The Apologist Retires: An Interview With Alister McGrath

This interview is the first in a brand new feature: “The AF Interview.” These will be regular long form interviews with leading thinkers and writers in relation to the mission of The Davenant Institute.

Future installments will be for paid-subscribers only, but this inaugural interview is free for all. You can subcribe to Ad Fontes here.

“It’s dying right now–you should really see it in summer, or maybe spring.” This is how Alister McGrath described Oxford when we met in the last week of November, just as the Michaelmas term was winding down. The town and colleges were quiet, the bustling undergraduates which one expects in the imagined Oxford absent. The strains of an orchestra rehearsal could be heard drifting out of the Bodleian Library around the corner from Harris Manchester College, where McGrath now sits as a Professor Emeritus. Christmas preparations were underway all around. Everyone was getting ready for The Next Thing.

At the end of October, McGrath, aged 70, retired, relinquishing the Andreas Idreos Professorship of Science and Religion. Officially, he should have retired a year earlier, but squeezed an extra year in to complete a large project. There had been whispers that his recent memoir, Through A Glass Darkly, would be his last book–but not so. I thought it would be, then people kept saying ‘no you can’t! Keep writing!” A quiet retirement, then, is not yet on the cards. “I have a lot of things to do–and I’m looking forward to it. The nice thing is no more administration–so more time for thinking!”

McGrath has made his name in both the Church and the academy as a Christian apologist, articulating a robust engagement between Christianity and science in particular. After brief teen dalliances with atheism and Marxism, McGrath converted to Christianity in his first term as an Oxford chemistry undergrad in 1971. On the ferry journey home across the Irish Sea that Christmas, he felt himself shipwrecked on an island of faith amid the debris of his earlier rationalist certainties. He was there struck with a vision for his future: exploring the island of faith, and finding out how Christianity made sense of the whole of reality.

During his postgrad work in molecular biophysics, this mission led McGrath to pursue a second undergraduate degree in theology, coming under a host of Oxford theological luminaries: Robert Morgan, John Barton, Paul Fiddes, Andrew Louth. This led to the ordination track, and a second doctorate at Cambridge on Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification. In 1999, he was appointed President of Wycliffe Hall, the evangelical ordination college in Oxford. Eventually, becoming frustrated with the Church of England’s refusal to train ordinands in apologetics, he left Wycliffe in 2004 to found the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics–just as the heyday of the New Atheism was beginning (on which, more later). Another post followed at King’s College London in 2008, before a final return to Oxford in 2013.

Fifty years on from his conversion, McGrath describes his final professorship as, in many ways, the culmination of that Irish Sea vision. “It kind of brings all the threads together, because really it’s about bringing history, theology, and science together–those are things I love. And if you look at my earlier career I focussed on this bit then, that bit then, but this thing brought them all together. If you like, it’s a synthetic project.”

McGrath’s career as scientist-cum-theologian-cum-apologist repudiates the post-WW2 popularization of the dichotomy between science and Christianity. In 1971, when McGrath went to Oxford, around 90% of the UK identified as Christian, with only around 10% having no religion. In 2022, Christians, for the first time, became a minority religion in the UK, with 37.2% now claiming no religion. One would think that McGrath, having witnessed this change, would affirm the common narrative of Christianity’s decline in the face of “science.” But it’s just not that simple. “People are beginning to realize,” he says,

that there’s serious intellectual material there to look at. And I think that is something very important: people have begun to realize that the old stereotypes just don’t work, and that there’s a real depth to this field [at the overlap between natural science and theology]. An awful lot of scientists who are religious believers are making those connections, but they need help to make them further. So there’s a very big market there for this kind of discourse.

Curiously, McGrath also says that, unlike when he started out, there are now more actual scientists working at that overlap. “The field has expanded. It’s changed because there are more and more people coming into it from a scientific background, because they want to make the connections between their professional activity and their personal faith.”

Academics, then, do not see the dichotomy between science and Christianity which they once did. The media, however, is a different story, and lags badly behind: “At the popular level,” he says,

we’re still, I think, thinking ‘Christianity vs. science.’ That’s the immediate trope that keeps getting repeated, even though scholarship, in effect, debunked that in the 1990s… But the media keeps repeating this ‘Science vs. religion’ [trope]… In the Darwin Bicentenary, time and time again it was ‘oh it’s Darwin vs. Christianity.’ But Darwin didn’t see it like that! And that’s not the way scholarship sees it today at all. So I think there are lingering stereotypes that are still there that need to be challenged.

The persistence of the narrative is all the more curious because the movement which did the most to cement it in the popular mind in recent times, the New Atheism, has faded away entirely. Spearheaded by its “Four Horsemen”–Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett–the New Atheism dominated pop-level discussion of ideas from 2006 until the mid-2010s. Now, the Four Horsemen have been rather unhorsed. Dennett is nowhere to be seen (“He’s keeping his head down–wisely”, says McGrath); Harris has embraced spirituality and is pegged as a member of the intellectual dark web; Dawkins has been canceled; Hitchens is dead (and many of his opinions have not aged too well). Their once-energetic fans seem to have aged out of Facebook debate; they have few defenders.

