Ministering Amid Conflicting Cultural Beliefs : Alister McGrath
What can we learn from conflicting ideologies like New Atheism and others that can help us be more effective in ministry? In this week’s conversation on FrontStage BackStage, host Jason Daye is joined by Dr. Alister McGrath. Alister is a respected professor and the director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University. He is a prolific writer, and his latest book is entitled Coming To Faith Through Dawkins. Together, Alister and Jason discuss the importance of looking for opportunities in cultural belief systems that allow us to point people to Jesus. Alister also shares a rising ideology that we need to be aware of and also how we can minister to people who are wrestling with it.
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Additional Resource Links
www.ianramseycentre.ox.ac.uk – Explore Alister’s profile page to discover his impressive research interests, a captivating list of his books, and articles that are sure to inspire and intrigue you.
Coming to Faith Through Dawkins: 12 Essays on the Pathway from New Atheism to Christianity – Editors Denis Alexander and Alister McGrath gather other intelligent minds from around the world to share their startling commonality: Richard Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists were instrumental in their conversions to Christianity. Spending time in this fascinating and powerful book is like being invited to the most interesting dinner party you’ve ever attended.
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Ministry Leaders Growth Guide
Key Insights and Concepts
- World belief systems can lead to doubt and skepticism upon closer examination, which is why critical thinking is vital.
- The act of critiquing the gospel while exempting one’s own beliefs from scrutiny reveals a common bias in evaluating worldviews.
- Christ followers need to be careful that they critique beliefs, not people. All critiques must be shared in a way that demonstrates that people matter and are cared for.
- The gospel maintains its power to resonate profoundly and meaningfully in people’s lives and will remain the only thing that can truly transform people.
- At the core of human searching lies a desire for transformation, profound satisfaction, and enduring purpose, which can only be truly found in Christ.
- Overreaching and drawing conclusions beyond the available evidence can undermine the credibility of any argument or belief system.
- The perceived arrogance of the New Atheism, which dismissed faith and religious individuals, generated skepticism among those seeking intellectual humility and caused them to continue seeking truth.
- People often seek new beliefs or philosophies as a reaction to negative experiences, searching for something they perceive as better. Christ followers can use this opportunity to share something truly life-changing.
- Effectively addressing the challenges posed by the post-truth generation requires articulating the biblical concept of truth as something trustworthy rather than just correct.
- Building personal connections and sharing one’s faith story can create meaningful dialogues that lead to deeper understanding, seeking, and acceptance.
- Pastors and ministry leaders can learn from those who have come from New Atheism or other worldviews to help them more effectively minister in their communities.
Questions for Reflection
- Have I ever encountered a situation where my initial beliefs or convictions were challenged, leading to doubt and skepticism? How did I navigate finding the answers to those questions?
- Do I tend to critique and question the beliefs of others while exempting my own from scrutiny? How can I work on being more objective in evaluating worldviews?
- How do I approach critiquing the beliefs of others, especially when those beliefs are deeply personal? How can I ensure that my critiques show respect and care for the individuals holding those beliefs?
- What do I think lies at the core of human searching for meaning and purpose? How can I best share with others that only the gospel has the power to truly satisfy them?
- Have I ever encountered situations where overreaching and drawing conclusions without sufficient evidence weakened the credibility of an argument or belief system? How can I avoid making this mistake in my own thinking?
- Have I personally experienced negative events or circumstances that led me to seek new beliefs or philosophies? What can I learn from this experience when it comes to sharing my faith with others who are searching?
- How do I define the concept of truth in my own life? Do I view it as something merely correct or as something trustworthy? How does this definition impact how I engage with others who have differing beliefs?
- Have I ever successfully built personal connections with individuals from different belief backgrounds and shared my own testimony? How did these interactions contribute to deeper understanding and seeking on both sides?
- How can I utilize the experiences and insights of individuals I know who have transitioned from perspectives like New Atheism to better teach and guide my congregation or community?
- Do I recognize the importance of pastors and ministry leaders in helping communities navigate the complexities of new belief systems?
