Refresh 2007: Review of Alister McGrath's "Deluded About God? Responding to Richard Dawkins' God Delusion"
Wednesday May 23rd, 2007
Alister McGrath at Refresh!
Alister McGrath - "Deluded About God? Respoding to Richard Dawkins' God Delusion" Refresh Conference Plenary Session, May 14, 2007 Review by Chris Dowdeswell, Wycliffe College M.Rel Student
Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, was one of the keynote speakers at Wycliffe’s recent Refresh conference for continuing education. Dr. McGrath presented the conference’s first two plenary sessions on Monday, May 14th, the latter of which was based on his recently published book, “The Dawkins Delusion?” The following is a brief paraphrase of that lecture:
The purpose of the lecture is to lay out the main points of Richard Dawkins’ 2006 book, “The God Delusion,” and to offer a response to it. Dawkins’ self-expressed purpose in his book is to convert his religious readers to atheism, and the book contains four prominent assertions: first, belief in God is irrational; second, science shows that there is no God; third, faith in God can be explained away on scientific grounds; and fourth, faith in God leads to violence.
Belief in God is irrational. Dawkins claims that belief in God is a childish belief that is put aside once we mature. This is contradicted by the fact that many people, even some prominent atheists, have come into such belief later on in life. Dawkins also asserts that faith is false belief held in the face of contradictory evidence, and, by this definition, it is not adequately grounded in the evidence. Thus, for Dawkins it is a state of non-thinking. This is a caricature of faith that fails to recognize the reasoned path to faith taken by many intellectuals. Contrary to Dawkins, the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved and this philosophical debate has been stalemated for generations. The question is, when confronted with a complex situation with evidence to support different positions, how do we discern which is best? It is not a simple question, and the answer is not as simple as Dawkins portrays it to be.
Science shows us there is no God. One of Dawkins’ fundamental assumptions is that science and religion are in a perennial conflict and science will emerge the victor. If this is true, then why are so many scientists Christians? Dawkins claims that real scientists do not believe in God. This claim requires careful nuancing in order to be defensible and rests on a belief in the capacity of the natural sciences that needs to be explored. Dawkins argues that science proves things with certainty and that anything worth knowing can be proved by science, therefore anything else, including the issue of the existence of God, is of no value. But there is a huge difference between saying science cannot answer this question, therefore there is not an answer to this question, and science cannot answer this question, therefore we must look for an answer somewhere else. If the sciences are inferential and scientific consensus changes, how can Dawkins be assured of his atheistic conclusions? Dawkins shows an obvious lack of caution.
Origins of belief in God can be explained away on scientific grounds. Dawkins reiterates the nineteenth century argument that people have invented the idea of God to fulfil a psychological need. But just because we want something to be true does not hold any bearing upon whether or not it actually is true. The notion that we invent a worldview to suit our needs, such as a belief in God to console us about death, could equally have influenced the rise of atheism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dawkins has developed two concepts in support of this claim that we invent God to fulfil our needs. The first is the concept of belief in God being a kind of “virus of the mind.” He says people believe in God not because of evidence, but because they have picked it up from other people or the culture, much like they pick up a flu virus. One of the problems with this is that there is no scientifically observable evidence for considering it as such. Another problem is that he does not delineate how his own atheistic faith is not also to be considered such a virus. The other concept he has developed is that of “memes.” Memes, he says, pass on cultural information much like genes pass on genetic information. This idea has also been criticized because it has no scientific, observable evidence to support it, and Dawkins again fails to explain how atheism itself is not subject to the same criticism.
Belief in God causes violence. It is true that religion can cause violence, but any ideology has the capability to cause violence. The question is whether religion is the reason or simply the vehicle for violence. Recent studies have indicated that religion is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause for these things and that, in actuality, they more often carry a political motivation. As well, such a generalization from limited examples is unwarranted. The limited examples he provides are not sufficient to condemn religion in general. Christians follow the model of Jesus, who did no violence but had violence done to him. The influence of Jesus in Christianity is such that forgiveness, renewal and reformation are made possible. In addition to this, there also exists tangible evidence against Dawkins’ accusation that religion is a bad thing. This can be found in the health effects of religious belief. Scientific studies on the effects of religion upon well-being either find a positive correlation between these characteristics or are inconclusive.
In conclusion, Dawkins makes a forceful argument, but his rhetoric runs ahead of the evidence. As well, his biased and exaggerated depiction of Christians will turn off most Christians from being convinced, and his dogmatic tone leads many agnostics and even more moderate atheists from identifying themselves with this work. His book seems to be written more for atheists threatened by the resurgence of religious faith, for the purpose of re-establishing the legitimacy of atheism. Christians should view it as an opportunity to develop an apologetic for their faith. It will remain to be shown, however, whether it represents a ‘last hurrah’ or a renaissance of modern atheism.