The experiment of faith

Steve Tomkins interviews Alister McGrath in this month’s issue of Reform magazine.

After gaining a degree in chemistry at Oxford, Alister McGrath stayed on for three years to complete a doctorate in molecular biophysics – in which time he also got a first class honours degree in theology in his spare time. He has since written more than 50 books in the space of 30 years.

In case that brain-the-size-of-a-planet sounds daunting, it’s fortunate, for readers and interviewers alike, that he has spent his career trying to engage lay people in the issues of faith and science. Talking with him is surprisingly like talking to an ordinary human being, and the same goes for reading him. (Though he does use the word ‘ontology’ in this interview, meaning – should you want a reminder – what something is in itself as opposed to what it does or how it’s used.)

Alister McGrath’s latest book is Inventing the Universe: Why we can’t stop talking about science, faith and God. The fruit of decades listening to the conversation between science and faith, it is a book to do away forever with the idea that they are enemies.

What were the roots of your teenage atheism?

The most important was science. It seemed to me obvious that science had gobbled up the space once occupied by God. I knew I was going to study science at university, so that was really important. Another thing was that I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, when things were getting problematic, and it seemed to me: no religion, no violence. The third thing was that I got quite interested in Marxism – a lot of people did. Marxism said: ‘There’s a bright new dawn coming and there’s no religion there.’ I bought into that.

Was it in tune with the way you were brought up?

Not really. My parents were Christians. It was just me wanting to rebel against something, and my science legitimated this rebellion.

Your Christian conversion was unusually cerebral.

Exactly right! Very dry, very intellectual. It was: ‘Hey, this explains something!’ There was no sense of religion having an imaginative or emotional aspect at all. I didn’t know that. I didn’t think of myself as embracing a religious position – I started believing in God because that made more sense.

Is your faith cerebral now?

I still think Christianity makes more sense than atheism, but I’m aware it’s about other things too: meaning, value, giving an imaginative vision of reality. It is about giving you stability – it means I’m grounded in something deeper than me. It enables me to live a meaningful and safe life. But that was a journey of discovery.

You studied chemistry at Oxford. Did your new faith connect with the science?

It began to. I discovered God and I was still doing science, so I began to realise: ‘I have to find a way of connecting these, I can’t just treat them as different compartments of my life.’ I tried to find ways of getting them to talk to each other and enrich each other. Inventing the Universe is about those ways.

In the three years you spent on your molecular biophysics doctorate you also gained a first in theology. That’s quite a plateful.

I wouldn’t recommend it! I won a scholarship to an Oxford college and the small print allowed me to go on to a higher degree or a second first degree, and I asked if I could do both, at the same time. They baulked at it, but then thought: Actually, this could be fun. It was quite demanding in terms of time, but great fun.

You’ve spent much of your career on reconciling religion and science – your early CV reads like something of a tussle between the two.

A nice way of putting it. My initial thought was: ‘My career’s going very well, I’ll be a scientist who’s also a Christian.’ But I was so interested in these questions, they took up a lot of my time. Some of the stuff I was reading on science and faith was a bit flaky. I wanted to be well grounded enough in both to write about them and it wasn’t till 1995 that I felt ready.

Historically, scientists have often been Christians. Where do you think the idea comes from of a conflict between science and religion?

Historically, that way of thinking dates from the late 19th century, and one of the major stimuli was that science wanted to assert its intellectual independence. In England in the early 1800s, all the leading scientists were clergy, and that was seen by later scientists as an embarrassment: ‘We need to be free of any institutional entanglement.’

Science and religion have always had their tensions, but there have also been massive synergies. They can talk, and say very helpful things to each other. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have written out that bit of script; I’m trying to write it back in.

A lot of people find an intuitive appeal in the idea that our world is now scientific, not religious.

I hesitate to say this, but I think it might be a form of intellectual laziness: ‘I don’t like religion, I have a cultural bias against it but I can’t say that, so I need an intellectual reason. I know – the science-religion conflict.’

Isn’t there a sense in which the scientific method is atheist? To analyse any phenomenon scientifically you start off by rejecting the possibility that it was caused by divine intervention.

That’s a very good question. Science works by a method that I would describe as ‘methodological naturalism’; science is focusing on nature, nature alone, and that is our method.

But there’s a difference between a method and an ontology. The method that science uses is very reliable, but it’s very limited. The big question is: is reality limited to what science can uncover? Science is great precisely because it is so limited and rigorous, but that means there are big questions it can’t answer: Why are we here? What is good? Those questions matter to human beings, and because scientists are human beings they love their science but they also ask questions which go beyond the limits of the scientific method.

Sure, so science cannot tell us whether Keats is better than Bob Dylan.

Or when the First World War started.

But why not about God? Does God not intervene under laboratory conditions?

