Dawkins: oh, how do you do? Thank you for agreeing to do this.
McGrath: Thank you.
Dawkins: You see, I’m doing my homework. [Chuckle] I have actually read it before, and greatly enjoyed it.
[Crew give the signal to start]
Dawkins: Alister, for an apologist for religion, to be able to say that you once were an atheist gives you certain among of street credit which not everybody can boast. Could you tell me a bit about your journey from that position to where you are now?
McGrath: Well, I think when I was growing up in Northern Ireland, I did feel very strongly that religion was something that caused violence and difficulties, and certainly, I think growing up in Northern Ireland, you can see how easily that would’ve been to be the case. Back in the 1960s, of course, everybody was a Marxist and I fell into that intellectual fashion, and it just seemed entirely reasonable to adopt an atheist approach. And of course at that time, I was studying the natural sciences and wanting to go and study chemistry at Oxford. And again it just seemed to me that the sciences and atheism almost, if you like, rolled into each other in a very intellectually satisfying way. I think when I arrived at Oxford, I began to re-think things, and began to realize that it wasn’t, perhaps, as straightforward as I thought. And certainly it was at that point that I really began to feel that Christianity offered a better way of seeing things and making sense of things than I’d imagined in the past.
Dawkins: Alright, thank you. Um, this is sort of coming to the end of a fairly long period of interviewing people. And in the America and in Israel, uh, I’ve interviewed some fairly, what shall we say, odd bedfellows of yours. I sort of feel like I want to give you the opportunity to say something reasonable, because I’ve interviewed people who said ‘I’ll believe in evolution when I see a monkey give birth to a man.’ Or, I’ve interviewed somebody who thought that it was right that adulterers should be stoned to death. I mean, how do you feel about being in a sense in the same camp as people like that?
McGrath: I think, any member of a group, whether it’s religious or anti-religious, obviously finds themselves in company that they might feel at times rather uneasy about. For example, many atheists would be alarmed at some of the violent ideas you find in other atheists. And I certainly do find myself concerned about some of the more extreme views, some of the more violent views I find amongst religious believers. And certainly I’d want to try to emphasize the fact that Christianity is a rational faith that certainly believes very strongly in God but also believes we can make sense of the world and therefore to engage in dialogue with people like you is immensely important, partly because it advances understanding, but also because in principle it’s extremely important to be critiqued by people with alternative view points, in case we’ve missed something.
Dawkins: Yes, well, I’ve been trying to engage in dialogue, and repeatedly was brought up short by the fact that there was no dialogue to be had, because at some point, the trump card of faith is produced, and, there is no arguing with that. Now, I know that in this book you take me to task for my, as you think, misunderstanding of faith, and I wonder if we could talk about that a bit. I have said that faith is not based upon evidence, but is what you need when there isn’t any evidence, and as soon as there is any evidence then you don’t need faith anymore, and you have, possibly rightly, criticized me for not taking sufficient account of the way Christians have actually defined faith. And I understand that, I understand that the way Christians define faith does not correspond to the way I define faith. However, I don’t understand where you are coming from when you do say something like faith is based upon reason. I mean, what kind of reason, what kind of evidence do you use to support your faith?
McGrath: Well, I think that’s a very fair question, and certainly I’d want to say immediately that we are talking about a slightly different situation than, for example, evidence that the moon obits the earth at a certain distance. I think that one of the big questions one has when one tries to make sense of anything that is big, for example, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘Why are we here?’ and things like that, is that there are many explanations, and inevitably this means we have to try to do what Gilbert Harman described as ‘infer to the best explanation.’ In other words, there are many possible ways that explain this, we have to make that very difficult judgment, ‘Which is actually the best of these?’ And the real difficulty I find and certainly I appreciate your concern at this point, is that evidence takes us thus far, but then when it comes to deciding between a number of competing explanations, it is extremely difficult to have an evidence-driven argument for those final stages. So what I want to say is that I believe faith is rational in the sense that it tries to make the best possible sense of things, but in the end, it has to move beyond that saying even though we believe this is the best way of making sense of things, we can’t actually prove this is the case, and therefore, although I believe faith is rational in the sense that it gives the best possible case it can give, there is a point at which it goes beyond the evidence, and it’s at that point I think that your concern that it might be irrational, I think, comes into play.
Dawkins: I suppose I would say that at that point where it goes beyond the evidence, that’s when it becomes faith, and before that, it isn’t faith at all, it’s using evidence in the proper way that evidence should be used.
McGrath: I think, I take your point. I think what I’d want to say is that evidence perhaps needs some probabilistic judgment, and there is a possibility that there might be a God, and, but the question is, how do we actually confirm that, and there is a sense which, I think one has, to say, in the end we have to make a decision of some sort, ‘There is none,’ ‘We can’t make a decision,’ or ‘There is a God.’ And in the end I think that means stepping out in a degree of faith, whether that is to say there is no God and we’ll act on that basis or we’ve decided that there is a God and we’ll try act on that basis.
Dawkins: Right, I’m glad you said, I mean I quite agree with you, we want to talk about probabilities. Neither of us can say with certainty, 100% certainty, or naught percent certain, so we do need to talk probabilities. There is a tendency for some people to say…[interrupted by the filming crew]
Dawkins: [starts again] Of course I totally agree with you, we’ve got to talk about probabilities. Nobody can be certain one way or the other. I think there is a tendency for people to say something like this, ‘You cannot disprove the existence of God,’ therefore, that immediately jumps us to 50-50, as though there was some sort of even-steven probability, simply because you can neither prove nor disprove. Now I think we both agree that we don’t want to jump to 50-50, with there all sorts of probabilities that lie between naught and 100, and which are not necessarily 50. Now, my attempt to get that is another thing that you’ve criticized quite strongly. That is to say, that, there is an inherent improbability in living things, in the complexity of living things, the statistically improbability of living things is something, after all, that the creationists from Paley down have played upon. And I want to say exactly the same thing of a Designer, a designer of any kind, because, it seems to be that any entity, any being, capable of designing a universe or an “eye” or a “knee,” would have to be the kind of entity, I don’t know in detail of course, but would have to be the kind of entity which would be statistically improbable, in the same kind of way as the eye is. You strongly object to that, apparently on the ground that Christian theologians don’t say that. And I accept, maybe they don’t. But my question is, why don’t they?
