ALISTER McGRATH used to be an atheist. Now he’s an Anglican theologian.
And he’s taking on one of the most aggressive and polemical atheists of our time, Richard Dawkins, author of the bestselling book The God Delusion.
Like Dawkins, McGrath is a professor at the University of Oxford and a scientist. But unlike the zoologist Dawkins, he is an expert in historical theology, philosophy as well as molecular biophysics. It’s an expertise that led him to write The Dawkins Delusion?, published earlier this year.
In addition to lecturing on historical theology, McGrath also helps run the newly-established Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, and is currently researching the iconic role played by Charles Darwin in atheist apologetics. He spoke with Register correspondent Edward Pentin July 24.
Would you please sum up the flaws in Richard Dawkins’ arguments and approach.
I think Richard Dawkins approaches the question of whether God exists in much the same way as if he’d approach the question of whether there is water on Mars. In other words, it’s something that’s open to objective scientific experimentation. And of course there’s no way you can bring those criteria to bear on God. I think Dawkins seems reluctant to allow that God may not be in the same category as scientific objects. That’s an extremely important point to make in beginning to critique him.
A second point, which clearly follows on from this, is that Dawkins clearly believes that those who believe in God must prove their case and atheists have nothing to prove because that’s their default position. But I think that’s simply incorrect and it’s obviously incorrect.
Really, the only obvious position is to say: We don’t know, we need to be persuaded one way or the other. The default position in other words is: not being sure.
Therefore I think Dawkins must realize that he’s under as great an obligation to show that there is no God as, for example, a Christian is to show that there’s a God. Those are two very fundamental problems I have with his approach before we go any further.
It’s interesting that you approach this subject not only with a background in theology, history and philosophy but also science. How has that background helped you, in a practical sense, to refute Dawkins’ theories?
As someone who has studied the history and philosophy of science extensively, I think I’ve noticed a number of things that Dawkins seems to have overlooked. One of them is this: One of the most commonly encountered patterns in scientific development is seeing a pattern of observations and then saying, in order to explain these observations, we propose that there exists something that is as yet unobserved but we believe that one day will be observed because if it’s there, it can explain everything that can be observed.
Of course, if you’re a Christian you’ll see immediately that that same pattern is there in thinking about God. We can’t prove there’s a God but he makes an awful lot of sense of things and therefore there’s a very good reason to suppose that this may, in fact, be right.
Secondly, as someone who has studied the history of science, I am very much aware that what scientists believe to be true in the past has been shown to be wrong or has been overtaken by subsequent theoretical developments.
One of my concerns is that Dawkins seems very, very reluctant to concede radical theory-change in science. In other words, this is what scientists believe today but we realize that tomorrow they might think something quite different. He seems to think that science has got everything forced out and that’s it, whereas my point is that as we progress we often find ourselves abandoning earlier positions.
So my question, therefore, is: How on earth can Dawkins base his atheism on science when science itself so to speak is in motion, in transit?”
The essence of this debate, between believers and atheists, is an old one, but how do you think this particular debate is different from those in the past?
That’s a very good question. I think the intensity is much, much greater.
When you read The God Delusion, it’s extremely aggressive, it’s very dismissive, it prejudicially stereotypes those who believe in God, and I don’t see that in older atheist writings in the 1950s and ’60s. I see criticism but not ridicule.
So there’s a change in tone but in terms of the arguments used, I have to say with great sadness that I’ve read The God Delusion very closely and it is a recycling of older positions, many of which are already discredited, and I find myself just astonished that it’s being done.
Do you think it’s really a moneymaking exercise on the part of Dawkins, that he’s merely exploiting people’s current ignorance of religion in our secular age?
The God Delusion works as a piece of writing only if the reader is very ignorant or very prejudiced against religious believers. In other words, they don’t know what they believe and they don’t really know very many people [who believe], so they have these rather odd ideas of what people who believe in God are actually like.
Those who are acquainted with the field, whether they are religious believers — or atheists — are very, very concerned by the book because it is so obviously dependent on misrepresentation, misunderstanding and so forth. Indeed, in North America, the most scathing reviews have not come from the religious commentators, who are generally disregarded as just being not worthy of serious comment.
The most serious, negative reviews have come from atheists who feel that Dawkins is doing atheism a very bad turn, that Dawkins is portraying atheism as extremely ignorant and prejudicial.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how it’s often said that Dawkins’ position has become a religion in itself. One often hears his arguments used by others in public debates as though he were a kind of guru for new fundamentalists.
Ha! Absolutely, and I have put it to him that actually he has as much faith as I do, but it’s a very different kind of faith.
Another thing of interest to you, seeing as we’re talking to a Catholic audience, is that I’ve spoken in many lectures about Richard Dawkins and critiqued him. And very often atheists will stand up and say: “How dare you criticize Richard Dawkins!”
It’s almost as if there’s a new dogma of the infallibility of Richard Dawkins in certain circles and I find that bizarre.
