Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. A biophysicist and theologian, he writes regularly on issues such as Christian thought and the ‘new atheism’ and has been a strong critic of the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins. He passionately believes science and Christianity complement rather than conflict with each other.
Alister McGrath was raised in a church-going family in Northern Ireland in the 1950s but had no personal faith. He became an atheist in his mid-teens and was drawn towards Marxism. But encounters with what he calls ‘articulate Christians’ at university began to weaken his stance: ‘I began to realise that I’d misunderstood what Christianity was,’ he says. ‘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.’ There was no single defining moment of finding faith, but having arrived at Oxford in October as an atheist, he went home for Christmas as a Christian. Later, after gaining a degree in Chemistry and a doctorate in molecular biophysics, he studied theology and became an ordained Anglican minister.
‘I began to realise that I’d misunderstood what Christianity was,’ he says. ‘I had no idea that it was really about a personal relationship with Christ.'
Science, religion and countering Richard Dawkins
For McGrath, science and Christianity are not mutually exclusive – they reinforce and complement each other. ‘There’s a very strong religious motivation for scientific research,’ he explains. ‘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?” Science is neutral. It does not presuppose or imply atheism. Darwin’s theory of evolution is not by definition atheistic. Some people just interpret it that way. Science does not in principle exclude God. Science simply says we are not going to bring God into things.’
McGrath has publicly criticised the atheist scientist, Richard Dawkins. His book, ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ challenged Dawkins’ bestseller, ‘The God Delusion’. ‘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,’ insists McGrath. ‘He works on the assumption that his readers know very little about Christianity. 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’ (which ignores) evidence. But that’s not a Christian definition of faith. Faith is about believing in a God who not only exists but who may also be relied upon utterly.’
Suffering, miracles and the Theory of Everything
McGrath does not believe humanity will ever fully explain suffering. He says Christianity offers no neat theory or easy answers. Instead, it teaches that God is with those who suffer. He notes that the Bible book, Psalms, says ‘even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…. You are with me…’ And God enabled his relationship with humanity to be put right through the suffering of his son Jesus Christ as he was crucified. Alister says humanity has an instinctive sense that suffering is not right or how things are meant to be. But one day it will be changed. ‘There is more to life than the physical world and God urges us to find it,’ he says.
And McGrath rejects the notion that science disproves miracles. ‘Science says that there are certain things that are very improbable, so improbable they shouldn’t happen at all. (But) science can’t say things can’t happen,’ he says. ‘Science does not disprove the resurrection of Jesus. It says that the resurrection cannot be explained by a natural process.’ Christians believe Jesus performed extraordinary miracles and modern science makes these events all the more remarkable. For McGrath this should provoke people to think about what was so significant about Jesus that he could do such feats.
‘Science does not disprove the resurrection of Jesus. It says that the resurrection cannot be explained by a natural process.’
The scientific ‘holy grail’ is the idea of ‘The Theory of Everything’ – a formula which explains life. Alister McGrath believes scientists are right to pursue it.
‘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,’ he says. ‘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. 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.’
Creation, evolution and the Big Bang
For Alister McGrath it is possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution. He says evolution is not atheistic and Charles Darwin himself thought his theory could be reconciled with the Bible. The key is how to interpret the early chapters of the first Bible book, Genesis. McGrath says there are four main positions in Christianity on how the universe was formed, ranging from a literal reading of Genesis to ‘theistic evolution’ – where God providentially exercises his creative processes and brings the world into being, an idea which is popular among Christian biologists. Whatever happened, the important point is that God made the universe. ‘Neither the universe nor humankind is an accident,’ says McGrath. ‘We are meant to be here. It affirms the idea of purpose. It also raises the question: Why are we here? (And) a God-created universe tells us that the world itself is not divine… the doctrine of creation says that if you know God and you’re right with him, then ultimately there’s nothing to fear.’
He believes the Big Bang Theory of creation is a ‘good approach’ for Christians to adopt. ‘It 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.’