- How is our local church engaging with people of other belief systems? Is this an area we need to explore more thoughtfully? If so, when and how will we explore this?
What can we learn from conflicting ideologies like New Atheism and others that can help us be more effective in ministry?
In this episode, I’m joined by Dr. Alister McGrath. Alister is a respected professor and the director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University. He is a prolific writer, and his latest book is entitled Coming To Faith Through Dawkins. Together, Alister and I discuss the importance of looking for opportunities in cultural belief systems that allow us to point people to Jesus. Alister also shares a rising ideology that we need to be aware of and also how we can minister to people who are wrestling with it. Are you ready? Let’s go.
Hello, friends, and welcome to another exciting episode of FrontStage BackStage. I’m really excited about today’s conversation. Every single week, I have the opportunity to sit down with a trusted ministry leader and dive into a topic all in an effort to help you and pastors and ministry leaders just like you embrace a healthy rhythm in life and ministry. And we are proud to be a part of the Pastor Serve Network. Along with every single episode, our team creates an entire toolkit to help you and the team at your local church dig more deeply into the conversation at hand. And you can find that toolkit at PastorServe.org/network. We encourage you to take advantage of that resource. And then at Pastor Serve we love walking alongside pastors and ministry leaders and our team is offering a complimentary coaching session. You can learn more about that at PastorServe.org/freesession. Now, if you’re joining us on YouTube please give us a thumbs up and take a moment to drop your name and the name of your church or your ministry in the comments below. Our team loves to get to know our audience better and we’ll be praying for you and for your ministry. Whether you’re joining us on YouTube or your favorite podcast platform, please be sure to subscribe or follow so you do not miss out on any of these great conversations. As I’ve said I’m excited about today’s conversation. At this time I’d like to welcome Dr. Alister McGrath to the show. Alister, welcome!
Well, it’s great to be with you. Thank you for having me.
Yes, so good to have you. Thank you for making the time to join us, Alister. You and your colleague, Dennis Alexander, have released a new book. You’ve recently edited and released a brand new book that when I first received honestly, the title did not seem to make a ton of sense, which was very smart Alister, because it intrigued me, it kind of pulled me in. But it’s entitled, Coming To Faith Through Dawkins, which again, raises a lot of questions for us. As I looked into your book further, it invited me to really consider how we, as regular week-in week-out pastors and ministry leaders, those of us who are not necessarily professors at Oxford, or Cambridge, or are not running in the highest levels of academia, how do we or how can we better respond to some of these major ideologies that are presented or that arise? How can we do this on a grassroots level in our own communities, or in our own congregations and parishes? And so first, Alitser, I want to thank you for being with us. But thank you for taking the time, for you and your colleagues doing the work that helps us better understand how people are sorting and sifting through some of these big questions about truth, meaning, religion, and spirituality. So thank you for that, my friend. Alister, I want to begin with this fascinating connection that you began seeing between New Atheism and coming to faith in Christ. And, Alister, I would love it if you could just start us off with maybe a refresher course, about new Atheism. And then, share with us what you uncovered in this unique connection here.
Well, I’d be delighted to do that. The new Atheism really began to appear about 2006 when Richard Dawkins wrote his book, The God Delusion, and it captured media headlines. Christopher Hitchens joined them in 2007 with God is Not Great. And for a lot of people, this was the future. We were entering a dramatic new phase in Western culture. It’s all going to be atheist. Every thinking person needs to be an atheist, and it’s all very dramatic, and people like me got involved in this discussion, but it has moved on. And in many ways, what Dennis Alexander and I found was that people were coming to our offices in effect, saying, We want to know more about science and religion type things because we’ve read Richard Dawkins, but it doesn’t really make sense. And what we were noticing is, more than that, a lot of the people would say, well, it didn’t make sense. In fact, when we began to look into what Richard Dawkins was saying, it was clearly inadequate, it was clearly badly argued. And so we thought, Well, look, this guy is really critiquing Christianity. Can we trust this guy? Maybe we need to check this out for ourselves. And so one of the constant themes in these conversations was, we thought Dawkins was right. But we thought we better check it out. And when we did, it wasn’t. And so we have a stream of very intelligent people, often people who are in their 20s, when in fact, they said, Look, Dawkins was the stimulus that brought this effect because he made us think about Christianity, which otherwise we wouldn’t have done. So this is really interesting. And so Dennis Alexander and I thought, well, we ought to do something about this. So we persuaded 12 very interesting people, men and women from five different nations, to tell their stories in their own way, in their own words, to just say, look, what happened. And so we have 12 narratives. Sometimes it’s about their faith being stimulated by Dawkins, quite often, it’s about coming to faith because of Dawkins. And that’s a twist to the new Atheism story, which nobody expected. And I think this would be really interesting for pastors because these guys are telling stories, they’re saying, Here’s what made me change my mind. And you know, I think we can all learn from this because you can, in fact, weave this into sermons, you can use these guys in the book as examples to say, well, you know, Dawkins thought he was great. But look at this guy. Here’s what she said. And this is really important. So I think this book will give you a lot of help in preaching and apologetics. And it will encourage you, I think, in your ministry.