McGrath was the chief Christian interlocutor with the New Atheism, in part because he knew Dawkins personally–they are longtime Oxford colleagues. Remarkably, someone first told McGrath he should write a book challenging Dawkins’ view of God in the late 1970s. McGrath declined–he was sure someone else would do it.

Of course, no-one did and things fell to McGrath who, in the early 2000s, found himself in the midst of the New Atheist milieu as it was developing. “I saw it coming”, he says, recounting a closed Oxford debate with Dawkins and Peter Atkins.

We had a right old to-do–it was great fun. And I went away from that thinking ‘this is going to become big.’ And therefore what I decided to do was research Richard Dawkins thoroughly, and I wrote what was in fact an academic book looking at [his] views on science and religion [2004’s Dawkins’ God]. I think I may have been the very first person other than him to read his D.Phil thesis!… So when The God Delusion arrived on the scene [in 2006] it was actually quite easy to write a response, because a) I’d researched him thoroughly, and b) I was able to mimic his language, his argumentative style, and his use of evidence. So, in effect, I was almost able to reverse engineer a rebuttal, using language that would connect up with his intended audience.

Having got the jump on the New Atheism, it was no great surprise to McGrath that the whole thing amounted to a flash in the pan. In person, McGrath is a gentle and softly spoken presence, but he doesn’t mince his words on the inadequacies of the movement:

For a while, people thought ‘this is the future.’ And then I think it dawned on people that these people are critiquing but not providing a viable alternative. I think that became increasingly clear, particularly as the rather misogynistic aspects of the movement–and, dare I say it, racist aspects–[became apparent]. Every single one of the New Atheist leaders is white, middle-class, and Western. There’s a serious issue there I think.

The other thing which I think came out very clearly in a web posting I read by P.Z. Myers–who was a New Atheist and then stopped being one–was [asking]: ‘how did Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens come to be the leaders of that movement?’ Because they were the worst possible choice! They just were an embarrassment. So actually the movement couldn’t be sustained, because these guys were totally inappropriate for the public relations aspect that the job needed.”

For those of us who lived through it, it is hard both to believe that the New Atheism was as big as it was, and that its concerns are simply no longer on the cultural agenda. As Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex has chronicled, the decline in religious belief since around 2010 has been paralleled by a declining interest in atheism, especially online. “There are new issues, and that one is in the past,” says McGrath. “ And it makes it impossible to say ‘what will the new thing be in 10 years time?’ We just have no idea. Looking back to 2006, when the New Atheism began, I could not predict the debates we are talking about now based on what I knew then.”

Indeed. In 2023, many suggest that intense rationalism has given way in the zeitgeist to new creeds of wokeism and identity politics–trends curiously unconcerned with facts such as the reality of biological sex. It is pointing such things out which has left Richard Dawkins out in the cultural cold. What does McGrath make of this shift?

I think that’s a concern. Dawkins is really a sort of 18th century rationalist, and therefore the idea of constructing your identity, that’s mad to him. He’s very modern. And I think that’s one of the reasons why the New Atheism didn’t get the traction it otherwise might: he did not take time and trouble to work out how to engage a modern-postmodern readership…

The New Atheism really seems to, in effect, be saying something like ‘science and reason tell you what’s right, and that’s it.’ And of course there’s been this massive movement away from that. It’s a bit like rediscovering Weber’s iron cage of rationalism, and realizing [that] this imprisons you. So actually one of the reasons that the New Atheism got abandoned is that people felt this was constricting–it did not help you flourish. Although I’m puzzled by the way that some movements have developed, in many ways they are concerned with social justice and flourishing.

Richard Dawkins got very angry recently about a decision made by the New Zealand government. For reasons of social justice, they said, we have to look at Maori views of the origins of the universe. Dawkins wrote a furious letter saying ‘this is outrageous!’

Alongside apologetic issues, McGrath’s career has been concerned with the study and teaching of Christian doctrine, particularly that of the Reformation. His classic Christian Theology: An Introduction (first published in 1993) remains a staple textbook, and new editions of his Reformation Thought and Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification have recently been published.

Much as with Christianity and science, the length of McGrath’s career means that he has seen seismic changes in people’s interest in the Reformation. “All the classic questions are still there”, he says, “but there are others being added–mostly to do with the legacy of the Reformation.” The academic field, likewise, has transformed, including the study of Martin Luther, the subject of McGrath’s old thesis.

Luther is now seen in a much more healthy way as a person who is positioned in a flux. In other words, he is changing this direction, but he is, in effect, creating a culture in which it can change further. And therefore, in effect, Luther is not someone of whom you can really say ‘that is a new fixed point’. It’s much more Luther enabling a process of development, whether you’d call that progress or not. So that has certainly changed.

