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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.