Do atheists have a monopoly on science? ‘No’ says theologian Alister McGrath, responding to three questions raised by physicist Jim Al-Khalili  

I’ve always been struck by a question that the sociologist Charles Taylor asks in his book A Secular Age (2007): ‘Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?’ Part of the answer is science – or at least, a particular way of reading science.

Does scientific training lead people to atheism?

There’s no doubt that our culture has turned towards an atheistic way of thinking. I was a product of that culture when I went to university to study biochemistry as an undergraduate. As a confirmed atheist myself, I believed that science and atheism went hand in hand. However, when I took the trouble to investigate the history and philosophy of science, I quickly discovered how shallow that view was. Science simply sets out to try to offer an explanation of the natural world on its own terms. It’s not atheist, or anti-theist; it’s just nontheist, in the sense that it leaves God out of things as a matter of principle.

That’s not really a problem. Christian scientists can easily put God back into their picture of the universe, arguing that this makes much more sense of things than non-theism. If we can only think in terms of natural answers, our best scientific answers to questions about the universe will ultimately reduce to this: ‘That’s just the way things are.’ There is no reference point beyond nature, such as that provided by God.

I was converted to Christianity from atheism because I believed – and still believe – that it makes much more sense of our world than its alternatives. There’s a danger here, of course: my faith could easily become a form of rationalism. Dorothy L Sayers, who was delighted with the way her faith made sense of things, once expressed a fear that she might just have ‘fallen in love with an intellectual pattern’.

I know what she means! Happily, Christianity allows us to link these ‘intellectual patterns’ with God – as in these helpful words from the theologian William Inge (1860–1954): ‘Rationalism tries to find a place for God in its picture of the world. But God…cannot be fitted into a diagram. He is rather the canvas on which the picture is painted, or the frame in which it is set.’ 

Is God a valid explanation for the universe? 

Does God explain things? The Harvard psychologist William James suggested that we could think of religious faith as ‘faith in the existence of an unseen order of some kind in which the riddles of the natural order may be found and explained’. Of course, there’s more to faith than this – but it’s still a great starting point  

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics…and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature - Fred Hoyle

God…cannot be fitted into a diagram. He is…the canvas on which the picture is painted - William Inge

They used to say that if Man was meant to fly, he’d have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to - Captain Kirk

There’s a naivety in just saying there’s no God - Brian Cox  

Faith is about recognising a ‘big picture’ that allows us to make sense of our experience in much the same way as a map makes sense of a landscape. It allows us to see things more clearly, and grasp how they are connected together.

Explaining generally means two things. First, it’s about causes. To say that A explains B means that A causes B. So how do we explain the existence of the universe? That’s very difficult scientifically. The most we can really say is that from the standpoint of science, the universe came into being by processes we don’t really understand, and have no way of checking out. We can’t go behind the ‘big bang’. But you can see how the Christian doctrine of creation fits into this, giving us an explanation of why the universe is there, not just an account of how it happened.

But second, it’s about providing a framework that allows us to see how things interconnect with each other. To explain something is to see the ‘big picture’ – something that brings things into focus, so that we can see how they hang together. That’s what CS Lewis was getting at in his famous remark: ‘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.’

Do we invent or discover meaning?

One of the things that science has made very clear is that human beings actively seek meaning in their lives. That’s just the way we are. For Christians, it means we possess a ‘homing instinct’ for the God who created us, and wants us to come home to him.

But is this just wishful thinking, as many atheists would claim? Do we invent meaning, because we need consolation in a meaningless universe? I don’t think so. The human quest for meaning is just like the quest for food. We need food to survive, and there is food out there waiting to be found. It’s the same with meaning. Our very hunger for it suggests that it is ‘out there’, ready to be discovered. We need a ‘big picture’ to make sense of ourselves and our world.

Christianity makes much more sense of our world than its alternatives

The great British biologist Sir Peter Medawar wrote some words that seem really important here: ‘Only humans find their way by a light that illuminates more than the patch of ground they stand on.’ My own view, which I explore and explain in my new book Inventing the Universe, is that we need both science and faith to help us to make sense of who we are, why we are here, and what we ought to do. Christians don’t think that we invent meaning to cope with a meaningless world. We discern meaning in a world that is created and loved by God. And we need that rich vision to enable us not merely to exist but to live.