Soon after I finished my review of Thomas Dixon’s book on Science and Religion, Denis Alexander published his very odd “white paper” on Adam and Eve on the Biologos web site. After I commented on that, I decided to visit The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, of which Alexander is the Director. There I came upon the Faraday Papers, of which the one by Alister McGrath I am commenting on now. The paper is called “Has Science Killed God?”, but it is really about the nature of faith, and McGrath clearly thinks it is a slam-dunk demolition of Richard Dawkins. Let’s see.
Alister McGrath keeps telling us that he started out as an atheist and ended up believing in God. I think that he believes that this gives him some street cred, but the truth is that his so-called “atheism” was just a little bit of adolescent “acting out”, and shouldn’t be taken with any seriousness. He had scarcely set foot in Oxford when he began confessing his faith quite wantonly. Clearly, the transition from the troubled streets of Northern Ireland to the dreaming spires of Oxford brought about, not so much a change in belief, but a change in location and environment. It must have seemed easier to believe in the midst of Oxford’s hallowed sanctuaries, than in the troubled homeland from which he came. Yet he never fails to remind us that he was once an atheist just like me.
But with me it was very different. I found it very hard not to believe. In fact, for years I wanted not to believe, and played around the edges of non-belief, but I always came back, unfailingly, to something close to belief. I suppose I never did find out what it was like truly to believe, and sometimes I wonder how people know that they do. For the only thing the believer has to go on are the convictions of others. Sometimes those others will speak about experiences that they think help to give their beliefs content, shape and substance, but like all experiences, they are private and inaccessible — which is why I’ve always wondered why people who do research on religious experience trust that the nuns they have chosen to study with fMRI scans are really studying religious experience. What if it’s only some sort of sublimated sexuality that they’re really studying? Would they be able to tell the difference?
My brother believes — and because of that he’s only remotely fraternal — that he is the reincarnated twin brother of Jesus. He really believes this. He also believes, and says quite confidently, that he can speak to those who have died. It’s quotidian experience for him. “I can do that,” he says without apparent embarrassment or reservation, to the point where we have become completely alienated from each other. His world has very different furniture from mine — and perhaps from most.
As Susan Blackmore says, it’s not immediately obvious what’s real, what is a creation of the imagination, and what is “out there”, nailed down and shared with others (see her Dying to Live, chapter 7). And people whose experience is more labile have more difficulty in accepting that the world has the kinds of limits that, for most of us, it does. This especially applies to people who have had experiences, like Near Death Experiences, that seem more real than real. They will be tempted, at least, to draw the boundaries between the real and the imagined differently to the rest of us.
Now, we come to faith. Dawkins, complains McGrath, has a very strange notion of faith. In The Selfish Gene Dawkins says this:
[Faith] means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of the evidence. 
This, however, says McGrath, “is not what Christians think,” (2) and he offers the following (by W.H. Griffith-Thomas) as typical of a long Christian tradition:
[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct. 
Well, McGrath may think that this definition shows Dawkins’ understanding of what ‘faith’ means to the religious person to be wrong, but this is precisely the kind of thing that Dawkins has in mind. In The God Delusion Dawkins tells us that
Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. 
Apparently, McGrath would disagree, because Griffiths-Thomas begins with the claim that faith is based, first, on “conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence.” But since Griffiths-Thomas immediately goes on to refer to “confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction”, and ends with the idea that the whole is crowned by this conviction being expressed in conduct, it is clear that we are moving onto dangerous ground, because at no point, apparently, after having assessed the evidence and responded with such heartfelt conviction and confident action is there any room for reassessment of the grounds for the beliefs in question.
Notice how McGrath himself can say, without apology or restraint:
After being an atheist for some years, I discovered God when I was eighteen[!] 
Aside from the humour of that, does this not set alarm bells ringing? At eighteen Alister McGrath discovered God. After that, apparently, no question arose. God was as real as the Broad or the Bodleian. McGrath immediately assures us that he has “never regarded this [discovery of God] as some kind of infantile regression,” but are we really ressured?
The point here is the completely infantile level at which this discussion is being carried out. He discovered God. How does one do this? Recall Griffiths-Thomas’ claim that faith begins “with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence.” This is a large claim that McGrath is making. He is saying that, on his arrival in Oxford, he suddenly found evidence adequate enough to say that he had discovered God. Here he is, on the threshold of his post-secondary education, and before it is scarcely begun, he has already come to the conclusion!
No wonder Dawkins was so concerned about faith! McGrath spends most of the rest of his essay on the idea of memes and mind viruses, and we can readily ignore all that, because the real problem starts right at the beginning. McGrath had no sooner arrived in Oxford than he was assailed by a very powerful mind virus. This is evident. He had had no time to assemble the evidence necessary to satisfy Griffiths-Thomas’ first requirement, but it was already established in his mind! And through a scientific education the virus has so successfully colonised his mind that he ends up writing trivial nonsense like this Faraday Paper # 9.
McGrath errs, by the way. He takes memes and viruses as the same thing. Memes are the fragments of information that are passed from mind to mind. Many are not convinced that memetics has an adequate foundation, and they may be right. Though I will use the language of memes because it is convenient, nothing hangs on this use. The point is that memes and viruses are different. Some memes are only tools for helping us come to reasoned conclusions, and if they fail to lead us to rationally acceptable conclusions they are simply discarded. But some memes, according to Dawkins’ very early trial balloon in The Selfish Gene, where he first floated the idea that ideas may be like genes, are very different. While they can be passed from mind to mind, like all memes, they have hooks in them, whereby they attach themselves to the mind whatever the evidence.
For my purposes, the precise details of the theory of memes is unimportant. The important point is that some ideas have a kind of magnetic force which helps them to survive despite the fact that they are multiply challenged and even, one might fairly think, defeated. The memes of religious faith seem to be in that hallowed company. And perhaps, for all that, Griffiths-Thomas put his finger on the reason why. Religious beliefs are based, so the believer thinks, on good evidence, and then they are taken up into a composite in which the heart and the emotions play their part, transforming them from mere hypotheses — that might be overturned on further evidence — to convictions which issue in conduct, which is, of its very nature, confirming.
Too little attention is paid to the last stage of faith. It is said that in training a child soldier, the most important thing to achieve is to get the child to kill. Once that has happened — once the soldier is “blooded”, as they used to say — the indoctrination is almost complete. The same thing holds for religious faith. Belief is only the first stage. The emotions and the heart must also be engaged. It is one thing to sit in a congegation and think that, perhaps, the preacher has it right; it is quite another thing to make the choice to come up front and be counted with those who have answered the call. That is the crucial stage, when all the questions die away, and belief is just a small part of the faith that simply enfolds the faithful like a blanket. So, McGrath is right. Faith is more than just belief in the teeth of the evidence. It is belief which has achieved the status of being its own evidence. And thus it becomes the trust which Dawkins speaks about in his “definition” of faith, which holds fast, though the heavens fall.