McGrath: Well, I think this is a very good point that you’re making here. And certainly I wouldn’t say that simply because there is a possibility that there may be God and the possibility that there may not be God, it’s a 50-50 situation. I think that we are in a situation of when we can’t actually prove something decisively either way, we just have to try and make a judgment to the best of our ability as to what the probabilities are. But I think we have to say that you can make a probable judgment cognitively, in other words, I think the evidence points this way, but existentially I feel I can commit myself to this. So I think there is a tension between the probabilistic side of things and being able to actually live a life as a response to that. Then you make a good point, which I think is that this raises the question of the extreme improbability of God, and certainly you’ve made that point well in your writing. One of the responses that I would want to make though would be this. And perhaps God is extremely improbable, I mean it is very difficult to actually arrive at an agreement on what this might be, but in the end, I think the ultimate question is going to be, “improbable or probable, the real question is ‘is there a God?’” And I think that is one of the problems I find that there is a limit to the position which probabilistic argument can take us, in that in one sense, statistically, you and I are very improbable, and yet we’re both here having this interesting discussion. And so in one sense there is this very difficult judgment, but given the fact that it may be improbable, does that actually mean that this is not the case?
Dawkins: We are indeed very very improbable. Because we are so improbable, and all the rest of living things are improbable, we desperately need an explanation, which explains that improbability. Now, as you know, evolution by natural selection does exactly that. It does indeed start from very very simple beginnings, maybe not ultimately simple, but at least much much simpler beginnings than anything which is produced. And the elegance of the theory, is that over millions, billions of years, you get a gradual mounting up of the staircase of improbability. It all happens gradually, never makes too big demands too formidable demands upon our credulity. The sudden conjuring into existence of you or me, or any part of us, would indeed make unreasonable demands on our concept of chance, it couldn’t happen. We rarely rarely need a theory which starts from simplicity and makes complexity, makes improbability by gradual degrees, that as we both agree, is what evolution does. Now, the point where we seem to slightly part company is that I think the same must apply to God. Now, you’ve said, correctly, that I can’t put a figure on it, I can’t put a figure on the eye either, but everybody agrees intuitively, that the eye is far too improbable to have suddenly jumped into existence. And I want to say the same thing about God, and you don’t, and I don’t understand why not.
McGrath: I think we have a very interesting disagreement, [coughing and starts again]
McGrath: I think we have a very interesting disagreement here, and one of the points I’d like to try and make is it’s always difficult to understand that in one sense Christians understanding of God is above, rather than within, the natural process. And therefore for me, God is not so much someone who needs to be explained but someone who actually gives a ground of explanation. And so going back to this whole question of how we arrive at any decision about this, I often go back to C.S. Lewis who once wrote ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not simply because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.’ And Lewis pointed out, which I think I find quite persuasive, is that belief in a God actually gives you a way of seeing the world which actually makes an awful lot of sense of it. Now you rightly come back and say, well, you know, that, that doesn’t prove anything. And I can see that point, but nevertheless I believe that one of the questions that we have to face here is what world view, what way of seeing things actually enables us to make most sense of what we see around us and the implications for our lives. And so in that sense I would want to say that I evoke God not as something within the natural order, but rather as something that actually makes more sense of natural order than otherwise might be the case.
Dawkins: hmm…sounds a bit to me like a sort of intellectual conjuring trick. I mean you kind of considered the point but then said well, if you believe in God, it illuminates everything else, and I could well imagine, for example, that it doesn’t just illuminates the natural world for you, but it illuminates a kind of internal world where you feel a subjective awareness which…you can make sense of, by assuming God. However, I think that’s moderately weak and it’s even weaker when you are talking about the natural world, because you’re still left with my point that it’s not just that you don’t need God in order to explain the natural world, but it’s positively improbable for exactly the same reason as the sudden conjuring into existence of eye is improbable. So what I’m saying is that the argument of the creationist, and you know you are not one of them, but their argument actually backfires very badly, because the ultimately complex entity, and it has to be even more complex if it’s going to do the rest of what it requires him to do, which is to illuminate your path, illuminate your internal feelings, to say nothing of answering prayers or forgiving sins and all that kind of things, plus making a universe, he’s really got to be far far more complicated than an eye, and therefore it’s not just that we don’t need him to explain the world because we’ve got evolution. He is improbable for exactly the same reason as the sudden jumping into existence of living complexity was improbable before we understood Darwinism. I mean, if you believe in a God who evolved, I’d be much happier, if you said, well, somewhere out in XXX, there is a superior form of life which is so immensely superior to us that we could call it God, and maybe it even ceded life here and maybe beings raised here to protect us and forgive our sins and all that sort of things, I’d be much happier with that because I could then say, ah, well, the God actually evolved and therefore we are no longer bereft of an explanation for his existence, but I don’t think you do believe that.
McGrath: Well, I think you’ve made some very interesting points, and again this goes…[interrupted by the crew]
McGrath: [Starts again] I think there’s some very interesting points there, I think the first point I’d want to make simply is this, I mean, it’s not as if I believe in God because I think he’s a good explanation, it’s actually I believe in God for a number of reasons and I find this explanatory bonus to us. In other words, believe in God does give me a way of making sense of things, even though I don’t actually think that’s the primarily important thing about him. But then you made some very interesting points again, about the complexity of God, about where God comes from and so on, and again, those are significant points which must be talked about, but one of the observations that I’ve made is that, in talking to natural scientists, I mean, if we look at the split between religious believers and those who don’t believe, I mean, it’s roughly 50-50, with obviously a number undecided. And so I think I would have to say I don’t find the case for atheism compelling on the grounds of natural science at all. I think the issue, I should put, of where God comes from is a very significant question, but from a Christian perspective, that isn’t really the question to be asked. The idea is that God was there before everything, and in some way God makes things in some way, and as a result of that is a ground of explanation. But as a Christian, I don’t need to evoke God to explain why this TV camera works, why things fall from the earth in certain ways, it’s much more to understand God has made a framework, which actually is regular and can be understood, and therefore, actually in one sense we have this very interesting historical observation that in some way Christianity may have catalyzed the emergence of natural sciences by stressing the regularity of the created order, and thus it’s in fact so amenable to scientific investigation and scientific explanation.
