Christianity as a lens that brings things into focus, that gives you this better quality of vision, that allows you to see things as they really are and figure out how you fit into this big picture.
Yeah. That’s beautifully said. So as you were back at Oxford, and you were wrestling with these questions, how did you start investigating Christianity or taking it seriously? How did you pursue that? Was it through reading? Was it through looking at the Bible? Was it through having conversations with other intelligent Christians? How did that look? How did you start to make those changes or transitions? How were you questing towards truth?
I think all of those things you just mentioned were part of the picture. I was talking to Christian friends. I was reading the Bible. I was going to talks. I was thinking about things. And I think that what really helped me was beginning to realize that, first of all, I had misunderstood what Christianity was, and secondly, beginning to find those questions I had about it were resolved.
For example, here’s one of them: One of the arguments I had against Christianity was, “Look, God’s in heaven, wherever that is. And I'm here on earth, in space and time. And I do not see how God being in heaven can be of any relevance to me here on earth.” And I think one of the things that my Christian friends explained to me is the idea of the incarnation, that God enters into this world in Christ, comes into our world to redeem us and to show us what He’s like and tell us what's right. And I began to realize, “If that is right, that makes sense of so much.” And also, it tells us about a God Who cares for us, Who loves us, Who comes to where we are, to bring us where He is. And that really made a very, very big difference to me.
So there are a whole series of things going on, but really important was this constant dialogue with my Christian friends, who helped answer my questions, who moved me along, and then I think I got to the point where I felt, “I now know enough. I know understand enough. I can step into this worldview and say, ‘I want to be part of that.’” So that was a very important step in my life, where I said, “I can now see this is where I belong,” I stepped into that world of faith, and I've been there ever since. And love it.
For someone who you said had a very positive sensibility that God did not exist, and then you were entertaining the idea that perhaps God did exist, were you convinced of that through understanding the cosmological argument? Or was it more questioning naturalism and its inadequacies? Or did you entertain positive arguments for the existence of God? Those kinds of things? Or did it just cohere and make sense when you're looking at the bigger picture and how the presence of God does provide the best explanation for even how we do science? Everything, it just fit together. It wasn't a particular, let’s say, argument to prove God's existence.
I think it was the big picture argument. In other words, if there is a God, and if this God is like what we read in the Bible, then that makes so much sense of things, including why science works so well and what its limits are. In other words, you come to realize that the fact that science works so well is grounded in the Christian doctrine of creation. But you also realize there are lots of questions science cannot answer, like, “Why am I here? What's the point of life?” As so I began to realize, if you like, whereas I had thought I had to choose either religion or science, and it's going to be science, that actually, if I chose God, then I didn't have to give up on science, because it actually made an awful lot of sense of science but helped me to recognize there were limits to naturalism and that those limits were, in effect, dealt with by the Christian faith. And therefore it seemed to me I now had a full, reliable, comprehensive way of making sense of myself in the world and also living meaningfully within it.
So it was a very wonderful feeling. It's like you're taking a set of spectacles. You look through two lenses. You see things stereoscopically, in depth. So for me science and faith gave me that depth of vision which I felt really helped me understand why God was so important to understanding this world.
Yes, yes. Again, I just love the cohesive, the whole-story understanding of reality and your life within it and even our understanding of everything in the world through that lens. Did you ever question the integrity or reliability of scripture as you started to read it? There's so much skepticism about the Bible, and I know you're very aware of that, and so that people dismiss it and say that it's not worthy of belief because of all manner of reasons. But did that skepticism inform your reading of the Bible? Or were you just coming into it, looking at it again more holistically, like this story… it informs reality in the best way, but in a sense, again drawing C.S. Lewis into this, it's not just a myth, it is the true myth. It is the one that's not only a good story that informs all of reality, it's historically grounded, it's reliable, it’s believable for good reason.
Well, I think it's more the kind of ideas you were talking about, the end of what you were saying, where I wasn't really reading the Bible skeptically. I was reading it in a sort of way of trying to grasp what it was all about. And inviting my Christian friends to tell me what they saw there because I was a novice to reading the Bible. I realized I needed help to get it right, to know what to look for. I think that that is very important. We need to read the Bible in company, so actually, we are able to see things that others have seen that otherwise we might miss. I think I was worried that if I read the Bible in a very untutored way, I might misread. But I did read the Gospel of Mark shortly after I decided to commit myself to Christianity and found that illuminating in so many ways, in terms of the emphasis on the need for repentance to see things properly and in terms also of the impact that Christ has on people.
Now, of course I had questions, like: What does this mean? What does that mean? And I would ask my friends lots of difficult questions, and they go a bit impatient with me and eventually said, “Why don't you start reading C.S. Lewis?” And so, when I took that advice and began to do that, actually that really helped. He was a wonderful tie to help me find my way and go much deeper into my new faith.
