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.
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.
WORLD: What should Christians learn from Nietzsche? What other strong opponents of Christianity should Christians read?
AM: Nietzsche is a complex writer, who is difficult to summarize neatly. However, one thing that I value particularly in his writings is his nervousness about the implications of his nihilism. In many ways, Nietzsche is best thought of as someone who observes the growth of nihilism, rather than someone who commended it. He was deeply concerned that the growth of this philosophy would erode ethics, and lead to exactly the kind of ethical anarchy that gave rise to Nazism, and which we see in postmodern society. Even postmodernism has difficulties in allowing that Nazism is a good thing! Yet precisely that danger lies there, as evidenced by the celebrated remark of the French atheist writer, Jean-Paul Sartre: "Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, Fascism will be the truth of man." We need a firm belief in God as a bulwark and defense against this kind of development-something that remains secure, like the biblical house built on the rock, and is not going to waver with each change in cultural taste.
WORLD: If the general appeal of atheism has been the outcome only of a specific set of historical circumstances that have now ended, why has atheism been popular among many sets of intellectuals in different eras?
AM: Since the early 19th century in many parts of Western culture, atheism has been seen as a form of intellectual protest against unthinking forms of Christianity, as well as against the ideas of the religious and political establishment. Atheism was thus seen, at that time and in those places, as something that was socially progressive and intellectually sophisticated. Nowadays, it is widely regarded as stale and outdated, and tends to be favored mainly by older people, whose ideas are still shaped by the beliefs of modernity. Many younger academics still want to be thought of as socially progressive and intellectually sophisticated, but no longer see atheism as fitting that bill. They are much more likely to be "post-atheist," to use a term that is becoming increasingly common as the rejection of atheism gains pace in the West.
WORLD: You note that "Freud is now a fallen idol" and that medical practitioners increasingly emphasize "the importance of spirituality in health care." How will religion play a role in the future of psychotherapy and in the future of medical practice?
AM: This is a very interesting question. There is a huge volume of research literature suggesting that religious belief can be a very positive factor in determining human well-being. A 2001 survey of 100 evidence-based studies to systematically examine the relationship between religion and human well-being disclosed the following (Harold G. Koenig and Harvey J. Cohen. The Link between Religion and Health: Psychoneuroimmunology and the Faith Factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, page 101): 79 reported at least one positive correlation between religious involvement and well-being; 13 found no meaningful association between religion and well-being; seven found mixed or complex associations between religion and well-being; only 1 found a negative association between religion and well-being. Yet the atheist worldview suggests that there ought to be a strongly, perhaps totally, negative association between religion and human well-being. Yet only one percent of the experimental results unequivocally affirm this, and 79 percent equally unequivocally reject it! I'm not saying that this proves that Christianity is true. But I am saying that this makes clear that the basic atheist dogma that faith is bad for you simply cannot be sustained in the light of the growing body of evidence to the contrary.
WORLD: You write that "the most fundamental criticisms directed against Christianity have to do with the moral character of its God, and often focus specifically on the issue of eternal punishment." Do you believe in eternal punishment, and if you do, how do you reconcile this doctrine with the doctrine of a good and loving God?
AM: This is another big question! I see no reason to abandon traditional Christian beliefs, provided that they are well grounded in the Bible. There is no doubt that the Victorian age in particular saw many criticisms directed against some traditional Christian teachings, including eternal punishment. Thus George Eliot and her circle were strongly critical of such ideas, tending to regard them as being either outdated or immoral. I'm afraid that I haven't got the space to deal with the question of how we reconcile eternal punishment with belief in a loving and good God. But what I can say is that we need to be aware that many find these ideas difficult, and so we need to be aware of our need to explain them carefully, and show why we believe them.
WORLD: How should Christians show the falsity of Darwinism? Should Christians declare that the prime weakness of Darwinian Christianity is not its opposition to the Bible but to the scientific evidence?
AM: My personal belief is that the best way of criticizing atheist Darwinism is to focus on the scientific evidence, and ask whether it demands that we abandon faith in God. It clearly does not. I'm very interested in this question, as I will publish a work later this year entitled Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life which argues that the noted atheist zoologist Richard Dawkins-author of books such as The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene-is actually unable to justify his atheism on the basis of the scientific evidence he offers.
WORLD: If it is the twilight of atheism, what is dawning? Some people see Islam as the next great threat to Christianity, and your observation of how Koreans (unlike some other peoples) saw Christianity as a liberator, not an oppressor, is important: How can Christians help Muslims to see Christian belief and practice as liberating?
AM: There is no doubt that Islam is a growing presence in the West, as well as in its traditional homelands in the Middle East and parts of Asia, including Indonesia. I think that one of the things that we need to do is encourage Christians to get to understand Islam better, and appreciate why so many Muslims see Christianity as being oppressive. In practice, this is often linked with the complex politics of the Middle East, including the present-day situation in Iraq. I have no doubt that one of the best ways that we can help Muslims to appreciate how Christianity is liberating is to establish close friendships that will make this kind of dialogue possible. I think that we also need to be aware of some of the misunderstandings that Muslims have about the gospel-for example, that we believe in three gods. This is very often a very helpful way of getting a good discussion underway.