Dawkins: That of course could be a historically valid point and I don’t know enough history to judge. Um, when you say God didn’t come into existence but is always there, I find that not really very helpful, because, suppose I go back to my problem of explaining the eye, it would be no kind of answer to say, oh, the eye is always there. It would still be something that requires explanation in the sense that anything statistically improbable does. So I don’t think you could get away with an eye, and I don’t really see why you can get away with God. But I know that there are other theologians who have attempted to say, to deny the proposition that God is complex at all, I mean that some theologians have suggested that God is ultimately simple. And, that would be fine, as far as explaining his existence is concerned, I can easily believe that an ultimately simple God always existed. But then he would not be capable of doing what we expect of him, which is setting up the laws of the universe, and as I said before, to say nothing of all the things like listening to prayers, which are, which requires different order of complexity, but certainly can’t be done by anything that’s ultimately simple.
McGrath: Again, you’ve raised some very interesting questions. And again, you’ve highlighted some tensions inside Christian theology, and certainly the way of approaching things that I would want to adopt would be this. Not to begin with a predetermined or preconceived idea of God, ‘God must be simple,’ or ‘God must be complex,’ but rather to try infer what God must be like, on the basis of what God has done or in terms of what God has revealed himself to be. And thus I think the point you’ve make actually might be driven to some extent by a preconceived idea of what God must be like. But I think the whole issue of the emergence of time and so forth, does raise some very very difficult questions, I mean, a perfectly reasonable point we might discuss is where was the universe before it actually began? Because certainly, I think the issue here is simply the capacity of the human mind to comprehend something extremely counter-intuitive ideas. I certainly have difficulties in some of these in thinking about God, but I noticed that there are also there in standard physical accounts of how the universe actually came into being, which requires us to think of a time when there was no universe or indeed, think of modern cosmological theory, think of universe expanding into, well, something. It’s a very very difficult idea to grasp, but for that reason, is not wrong.
Dawkins: I agree with that, and I, I, totally agree with you that there is deep deep mystery at the base of the universe and physicists know this, as well as anybody. Questions like what, if anything, is there before time began? Perhaps it’s because I’m a biologist who has been impressed through my whole career by the power of evolution. The one thing I would not be happy about accepting in those deeply mysterious preconditions of the universe is anything complex. I could easily imagine something very hard to understand at the base of the universe, at the base of the laws of physics, and of course, they are very hard to understand, but the one thing that seems to me clearly doesn’t help is to postulate anything in the nature of a complicated intelligence, there are a lot of things that would help, and physicists are working on them, and theories of everything and that kind of things. But, a theory which begins by postulating a deliberate conscious intelligence seems to me to have sealed the path right before you even start, because that’s what, that’s one of the things that sciences have so triumphantly explained, science hasn’t triumphantly explained yet, the origin of the universe, but I feel, I have a very strong intuition and I wish I could persuade you of it, that science is not going to be helped by evoking conscious deliberate intelligence, whatever else preceded the universe, whatever that might mean. It is not going to be the kind of thing which designs anything, let alone, the kind of thing which dies for people’s sins.
McGrath: I think one point I want to try and make here is that it is extremely difficult to extrapolate into the very distance past, and actually work out what might have happened. I mean, certainly, I understand the Darwinian paradigm and so forth, and yet in one sense I think that religion is primarily concerned not so much with explanation of origins but much more with the way things are now, how can we give an account of then, and above all, I think, how we should live, how we should think in the present. I think that an appeal to how things came into being is actually a relatively small part of that. It may become significant for polemical reasons, but actually in terms of the constructive way which religious people think about the world, really the primary emphasis is really not so much on looking backwards as looking at things as they are, right now, and trying to say, what is the best way of making sense of these things, how should be live, what is a way of thinking, a way of acting, that really gives us a understanding of the way things are, but also a reason to live, a reason to hope, a reason to die, and so forth.
Dawkins: Yes, and uh, of course we all want those things, and we all want to discuss morality, the right way to live. But, religion does make claims about existence, which don’t seem to me to be essential for the moral good life that you are talking about, and Christianity might very well be a guide for a good life, but, or Judaism might be or Islam might be, but I can’t see how that has any bearing upon the existence claims, and maybe…you’re almost saying that doesn’t matter to you, that’s a less important thing than the way things are now, and the way we ought to live now. Um, from what you were saying before, I could imagine that you, you would be some sort of a Deist, some sort of a, a believer in an ultimate Prime Mover, or I would depart from you there as well. But I don’t understand why you are a Christian. I mean, what, that, Christianity’s got an enormous amount added on to that, as you just implied. Um, the idea of redemption, and the idea of atonement, the idea of original sin, the idea of forgiveness, the idea of prayer, these things have, seem to have no substantiating basis at all, and yet you’ve grafted them on, one would be tempted to say for no better reason than that’s the way you happen to being brought up.
McGrath: Well, I think you’ve raised a very important question and I really at last minute I think to be able to amplify some of the things I’ve been saying thus far. I think what I’d want to say is that in the end, one of the key reasons why I believe in God has to do with Jesus, and therefore for a Christian, one of the central themes is going to be what actually happened in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and what is its meaning? Because for Christians, it’s not just abstract thinking about a God, I mean I believe in a God very very strongly, but the reason I believe in God is not a reflection on the way the world is, or indeed, sort of theoretical reflection on the idea of God, but is actually this very focus concentration on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, because, in that I see something which really holds the key to everything. And for me, if I may, just to overstate very slightly, one of the key reasons for Christians believing in God is actually Jesus, because we see there’s something which demands explanation, and that really, I think, is the ultimate ground of faith for a Christian, rather than more abstract reflection about God. Now you rightly then make points about me possibly adding on things about redemption, original sin, and so forth, but actually I would say I don’t, in fact these are all core ideas, and in fact that in one sense the idea I add on is not so much Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, the idea of forgiveness, the idea of Jesus’ relevance for us, but actually that the explanatory capacity of the idea of God for me emerges from this, and I then bring that to bear on the sciences, but it’s not actually the primary reason why I believe in God, if you like, it’s a very significant, a very welcomed addition, but is not the primary focus, in my view, for like, Christianity is not so much about explanation, but about salvation, but it turns out that the Christian vision of salvation does have explanatory implications.
Dawkins: But the evidence for the life of Jesus and what he did, historically speaking, is remarkably thin, what, wouldn’t, I mean, modern theologians surely agree about that, don’t they?
