As well as being the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, the theologian and biophysicist Alister McGrath is now also the Gresham Professor of Divinity, a role that will involve him giving a series of lunch time lectures on science and religion in 2015-16. Eleanor Puttock, The Faraday Institute’s External Communications Officer, visited Alister in Oxford a few weeks ago and asked him a few questions about his work, faith, and the dialogue between science and faith (transcript below).
First of all, what made you go into the field of science and religion?
I studied science at school, and I loved it. It was really exciting, but I thought science was all atheistic stuff: “If you believe in God you can’t do science”; “If you do science you can’t believe in God.” Then when I came to Oxford to study chemistry properly, I suddenly discovered that God was on the option list and that, in fact, it was more than that. I got very excited by the idea of God.
Having become a Christian I had to say, “Ok, here is my religious faith, here is my science, either these two are not going to talk to each other at all or else there is going to be a conversation and I’m going to sort out how they relate to each other.” So since about 1972 I’ve been thinking about this question: “How do science and faith relate to each other?” It is a very important question for me.
You’ve mentioned that you became a Christian, so when did this happen?
It happened in my first year at Oxford. I was thinking through these questions. I decided that I needed to revisit all the issues that I had thought were settled, just to see if they were really quite as straightforward as I had thought. I had just assumed that atheism was obviously right and that Christianity was obviously wrong. On closer reflection, that wasn’t really a very good judgement and so I had to revise things in a very big way. There were people here at Oxford who were very helpful. One of them was a man called Charles Coulson, who was Professor of theoretical chemistry. He was very helpful to me in thinking things through. But certainly, when you have a major change of mind like that, you’ve got to think through how everything in your life hangs together. So, science and faith, that’s a big issue.
Has C.S. Lewis been an inspiration?
Yes he has, I mentioned Charles Coulson who helped me think about science and faith. Lewis was really brilliant in helping me think about faith. I began to read him in 1974, and I know when I began to read him because I still have my first books from that year which are dated February 1974. I find Lewis someone who really gave me an intellectually robust account of the Christian faith. The thing about Lewis is that as you read him, and then you read him again, you get more out of it the second time around. I find I keep going back to Lewis because he is so interesting and engaging.
Have there been any other people who have inspired you over the years?
There have been lots, sometimes people have inspired me to do things or think things. Sometimes I’ve read books and they’ve been very helpful. Actually, C.S. Lewis is someone who really has been there all the time. If you’re asking for other names, then Martin Luther – I read him during my first year at Cambridge in particular in 1978, and he really spoke to me. There are lots of other people like that. Sometimes it is a sustained conversation. Sometimes you read somebody and they really speak to you and actually you don’t really go back to them.
So are you the next C.S. Lewis then?
No, no I am not. There is no next C.S. Lewis. There is C.S. Lewis and that’s it, and I’m very happy with him. We don’t really need a new C.S. Lewis. What we do need are people who are able to give an intelligent, coherent account of the Christian faith in very accessible language. Lewis did that so well. I think we’ve all got to figure out how we try and do it now.
You have a new Professorship where you will be talking about the big questions. Would you like to tell our listeners about that?
I’ve been appointed what is called the Gresham Professor of Divinity. That means that I go to London to the Gresham Colleges in the City of London and give 6 lunchtime lectures a year. I have chosen to give the lectures on the area of the big questions in science and faith, because they are so interesting. Some people want to talk about this. They read Richard Dawkins and say. “Well I know what you’re saying, but it doesn’t actually work. We’ve got to have a better answer than that.” What I want to do in those lectures is to try and give a better answer than what we get from the likes of Richard Dawkins.
I suppose it is a big question, but do you think that in today’s age – where we have people like Brian Cox communicating on the science – there is an even greater need for science and religion to be seen as in harmony?
I think we need to make it absolutely clear that you have to put all the options on the table. The problem is that the media likes simplistic little soundbites. The danger is that an awful lot of the media give us this old fashioned, out-of-date, science versus religion nonsense. It doesn’t work. It’s not right. We need to leave that behind and move on to something better. What I’m saying is that when you get them right, they can talk to each other and do business.
Thank you for opening the eyes of our listeners to some new ideas.
It has been great speaking to you.