Yeah, I love that, Alister. And the encouragement piece, I think, is huge. Because so often we look around at the world, right? And we think, Oh, man, everything is looking rough. There are all these ideologies, all these different cultural pushes that seem to be warring against Jesus and the kingdom. And sometimes we can get discouraged by that. But as you’ve shared, these are phenomenal stories of people who faced what culture was throwing at them. And yet through that, were able to discover the hope and the truth of Jesus, which is incredibly encouraging. Alister, what are some of the elements that you saw in these different stories that stood out to you the most in how these people were navigating and how Jesus or the spirit was interacting with them in their search?
Well, that’s a really good question, because you may well find that pastors will pick up on these things and say, Hey, this could really help me in my ministry. Let me tell you the themes that keep coming up. One of them is that, as you’ll read Dawkins and to a lesser extent, Hitchens, they felt these guys were overreaching. You know, they’re drawing conclusions that go way beyond the evidence. And that made them suspicious. Look, these guys are way over-interpreting things. It’s not that simple. And that’s one of the reasons why they felt they were going to check this out. So that’s the first thing to say that Dawkins overreaches. He goes way beyond what the evidence is about. Secondly, one of the things that many of these people bring up in their personal testimonies is that they were quite astonished by the arrogance of the New Atheism. In other words, we are the right guys, religious people are just idiots, they aren’t worth taking seriously. This idea of condescension, and people thought, well this can’t be right. These guys are in effect dismissing faith, they’re not taking it seriously. They’re not engaging properly. Maybe there’s something they don’t want us to know. Maybe they’re frightened about something. Let’s go and find out for ourselves. Now, that’s a very interesting point. A third point that comes up again and again is, hey, these guys are critiquing Christianity. Okay, well, fair enough. But what they are doing is using criteria to judge the gospel that they don’t apply to their own views. In other words, they’re in effect, saying, Well, I can critique you, but you can critique me. And again, people thought this was just not fair. It’s not balanced. And so you’ll find a lot of material in here from people saying, in fact, look, I thought, there’s something, in England we will say, fishy here. And there’s something not right. And then people began to say, look, they’re trying to hide something. We’re gonna find these things out for ourselves. We’re going to check this out for ourselves. So the three themes there, I think you could easily weave into your preaching or teaching. And you may well find as you talk about this with church members that actually a lot of them say, Hey, I know exactly what you mean. And it may well be you’re able to, in effect, help members of your congregations minister to people who they know who have been impacted by the New Atheism. And that’s a really important point. This book may help you to help key people in your congregation reach out beyond the church to people who they know who are being affected by Dawkins or Hitchens. There’s a lot here that might be really useful.