That’s interesting because, as you probably know, Dawkins wrote a letter to the London Times in February this year criticizing you for calling him dogmatic. Defending himself, he wrote that he never tires of saying how much he does not know, but “whereas I and other scientists are humble enough to say we don’t know, what of theologians like McGrath? He knows, he has signed up to the Nicene Creed.” What is your response to this?
Firstly, I fully accept that Dawkins is humble in the area of science as I would be and other scientists would be, because you have to be. That’s what scientific method is about.
The curious thing is that when Dawkins switches to talking about religion, about which, I might add, he seems to know remarkably little, he switches mode completely and becomes dogmatic. My concern is that the dogmatic side is seeing his response to religion.
The second point I’d want to make is that certainly I believe in the Nicene Creed, but I don’t believe it because someone has rammed it down my throat. I believe it because I’ve looked at it very closely and I believe it to be right. I am very happy to be challenged about that because I believe in being open and accountable.
But Dawkins seems to think that believing in God or believing in the Nicene Creed automatically means you’re a very dogmatic individual. I think one has to say that the process of questing for truth might actually arrive somewhere, and for me that’s a position where I’ve actually arrived.
I hold it, I hope, with conviction, but I hope also with humility and I am very happy to defend it in public and would, of course, if shown to be wrong, to have to rethink everything.
Do you think, in God’s mysterious way, Richard Dawkins is actually serving the faith in that he’s putting scientific reason into faith that some would argue is lacking in, say, extremist religious fundamentalism? Would you say he’s inadvertently putting some balance into religion, getting people to question it more which some would say is actually a good thing?
There are two things I would want to say in response to that. One is that there is no doubt Richard Dawkins’ book and several others published around the same time have generated enormous public interest in discussing religion. That shows us that religion really does matter enormously. There’s no one who could say with integrity that religion isn’t talked about anymore. That’s simply not so.
But secondly, Dawkins speaks to us as a man of faith, a man of conviction who’s very happy to critique other people’s convictions and show us what his are. So he really raises this question not of belief and unbelief but really of what convictions are right. And in this post modern age I think Dawkins is making a very important point: that all beliefs are not equally good, that we must have evidential basis, we must have rational defense. That, it seems to me, is an enormously important point to make, particularly in the Catholic tradition where you have Chesterton and, going back to Thomas Aquinas, a very strong tradition of a rational defense of faith.
I think we see today the importance of that and I very much hope we’ll see a rebirth of interest in that because it seems to me so important.
In 2004, you wrote a book called The Twilight of Atheism, in which you believed that atheism was in decline. But some would say that actually the opposite is happening, that it’s growing in view of the popularity of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others. Or is this just a blip?
That’s an interesting point. The argument in that book, really, is that atheism is suffering cultural erosion. I wasn’t really predicting its demise; I was saying that I don’t see anything very new or exciting.
Interestingly, the question is whether Dawkins and others disprove that, or whether actually it is the last hurrah so to speak. Again, the point I would like to make is to ask who is reading Dawkins? And the people I’ve talked to mostly seem to think that Dawkins’ book is being read by atheists who are very anxious about the resurgence of interest in religion worldwide, especially in North America, and they’re really angry about this and want something to be done about it.
So curiously I think The God Delusion is written to reassure the faith of atheists who are puzzled by the persistence and, in many places, the resurgence of religion.
It’s said that it’s impossible to argue someone into faith because either you have faith or you don’t, and you can end up going round in circles. Do you sometimes feel it’s a waste of time arguing with Dawkins?
I don’t feel like that. I don’t necessarily expect to persuade people to accept my position.
What I do think is enormously important is to mount a public defense of the Christian faith that shows it as reasonable, attractive and plausible. That really is something that needs to be done, and that’s why I wish we had more people like G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, who spoke so powerfully in the past. I think there’s a real need for the Church to regain its apologetic dimension and to be really able to speak with confidence and conviction about faith in the public domain.
And perhaps Richard Dawkins and others are prompting these people to come forward in a way?
Well, indeed they are.
In a very roundabout way, what they actually have done is shattered the Church’s complacency and made it very, very clear there are a lot of things that we need to be doing that we’re not doing at the moment.
And if that is a wake up call, then we need to wake up.
You and Richard Dawkins are both professors at the University of Oxford. Do you ever bump into him in the corridor some days and have a good tête-à-tête?
Well, we see each other, but we don’t really meet all that often.
It is interesting that Oxford is the center of some very interesting controversies. I think it just shows us that the intellectual side of faith remains very important.
Lastly, to laypeople who might come across a Dawkins disciple, how should they best mount an argument in answer to his broadsides against religion?
There are two things I’d want to say. One is that they have nothing to fear from these people. The arguments are not good; they are not going to lose their faith as a result.
But secondly, the best way of responding to Richard Dawkins is not by rebutting his arguments but simply by saying: “I wonder if you’d mind if I might be able to tell you what Christianity is really all about, instead of buying into all these absurd misrepresentations that you find in Richard Dawkins.”
Nobody can object to Christianity being critiqued, but I do object it being misrepresented.
Edward Pentin is
based in Rome.