Breaking the Science-Atheism Bond
As an atheist turned Christian, I know atheism is not the only conceivable worldview for a thinking person.
BY: Alister McGrath
Reprinted with permission from Science & Spirit Magazine.
Spiritually, God is the oxygen of my existence; I would find it very difficult to thrive without a belief in God. Of course, the word "God" needs some clarification. It means different things to different people, even though there are often clear areas of overlap. To clarify: I believe in the God who is made known and made available through Jesus-that is, a personal God who I believe knows me as an individual, cares for me, and enables and inspires me to live my life with a firm sense of purpose and a deep satisfaction in the service of others. That situates me within the generous parameters of Christianity.
I haven't always seen things this way. When I was growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the 1960s, I came to the view that God was an infantile illusion, suitable for the elderly, the intellectually feeble, and the fraudulently religious. I admit this was a rather arrogant view, and one that I now find somewhat embarrassing. My rather pathetic excuse for this intellectual haughtiness is that a lot of other people felt the same way back then. It was the received wisdom of the day that religion was on its way out, and that a glorious, godless dawn was just around the corner.
Part of the reasoning that led to my conclusion was based on the natural sciences. I had specialized in mathematics and science during high school, as preparation for going to Oxford University to study chemistry. While my primary motivations for studying the sciences were the insights they allowed into the wonderful world of nature, I also found them a convenient ally in my critique of religion. Atheism and the natural sciences seemed to be coupled together by the most rigorous intellectual bonds. And there things rested, until I arrived at Oxford in October 1971.
Chemistry proved to be intellectually exhilarating. As more and more of the complexities of the natural world seemed to fall into place, I found myself overwhelmed by an incandescent enthusiasm. I chose to specialize in quantum theory, and found it to be mentally demanding, almost to the point of pain-yet rewarding. Although the quantum universe fascinated me, I was increasingly drawn to the biological world, intrigued by the complex chemical patterns of natural organisms. In the end, I decided to research advanced physical methods of investigating biological systems, under the supervision of Sir George Radda, who later became chief executive of the Medical Research Council. In the midst of this growing delight in the natural sciences, which exceeded anything I could have hoped for, I found myself rethinking my atheism. It is not easy for anyone to subject his core beliefs to criticism; my reason for doing so was the growing realization that things were not quite as straightforward as I had once thought. A number of factors had converged to bring about what I suppose I can reasonably describe as a crisis of faith-or lack thereof.
Atheism, I began to realize, rested on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis. The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive, and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative, and uncertain. The opportunity to talk with Christians about their faith revealed to me that I understood relatively little about their religion, which I had come to know chiefly through not-always-accurate descriptions by its leading critics, including British logician Bertrand Russell and German social philosopher Karl Marx. I also began to realize that my assumption of the automatic and inexorable link between the natural sciences and atheism was rather naïve and uninformed. One of the most important things I had to sort out, after my conversion to Christianity, was the systematic uncoupling of this bond. Instead, I would see the natural sciences from a Christian perspective-and I would try to understand why others did not share this perspective.
In 1977, I read renowned biologist Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, which had appeared the previous year. It was a fascinating book, brimming with ideas and showcasing a superb ability to put difficult concepts into words. I devoured it, and longed to read more of his work, but I was puzzled by what I considered to be a rather superficial atheism, not adequately grounded in the scientific arguments that undergirded the work. Atheism seemed to be tacked on with intellectual Velcro rather than demanded by the scientific evidence Dawkins assembled. A brilliant scientific popularizer, Dawkins seemed to be propagandizing an aggressive atheism. And there is no doubt that his lucid and hard-line atheism-especially evident in his recent book, A Devil's Chaplain-has done much to shape public perceptions of the credulousness of Christian faith. Belief in God, he argues, is like believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy: It cannot be sustained when we grow up and learn the realities of the scientific method.
Dawkins is now the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, where I earned a doctorate in molecular biophysics and first class honors in both chemistry and Christian theology-an academically enriching experience, which I look back on with great affection. I began serious research in Christian theology at Cambridge University, and was eventually drawn back to Oxford. I now hold a chair in historical theology-the systematic study of the development of Christian ideas down through the centuries.
"I believe in Christianity as I believe that..."
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