Yeah, I agree. And as I read through, those were a lot of the thoughts that were going through my head were about the practicality of this. And this is not something honestly, Alister, until I received this book that I honestly really even thought of, or considered, or saw those connections. So again, thank you for drawing this together for us, because it does help us I think missionally in ministry think through how people are receiving information, how people are processing information, and thinking about these bigger questions. And then what are the opportunities for us as Christ followers? It’s interesting, Alister, it seems like oftentimes, when different ideologies arise, or cultural beliefs arise, such as New Atheism, that oftentimes our first response from the church is simply to just defend, right? Just to defend, defend, defend. But as I got more deeply into this book, I began to think through that there are probably better ways. Not that defense is bad. But there are probably other ways that we can begin to look for opportunities. The opportunities that these ideologies, these cultural thrusts, open up. The questions that they open up. Can you talk to us a bit, Alister, about how we in ministry, as Christ-followers, in our relationships, maybe can look at some of these different ideologies, some of these different things, and look at them in a way that might be more effective when it comes to ministry and engagement with those around us?
Well, Jason, that’s a really good question. So let me talk a bit about that. I mean, when you look at things like the New Atheism, what you’re seeing is people who are looking for something that’s going to really satisfy. And they want you all to say, there’s something I can buy into. Very often, they do so because they’ve had a bad experience in the past, a bad experience with a pastor or church or something. Very often, it’s a reactive thing that they’re running away from something and looking for something they think is better. I’ve got a number of things we can tease out. Here’s the first of them. Actually, there are very few people who actually became excited about the New Atheism, who are still excited about the New Atheism. In other words, there’s a very high attrition rate. People are, to use religious language. they’re lapsing. They’re walking away from the New Atheism because it didn’t deliver what it promised. Now, that’s a really important point because as a pastor, you could easily craft a wonderful sermon about the disappointment and the disillusionment of the New Atheism, because both those themes are there in this book. People again, said we were disillusioned, it did not deliver what it promised. It’s all based on false premises. And that’s a major theme. So one thing to bring out in this very clearly is, there’s this deep sense that this movement did not deliver what it promised. The next thing to point out is this. And the New Atheism really rested on sloganeering. In other words, very aggressive rhetoric, you know, God is a delusion, religious people are mad, or bad, or sad, or possibly all three. And I think that one of the things we need to do is to find ways of forming friendships with people, which are going to, in effect, give us a personal link, to have those significant conversations. You say, Look, you know, I know you don’t believe in God, but can I tell you why it’s so important. And one of the things about this book is, it shows how important telling personal stories is. And what I want to say, first of all, to pastors listening to secondly to anybody who’s listening, is a telling your own story of what brought you to faith and what keeps you in faith can be extremely important. One of the great things about this book is there are 12 narratives and 12 stories of interfaith disillusionment with Richard Dawkins. And it doesn’t stop there. Because they say, Well, look, there has to be something better than this. Let’s find it. And they find it in Christ. They find it in the Christian faith. And I think that’s a really important point because it’s not just saying look, the New Atheism is wrong. What we need to show is that we can offer something better. In other words, we are not just negative critics saying you’re wrong. We’re saying look, I’m really disappointed because you clearly haven’t found something very exciting like I have found. Let me tell you about Christianity and why it is so good. So when in fact what these people find is that Dawkins stimulated them to explore Christianity, and they liked what they found. So I think that’s a very encouraging thing. A, because people are saying New Atheism, old. And they’re saying, but there’s something better, which we found. And that ought to encourage all of us the Christian community, of the Christian faith, that the gospel is still able to speak powerfully and meaningfully into people’s lives. And we’ve got to figure out ways of keeping these conversations going so people can hear this news and begin to reflect on the difference it might make to them.