McGrath: Well, I think that that there are obvious questions about how we can have reliable historical knowledge about such a distance figure, and yet the New Testament dates from remarkably close to the time of Jesus, much closer than, for example, standard Roman biographies of Emperors. And anyway it’s not so much really the details of the biography, it is the way in which Jesus’ life was perceived to have certain significance by us first followers which resonates with their experience and move forwards from there. And so I think we’re dealing with something which actually was seen to be significant and was seen to be capable of transforming people’s lives. Now obviously the point you’d want to make is this must be interrogated concerning its reliability, but certainly as you read the New Testament and the early history of Christianity, you can see people convinced that something of decisive importance has happened, which has the capacity not simply to transform their lives, but also to explain what they see in the world around them.
Dawkins: Alright, obviously one of the central points is the idea of original sin and redemption. As I understand it, Sin is supposed to have been, in some sense, paid for, by the death of Jesus, the torture and death of Jesus. Someone coming to that from outside might think it was a really rather unpleasant doctrine because we have the idea of punishment as a way of expiating sin, which is, has some unpleasant aspects to it, it also has the idea of punishing somebody else for the sins that he didn’t commit. It has the idea of, at least in some theologies, punishing him for a sin which was committed by a man Adam who didn’t even exist. In other theologies, it includes the idea of expiating sins which have yet to be committed in the future, whether or not we future people choose to commit them. And finally, one is left with a sort of slightly mischievous feeling, ‘well who is he trying to impress anyway?’ because after all if he was one of the manifestations of God, if he wanted to forgive us our sins, why didn’t he just forgives them, instead of going through all that self-torture.
McGrath: I think you’ve raised a lot of questions there, and you’re right to say that theologians differ slightly, the point I’d want to make would be this. That, um, what Christianity is saying is that there seems to be something wrong with human nature, that we possess…we just don’t possess the capacity to transform ourselves, that in some way in order to experience and enter into the redeemed life, something has to be done for us. It’s a question of not having the adequate resources to actually transform ourselves to be saved. And therefore the Christian understanding is that in some way, the life, and above all the death and resurrection of Jesus are the basis for this transformation. Now obviously theologians disagree, but the very key theme is that in some way, by entering into the world in Christ, God is demonstrating our extent to which we have wandered from him, and also his yearning or longing that we should actually come back to him. So for me, the death of Christ is about God demonstrating love for us, bringing home to us what’s far away from us, but also, if you like, making it possible for us to return to him, to relate to him, with the removal of barriers such as sin or guilt, which stand in his way. And so for that reason Christians have very often, rightly, I think, thought of the death and resurrection of Christ as being right at the center of Christian faith, because it is at this point, if you like, that this great act of redemption has taken place, which we are being asked to respond to in some way.
Dawkins: But it is almost as though you’re slipping away from the factual veracity of this, and erecting the death of Jesus as, almost a kind of poetic, symbolic act. Uh, I’ve noticed a tendency for theologians to do that a lot, and to sort of say, ‘Oh we don’t care what really happened, what matters is the symbolic meaning.’ It’s almost as though, if, say, at some future date to the double helix model of DNA were ever to be disproved, and then, if scientists have become so religiously committed to the idea of double helix, they would say something like, ‘Oh, we don’t care if it’s actually true that it’s double helix, but what meaning does the double helix have for us today, perhaps the affinity of the bases for each other, the purine for the pyrimidine, the way the double helix coiled around itself, is kind of has meaning for us in terms of a loving relationship…you, you get the point. I mean, doesn’t it actually rather matter that this man was tortured and killed, for somebody else’s sins, when he, if he was God, he had the power simply to forgive them, or perform some other symbolic act, rather than actually be crucified in this horrendous way?
McGrath: I think for Christians, the events you’ve described, the actualities are immensely important, but I think every event, every event actually needs to be interpreted, in other words, this has happened was significant, for example, Caesar crossing the Rubicon is actually more than just general crossing a river, is an act of declaration of war against Rome, because of its significance, and therefore, what Christians have tried to do is to say that these events and here are their significance, so the event, if you like, is the death of Jesus on the cross, its significance is a demonstration of God’s love, the transformation of human situation, the forgiveness of sins and so forth, and certainly I wouldn’t want to minimize for one moment the pain that Christ suffered, the apparent torture, that you rightly say that he went through. And from our Christian perspective, that is not about glorifying torture, it’s not about anyway saying let’s do to other people what they do to Jesus as much saying, ‘look, in Christ we see God entering into the world at its darkest path, the worst that the world could do, at the punishment of Christ, his rejection, his torture, his agony, his death and so on, that in some sense God entered into those darkest parts of the world, in order to redeem it. And certainly, you mentioned earlier, I might have been a Deist, I think I, I hope I’m not because, a Deist would simply take the view that God is up there looking down on things perhaps benignly. The kind of God that I believe is a God who actually enters into this world, take on it, this world at its worst, in order to try and transform it, and that really is part of this gospel of redemption that in some way God chose to enter this world to bring about its transformation through Christ.
Dawkins: I understand what you believe, I wish I understood why. Thank you very much, I think that…
Dawkins: You said you’re not a Deist, but a Christian. There are of course other ways of departing from being a Deist, you could be a Jew, you could be a muslin, you could be a Hindu. They are all different, and they differ in many of, the exactly the kind of details that you feel so strongly about. How do you know that the particular faith in which you happen to have been brought up is the right one, rather than just a sort of abstract God of the physicists, which we talked about earlier, which doesn’t make all these additional claims. Why Christianity?
McGrath: Well, I certainly, I began as an atheist and therefore when I began to be convinced of the truth of Christianity, it wasn’t so much a question of, you know, I’ve been brought up this way, as much as it seemed to me to be the right way. I think part of it is the fact that Christianity offers an explanation not simply the way the world is, but also why there are alternative ways of looking at other religions. And certainly, if we take someone like J. R. R. Tolkien, well known for this Lord of the Rings, his point is that we all tell stories to try and make sense of things, and all these, if you like, our grasping after truth, and some of them, realize some of it, but his point is that there are shadows there amidst the light. And Tolkien’s argument which I personally find very helpful is that Christianity offers THE narrative, THE way of looking at things, which actually in some way brings to fulfillment what we find in other faiths. So I’d want to treat other faiths with the greatest of respect, but hold personally what I see in them that is good is brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ, for that reason, I would want to dialogue with them, to learn from them, but above all to say that, in my view, these reached their fulfillment in the Christianity revelation.
