Twilight struggle

Interview | How will Christianity respond to a world in which atheism is in retreat but Islam is on the rise? Historian and theologian Alister McGrath discusses the possibilities

Issue: "Iraq: Bravo Company's story," Aug. 21, 2004

If God was dead in the '60s, then God has been resurrected. That is the thesis of The Twilight of Atheism, the latest book by Oxford University historian and theologian Alister McGrath.

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1953, Mr. McGrath studied ­chemistry and biophysics at Oxford. He received a doctoral degree in the natural sciences in 1977, and one year later received first-class honors in ­theology. In 1983, he became a member of the Oxford Faculty of Theology. Next month he will become the first director of the new Oxford Centre for Evangelism and Apologetics.

Mr. McGrath once believed in Marxism. He rejected religion as "irrational superstition, which depended on blind faith on the part of very stupid people." But while studying at Oxford he concluded that he had rejected something he did not understand. Today the author of many books, including Christian Theology, The Intellectual Origins of European ­Reformation, Understanding Doctrine, and The Science of God, he is considered one of Christianity's foremost scholars.

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In The Twilight of Atheism, Mr. McGrath "examines what went wrong with the atheist dream and explains why religion and faith are destined to play a central role in the twenty-first century." He is the ninth interviewee in WORLD's series of e-mail interviews with writers and others who influence our culture. (Previous interviewees: Paul Theroux, Brian Jacques, Anne Lamott, Charles Murray, Joseph Epstein, William F. Buckley, Bret Lott, and Frank Shaeffer).

WORLD: You compare your religious conversion to C.S. Lewis's conversion. Did you, like Lewis, have a defining moment in which you decided to make the switch? What was the most significant factor in your transformation?

AM: I can't date my conversion precisely; at some point between October and November 1971, I realized that Christianity made a lot more sense than its rivals, and that it met my deepest needs. I guess you could say I realized the gospel was both true and relevant. One of the most significant factors in my change of mind and heart was seeing the impact that Christianity made on people's lives. It was not just true; it was real. There was something about the gospel that made it able to grasp and transform people. And I began to realize that it could grasp and transform me as well.

WORLD: If one of your children were an avowed atheist, what would you say? What would you have him read or study as an aid to his liberation from atheism?

AM: I think I would want to explain how atheism seemed like a wonderful idea to people who were oppressed by the church back in France in the 1780s or ­Germany in the 1840s. But look at what atheism did to people when it came to power-for example, under Stalinism. Atheism ended up being just as oppressive as the forms of Christianity it claimed to be replacing and surpassing. After the 20th century, when atheism temporarily came to power in many parts of the world, it is no longer possible to speak of atheism as a "liberator." History teaches us that today's liberator is tomorrow's oppressor, and atheism fits that rule splendidly.

WORLD: If both atheism and theism lie beyond the available evidence and both are defensible, why do you believe that Christianity is philosophically ­superior to atheism?

AM: There are many things that need to be said here, and space permits me just to mention one. While I believe that we cannot prove the gospel to be true, it seems to me to offer the "best fit" of what we see in the world around us. I love that quotation from C.S. Lewis's famous essay "Is theology poetry?" in which he writes: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen-not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else." God gave us this world, and only God can make sense of it.

WORLD: In the 1996 survey of scientists that you cite, "40 percent had active ­religious beliefs, 40 percent had none, [and] 20 percent were agnostic," indicating that no necessary connection exists between science and faith or lack thereof. Should religious presuppositions inform scientific inquiry?

AM: Let me mention one point here. For a Christian, there is an obvious and important connection between the doctrine of creation and scientific inquiry. As John Calvin pointed out, to study God's creation is to appreciate the wisdom of God in greater depth. It's no accident, I believe, that the natural sciences became especially significant in Christian Europe, as there was a natural religious motivation to study nature as God's creation. This doesn't mean for one moment that people regarded nature as God. They saw it as the work of God, which was to be honored and appreciated for that reason.


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