Alister McGrath talks with Bret Weinstein

FeaturedAlister McGrath talks with Bret Weinstein

The popular Unbelievable? show, an apologetics and theology discussion program  hosted by Justin Brierly on Premier Christian Radio, launched The Big Conversation video series in 2018. The series showcases civil conversations between world-class Christian and secular thinkers, and has featured Jordan Peterson, Daniel Dennett and Peter Singer amongst others. I attended the live recording of John Lennox and Michael Ruse in 2018. Season 2 has now launched, and I’ve just been to hear Alister McGrath talk with Bret Weinstein (the video will be released later in the year).

Alister McGrath needs no introduction. A professor of theology at the University of Oxford, he has a background in biochemistry and is known for his Christian apologetics and work on the relationship between science and religion. Bret Weinstein is rather less well known in the UK. He’s an evolutionary biologist, and infamous for his controversial departure from Evergreen State College.

We began with some introductions. Alister described how studying the philosophy of science helped to disperse his logical posivitism – the view that only claims verifiable through empirical observation are meaningful – and this helped move him from atheism towards Christianity.  He opined that “New Atheism” pioneered by Richard Dawkins is waning – it helped open up discussion but soon we became aware of the paucity of most New Atheist answers. Bret agreed that New Atheism was overly simplistic, but it was necessary to make atheism more acceptable in society. One flaw was its labeling of people with faith as delusional. Bret believes each perspective has a validity not well recognised by the other. Each has a “bitter pill” to swallow – more on that later, as it became a recurring theme.

Bret is an evolutionary biologist, but believes Evolution 101 is inadequate to explain human complexity. Humans are at the far end of the evolutionary continuum, and we have culture. We can store and transmit information. Bret sees Dawkins’ idea of memes as being crucial. Because children have a long period of development, it allows us to program them with our ideas, and over time evolution selects the most favourable belief systems – those with adaptive value. According to Bret, this is certain. Religion is one of these belief systems, and Bret regards it as metaphorically true – a useful fiction that allows those who hold to these beliefs to out-compete those who do not.

Alister asked what Bret meant by religion, pointing out that we could easily be talking about ethics. He also noted that science has its own belief system. Bret agreed that the bitter pill for materialists is that some faith is required to do science. His job is to minimise faith and metaphorical truths. Alister agreed that science is at times very provisional and tentative. We can’t prove our most cherished beliefs.

The discussion moved to the postmodern conception of truth. Bret thinks believing whatever you like a la carte is nonsense. We need a coherent set of beliefs, like religions, which contain much wisdom. But there is a huge problem. Religious texts are not designed to be consistent – interpreters such as clergy are required to dispense a coherent narrative. In the past, this has worked successfully, but the church no longer has the authority to control religious text. The world is in crisis, and our religious texts can no longer help. Much is no longer relevant, parts are immoral, and they don’t tell us how to deal with new tools we come up with. The Bible doesn’t tell us whether we should enrich uranium!

Alister agreed that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of today. Every reading of the Bible is embedded in a cultural context, and we must recognise this and draw on past cultural readings – but at the same time ensure we are not locked into a reading of Scripture rooted in the past. Christianity does have the capacity to make sense of it all. Science helps us understand how, religion with why. Alister quoted C.S. Lewis’ well known saying: ‘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’.

Bret is of the opinion that religion can’t lead us through the uncharted waters we face today.  There is great urgency to stop the battle and obtain new tools for doing what we need to do. We need new wisdom, and violating the sacred is necessary. Unfortunately, religious texts have a plan interwoven to compete against other populations, and that isn’t sustainable. We have to step away from evolutionary competition, take evolution out of the driver’s seat, and start cooperating. How can we give the maximum number of humans a beautiful planet to live on? Alister admired such noble aspirations, but noted that evolution doesn’t allow for ethical imperatives – the empirical doesn’t lead to the normative.

There were some great questions asked after the discussion.  One of the best was when someone ask what the evolutionary benefit of following Jesus in the first century was – clearly, not much. Bret thought this was merely survivor bias – there are lots of belief systems out there, and some sneak through out of luck. I’m not sure how this answer fits with his idea that religion has adaptive value – perhaps he means over the much longer term? Alister added that religion gives the social benefits of solidarity.

Another question asked how important a belief in God was, rather than just believing in the right moral framework. According to Bret, deity is a hack. God is always watching to prevent wrongdoing that is ultimately against your best interests. An ethical system isn’t watching you. Bret added that there are such things as absolute wrongs, which is interesting.

