Faith will prevail over atheism, Oxford prof McGrath predicts

Atheism is in decline and will lose out to faith, Oxford Professor Alister McGrath predicted during the annual Parchman Lectures at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. (Photo courtesy of Baylor University)

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WACO—Despite its high cultural profile, New Atheism is in decline and will lose out to faith, which makes greater sense of reality, Alister McGrath, professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford, predicted during the annual Parchman Lectures at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.

McGrath, who earned three doctorates—in molecular biology, theology and intellectual history—from Oxford, addressed “Why Faith Makes Sense: Exploring the Rationality of Christianity.” To watch videos of the lectures, click here.

Faith transcends reason

“I was an atheist as a young man,” he said, noting he gradually realized reason, while “wonderful,” is insufficient. The Christian faith, on the other hand, transcends reason, providing a more coherent perspective for understanding the world, he added.

“New Atheism ridicules the ‘irrationality of faith,’” reported McGrath, who has debated New Atheist icons such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. “But it’s in decline, because it’s stale, dull and incredible. It provides unsatisfactory answers to ultimate questions. People want to know more.”

Atheists claim reality is only “what reason and science can demonstrate,” but that is “just wrong,” McGrath said.

Science has its limits

Science fails to provide the certitude atheists claim to demand, he added. For example, scientists do not agree whether the world is a single universe or a multiverse composed of more than one universe.

“The evidence is ambiguous,” he said, noting responsible scientists on both sides of the single universe/multiverse debate will concede, “We believe this is the best theory, but we cannot demonstrate” it is true.

But atheists such as Dawkins ignore the limits of scientific verifiability, he said, adding all people, atheists included, hold many beliefs that cannot be proven but make sense.

That’s because, as 14th century poet Dante Alighieri insisted, “Reason has short wings,” McGrath said. Meanwhile, as 20th century author/theologian C.S. Lewis discovered, “Faith isn’t irrational; it just goes beyond reason.”

Fill in the missing pieces

The ability to transcend reason, to see beyond the limits and through the gaps of rationality, is a major contribution of Christian faith, McGrath stressed. Faith offers the best worldview to “make sense of what we experience.” Faith can accept the contributions of science but then fill in the missing pieces of meaning and understanding.

McGrath compared Christian faith to a lens, which provides focus and clarity to what people can observe of the world.

“Science offers one perspective on reality, and I admire it. But it gives us a limited perspective of reality,” he said. “Faith offers a set of stereoscopic spectacles that enable us to see depth. Faith supplements science.”

Christianity makes sense of experience

Quoting Lewis, he said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

“Christianity makes sense of what science is and is not and its limits,” McGrath added. “Science is very good at taking things to bits to see how they work, but humans need to know how to put them back together to understand what they mean.

Christianity offers the best “empirical fit” for understanding the world, because it surpasses pure reason or science alone for making sense of what humans experience in life, he said.

For example, he cited Peter Medawar, a distinguished scientist and recipient of the 1960 Nobel Prize for medicine. Science is unable to answer childlike, elementary questions that have to do with first and last things—such as why humans are here and what is the meaning of life, Medawar observed.

“Atheism (which claims to limit knowledge to scientific certainty) offers you an emaciated view of the world. It’s bleak, nasty,” McGrath said. “Christianity gives you a way of thinking that makes so much sense,” offering purpose, identity and “the ability to make a difference.”

“New Atheism offers none of this,” he said.

No need to fret

Even when challenged, Christians need not fret because they cannot provide every answer to every scientific or theological question, McGrath noted.

“We don’t have to worry about it all that much. That’s the human condition: We know we cannot prove all the great questions of life,” he said. But Christians can offer their answers to hard questions, as well as reasons for believing them, he assured.

Ultimately, evangelism or defending faith is not a debate to be won, but a perspective to be shared, McGrath said.

“The best way to persuade others is not by argument but by inviting them to step inside (of faith) and see if it helps make sense of things,” he said, citing Lewis. “It is not an illusion, but truth, and truth shall set you free.”

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