Dawkins: I hope they would be brought to dialogue with you. [Laugh] What about the problem of evil? What about the fact that there is so much suffering in the world? People say, obviously you would think naively, now I haven’t said it, but people will say things like, ‘Where was God in the tsunami? Where was God in the New Orleans hurricane?’ etc.
McGrath: I think Christian theologians looking at natural disasters and sufferings so forth, have tend to take two approaches, one is to say, let’s try and explain this, and that, that I think doesn’t really get us very far, because we can’t really make sense of these things, maybe it’s just the way things are. But the other approach they have used, which I think is much more important, is to say that we need to cope with suffering. And as a matter of fact the real issue is not so much how we make sense of this, but given that people are suffering, what may be said, what may be done to actually make that more bearable. And certainly the Christian view is that of a God who knows suffering at first hand, who’s being here before us, who has experienced the worst that the world can throw at in the life and death of Jesus Christ. And I certainly do find that consoling, it also animates me to want to try and do something about those who are suffering at this moment. So it’s not simply a question of intellectual reflection as about wanting to try and get up there and do something, because I believe that’s what God would want me to do.
Dawkins: When you read of tens of thousands of people being killed, drowned, or blown away, whatever it is, and then you read that one child was saved, and the parents thank God for saving this one child. Does the irony of this strike you? I mean, that, that, that God could have saved all those ten thousand people, why would he save this one child, I mean, I would hope that he would say he didn’t save the one child, the one child was just lucky. But there are many people whose faith in God almost unbelievably, I find, is increased when there is a disaster of this kind, rather than being decreased. I mean, can you get your head around that?
McGrath: I think, I would love to be able to explore the question, whether the world could be made in a different way, so it don’t have these seismic shifts. Could we make a world where there weren’t these things, could we make a world in which these shifts didn’t take place, which result in tidal waves and so forth. I didn’t know the answer to that question, but it’s a very significant question all the same, but in the response to your question about a child being saved, I think one of the most fundamental instincts in human nature is to want to give thanks, for things that happened that they believed to be good things, and certainly I fully take your point that it seems ironic that when many have died we should be thankful for one being saved. And yet for the parents in question, that would unquestionably be something they felt overwhelmed by, that would be the most natural thing in the world to want to give thanks that their child has been saved.
Dawkins: Of course, I mean, I would agree with that, I would agree the psychological benefit of that is huge, but would you, as a detached scholar and theologian, would you want to say God saved that one child?
McGrath: I would want to say that God saved that one child, I would also want to say that the parents in question were right to give thanks for that, but I would therefore not want to say, I think, that God was in some way responsible for what happened elsewhere, I’d want to say that rather the limitations of the way the world is leads us to the point where this happened in the first place. In other words, that, you know, the key question is, could a world be made in which these volcanos do not erupt and in which there is no shifting of plates, or where there’re no tidal waves, and that I think is not question about God, I think it’s a question about the way things are.
Dawkins: I kind of feeling you’re painting yourself into a rather awkward corner, because on the one hand, you are saying that these are plate tectonic events and could one imagine a world that didn’t have, um, plates drifting around and therefore the occasional earthquake and tsunami, and perhaps you can’t. But if God has the power to, I mean I thought to be consistent, you would say, no the plate tectonic is part of God’s creation, God is a creator of a world, a universe in which plate tectonic is part of it. And therefore he can’t change that, it wouldn’t wish…it’d be almost undignified, it would almost be a kind of blasphemy to go in there and start messing around, with this perfect creation, which is made. But then you suddenly say, well he saved the one child, I mean that seems to me to be a complete little undermine, the uh, rather loftily but consistently reasonable position that you’ve come to about the way the world is made. You are suddenly backtracking and saying, oh but he can just reach out and pick out one child and save that one child, how do you reconcile that?
McGrath: I think a lot of debate about the whole question of suffering and so forth involves saying, here is the world we know, now here is another world in which these things don’t happen. And there is this idea that somehow that imaginary world can be used as a way of judging this world. And certainly we find that in both Christian and Atheist writings. I want to say that the world as we know it is the only one that we have to compare it with. And therefore we might theoretically reflect on whether there could indeed be a better world where these things don’t happen, but we have the way the world is, if there is a better world, I don’t know what it is, I don’t necessarily believe there could be one, which is why I don’t have any difficulties accepting that God made the world as it is. But my key point is, that when faith is suffering, we are dealing not with a God who stands up in distant isolation or somehow just says, “Oh that’s just too bad”, but a God who has entered into this world, who has experienced its pain, who knows what is like to lose a Son. For Christians that’s immensely important because that means God is one who doesn’t just be a compassionate distant spectator of what’s going on but one who has being here before us and thus people can turn to with confidence knowing that God understands what they are going through.
Dawkins: hmmm, I almost get the impression you are not interested in the question of did God reach out and pluck that child. I mean it’s almost as though, you are constantly concerned of the psychological impact with the, with the symbolism, and yet you did say you thought God saved that one child and I still repeat the question and it really does seem to me to contradict the very reasonable things you said before and just now again, that the world is the world, and you would not expect God necessarily to be able to interfere with it…I mean let me put in another example, at the time of the 9/11 atrocities, one of the planes didn’t reach its target and crashed into a field, and later it emerged that some of the passengers have probably been wrestling with the crew and that’s why the thing. The wife of one of those men, they learned about it on mobile phones, said that she felt that her husband who had been wrestling with the hijackers was God’s instrument in stopping the plane crashing into whatever its target was, might have been the White House. And my friend in America who sent me that bit of information said – I thought they’re reasonably – if God wanted to stop that happening, why didn’t he just give the hijackers a heart-attack or something? Why did he have to do it in this extraordinarily roundabout way where passengers went to wrestle with the crew and the plane crashed killing everybody on board and two other planes and three other planes met their targets. I feel you’re been extraordinarily inconsistent in, well maybe you don’t agree with it, but it sounds similar to what you were saying about the child rescued from the tsunami. Inconsistent in, on the one hand saying the world is the world it runs the way it is because God made it that way and he can’t interfere capriciously arbitrarily, but on the other hand, you are allowing him to interfere capriciously and arbitrarily. And even if you don’t, which I think you do, lots of other people do believe that and it does reinforce their faith if every time there is a major catastrophe like this. People’s faith in God goes up! I find that totally bizarre.