Yeah, absolutely love that, Alister. And I love the idea of story, too. Because the personal story is so powerful. That’s just the reality of how we operate as humans. It’s interesting because some of the things that the New Atheists did, like the sloganeering, like the kind of bashing almost of Christianity and religion. If we aren’t careful, as Christians ourselves, we could slip into those same things, we can get caught up in just bashing everything else around us, or sloganeering ourselves against everything. But you spoke of this idea that it’s more than just tearing something down, but just pointing them to an alternative that won’t disappoint. In the world in which we live today, do you sense, Alister, that many of these ideologies are rising more rapidly than they have in the past? It seems like there are lots of different things, beyond New Atheism, but different things popping up all the time, that are kind of confronting us. Do you sense that ideologies are moving at a faster rate, and maybe even growing and gaining popularity, but then also imploding? Kind of like New Atheism at a quicker rate today in society than we’ve seen in the past?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think we’re seeing multiple ideologies rise and fall very, very quickly. So you know, we’ve just figured out what they are and what we can say in response and then they’re gone. But I think there’s a general point, I think that it’s very important, one is that in trying to deal with these new ideologies, as you were saying a moment ago, we shouldn’t really say wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s much more engaging, like, that’s really interesting. look helped me here. If you’re right, then I think this follows, like, this can’t be right. Can you just help me understand this better? In other words, use probing as a way of critiquing, saying, you know, if you’re talking to Richard Dawkins. If you’re right, Richard Dawkins, then this is implying surely that you can only believe things that you can prove. But you know, your whole book is full of things that actually, as a faith you can’t prove, and how can you live with that, isn’t there an inconsistency there? So I’d encourage you to keep conversations going and probe critically. But there’s another point that really is important. Again, if you’re a pastor, you’re trying to figure out how to respond to these new trends. It’s always good to speak to people in your congregation, who, in effect, have some knowledge of this and can say, look, I came from there. But here’s what moved me back to faith or here’s what I found really helpful in critiquing this because you can learn from them. So I’d encourage you to draw on the wisdom of your congregation, especially if you’re in a big urban church, where very often you’ll find that people there who’ve kind of had been thinking these thoughts because they can really help you in trying to craft sermons or develop lines of argument that might really help your church as a whole.
Yeah, I love that. I love that, Alister. And one of the things again, that your book really emphasizes is the relational aspect of all of this. And oftentimes we can think of this real deep thinking as something that’s done in a study away somewhere or in some university, and yet, there is a very, you know, the things that we’re discussing, obviously, have a very life on life application. Alister, talk to us a little bit about how we can go from getting just caught up and kind of head down digging in, studying, and probing, but that we need to kind of get into the relational aspect and how do we do that in a fashion that is most effective?
Yeah, I think that is a very important point, here is one suggestion that I would make that might be very helpful. Try and separate the person from the ideology. In other words, when you’re dealing with somebody who, let’s just give an example, is a New Atheist. Don’t critique the person. Don’t say, look, I think you’re very, very stupid to believe that or say it’s just nonsense, I don’t know why you’re doing it. Say, in fact, look, you’re my friend, Bill, I really like you. I have a problem with this New Atheism, though. I’m not quite sure what you see in it and here are some problems I have. In other words, what you’re doing is in effect, helping this person to see that who they are is not critically dependent on the New Atheism. They can, in effect, change and embrace something else. And it’s really important to try and avoid attacking the person but try to critique the ideas. Now, again, that’s a theme that comes out very much in this book, but people saying Dawkins critiques religious people, and they don’t like that they feel it’s really quite insulting. You know, Dawkins doesn’t say, there are some difficulties with this religious belief, he says, religious people are fools. So you can see that he’s really going for the people rather than the ideas. So what I would suggest is that you try and keep a personal relationship with people who are interested in these ideologies, but use the strength of that relationship to begin to say, maybe it’s not as simple as you think, maybe there’s another way of looking at, and finding ways of injecting your own thoughts into that conversation. The relationship really matters, they need to trust you. And because they trust you and like you, they’re more likely to listen to what you’re saying. Saying, there might be something in that I’ll go away and think about that.
Yeah, that’s great. And I love how we see and how you’ve demonstrated with some of the concerns and critiques that these individuals had with New Atheism, that it was being dismissive not only of religion altogether, but almost dismissive of anyone who adhered to religion. And so it was that almost personal attack. And that’s something that we need to be sure that we’re careful with as well and I appreciate that reminder. Alister, New Atheism arose, it did its thing, as you said, it’s begun to crumble and implode, and there are people leaving that belief system. Are there other ideologies or belief systems that you see on the rise that are gaining acceptance, gaining popularity, similar to how New Atheism had, that we, as ministry leaders should be aware of, or on the lookout for and what might that look like in today’s world?
