Friday, November 12, 2004

Richard Dawkins is a lucky man. Few of use can expect to receive the privilege of having our ideas as carefully and courteously considered as Dawkins has enjoyed from Professor Alistair McGrath. Much as I enjoyed Prof. Plantinga's lectures, Prof McGrath was even better, speaking on "Has Science Eliminated God?Richard Dawkins and the Meaning of Life". The whole lecture will shortly be available at the CiS website but in the meantime here is an overview and some comments.

Prof. McGrath has had an interesting academic career. Once an atheist, he has degrees in biochemistry and theology and is now Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford. He is a prolific author and firmly in the evangelical tradition. His criticisms of Dawkins in this lecture centred on why it is he has such a bee in his bonnet about religion. Prof. McGrath identified four issues that Dawkins has used in his attacks on religion:

  1. Dawkins seems to assume that Darwinism leads inexorably to atheism. Indeed, given the provisional nature of all scientific work, Dawkins seems to be considerably more certain about his atheism than his Darwinism. Prof. McGrath correctly explained that as there are many Christian evolutionists who are neither mad nor stupid, Dawkins has simply been proven empirically wrong to claim Darwinism leads to atheism. Maybe the more cautious statement that Darwinism allows one to be a more intellectually fulfilled atheist is true but Dawkins oversteps this many times. Prof. McGrath insisted that science can only lead to agnosticism.
  2. Dawkins has adapted his theory of memes to suggest that religion is a mind virus. The trouble is that memes themselves have never been identified, allow no quantifiable predictions to be made and have huge philosophical problems attached to them. In other words, they are just psycho-babble. Likewise, the idea that religion is a mind virus tells us nothing except that Dawkins doesn't like religion. We can't model how ideas spread based on epidemicology or get anything else useful out of the idea. It is just an analogy used as a debating point and should have been left at that.
  3. Dawkins feels awe at the scientific universe and doesn't get the same kick out of religion. His asides about 'poky medieval universes' simply reveal his ignorance of medieval cosmology, but the fact he feels no awe at the majesty of God is not relevant to those of us who do. Likewise, his mis-characterisations of religious faith, as belief despite or contrary to the evidence, are strawmen that bear no resemblance to Christian thought. Attacking this strawmen gets him nowhere beyond gaining applause from his own constituancy.
  4. Dawkins believes religion is a bad thing. A lot of people agree (although most have little idea what they are talking about as far as I can tell). Prof McGrath responded by showing us studies that reveal religious people tend to be healthier and happier than the non-religious. Out of 100 studies surveyed, 79 showed a positive correlation between religion and health. He didn't claim this was definitive but it does show that Dawkins actually has to present an argument rather than ranting in the Guardian about suicide bombers and George Bush.

I should point out that Prof. McGrath was uniformly polite and sympathetic in his presentation. Far more so than I am in my own analysis given above. The only time he accused Dawkins of anything remotely underhand was in his mis-definitions of faith. Full quotations and sources for all Prof. McGrath's claims can be found in his forthcoming book Dawkins' God which is the only book length refutation of Dawkins' thought.


Anonymous said...

Is that really all McGrath could come up with? I thought he was supposed to be good.

But claiming that atheism is wrong because McGrath is happy to belief in God,hardly refutes Dawkins claim that a God who designed a process of devil take the hindmost is not the sort of God Christians believe in.

There is another book about Dawkins called'Letter to An Influential Atheist'.

A discussion about it can be found at

Anonymous said...

I'm sure glad we have Richard Dawkins to give us the fair and unbiased facts on what the God Christians believe in would or would not do.

Bede said...

Steven, please could you sign off your comments? It is rather cowardly not to admit to who you are. I can only assume you are ashamed of what you are writing here. Your link to Roger Steer's book doesn't work, by the way.

The second commentator is too way out even for Steven Carr, but again, I don't blame him for refusing to own up to who he is.

Anonymous said...

My second comment was meant as sarcasm in reply to what Mr. Carr had said, but I'd forgotten there are many atheists out there who would probably agree with what I wrote.


Anonymous said...

Dawkins made the incredibly stupid comment one time that if religions were eliminated we would have heaven on earth. As if people wouldn't kill each other in the name of nationalism or fighting over natural resources etc etc. How incredibly naive! Obviously he doesn't even understand how his "memes" work at all!

Anonymous said...

'Likewise, his mis-characterisations of religious faith, as belief despite or contrary to the evidence, are strawmen that bear no resemblance to Christian thought.'

Really? Is McGrath so ignorant of Christian thought?

'As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is
what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.'

McGrath must have read this article by Dawkins, yet he claims Dawkins is saying things no 'serious believer' believes.

' Faith is, by human standards, 'absurd,' because it removes all human values from the equation. Faith is about God, not about humans and what they can and cannot believe, what they can and cannot justify'.

It is hard to imagine that McGrath has never heard of Christians who have the definition of faith that McGrath says nobody holds.

Even I have heard of Kierkergaard.

Anonymous said...

Judging by the PowerPoint presentation at
McGrath really had nothing relevant to say about the obvious fact that if God has created a universe with suffering as his means of creation, then this God is not the Christian God.

So he never talked about it.

Makes sense. As Wittgenstein said ' When we have nothing to say, then we must remain silent.'

Anonymous said...

'Prof. McGrath identified four issues that Dawkins has used in his attacks on religion....'

It is really amazing that McGrath ducked entirely the fact that , if evolution is true,then God loves mankind so much, he allows whole branches of humanity to go extinct.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I have never seen Kierkegaard so misinterpreted! That's the problem with some of these commentators, they read everything in the most literal sense without thinking about what it means. Kierkegaard's view is *nothing* like what McGrath is saying no serious believer believes, indeed, Kierkegaard was a serious believer by McGrath's standard. One has to understand the context of what is written. The poster sure as heck doesn't understand a thing about Kierkegaard. Sheesh.

Bookish Medievalist said...

Theistic evolutionists are one thing, but I would ask does the author of this site agree with Dawkin's designation of 'mad, bad or stupid' for those who do not believe in evolution at all- Creationists for instance?