McGrath: Well I don’t think you should. I mean I think one of the reasons that people believe in God even more from natural disasters is because basically it strips away whole layers of insurance about the way the world is. People then came to realize how dangerous the world is and then also a whole series of fundamental questions arise about what is the ultimate ground of my security? If there were to be a tidal wave tomorrow, well, what would I depend on? What is the ultimate reason for being here? Who can I turn to in these very very desperate moments? And it’s not simply a sort of primitive superstition ‘Let’s turn to God’, it is rather that the act of turning to God is found to actually provide a solace and transformation and consolation that people are looking for. Now, I haven’t talked about Karl Marx very much, but one of the points he made, which is a critique of religion, is that it offers people this consolation in moments of great desperation and great unhappiness, and that I think is extremely important point here that actually this changes people’s lives. You are right in making the point that there is some theoretical difficulties here and I agree with that. But I’m noticing in particular that much greater truth that religion is able to meet people where they are and actually deal with those concerns that really meet them. Now, going back to your earlier point about, for example, the 9/11 thing. Well, the standard Christian idea is that God doesn’t do things directly himself, he tends to delegate to others, and certainly one of the leading themes of Christian spirituality is, what should I be doing to serve God? What does he want me to do? And therefore I personally wouldn’t have difficulties understanding what these passengers in that plane were doing, I mean, what they were saying in effect is if I wrestle these people to the ground and this plane crash and I die too, well I believe a greater good will come after, because if this thing crashes where they wanted it to crash, so much damage is going to be done. So I think there is this issue of simply wrestling with this question, ‘What is it that God wants me to do?’ And in that case I think these people clearly felt this was the right thing to do and believed that they had done the right thing.
Dawkins: I’m sure they did, and I’m sure it was the right thing to do. I have no problem with that at all. The problem I have is with the man’s wife saying that he is the instrument of God. If he was the instrument of God, why didn’t God just tweak the steering wheel of the plane or do something else that in his omnipotence he presumably could do. One thing to say this man was a courageous man who decided the best thing to do was to wrestle the hijackers, even if it meant crashing, which of course it did. That is entirely understandable, that’s a rational calculation. It’s a calculation I’d like to think that I might have done myself. But, the calculation that says, he was the instrument of God, whereas God you might think would have used much more humane instrument if he was capable of doing it. And what it looks like to me is that the world is precisely the way it would look if there were no guiding spirit, no God, nothing controlling it. Bad things happen, good things happen, and there’s nothing we could say to explain why bad luck happen to some people rather than it just happened that way. That’s the way the world looks like to me and I understand the consolation point you made. Of course people can get consolation from it, what I don’t understand is how a sophisticated, rational, thinking man like you can buy that stuff.
McGrath: Well, I think I buy that stuff, to use your language, because I believe it to be right. And I believe it to be right partly because of rational reflection on the way the world is, which incidentally leads us to no firm conclusions. I think one of the real difficulties of those of us who are Atheists and those of us who are Christian and those of us who are others actually have looked at the world and probably reflected on for a very long time, but actually have come to different conclusions. And in many ways what I’m saying simply is that I believe the Christian way of looking at the world does make sense of most things, even though there obviously are gaps in our understanding. But, going back to the point you made earlier, I mean, why didn’t God just take the steering wheel and therefore the air plane change things. Well, that is being a constant issue down the ages you will know, and Christians understand God to have made the world in a certain way, if you like, like a framework, but actually does not directly intervene and of course a classic example of this is the crucifixion. You know, people were screaming at Jesus, ‘if there is a God, well, why didn’t he just take you away from it, why didn’t you get down from there?’ And of course, that really reminds us that we are dealing with a God here who does not intervene directly with the world as we might hope. Certainly, there may be occasions when that happens, but the predominate pattern is that of us having to get on with things being encouraged by and nourished by what we know God wants us to do, what God has done in Christ. But there’s no quick fix of God just intervening around like some kind of nanny, and stopping us doing things. One of the things that we have to learn is that this world is a dangerous and we learn the most difficult lessons through the hardest way, which is by being exposed to them. And certainly if you look at writers like Voltaire, they will say, well you know, maybe there is a God who could take all these things away and we live in a sort of rather pampered way when nothing ever happens to us, but that actually isn’t really living.
Dawkins: I understand every word of what you just said and I respect it totally. What I am worried about is the inconsistency of what you’ve just said, with what you said when I asked you whether God saved that child, because it seems to me that by answering yes to that question, you precisely were admitting that God does intervene as a nanny from time to time. He chooses to sometimes, he doesn’t choose to other times. Why don’t you just say he doesn’t intervene at all? Then I would understand exactly what you were saying, but you seemed to me to be inconsistent, sort of jumping about in your answers. Sometimes you say that God doesn’t intervene and you make a very eloquent case for why it would be a rather undignified sort of thing to do as a God. On the other hand, you say he does intervene, when he rescue one child from an earthquake.
McGrath: [speaking to the crew] I think I’m been over this ground, do you want to re…I have covered this to some extent…
Dawkins: Well, have you? Because I…
McGrath: Just wondering…
Director(?): I haven’t quite got it, I haven’t quite got it myself…
Director: …but if you could reformulate it.
McGrath: Reformulate it.
Dawkins: It’s concentrating on this one child…
McGrath: Concentrating on this one child.
McGrath: Okay, right. So, we’re focusing on that one situation.
McGrath: I think that in the case of, for example, a child surviving what tens of thousands of others did not, then clearly, you know, other, some have died, sorry, let me start again, just refocus.
McGrath: I think in the case of a situation where many thousands may have died for example, as in a recent earthquake, yet one survives, obviously there is this very important question, “Did God choose to save that one, if so, what’s wrong with all the others?” And I think the natural Christian instincts, which I believe is correct here, is indeed to speak of God saving that child not because God wanted any others to perish but because God, as it were, chose to save that one. And the whole language here, which we find, for example, in Augustine, is that of God wanting to do something in amidst of a world which is not perfect, and again, the Christian vision of the world is that this is not the way God wants the world to be. It’s the idea of an imperfect or fallen world, a world of suffering, where things happen which God does not want to happen, and the key point again I want to stress is that I do not believe it represents any failure on God’s part that this is a world of suffering, a world of death, a world where things happen which we know God would not want them to happen, and at the same time be able to say that in some way, God is able to bring some good out of these disasters, for example, by saving a person there, by doing something else there.