As with his anticipations of the New Atheism’s rise and fall, McGrath has been vindicated by the growing popular awareness of the Reformation as a period of renewal and retrieval, rather than one of dramatic novelty. It was precisely this sense which sparked his imagination under Gordon Rupp in Cambridge in the late 1970s.

I took in the whole rich range of Reformation writers and I found them astonishingly interesting–particularly when you look at them as people who had inherited something, and were moving it in a new direction, because people very often portray the Reformation as something which just kind of dropped in from nowhere. But actually it’s not–it’s about saying ‘we are entering a new stage in history, we’ve got to refashion the tradition to cope with the new pressures.’ And actually, for me, although this may sound paradoxical, the Reformation is a bit of a renewal movement, and I was very attracted by that.

Of all the ructions in these areas during McGrath’s career, none have perhaps been more dramatic than the New Perspective on Paul. McGrath began his studies on Luther’s view of justification a year after E.P. Sanders published his famous Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977. Having gotten to know a young research assistant by the name of N.T. Wright at Oxford in the 70s, one might wonder if McGrath has ever felt drawn into this debate. His interests, however, have always lain more in tracing the history of the doctrine, rather than innovating upon it.

I keep reviewing the scholarship, and there are points at which I think some of my thoughts might need tweaking. But in many ways what I’ve been trying to do is to paint this picture of how the subject developed, and [to] try and tease out the themes I think I see there. And one of them is [that] nobody really quite agrees what justification is. In fact, Tom Wright, I think, wrote a review of [Iustitia Dei] once in which he said ‘Alister tells you everything you want to know about justification except what it is!’ And actually it’s a fair point, but my response would be, look, it’s a historical account.

McGrath’s mastery of both science and theology–the “two mountains”, he calls them–left him uniquely placed for what he feels has been his life’s vocation: a public theologian. In this role, he has passionately advocated for the importance of apologetics, founding the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics in 2004. The rise of OCCA and other apologetics institutions is, McGrath thinks, down to the dangerous failure of churches and seminaries to train their preachers in the discipline. “I think really what has happened in effect is that individuals and organizations outside the Church of England have arisen to provide the resources necessary. That’s particularly true in North America, but even here in the UK there are other people who are trying to plug that gap.”

How disastrous have the results of the Church of England’s failure to engage apologetics been?

I don’t know if it’s reaped the whirlwind. I think what it has done is it’s meant that the clergy are not seen as people who are able to resource their congregations in facing up to some of the challenges of our day and age.

When people talk about the Church of England they tend to think in terms of its contributions toward the social fabric of the nation. But I don’t think they really are looking for any significant intellectual contributions–although Rowan Williams is talked about quite a lot in quite positive terms. But he’s the exception, I think… He is a mind. Even though he and I probably disagree on quite a few things, I would always say to myself ‘I need to be able to show why I do disagree with this guy, because he is a significant thinker.’ He is able to convey the sense–I’ve seen this done very well in interviews–that there is something enormously substantial here, which he is trying to articulate and that those who are interviewing him are picking up. It’s very difficult to dismiss Rowan.

As McGrath enters retirement then–albeit a busy one–one wonders where the next generation of public theologians such as he or (for all his flaws) Rowan Williams will come from. “What I think tends to happen is that people simply emerge. Something happens that propels them to prominence, or they write a book or they give a talk and it gets noticed.”

Yet the world in which any new public theologian may emerge is not the one in which McGrath made his name. Even in the days of the New Atheism’s steepest sneers, a credentialed believer such as McGrath could still hold the public’s ear, and his interlocutors were willing to engage him openly. Much has changed since then, ranging from our cultural climate to our forms of media–the New Atheism was arguably the last great pre-social media intellectual phenomenon.

McGrath, then, is measured in any speculation on the future of public theologians.

Attention spans are dwindling, and someone rises to prominence and falls from prominence very, very quickly these days. So I personally think that the future may be rather different. I’m thinking in terms of the shift in the media–the rise of social media and things like this are really changing things in a big way. And of course the ability to self-publish on YouTube or other things is really meaning that people now can rise very, very quickly without having to go through the traditional thing of print publication. So I really don’t know!

At almost every turn, McGrath reminds one of C.S. Lewis–a rationalist convert at Oxford, integrating his academics with his faith in a grand vision of reality and defending the faith in public. For Lewis, the great love was literature; for McGrath, science. Unsurprisingly, McGrath is also a Lewis expert, and regards Lewis as a lifelong intellectual companion. His work often tingles with the same Joy that marks Lewis’s. As our interview wraps up, I ask him if he’s considered turning his hand to fiction in retirement–I sense he’d be good at it. “I’ve dabbled with it, but I don’t think I write well–that’s the problem! So the answer is that I’d love to do it but I don’t think I could, really–but it’s a challenge!”

As we part, I wonder whether he’s underselling himself. McGrath’s long, distinguished career has been the story of him rising to one challenge after another, whether on the mountain of science or the mountain of faith. Perhaps he has a Narnia in him yet, I think, as I set off from the college upon the cobbles and dusk began to fall on Oxford.

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