A few days ago I added a post about Alister McGrath’s “schtick” (as I called it) of using his youthful “atheism” as part of his apologetic argument. One commenter remarked that he found McGrath’s remarks about his teenage unbelief little different from Hitchens’ or Dawkins’ claims of being brought up in the Christian faith. Just as a kind of jeu d’esprit I decided to listen to some of McGrath’s debates and lectures (for my sins, as it were, since I find listening to him more than just a little trying). The project turned up some interesting things. Indeed, it becomes clear that his youthful unbelief plays a central role in his apologetic for Christian faith.
Here are three excerpts from his debates and lectures. One is only audio (his debate with Dawkins), which is some mercy, I suppose. I begin with the clip of his interview with George Stroumboulopoulos, host of the CBC programme “The Hour”.
Clearly, for McGrath, having been an atheist, even a “staunch” atheist, even further, a nasty atheist, a “rottweiler” — reminding us that Dawkins has often been called “Darwin’s rottweiler” — plays an important part in McGrath’s personal mythology. The claim, however, is very weak. Being a staunch atheist as a teenager does not have the same weight as being a staunch atheist as an adult, and McGrath even admits that. When he went up the Oxford, he says, he said to himself, “Wait a minute. You have to think more seriously about this.” He began, as he says, “to think for himself.” But then he goes on to explain how belief in God deepened his understanding of science.
But this is all just bluff. By saying, as he does, that religion, far from being incompatible with science, makes science “more interesting and more engaging,” and then explaining what he means by this by saying that (i) “it gives you reasons to look at science in much more detail”, (ii) that ”it actually brings more excitement, more depth to your science”, and (iii) giving an example of the excitement and the depth by saying “Hey! The more I appreciate the beauty of nature, the more I appreciate the beauty of God,” is really just empty verbiage. These are just words spinning their wheels.
So, take this, from a debate with Richard Dawkins:
“When I myself was an atheist, back in the 1960s, everything seemed so simple. … just the smug, foolish and fashionable wisdom of the age.” There was, certainly, a sense that religion was in fact on the way out. Religion had very little intellectual support from the academy, even the religious academy, and there was a widespread feeling that it was just a matter of time before it would, as Marx thought, simply fade from people’s memories. And there was something just a bit facile about this. Harvey Cox’s book, The Secular City, or Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God, or, in Canada, the lesser known book by Ernest Harrison, A Church without God, captured the mood, when even theologians began to doubt that religious language was anything more than myth or story which, while not to be taken literally, could at least be taken as expressing what was enduring about Christian faith, something of the existential depth of what it meant to be human. It is very doubtful that these books reflected the beliefs of religious believers at the time.
But notice how McGrath frames the cultural mood as simply fashionable nonsense, reminding us (as I am sure he meant to) of Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. But recall, too, that the accusation that is most frequently hurled at contemporary atheism is that it thinks that religions take their language about God and spiritual things literally. If they don’t (though of course many still do), then the mood of the 1960s was not just fashionable nonsense, but had something very important to say about the weight that should be given to religious language and belief. Religion may give the appearance of spiritual depth, but that is just the illusion created by story and myth, just as, after watching a film of derring-do, one might “walk tall,” feeling heroic for a while afterward, remembering the feats of heroism and sacrifice that human beings are capable of.
My third clip is from McGrath’s and Hitchens’ debate at Georgetown University.
Notice how central his youthful atheism is to his argument. Had he been told that he would be defending religion he would have been surprised, since he thought he had “sorted things out” already and could afford to “relax for a while.” Instead, he says, he was challenged by a number of things, especially by the inadequacy of the positivism he had so readily accepted as a youth. His readings in the philosophy of science, he says, were transformative. “The evidential basis for atheism,” he says, “was much weaker than I had realised.”
Now, notice two things. He does not put the point in terms of intellectual biography, but in very direct, propositional terms. He does not say, “It began to seem to me that the evidential basis for my atheism seemed weaker than it had seemed to me as a teenager.” He says, pointedly, that the evidence simply was much weaker than he had realised. And this is a point that he repeats over and over again as though it were a settled matter, so that he can say, as he does in this clip, that atheism is as much a matter of faith as religion. And this brings us to the second point. He exchanged one faith for another, he suggests, and as Dawkins went one way, he went in the opposite direction. There is nothing, he suggests, to make either religion or atheism the more rational choice.
This ignores some issues that are simply too large to ignore. He never faces squarely the issue of different religions, and the different beliefs of each. He argues, in his debate with Hitchens, that the resurrection of Jesus is an historical datum. The only relevant question is how the fact of Jesus’ resurrection is to be interpreted. But this is just silly. No matter what the contortions necessary in order to do so, there is simply no way that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead can simply be turned into a fact of history. Quite aside from Hume’s point that, for a miracle to be believed, the fact that the witnesses to the supposed miracle being wrong or subject to confirmation bias would have to be more miraculous than the miracle itself, the fact that only Christians believe in the historicity of the resurrection, and believe in this for ideological reasons, is sufficient reason to doubt the veracity of the stories in which the miracle is recounted.
McGrath’s claim to have been an atheist is central to his apologetics. It’s purpose is to support his claim that the most that can be allowed is agnosticism, which he takes to be the belief that the arguments for the existence of God are as persuasive as arguments for God’s non-existence. He argues, for instance, that the fact that 40% of scientists believe in God and 40% do not, whilst 20% are unsure, is a clear indication that the arguments for and against the existence of God are of roughly equivalent weight. This, of course, does not follow at all. Who believes in God and how many has no bearing on the truth of such beliefs. If the whole world turned atheist overnight, that would not mean that God does not exist. The same goes for belief in God.
In his book, The Twilight of Atheism, which is an astonishing piece of intellectual legerdemain, McGrath argues that, since some scientific theories now held to be true will be shown to be false, and since we cannot now tell which ones these will be, science depends, just as religion does, on faith (see Twilight, 95). He accuses Dawkins of “turning a blind eye to history,” because, he thinks, Dawkins holds that science proves things with apodictic certainty. Indeed, he goes on to say that Dawkins turns another blind eye to history — “How many does he have?” he asks, parenthetically — by ignoring the questions that Darwin raises about his own theory (ibid., 96). But this is nonsense, and McGrath must know it. Indeed, one of Dawkins’ heroes is a scientist who acknowledged that a theory he had held and defended for years had been conclusively disproved. McGrath’s tactics, in fact, amount to an apologetic trick. It’s a kind of intellectual scatter shot, making all sorts of unsupported allegations in the hope that some, at least, will stick, and the religious reader — and apologetics is all about reassuring religious believers — will go away, reassured in their faith.
After doing this little exercise, it seemed to me that looking more closely at McGrath’s arguments might repay further study, so I have ordered his book — co-authored, I believe, with his wife — The Dawkins’ Delusion, and will return to the subject in due course.