Someone commented that revering Scripture privileges writers from 2000 years ago, rendering current thinkers less influential, even though current thinkers have a better grasp of today’s problems. Alister didn’t see this as an issue. Christian writers articulate how we should interpret Scripture for today’s issues, just like Calvin saw that the underlying problem behind the ban of usury in the Old Testament was exploitation, and allowed for charging of interest if done fairly. Bret thinks there is an issue. The path forward is not clear, and it’s scary: the rate of change is unprecedented. We must update our sacred texts – our current tools are too powerful and the population too high. He is pessimistic about humanity surviving the next 200 years.

Finally, Bret was asked what could change his mind about believing in God. He said that as a scientist, of course he could change his mind. One possibility would be a message encoded in our genome that is unambiguously from a deity.

Conclusion

It was a fascinating discussion, very ably hosted by Justin as usual, although perhaps it was almost too polite. Alister is a gentleman, and very generous and positive in his responses. I felt he could have pushed Bret further in some of his assertions, but chose not to. I enjoyed Bret’s perspective, and felt he had fascinating ideas to share. It was a little puzzling though, as Bret seemed to have some strong ethical beliefs, and yet did not acknowledge them to be metaphorical truths produced by evolution in the same way that he believes religion is. Perhaps he is well aware of this, and even though they are fictions, regards them as useful ones that will help save the planet. I did leave with the impression that Bret was promoting a quasi-religious view that has elements in common with Christianity – that humanity has a problem, we need saving, and other ways are inadequate to deal with the problem.

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Making sense of God by Timothy Keller

Making sense of God by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God, published a few years ago, was an excellent exposition of reasons to believe in God and Christianity.  Now Keller has followed up with what could be called a prequel, Making Sense of God, addressing those sceptics who see Christianity as so implausible that no rational person could even consider it. His aim is to show that Christianity is worth investigating.

Keller’s approach is to firstly compare the foundations of Christianity and secularism – the latter being the view that denies the existence of a supernatural realm and is concerned with the here-and-now. He begins by challenging the idea that religious belief is inevitably declining, citing statistics that show Christianity is thriving in the non-Western world. Many people sense that secular reason does not provide a sound basis for meaning and virtue, and fails to explain the widespread perception that there is more to life than just the material.

Keller goes on to expose the flaws in the narrative that claims the religious live by blind faith, while non-believers ground their position in evidence and reason. All reason depends on faith in our cognitive faculties, and the belief that science is the only arbiter of truth is itself not a scientific belief. No-one can “assume an objective, belief-free, pure openness to objective evidence”. Instead, we all operate based on a set of tacit assumptions about reality that we are not consciously aware of. In fact, secular humanism’s values can be traced back to its Jewish and Christian roots.

This means that instead of asking religious people to prove their beliefs, we need to compare religious and secular beliefs based on their evidence, consistency, and success in accounting for our experiences. Keller spends the majority of the remainder of the book performing this comparison.

Firstly, Keller notes the disdain postmodern culture treats having meaning in life. In an indifferent universe, the only meaning is that which we make ourselves. These created meanings can serve us well, and we must not tell secular friends their lives have no meaning. But he points out that created meanings are ultimately insignificant when the big picture is considered, and are impotent in the face of personal suffering. By contrast, Christianity claims there is objective, eternal Meaning that can be discovered, and teaches that suffering is a terrible reality that can still have purpose.

Meaning is linked to happiness and satisfaction in life, Keller’s next point of comparison. Despite the advances we’ve made in science, technology and medicine, we are not any happier. The ephemeral nature of satisfaction and our desire for something that the world cannot supply points to our being “made for another world” as C.S. Lewis famously put it. Keller draws on Augustine’s insight that dissatisfaction and discontentment is a consequence of our failure to love God first and foremost. If we love anything more than God, it will become the source of our happiness, and will eventually fail us.

People have always valued freedom, but in secular societies freedom has become the ultimate good. Freedom is now understood as the “right of the individual to choose his or her values”, and we can live as we see fit. Keller rightly notes that a focus on individual freedom has in many instances led to a fairer society, but thinks the narrative has gone awry. It has produced the “harm principle”, where we believe we should be free to live as we please as long as we don’t harm anyone else. But this is disingenuous, because the notion of harm is dependent on what a good human life consists of – and that is a matter of our subjective beliefs.

