Alister McGrath (with Joanna Collicutt McGrath)

 

The Dawkins Delusion

 

Confessions to start with: yes I’ve read this rebuttal to ‘The God Delusion’ without having read what’s being refuted. Academically unforgivable, but maybe I can be excused given my reasons below. My contact with Dawkins himself is limited to reading a few interviews/articles and having conversations with fans of his. I remember hearing him interviewed on JJJ (national Australian radio station) and, while not being surprised at his Darwinian position (hardly a new thing), I was bemused that he painted a picture of every professional scientist as a Darwinist, and every theist as an illiterate redneck. I was aghast, however, that the interviewer just accepted this absurd caricature as unchallengeable.

 

I bought this book after my most recent encounter where I explained to a peer who was praising Dawkins that my faith wasn’t based on this issue. Moreover it seemed a bit absurd to be having debates about microbiology and genetics with people like myself who had no expertise in the area. However previously I’d met two people with doctorates in the field who disagreed with Dawkins: I was sure that Dawkins was out of line if he was suggesting that professional scientists overwhelmingly found science led them to atheism. I felt it would be a significant step if both sides could at least acknowledge that there were equally qualified, respectable and sincere scientists on either side – neither atheism nor theism was a fait accompli in these circles.

 

McGrath, like my acquaintances, has picked up a doctorate in molecular biophysics. Moreover he then became professor of Historical Theology at Oxford. I thought if someone, unlike myself, was going to base their decision on whether or not there’s a God on the validity of Darwinism, they’d be better off reading McGrath than chatting with me.

 

I was sympathetic to the time McGrath gave to the context of the debate rather than simply piece by piece challenging each sentence of ‘The God Delusion’. I suppose Dawkins’ latest criticisms are so sweeping that the argument has moved from the details of Darwinism to whether theists should even be allowed to talk. So much of what I’ve seen around this issue is not so much dialogue as much as two monologues. For some nature self-evidently proves there is a god; for others nature self-evidently proves there isn’t one. But frequently whatever the starting position, people then feverishly gather evidence to bolster their case, spuriously claiming their research lead to their conclusion, while the opposite is clearly true. I’ve heard ludicrous demonising of fictional (straw men) opponents: creationists mocking evolution who’ve never even heard of natural selection; Darwinists assuming that theism necessarily includes a belief in a young earth, or even a flat one. ‘Dialogue’ in such wilfully ignorant circumstances is a waste of time. Neither thinks, for example, that children should be allowed to even hear someone present the alternative case.

 

Still, it’s difficult not to be drawn into the fray with the credence given to some pretty outrageous accusations. I’ve been surprised at the vehemence of the attack in some of my conversations. Or perhaps I’m more surprised that the atheist may not realise the offensive implications of some of their statements (sure the same could be said of many a passionate but insensitive evangelist). If Dawkins is to shape the debate, the notion of being able to respect someone you might disagree with is trampled: it’s OK if Dawkins tells kids there’s no God, but if I tell them I disagree then apparently I’m a child abuser. Why? Because apparently in so doing I’m being intolerant and anti-intellectual, and I can’t prove that there is an afterlife (as if he can prove that there isn’t)1. Fortunately there are a few atheists who, unlike Dawkins, can appreciate the irony in this. Unfortunately there are others who don’t: the battle over intelligent design, for example, tends to be less about the issue than whether people should even be allowed to think about it. Dawkins’ zealotry, a theme of the McGrath book, parallels the equally ignorant tub-thumping of some ‘fundamentalists’2, who won’t even find out what it is that they are disagreeing with: to disagree is not even permissible, it’s morally reprehensible. To disagree with Darwinism is to be, in Dawkins’ eyes, bad.

 

This is in some ways an understandable reaction to similar nonsense where, for example, some Christians claim credit for anything good in society, as if they are the only ones that have ever done anything charitable or ‘civilised’. Either position is untenable, and acknowledged as such by many theists and atheists alike.

 

To his credit McGrath doesn’t buy into the, “You disagree with me, ergo you are an idiot,” approach. Indeed, he acknowledges some of Dawkins’ strengths, and credits him with successfully debunking some Paley’s poor theology based on dodgy science (although Dawkins neglected to mention that Paley had already been criticised by many Christian scholars). He tries to highlight where Dawkins is at odds with many atheists, negating the impression that he is the mouthpiece of some grand consensus. Moreover he points out where Dawkins strays into areas well outside his expertise – sociology, psychology, anthropology, neurology, philosophy, theology – making the same sort of gaffs as Paley (cf. Dunbar).

 

The book is brief and readable – really four small essays. I read it in a day. Will it be useful? I suspect that in most cases not really as conclusions in this area tend to be in stone. I suppose in my case it’s something in the line of making reasonable effort. I’ll give it to the Dawkins fan not so much in the hope or expectation that they’ll find it anything but objectionable, but on the off chance that they may be open to some of his arguments. I don’t feel justified in presuming they are unable to consider a contrary view – but if they can’t take it from this reasonable, palatable, qualified writer, I don’t know that they will from any other source. But it won’t be because they didn’t have a chance.

 

December 2007

 

1.      Peter S. Williams makes a cogent point that if believers are to be censured purely for the fear they might generate by talking of heaven and hell, atheists may be equally censured for broadcasting the chilling idea that human lives are utterly pointless and the universe entirely without hope.

2.      Although this is an abused term often functioning as ‘someone I disagree with who I, by use of this term, don’t have to engage with – they have been dismissed as a lunatic’.