Dawkins: Well, I think we’ll just have to leave it at that, because I, I think we’ll never going to resolve that.
Director: That’s great, can we just….three points…
Dawkins: We live in difficult times with suicide bombers around the world, and time and again, one gets the feeling that people who perpetrate these atrocious acts are absolutely convinced that they are right. This is not so much a political decision to do something for, or maybe it’s partly a political decision to do something for a political cause that they believe in, I’m sure it is, but also, the total conviction that you’re right to the point where you actually prepare to kill and die for it, is something which even brave soldiers who win the Victoria Cross would hesitate to do. It seems to me that it’s faith that gives people the ultimate courage, they’re often called cowards, of course they are not cowards, courage is the right word, to do these things. That alarms me very much, because I’m accustomed to verbal argument, I’m accustomed to say, ‘Right, we disagree about something, let’s sit down and talk about it.’ But if the other person is so absolutely convinced he’s right that he won’t, not only will he not talk about it, he actually blow himself up and me, because he’s so convinced. I mean, don’t you see that, your faith is obviously not in that category, but faith as something that is taught to children, something that they are taught to believe, because their belief, because they believe, isn’t that a dangerous thing to teach children?
McGrath: I think faith is a very dangerous thing, whether one has faith there is a God, whether one has faith there is not a God. And I would want to say, I think in agreement with you but at the same point diverging from you, that faith can really inspire people to do some dreadful things. But I have to make the point very clearly that faith in God has inspired people to do bad things as has faith in the belief that getting rid of the belief of God would be a good thing for humanity. And I think there’s perhaps something more true about human nature here than specifically about religion. I think that one of the things that I see in human nature is that a worldview, ideology can inspire great acts of generosity or great acts of charity and also great acts of violence. I see that in religion, I see that great acts of charity, and grateful for those, I see acts of violence which I deplore. But in fairness, having studied Atheism during the 20th Century, I have seen both things there as well. I think the real question we are confronted with us as human beings, is simply, if worldview do inspire people, can we please make them do good things, instead of using violence, maybe I’m just dreaming that, but seems to me that there’s something about human nature which makes us go and do bad things, in the name of something, that might possibly be very good.
Dawkins: Yes, and I think we largely agree there, and I think I would only add that faith itself, I would want people to say, I might be wrong, my faith is shakable, that I could be argued out of my position. Now, when you talked about the dangers of faith in the desire to getting rid of religion, I must have been thinking Stalin there, I can’t think of anybody else who’s, uh, somebody like Stalin. Do you think that it was Stalin’s faith in there not being a God that drove him to do all those hideous things, I mean I’d be very surprised if it was.
McGrath: I think Stalin saw religion as being a threat to him. Ideologically, he was a Marxist-Leninist, which meant religion was seen as a cause of many evils, and certainly in the Soviet state schools of this period, religion was taught as a dogma. And I think you and I will probably agree that anything that was taught as a dogma really has the potential to do some very bad things.
Dawkins: Yes. I think it’s a little bit unfair on Atheists to blame them for Stalin, still awful for Hitler, who actually wasn’t an atheist. But, even though Stalin was an atheist, what he was was a dogmatic Marxist, and I thought of feeling it’s rather incidental that he happened to be an atheist, whereas it’s very much not incidental that the suicide bombers are religious, they really believe that it’s the will of God that they should do it, they really believe that if they die as martyrs, they will have a fast track to paradise, which must be a terrific incentive if you believe it, as they undoubtedly do. The author Sam Harris made the rather clear point I thought that it’s easy to understand what’s going on in the world, all you have to do is to realize that these people, he’s talking about Osama Bin Laden and similar people, they really actually believe what they say they believe. And once you can grasp that, everything else follows.
McGrath: I think the atheist critique of religion for doing violent things was very easy in the 19th century, look back to the Spanish inquisition and things like that, but I think we stand at the door of the 21st century, we’ve seen what institute like atheism did in the 20th century. That doesn’t prove there is a God, doesn’t prove there is not a God. I think it simply proves that as human beings we need to be intensely responsible about any ideology and its impact on the way in which we live. There need to be limits, and I think that’s one of the most important outcomes of our discussions this morning.
Dawkins: Yes, I mean I agree with a lot of that. I must object once again to the phrase “institutionalized atheism”. I mean, Stalin was pushing institutionalized Marxism, he happened to be an atheist. Hitler was pushing, well goodness knows, I mean some sort of vague subvardinarian (?) private religion of his own. He never actually renounced his Roman Catholicism, and he sometimes invoked it in his more virulently pantheism speeches, but I wouldn’t wish to claim Hitler was religious, nor would I wish to claim Hitler or Stalin were institutionalized atheism. It is certainly true that there are other ideologies which have caused hideous deaths and destruction and torture and deeply deeply evil. Faith in the wrong hands is to be added to that list, atheism is not because it’s incidental to what Hitler and Stalin did, not a deeply integral part of their worldview.
McGrath: I hear your objections to the phrase “institutionalized atheism”, but in response, I would want to say that atheism is not a sort of add-on belief for a Marxist, it’s core, it’s a central explanatory theme, and it also leads to Marxist program of wanting to eliminate religion by force, when it did not decline as the theory said it would. So we may have difference here about what words we use but I would simply want to say again that the history of the 20th century shows that even atheism which can be benign, even positive in some contexts, can end up mimicking the worst of religion in certain contexts, and therefore again I say the real issue is human nature when we see a worldview that inspires us that makes us think we must do something. Sometimes we do some very good things but I’m afraid history suggests also that we do some very bad things.