Also, an extreme focus on individual freedom and personal fulfilment actually threatens freedom itself, as self-absorbed individuals undermine communities and democratic institutions. According to Robert Belah, “the health of a society depends on voluntarily unselfish behavior” which involves infringing on our personal freedom. Paradoxically, we also find most happiness in our relationships, where we sacrifice our freedoms for the other. So absolute freedom is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. But what is that end? Keller has already explained the issues with deriving meaning and satisfaction from created things. If we consider that we are created by God, then God has determined our purpose and the constraints we should live by. And as in all relationships, both parties sacrifice their freedoms, God having done so by Jesus Christ becoming mortal and dying for us.

In chapter six, Keller moves on to our personal identity, noting the differences between the traditional concept of the self being “defined and shaped by both internal desires and external social roles and ties” and our modern, Western identity based on individualism and detachment. Like the focus on individual freedom, this has enabled considerable good, such as preparing American culture for the civil rights movement. But modern identity is also problematic. Our desires are constantly changing and often contradictory, and we can’t base our sense of who we are on them. We have to filter our desires based on a set of beliefs and values, and they are obtained (mostly unconsciously) from our culture and community. Unfortunately, modern society “adulates winners and despises losers, showing contempt for weakness”, and this makes our self-worth a fragile thing. Even if we eschew material success and base our identity on the love of another, if this is lost we will be devastated.

By contrast the Christian approach to identity is based on unconditional acceptance by God. Our worth is based on the value God has placed on us, not on achievements, race or relationships – or even our efforts to be moral. But this requires humility, and includes giving up our rights to our freedoms. Keller claims that a consequence of this acceptance is the ability to freely enjoy other identity factors such as race, work, family and community ties, and this is why Christianity is by far the most culturally diverse of all religions. He offers the example of African identity, the core of which is a belief that the world is full of evil and good spirits. Secularism rejects such beliefs, while Christianity accepts this understanding of the world, and offers a solution to the problem of how one can be protected from evil spirits.

Traditionally secularism has believed in the idea of progress, but optimism is beginning to crumble in the light of issues such as climate change.But humans are future-focused, and we need hope. But where can we find it? On the individual level, death is the end of all hope. If human relationships are what makes our life meaningful , death destroys them. But this is the message of Christianity – that there is hope beyond death, that love will survive. This hope is based in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, who has defeated death for us.

Finally, Keller examines the problem of moral obligation. Secularism struggles to give an account of moral facts or even what comprises “good”, despite secularists having strong moral opinions. In what is probably his strongest chapter, Keller introduces the moral argument for God’s existence, noting that it has influenced many sceptical friends. He notes that human rights are far from self-evident, and that Christianity offers the strongest foundation for them.

Keller then goes on to ask which of secularism or religion provides the better foundation for human rights. Secularism’s best case is that they are self-evident, while Christianity claims our worth is based on our having God’s image within us, giving every human being dignity no matter what their capacity.When it comes to justice, secularism struggles without universal, objective values that religion can provide. Yes, there is the danger of becoming the oppressors when confronting oppression, and Christianity has often done so, but this has always contradicted the gospel.

In his final chapters, Keller reviews his comparison of secularism and Christianity, and concludes that Christianity offers a far superior narrative. In terms of key facets of human life, meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, hope and justice, Christianity makes sense. It is worth considering. But is it true? To answer that question, Keller offers a concise summary of the arguments presented in The Reason for God. He concludes with Langdon Gilkey’s powerful story of selfishness in a Second World War prison camp, where rationality proved insufficient as a basis for moral obligation when resources were scarce. Instead, people saw no reason to be unselfish, and it was the rare person who could self-sacrifice. Gilkey concluded that only faith in God, exemplified by former Olympic athlete Eric Liddell who was interred in the camp, enabled people to be truly unselfish in such circumstances.

Will Making Sense of God convince secularists to take a deeper look at the arguments for Christianity?  If they are willing to put serious effort into their reading of Keller, it certainly should. It does a thorough job of exposing the assumptions secularism makes about reality, which should make anyone demanding “evidence” for the existence of God a little more cautious in their assertions. Keller’s comparison of secularism and Christianity  is thorough and well-researched, drawing on broad range of scholarly sources. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a key reference, and for readers unfamiliar with this work, it would be worth reading James K. A . Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.

Making Sense of God is not an easy read. Keller covers a lot of ground, and references many philosophical concepts that some readers may not be familiar with. Secularists will find it challenging to their worldview, while Christians will find it intensely rewarding.

Timothy Keller discusses Making Sense of God in a Mere Fidelity podcast here