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Alister McGrath - Is faith a leap in the dark?

Is faith a leap in the dark? What about atheism? Can either be proved? Theologian, Alister McGrath, answers your questions.

Read time: 6 minutes, 45 seconds

One of the questions that many people ask about Christianity concerns faith. Why commit yourself to a way of thinking and living that can’t be proved to be true? It’s a perfectly fair question. The atheist scientist Richard Dawkins argues that we should limit ourselves to what can be proved to be true, preferably by the natural sciences. That was certainly my view as a teenage atheist scientist, back in the late 1960s. I wanted to base my life on a set of certainties – things that could be proved to be right. It all seemed so simple. Since Christians could not prove the existence of God, their beliefs were intellectual nonsense. Atheism was the only option for an intelligent person. As I saw things back then, atheism was about proved facts, not misguided beliefs.

I don’t think like this anymore, however. For a start, the world turned out to be rather more complicated than I realised. And I had not understood what Christians meant by that word “faith”. I’ll explore each of these points in this article.

I wanted to base my life on a set of certainties – things that could be proved to be right.

One of my favourite books is Room with a View, by E. M. Forster, written back in 1908. Many know this through the wonderful Merchant Ivory film version. Forster disliked Creeds of any kind, whether political or religious. But the rise of political extremism in the 1930s, such as Nazism, made him change his mind. The best response to a bad Creed is not no Creed, but a good Creed. We need these if we are going to hold on to what really matters in life – such as human rights, freedom, and dignity.

Let’s begin with a mental experiment. Suppose you limit your beliefs to what can be proved to be true – things that you can know with certainty. What sort of world would that look like? It would clearly include logical or mathematical truths, like “2 + 2 =4” or “the whole is greater than the part.” Yet these closed worlds of certainties are existentially hollow and deeply unsatisfying. They do not, and could not, include any beliefs about the meaning of life, or what it means to be good. It could not include belief that there is a God, or that there is no God. Why not? Because none of these can be proved to be right.

An atheist who declares there is no God, or a Christian who believes there is a God are thus curiously in the same situation. The British novelist Francis Spufford put this point neatly in his book Unapologetic. Nobody knows whether there is a God. Dawkins presents his personal belief on this question as if it was a scientific fact, and takes the view that anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded. But it’s just not that simple.

Here’s my point. Only shallow truths can be proved. We live in a complicated world, in which we have to live with uncertainties about just about everything that really matters. This does not mean that we invent our ideas about the nature of good, or the meaning of life. It simply means that we have to live with the fact that we can never prove our most important beliefs in life are right, even though we believe they rest on reliable arguments. While Dawkins and I share very different views of God and the meaning of life, we have one important thing in common. Neither of us can prove our views are right, and we both believe that they rest on reliable foundations.

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Christianity Alister McGrath - Is faith a leap in the dark?

Yet the idea that atheism is the only option for a thinking person is now seen as intellectual theatrics, a form of bullying rhetoric that seeks to browbeat others into submission. One of the most interesting and intelligent atheist writers in recent years is the British philosopher John Gray, whose book Seven Types of Atheism highlights the difficulties with this “secular faith”. Gray suggests that an atheist is best understood as someone who “has no use” for the idea of God. Now, as Gray himself makes clear, this doesn’t amount to very much. But his point is clear. While nobody can prove that there is no God, some people simply find they have “no use” for this idea. And that, as I know from many personal conversations, is where a lot of people find themselves. They have no idea whether there is a God or not. It just doesn’t feature on their radar screens.

Now I take this form of atheism (or is it really agnosticism?) with the greatest seriousness and respect. For me as a Christian, it raises a really interesting apologetic question. If someone has “no use” for God, surely Christians ought to be able to explain the difference that belief in God makes, and why it can be such a life-changing matter? I’ll come back to this later in this series.

I am celebrating my discovery of someone who I can trust, who gives me meaning, identity and security in this messy, uncertain and perplexing world.

So how do Christians understand faith? The Apostles’ Creed opens with the Latin word credo which is usually translated as “I believe”. Yet the proper meaning of this Latin word at the time when the creeds were written was much more interesting. It means to trust or rely on someone or something. When I say, as a Christian, that I believe in God, I don’t mean simply that I think God exists. Rather, I am celebrating my discovery of someone who I can trust, who gives me meaning, identity and security in this messy, uncertain and perplexing world.

Faith is about trust – about trust in the reliability of the Christian way of understanding the world, and in the graciousness of the God who is made known in and through Christ. Faith is a relational matter. It’s about loving God and being loved by God. It’s about knowing that wherever we go, we are accompanied by God, so that we are never alone. Early Christian writers used the analogy of an anchor when talking about faith. Why? Because faith is not just believing that there is a God. It is about attaching ourselves to God, holding on to God, knowing that this gives us stability and security in life’s storms.

Yet faith is not simply the act of trusting in God; faith also concerns what Christians believe, which gives substance and depth to their faith, and helps shape the way they understand themselves and the world, and how they live out their faith. Faith is about both the subjective act of intellectual and relational trust, and the objective of that trust. William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, made this point rather well: “Faith is not only the assent of our minds to doctrinal propositions: it is the commitment of our whole selves into the hands of a faithful Creator and merciful Redeemer.” As a Christian, I don’t just “have faith”: I have faith in someone and something beyond me, and the ways in which Christians have tried to express this in words.

So what’s the basis of this faith? If it can’t be proved, why would anyone take it seriously? It’s important to appreciate that something can be reasonable, even if we can’t prove it. The literary critic Terry Eagleton is one of many to point out that “we hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain.” To be human is to realise we can’t be certain about things that really matter. But deep down, everyone knows that there are certain things that we value and trust. In the next article, I’ll explore some reasons for taking Christian ideas seriously.

Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. His latest book is What’s the Point of Theology? Wisdom, Wellbeing and Wonder, which will be published by SPCK in May 2022.