And obviously you've gone very deep into a faith that is far from new anymore. In your career, in a sense, you've gone on to write and debate and the foremost atheists in the world, I guess revealing the inadequacies of New Atheism and naturalism. the resistant would say, “Oh, there's no evidence. Science still is the winner here. There is no God,” but yet, like I say, you have debated and conversed with those from other worldviews, particularly atheism, for years. So I'm wondering how you consider that. Why is it that sometimes, for some, the evidence is convincing? They can see the fullness of the Christian world as a greater explanation for themselves in the world. But then there are others who remain in a resistant, closed-door perspective.
I think that's a very good question. And I think that one of the big issues here is that, for a lot of people, they do not want there to be a God. They want, in effect, to be the captains of their souls. They want to be in charge. They don't want anyone else to be able to tell them what is right, what is wrong. They want to make up their own minds on everything. And C.S. Lewis was like that. When he was an atheist, he said, “I don’t want God to interfere with me, and I want to be my own master.” But one of the things I’ve found is that, being someone who used to be an absolutely certain atheist, who began to realize things were more complicated, that kind of helps me begin to challenge this assumption of atheist superiority. And one of the things I’ve discovered in debating atheists is that very often they use criteria to assess Christianity that they do not apply to their own beliefs.
And so, very often, someone like Richard Dawkins will say to me, “Well, prove that you are right.” And my response would be, “Well, I'm happy to try and do that, but you're going to have to prove to me that you are right.” You can't just say that it's enough to argue that Christianity is wrong. You've got to persuade me you are right. And of course, that's a problem with New Atheism. This is what I call an epistemic asymmetry. They, in effect, do not apply the same standards to their own beliefs, that they apply to other people's. And when you press them and say, “Why do you believe that? How do you know that is right?” Well, in the end, they have to say, “Well, we don't know.” I mean a very interesting debate at Oxford about 2012, between Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, and Richard Dawkins, was all about this. And actually halfway through the debate, Dawkins said, “Well, I suppose I’m an agnostic, really, because I just can't prove that there's no God.” And that’s very, very revealing, because of course, his whole case is built on the rationality of atheism, but he cannot show it’s right.
I think that is very, very important. We do need to ask those hard questions. And the other thing I’ve found very, very often is that actually many atheist authors have a very inadequate grasp of what Christianity actually is. And very often you can disarm stereotypes and say, “Well, look, maybe that’s what somebody’s told you, but that's not right. Let me tell you what it really is like.” And so you take it from there. So I do need to reassure your listeners. There’s a lot we can say here, partly by saying, “Why are you right? Prove to me that you are right?” And also by saying, “Look, I don't think you quite get what Christianity is all about. Let me try and tell you why it makes so much sense to me.”
I think you're so right about that. It oftentimes seems that people are very intent on saying what they don't believe, Christianity or God, but they don't really know exactly what they do believe. And they put the burden of proof on the believer, right? And they don't recognize. They lack a belief in God, they say, so they don't bear the burden of proof, but there's an implicit understanding that they do believe something, and they believe that God doesn't exist, and there are implications for that and beliefs that come along with that. That only nature exists, right? So I appreciate your counsel there. If there was a skeptic who was listening in, Dr. McGrath, and he's thinking, “Wow! Dr. McGrath is really, really bright. He's debated the best and the brightest on the other side, but yet, here he is defending the substance of the Christian worldview.” And they may actually be willing to open the door to the possibility of God's existence and Christianity's truth. How would you encourage that skeptic to make a step forward towards exploring the possibility of belief?
If I were to say to that skeptic…. If you were an atheist, I would simply say to you, “Can you prove that is right?” Now, you won't be able to do it, and the best minds in the world are trying to do that. And very often, what many of my atheist friends will do is use rhetoric to justify their position. “Only a thinking person can be an atheist,” or, “Only a fool would believe in God.” In other words, they’re not arguing. They’re asserting. They’re making rhetorical judgments. I want you to just ask yourself, in the depths of your heart, “Can you show that you are right? Prove that you are right?” Because if you cannot, then you have a belief system. And what I want to say to you is that it's the nature of human beings that we have to believe certain things we can't prove to be true. And once you realize that your atheism is a belief, I want to invite you to ask whether there might be better beliefs. Beliefs that, yes, can’t be proved to be true but actually might give you better answers, might open up a better way of thinking, because many atheists I know will say, “I cannot be religious because it involves belief.” Your atheism already is a belief. My invitation is to try some other beliefs. I'm going to tell you that Christianity will give you lots to think about. And in my case, I can tell you, in effect, give you a transformed vision of yourself and the world. I just want to invite you to think about stepping inside Christianity and seeing what it's like and just asking what might it be like to live there.
