Interview: The experiment of faith
Alister McGrath talks to Stephen Tomkins about faith and science
After gaining a degree in chemistry at Oxford, Alister McGrath stayed on for three years to complete a doctorate in molecular biophysics – in which time he also got a first class honours degree in theology in his spare time. He has since written more than 50 books in the space of 30 years.
In case that brain-the-size-of-a-planet sounds daunting, it’s fortunate, for readers and interviewers alike, that he has spent his career trying to engage lay people in the issues of faith and science. Talking with him is surprisingly like talking to an ordinary human being, and the same goes for reading him. (Though he does use the word “ontology” in this interview, page 18, meaning – should you want a reminder – what something is in itself as opposed to what it does or how it’s used.)
Alister McGrath’s latest book (the latest at the time Reform went to press, anyway) is Inventing the Universe: Why we can’t stop talking about science, faith and God (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015, £20 hardback). The fruit of decades listening to the conversation between science and faith, it is a book to do away forever with the idea that they are enemies.
What were the roots of your teenage atheism?
The most important was science. It seemed to me obvious that science had gobbled up the space once occupied by God. I knew I was going to study science at university, so that was really important. Another thing was that I grew up in Northern Ireland, in the 1960s when things were getting problematic, and it seemed to me: no religion, no violence. The third thing was that I got quite interested in Marxism – a lot of people did. Marxism said: “There’s a bright new dawn coming and there’s no religion there.” I bought into that.
Was it in tune with the way you were brought up?
Not really. My parents were Christians. It was just me wanting to rebel against something, and my science legitimated this rebellion.
Your Christian conversion was unusually cerebral.
Exactly right! Very dry, very intellectual. It was: “Hey, this explains something!” There was no sense of religion having an imaginative or emotional aspect at all. I didn’t know that. I didn’t think of myself as embracing a religious position – I started believing in God because that made more sense.
Is your faith cerebral now?
I still think Christianity makes more sense than atheism but I’m aware it’s about other things too: meaning, value, giving an imaginative vision of reality. It is about giving you stability – it means I’m grounded in something deeper than me. It enables me to live a meaningful and safe life. But that was a journey of discovery.
You studied chemistry at Oxford. Did your new faith connect with the science?
It began to. I discovered God and I was still doing science, so I began to realise: “I have to find a way of connecting these, I can’t just treat them as different compartments of my life.” I tried to find ways of getting them to talk to each other and enrich each other. Inventing the Universe is about those ways….
This is an extract from the February 2016 edition of Reform.