Dawkins: Yes, perhaps we might invoke George Orwell in the idea of the Thought Police, the Though Crime. When society chooses to police actions like thieving and murder and that’s part of the law that we all understand, we should all of us be very very worried when society starts to police thought, and that of course was what Stalin did, and what Hitler did. So they were in the business of controlling people to the extent of actually imprisoning them, killing them, because of what they thought. Faith at its worst can do that, faith at its best obviously can’t. There is a sense in which the sort of rational discussing way of doing things, which is what we’ve been doing this morning, is I believe antithetical to faith, but is the kind of thing, un, the faith that I believe is antithetical to was the kind of thing that Stalin would understood, not that he was religious, but, perhaps his earlier training as a seminarian might have given him the idea that controlling thought was the right kind of thing to do, and I think we should simply agree that thought police and all that it implies is deeply evil and deeply wicked, and can have terrible consequences, and we must try and do is to enter into reason discussion together.
McGrath: [Speaking to director] Yeah, how about that.
Director: Good, so now there’s two…[inaudible]
Dawkins: [To director] See, the thing about science and faith being, that’s, I can only go, that all that stuff about God being too complex and things, that’s where I come from.
Dawkins: Do you think science and faith are incompatible?
McGrath: No, and I think the history of the whole interaction of science and religion shows that this idea that there’s perpetual warfare between them is simply historically unjustified, what you can show is at times they are in conflict and at times they work quite well together. And it seems to me that there is obligation on all of us to try and make sure that they work together well in the future as at times they have done in the past.
Dawkins: You’ve written that atheism is in decline, is in twilight. What do you mean by that? Why do you think that?
McGrath: Well, I was researching for a book called “The Twilight of Atheism”. One of the things I noticed that is it’s an appeal shaped largely by cultural factors, where belief in God is seen as a bad thing, atheism began to flourish. We seem to be entering a phase of Western culture where that core belief seems to be eroded. There’s new interests in post-modern culture about spirituality. And what I see happening, and I don’t say it makes it right or anything like that, what I see happening is people beginning to talk instead about spirituality instead of atheism. This is particularly evident among younger people and that made me wonder, amongst many other things, whether atheism actually was beginning to lose its appeal it once had in a more modernist culture.
Dawkins: What about the sort of spiritual atheist, if I could call in that phrase, somebody like Einstein who was a deeply spiritual man but who didn’t actually believe in a supernatural God?
McGrath: Well, it’s a very interesting we’ve had about whether Einstein was an atheist, certainly he was not a conventional theist, but I think I would want to raise questions about whether he could be said as an atheist as a result. But that example aside, I think I can certainly agree that there are many atheists who feel that it is natural or proper for human beings to explore more spiritual side. I have no difficulty with that, but seems to me that there is an inconsistency there between a fundamentally atheist view point, particularly a Marxist view point that stresses the material side of life and this growing interest in the spiritual side of things which was seen all around us.
Dawkins: I would call myself a spiritual atheist in that I do not believe in anything supernatural, but I have a deep reverence and wonder at the mysteries of the universe and a desire to understand them, while at the same time feeling that supernatural explanations for them are never going to be helpful.
McGrath: I think we have a very interesting disagreement then on what the word ‘spiritual’ means, because certainly I know many atheists like you who would talk about sense of awe in the presence of nature. Others would say no this is more than just a human response to nature, there is something there, which is eliciting response and they would use a language of spirituality or the spiritual to actually mean something that is not simply in nature but actually goes beyond it, even though they wouldn’t use traditional Christian language at all, or to refer to it. I found that development very interesting, I’m not sure where this is going to take us.
Dawkins: Thank you.
McGrath: Just one question for Richard. If I just phrase it to him, and then we’ll see where we go. I enjoyed your writings very much and one of the things I’ve noticed is that in your writings we have what we might call double critique of religion. There is a sort of intellectual critique, in your view, religions do not have adequate evidential foundations, but alongside that, I occasionally detect flashes of anger that this is something that is bad that is evil, the world would be a better place if things were to change. And so I suppose my question really is this why the anger? What is it that really makes you cross about the way religious people think or behave?
Dawkins: I think two possible answers to that. One would be relating to the evidential point first. I think that religion teaches people to stop questioning. I’m sure you disagree with that but the way I see it, it is such a privilege to be born at all, it’s very improbable event that either of us were born. We have the privilege of being in this universe for a few decades, and during that time, it is an enormous privilege to be able to understand something about the universe in which we live, why we are here, why we were ever born, where we come from. And I think that’s such a wonderful thing to be able to do, that I am hostile, I can get angry about competing accounts which seem to me to not encourage that kind of questioning, that instead to say “this is how it is, it’s all written in the Holy book, it’s written 2000 years ago” and that’s the end of it. I think that deprives people, I think that is such a belittling, a demeaning view of the universe, I think it’s tragic that children are brought up with that when they could be brought up in a more open-minded way. That’s one reason for the anger. The other reason, we’ve touched upon, it is that I do think faith, unsupported by evidence is a lethal weapon, now it doesn’t have to be, of course it doesn’t have to be, but it can be. It’s a weapon because possibly unscrupulous people can get hold of, often young men, and use them as weapons, use them as human bombs. And the only reason they can be deployed as human bombs is that they have been brought up from childhood up onwards to believe implicitly, without questions, that whatever the particular religion is, the details don’t matter. The point is, they do believe, that it is the willing of God that they should detonate themselves and blow up a bus-load of people or blow up a skyscraper in New York. I don’t think that any kind of reason argument would do that to people. And so I believe that religion, religious faith is an enormously powerful, psychological weapon. It isn’t always used for the bad, of course, but the fact that it can be used for the bad makes me want to cut it off of their roots, and at the very least, to stop the inculcation into children of the idea that there is something virtuous in faith. I am very concerned, I suppose I can call it the third reason of hostility. I am very concerned with the way children coming into the world, innocent and knowing nothing, are taken over by the religion or whatever cult that they happen to be brought into, it doesn’t happen to everybody, but it’s very common. And so you see children being labeled, in Northern Ireland, ‘This is a Catholic child,’ ‘This is a Protestant child,’ with all that it implies in the really appalling cultural circumstances due to the history of Northern Ireland. I would much rather to say, ‘This is a child.’ Perhaps you could say this is a child of Catholic parents or this is a child of Protestant parents. But to tie a label around a tiny child, ‘This is a Catholic child’, when the child is clearly too young to know what he thinks about transubstantiating or whatever it is that differentiates Catholics from Protestants. And it’s no argument to say, in reply, that the conflict in Northern Ireland is all about politics and historical rivalry. Of course it is, but the labeling of children, generation after generation after generation down the generations, only exacerbates the problem. And it’s bound to do so.