I think, again, this is a very good question. I’m going to mention one because this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot myself recently. But Time Magazine once had a front cover with “Is truth dead?” In other words, it’s about the rise of a post-truth generation, which is saying in effect, look, it’s what I think is right, it’s what I believe that matters, I decide what’s right, I decide what’s wrong. And that’s something I think that a lot of younger people in particular, but not simply younger people, do take very seriously. A self-referential world where I decide what’s right and I decide what’s wrong. And personally, I think that this is something we need to be aware of. And again, one thing I would counsel is don’t critique the person, just say, look, I think there’s a difficulty for this position, the idea that whatever I decide is right, is right. Because, if you’re a scientist, you can see immediately the problem there because you’re trying to find out what is really right. I think one of the ways of beginning to deal with the post-truth generation is actually to become very biblical and ask what is the biblical idea of truth about. And sure, it’s partly about things being right. But it’s really about the quest for something we can trust. Someone we can trust. I mean, in the Old Testament, in particular, to think about God’s truth is to say, what God says and does can be trusted. And we’re all looking for something that can be trusted in life, not simply saying, in effect, look, you think this is right, so it is right. But rather, here is something that proves to be trustworthy. And again, that’s one of the reasons why personal testimonies are so important. Because you as a pastor, or your congregation, can tell stories of here is how I discovered that the Christian faith could be trusted and proved to be transformative. And that is something we do need to say because, in the end, people are really looking for something that’s going to change them as people, to give them deep satisfaction, and to keep them going. And we’ve got to do is to try and say, Look, Christianity does that, it works. And by the way, it’s also true. So if you begin by saying this changes you, this is wonderful, and you say but the great thing is, this isn’t something I’ve made up. It’s real. It’s true. So you can really buy into this in a big way.
Yeah, that’s fantastic, Alister, I certainly appreciate that. As we’re kind of winding down this conversation which has been incredibly helpful, by the way. I’ve really enjoyed it. I love to give you an opportunity. You’re speaking to brothers and sisters in ministry, around the world who are serving in local churches, local parishes, and local communities. What words of encouragement would you like to offer to them today?
Well, thank you, Jason, I would love to say a few things. First of all, I want to say how important you are. You’re doing something really significant. What you are doing is you’re taking the Christian faith, which is wonderful. And you’re helping people understand what it means and the difference it makes. You are a kind of critical resource and person who’s interpreting the Christian faith for your congregation, the difference that makes and that’s really important. So I do want to affirm just how important you are. I’ve benefited from the ministry people like you are doing and keep resourcing people like this. The second thing I want to say is this. I think every pastor I’ve known very often has those dark moments when they think, Oh, I’m no good. I can’t do things properly. Why am I doing this? I will say to you keep going, please. Because you may feel weak, you may feel an empty vessel. But there’s real treasure inside you. And you need to keep going and saying, I may not feel I’m very good. But there are things I need to say, there’s truth I need to convey, and there’s encouragement I need to give. But here’s probably the most important thing I want to say to you. And it’s very simple. I love CS Lewis. But CS Lewis very often felt immensely discouraged. He felt I didn’t give a very good talk, or that book I wrote wasn’t very good. Oh, should I give this up? And his friend said, don’t give it up, you’re better than you think. I want to reflect that back to you. Really all this I know can become better. And that’s something to aim for, sure. But now you are doing something that’s really important for people that really matters. And you have such an important ministry to discharge and I want to just encourage you to keep going. And also I hope this book will encourage you as well because it just reminds us that the gospel that’s been entrusted to us is transformative. And there are 12 stories of people who are transformed by it. Take courage from that.
Amen. Brother, that is a great word. Certainly appreciate that encouragement. I want to encourage those of you who were watching along or listening along to check out Alister’s latest book Coming to Faith Through Dawkins. And you can find the links to that book in the toolkit for this episode. And you can find that at PastorServe.org/network. So if you want to be able to find that we have links there for you to do that very, very simply and easily. Alister, it has been such a blessing to have you thank you for making the time to join us from over the pond and carve some time out to have a conversation with us today. We appreciate you, brother.
It’s been great fun. Thank you very much indeed.
Thank you, God bless you, my friend.
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