Yeah. That's good. That's very, very good advice. Just giving it a chance, really, to see through a different pair of lens or glasses, I guess, to try that on. So, again, you have been such a wonderful example for us as Christians in coming forward and speaking truth and with boldness and clarity into a world and into a culture that does not always want to embrace it. And I wonder if, again, from your experience, how would you encourage us as Christians to best engage? I know you've spoken a little bit about good question asking and sharing the burden of proof with the other. And I also think of those embodied Christians at Oxford that really gave you a beautiful example of what being a brilliant scientist and a Christian could look like. But it required you being with them, right? And having conversations with them and seeing how that can actually work out its way in your heart and mind in real life. So how would you encourage us to Christians to engage with those who don't believe?
Well, I think I’m going to say two things: One is that there's a danger that we'll come across as being critical. In effect, we're saying, “We’re right. You’re wrong.” I think it's very helpful to use the language of exploring. In other words, “I'm going to share with you what my faith is all about, and I’m just going to tell you how I found the difference it makes to me. And, you know, at this stage I'm not saying it's right. I’m just saying let’s explore together. I'm going to tell you the difference it makes to me. And I'm going to invite you to think about, as I talk to you, whether you feel you can say the same about your naturalism or your atheism, whether it, in effect, gives you the same basis for living, reason for hoping that I'm describing to you now.” I think that's a very important point.
The second point I'm going to make is this: Very often people have kind of picked up from the wider culture a very distorted idea about what Christianity is all about. So I think what you may need to do is just say, “Let me tell you very simply what I think Christianity is all about, what it means to me and the difference it makes.” And you'll find your friends will listen to you. What you're doing is in effect giving a testimony. But the testimony you're giving is not simply, “I think this is right,” but, “I think this is real.” In other words, it makes a difference to me. It gives me a reason to hope. It gives me a reason to live. It helps me to position myself. One of the points I found in talking to many atheists is they feel, “Well, actually, I may be right, but it doesn't do any of these things for me.” And therefore, in effect, introducing these new set of questions. Is this real? Does it give me a reason to hope? Does it, in effect, give me a new sense of purpose and direction? These can be ways that may not in effect change somebody’s life, but they might be questions that open up recesses in their minds where a transition can take place.
So don't be discouraged if you get nowhere. Just feel you've planted some seeds, and in the Lord's good time, these will grow if they’re meant to.
Yes. Again, a very good word. I think sometimes we're so keen on trying to prove ourselves or to be right, like you say, but to your point, I think, especially in today's culture, where there's such a crisis of meaning and purpose and we're seeing that everywhere, it's not just trying to communicate that God exists, but that God matters. It matters, and it makes a difference. And it's based on something real and true. So thank you so much. That's just very, very wise counsel. Before we end, Dr. McGrath, is there anything you think I might have missed in your story that you wanted to say or anything else you wanted to add to the end of our conversation?
Well, I've very much enjoyed our conversation. I think I might just end by going back to this book, Coming to Faith through Dawkins, because it's a very interesting book because it's a story of twelve people who read The God Delusion and found it played a major role in bringing them to faith. Now I think that's very significant, because what happened was they realized, “This book isn't actually very good. The arguments don't stack up. That Christianity clearly isn't what they say it is.” And in effect, they went away from reading Dawkins saying, “We’ve got to look at this more closely. We're going to read Christian books. We’re going to talk to our Christian friends and see where this takes us.” These are stories of coming to faith through Dawkins. I think that's really interesting and really encouraging, because it means that each of us can tell our stories, and those may help other people come to faith.
I would encourage everyone to take a look at that. I presume that they can just get it online anywhere? Amazon or whatnot. So that's Coming to Faith through Dawkins, right? So thank you so much, Dr. McGrath. It has been rich and a wealth of knowledge and wisdom, I think, more than that. You come to the table, like I say, with so much gravitas, and we are so grateful to hear your wisdom and your wise counsel, and more than that, just to see a transformed life, that God has done something extraordinary in you and through you, and we're so grateful to you. So thank you so much again for coming on.
It’s been my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.
Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Dr. Alister McGrath’s story. You can find out more about his books, including Coming to Faith through Dawkins, in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you may contact me through our email, at [email protected]. Also, if you're a skeptic or atheist who would like to connect with a former guest with questions, please again contact us through email.
This podcast is produced through the C.S. Lewis Institute through the excellent work of our producer, Ashley Decker, and audio engineer Mark Rosera. You can also see these podcasts in video form through our YouTube channel, through the excellent work of our video editor, Kyle Polk. I hope you enjoyed it and that you'll follow, rate, review, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we'll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.