Here’s what Thomas Aquinas says, and I think he’s right: God constructs the world; it is reliable, it has order, structure, beauty. Our privilege as human beings is that we can grasp this, we can represent it mathematically and don’t need to invoke God to explain how your digital tape recorder works, or how this cup of coffee got here. God sets up the framework and we know God through the framework, but we can also look at it in its own terms. Science can only look at the framework, it can’t connect us to something beyond – or close down those questions.

That sounds like a rather deistic idea of God.

That’s the risk. What I try to do in this book is say that a view of God who simply winds up the universe is inadequate. But the readers I envision for this book are not going to be interested in a detailed discussion of the doctrine, so I have to say in effect: Trust me on this. But you’re right that a deist vision of God is terribly dull.

Has the debate between atheism and faith changed over the last 20 years?

It’s changed over the last 10 years. Richard Dawkins and his friends have turned what was once quite a civilised discussion into an all-in wrestling match. I’m pleased to see there has been a widespread reaction against that in contemporary atheism.

You co-wrote a book called The Dawkins Delusion? Do you enjoy the personal confrontation?

I don’t, but I like intellectual confrontation. I find it a great way of checking whether you think you’re right yourself, and it opens up possibilities that you need to keep thinking about. But a lot of people who argue with Dawkins say they have found it bruising. A lot of atheists are realising it was a mistake to ‘play the man and not the ball’.

Is it awkward meeting someone after publishing a book with a title like that?

I meet him so infrequently the problem hasn’t arisen. I’d like to meet him again, because I’ve read his autobiography and have questions I’d like to ask him. He does ask some very good questions, but spoils it with this utterly simplistic response to religion.

Richard Dawkins recorded an interview with you for his programme The Root of All Evil, that wasn’t used in the end.

The programme portrays religious people as aggressive, nasty idiots, and I didn’t fit that description. I would have been ‘off–message’, as they say.

I remember seeing the outtake and thinking he seemed a lot less comfortable talking to you than other religious people in the programme.

He was very ill at ease – because I began probing him. He saw himself as the one who was asking the questions, who was right. He’s so locked into a dogmatic mindset that showing up the chinks in his armour is threatening.

What causes you doubts?

Every worldview has something that makes you think: ‘This isn’t quite straightforward.’ If I was still an atheist it would be: why do so many intelligent people believe in God? For Christianity it’s suffering. That makes me doubt, in the sense that it says to me: ‘You haven’t really got an answer to that question.’ So what you’re saying is, you’re taking that one on trust.

I can give answers: I can point out that Christianity focuses on a symbol of suffering, where this God who we blame for suffering chose to redeem us by suffering. Plus the very fact that I have a problem of suffering suggests that I have an instinct that says: ‘This is not the way things are meant to be.’ Where’s that coming from? Then there’s the idea of heaven being a place where suffering is no more. But in the end I have to say this is something that I do not have a robust intellectual answer to.

But I was taken with your analogy in the book between the theological anomaly of suffering and the anomalies in scientific theories.

Those anomalies are there. When you talk to a scientist with a new theory they’ll say: ‘There is this problem, mind you…’ As someone who used to be a scientist, I’m very aware that that’s part of the human condition.

You’ve often written about natural theology. Does the world of nature reflect the nature of God?

Well, these flowers around us are very nice. But picture an elk rotting because it died of starvation – nature’s ambiguous. It doesn’t matter what your worldview is, if there’s joy and suffering, how do you foreground one and not the other? The Christian way of looking at things does help us a bit: the paradise tradition speaks of a good thing that’s gone wrong and the heaven tradition speaks of the restoration of what’s gone wrong. So by looking at nature we’re not seeing nature as God wanted it to be, so we can’t argue from nature as we see it to the way God is.

However, I have met people who looked at the night sky and it has triggered off a line of thought that there has to be something very special behind that. It hasn’t converted them, but it’s opened up lines of thought.

There must also be people whose experience of the natural world has destroyed their faith.

Quite. I seriously considered being a doctor for a while because it seemed to me if you look at the ministry of Christ, the language of salvation, it is about healing and making damaged people whole. That’s true at the level of salvation but also at the more practical level – there are things wrong with this world and we’re trying to put them right. As CS Lewis said, the hope of heaven doesn’t disengage us from this world, it animates us to make this world more like what we believe heaven to be.

Does a scientist have an appreciation of God that other believers don’t?

In some cases, yes. You look at the world and it’s so big, you’re so small; a scientist will say: ‘Let me tell you just how big this universe is.’ A scientist is aware of how ordered the natural world is, the beautiful fundamental patterns we see in mathematics. A scientist is aware of all kinds of things that give an enrichment of what an ordinary Christian might think.

But I talk to scientists a lot and those who don’t believe will very often say: ‘We’re aware there are some very big questions we can’t answer.’ They’re thinking about them, but as scientists they are very cautious about committing to things they can’t prove. I say to them: ‘In some of the really big questions in life, we can’t prove our answers, but we can give good reasons for thinking we’re right.’

This interview was first published in Reform magazine and is used by permission.