“I first encountered Professor McGrath’s books in 2001 during my Theology Studies at the University of London. Since then, I started to collect his books in my personal library and continue to enjoy his writings. Last year, in 2012, I had the opportunity to attend one of his lectures at Kings College London and my admiration for his works and ideas grew even more.”
1. Professor McGrath, tell us about your transition from atheism to Christianity
I was quite an aggressive atheist as a younger man. During my final years of high school, when I was specialising in the natural sciences, I was convinced that science had completely discredited belief in God. I believed that you only trusted things that you could prove. However, in my final year at high school I began to study the history and philosophy of science, and realised that science was much more cautious in its statements than I had realised. Although people like Richard Dawkins continued to insist that science proves all its beliefs, the reality is very different. I came to realise that you could accept something is true, without being able to prove it is true. This proved very important in my transition from atheism to Christianity.
2. Could you please share how was your “conversion” experience?
I became a Christian during my first year at Oxford University. I had gone to Oxford to study the natural sciences, and went on to do my doctoral research in science at Oxford. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that atheism was much less intellectually rigorous than I had previously thought. As I spoke to friends who were Christians at University, I began to realise that they had discovered something that I had not yet found. Having already realised that atheism was not as robust in its beliefs as I had thought it was, I now also discovered that it was existentially deficient. In other words, atheism provided a very inadequate and bleak outlook on life. These were highly important factors in moving me away from atheism towards Christianity.
My conversion was very intellectual – it was all about appreciating that Christianity made sense of things. But as I continued on my journey of faith, I began to realise that there was much more to the Christian faith than its intellectual aspects. But what brought me to faith in the first place was a growing conviction that Christianity gave me a better way of seeing things than its alternatives.
3. In your lecture: “How I lost my faith in Atheism” [@ King’s College London, Nov/ 2012] you stressed the point about respecting the others’ views in the dialogue with atheism. From each side do you feel more hostility and why?
I believe that we Christians can engage our opponents courteously and with confidence. Having debated many “new atheists”, I have become increasingly persuaded that some “new atheists” are especially insecure, and therefore tend to attack believers, rather than their ideas. The late Christopher Hitchens was especially bad in this respect, ridiculing believers without properly engaging their arguments. I understand his strategy. If your arguments and evidence are weak – and his certainly are! – then the easiest way of creating the impression that you are right is to treat your opponents as if they are mentally ill or socially backward. I do not think Christians should use these approaches. We are called upon to imitate the graciousness of God in our dialogue with others. In any case, it is becoming increasingly clear to everyone that the “new atheist” position is quite weak intellectually, and is beginning to lose a lot of its influence.
I think atheism will become an increasing (though always small) presence in Western society in the next few years, not on account of its intellectual credentials (which are actually quite weak), but because many in the media share its cultural attitudes and beliefs. This inevitably means that many newspapers, magazines, and TV programmes present atheism as being socially progressive and culturally normative. I think is extremely important that Christians should not be alarmed at this, and should do all they can to insist that a Christian viewpoint is represented and understood in and by the media. If we cannot gain space in the media, then we will need to create our own media to ensure that our position is presented fairly and properly.
5. How the Church should teach Christian Theology and the Bible to a generation of disciples who are facing an extremely high amount of information against faith every day?
It is very important that churches should provide courses on apologetics at every level – at the level of individual congregations, and in seminary education for future Christian leaders. We need both to reassure ordinary Christians of the reasonableness of the Christian faith, and to be able to engage cultural arguments against faith. I must emphasise that we have nothing to fear here. The problem is that many Christians are not willing or able to engage in the public defence of faith, and as a result atheist and secular voices very often dominate. We need more people like CS Lewis to be able to present the Christian faith in an intelligible and winsome manner, both inside and outside the churches.
6. Do you attend or belong to any Church affiliation? How can you describe your spirituality?
I am an ordained minister in the Church of England, and count it as a great privilege to be able to serve my congregations. I find that preaching to congregations is a very good way of grounding my faith, and ensuring that I can respond to the questions people asking, and use language that connects up with their everyday life and concerns.
7. At the moment you are publishing two works on C.S. Lewis; could you please share why you decided to write about him, and in your opinion how important is his work and experience for Christianity today?
I think that CS Lewis is very important for ordinary Christians and for Christian leaders. He reassures us of the attractiveness and trustworthiness of the Christian faith, and encourages us to learn the language of our audiences so we can make sure that we present the Christian faith as effectively as possible. I personally find Lewis very engaging and satisfying, at both the intellectual and imaginative levels. I very much hope that these two works on CS Lewis will provide substantial foundation for further reflection on how we can defend and present the Christian faith in contemporary culture. In particular, I note the way in which Lewis uses stories – not just arguments! – to communicate and commend faith.
There are many theologians and ministers who I greatly enjoy and respect. It is very hard to single out anyone, as there are so many excellent candidates for my choice! One of my favourite theologians is the Scottish writer Thomas F Torrance, who is especially helpful on some aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity. I also greatly enjoy reading John Polkinghorne, who has some very good things to say on the relation between science and faith. One of my favourite ministers is Timothy Keller of New York, who has written some excellent books on faith, and is very good at relating Christian faith to contemporary cultural concerns.
9. What would you suggest as a reading list for the Brazilians Bible Students, to engage with the debate between Christianity and Atheism?
- Three books, all very helpful:
- John Lennox, Gunning for God: A Critique of the New Atheism.
- Alister McGrath, Why God won’t go away.
- Peter S. Williams, C. S. Lewis vs The New Atheists
You can buy Prof McGrath’s books at: Amazon.co.uk