Watch Alister's story, and his introduction to our new series on questions about Christianity.
What is Christianity all about? What do Christians believe? Back in the 1960s, I thought I knew the answers to those questions. I was a rebellious freethinking atheist with a love of the natural sciences, and a dislike for ambiguity and uncertainty. I was convinced that science and religious belief were incompatible. Science was about facts, and religious belief was about running away from reality, making up your beliefs to suit your tastes and your needs.
I knew the Christian vocabulary from my enforced attendance at a local Anglican church in Belfast. The words of the Christian Creeds seemed to me to be barren skeletons, devoid of life or hope, expressing dead ideas of the past in an unintelligible and inaccessible vocabulary. Christians believed in an irrelevant God in heaven (wherever that was), who was of no interest to life on earth.
Christians believed in an irrelevant God in heaven (wherever that was), who was of no interest to life on earth.
I tended to think of Christ as a primitive religious teacher, dispensing outdated ideas that seemed perfectly reasonable to credulous Galilean peasants but had nothing to say to my own more critical and sophisticated age. It was not that I rejected Christ at this point. I just felt he was not worth bothering about, particularly when compared with Karl Marx, for whom I had developed a fashionable (and somewhat uncritical) enthusiasm in the heady days of the late 1960s.
Atheism seemed to be the only serious intellectual option for an intelligent scientist like myself. Religious people were, in my view, mad, sad, or bad – and possibly all three. Karl Marx was right: religion was like opium, dulling our intellectual senses. Religion was just a soporific for intellectually challenged and inadequate people. So, at the age of 16, I felt I had sorted out all of life’s questions, and could get on with living a happy godless life.
I had no idea that these pseudo-certainties would be overturned two years later when I went up to Oxford University to study chemistry, and was exposed to an intellectually serious form of Christianity, which captured my mind and my imagination. I realised that my atheism, which I had once regarded as an intellectual certainty, was a belief, something that could not be proved to be true. It may seem a trivial and obvious insight, but this was like a “lightbulb moment”, in which I suddenly realised that there were other serious options available. I began to read C. S. Lewis, and found that he was a gateway into a rich pastureland of Christian reflection. Through Lewis, I discovered writers such as Augustine of Hippo, Athanasius, and George Herbert, all of whom deepened and expanded my vision of Christianity. I began to learn what it meant to love God with all my mind (Luke 10:27).
Today, more than fifty years after my embrace of Christianity, I continue to find it deeply satisfying.
I suppose it was inevitable that I would leave the natural sciences behind me, and move into the field of Christian theology. This proved to be a challenge. It was not easy for a former research scientist to pick up theological habits of thought. I couldn’t find a good introductory textbook to allow me break into this new field. Happily, I was surrounded by willing and competent teachers, who helped me to understand what theology was all about.
After a period in pastoral ministry, I returned to Oxford to teach theology, discovering ways of explaining the basic ideas of Christianity intelligently and accessibly. Today, more than fifty years after my embrace of Christianity, I continue to find it deeply satisfying. Yet although I have long since left atheism behind, I continue to take it seriously, and read contemporary and classic atheist writers. I consider it important to look at the questions atheism raises, and what can be said in response. I have, as you might expect, a special interest in the way in which we understand the relation of science and faith, and will have more to say about this later in this series of articles.
My own personal history made me realise the importance of apologetics. Now that word needs careful explanation. For some, it means providing slick and superficial arguments for faith. I don’t see it like that. For me, apologetics is a form of Christian ministry which respects the questions that our culture wants to raise about faith. Is religious belief irrational? Does it lead to violence? Isn’t religious faith just a form of “wish-fulfilment,” to use Sigmund Freud’s famous phrase? Why do Christians believe in this ridiculous idea of the Trinity? We have to take these questions seriously, and offer reasoned and thoughtful responses. That’s what Christians have done down the ages, taking their cue from the New Testament: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Is religious belief irrational? Does it lead to violence? Isn’t religious faith just a form of “wish-fulfilment,” to use Sigmund Freud’s famous phrase?
That’s important. But we need to do more than this. We need to help people understand what is so profoundly attractive about Christianity, and explain its ideas in ways that our culture is able to understand – for example, by telling stories that communicate some core themes of faith in a way that is imaginatively engaging. Perhaps that’s why Christian writers like Dorothy L. Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and Marilynne Robinson are so effective in explaining what faith is all about – not just what Christians believe, but what the life of faith feels like. Rowan Williams made this point in a highly perceptive appraisal of Lewis’s Narnia novels: Lewis, he remarked, “is not just trying to ‘translate’ Christian doctrine; he is trying to evoke what it feels like to believe in the God of Christian revelation.”
Now I am not as skilled a writer as Lewis or Williams. However, what I hope to do with you in these articles is to explore how we might respond to some of the questions our culture wants to ask about faith. I’ll draw on my own experience as a former atheist to help answer these. Yet perhaps more importantly, I will draw on the richness of the Christian tradition down the ages in exploring these questions, and begin to craft some responses. I’m not going to be spoon-feeding you with simplistic answers. Rather, I want to explore with you some approaches that I and others have found helpful, in the hope that these may help you as well. You may find them useful in developing your own understanding of faith, or in talking about matters of faith with others.
I’m not going to be spoon-feeding you with simplistic answers.
So what kind of questions will we be exploring? As you’d expect, I will reflect on the ways in which we can hold science and faith together. Yet there are lots of other questions that I want to look at. I’ve already hinted about two of these. Is belief in God just a deluded way of thinking that we adopt to escape from the pain and uncertainty of the world? Why on earth did Christians start to talk about “the Trinity”, and make their faith needlessly complicated?
But we have to begin somewhere, and I think this question will make a great starting point. Surely Richard Dawkins is right when he argues that religious faith should not be taken seriously because it can’t be proved to be right? This is an important concern for a lot of people. In the next article, I will explore the question of the nature of faith, and look at some of the issues that this raises.
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.