Thursday, October 19, 2006

The God Delusion? - Alister McGrath

These are my notes on Rev Prof McGrath's talk on Richard Dawkins' latest book. Any mistakes are mine, but I will often refer to my perception of McGrath's views without clarifying that that is what they are. I'll try to make it clear where stuff is my own thought, and think it worth noting that I don't agree 100% with what I think McGrath said - it's more like 95%. Much of what he said was of course recapping his earlier work in this book.


McGrath noted that Dawkins had, over time, become incresingly atheistic in his writings, and that at the same time, he had become decreasingly scientific. So at the start of his writing career, he wrote the brilliant The Selfish Gene, but his latest offer The God Delusion is not up to his usual standard. McGrath even said later that he did not think that Dawkins' new book read as if it was written by a scientist, as it tended to rubbish opponents rather than using evidence.

McGrath then pointed out that although Dawkins claims that science "has disproved religion", this is an exceptionally ambitious claim since there is not a generally agreed definition of "religion". McGrath then spent most of the time addressing Dawkins' arguments against God, centred around his claim that science had made religion redundant.

Who Created the Creator?

Dawkins argues that invoking a creator simply leads to infinite regress - who created the creator, who created her, etc?

McGrath countered by pointing out that the holy grail for science is a Grand Unified Theory, which would itself explain everything yet must necessarily remain unexplained. It is therefore universally accepted that an irreducible is necessary, so Dawkins' argument fails.

Real Scientists Don't Believe in God

So how come so many scientists disagree? Surveys show a stable proportion of 40% theistic, 20% agnostic, 40% atheistic for career scientists.

McGrath also cited Steve Jay Gould's claim that science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God - that nature itself does not impose either a Christian or an atheist framework on our interpretation of the data.

Faith is Belief in Spite of the Evidence

McGrath countered this firstly by observing that many of Dawkins' own assertions about religion were beliefs without evidence. He then went on to speak about his own conversion - how he had become a Christian, from being a militant atheist, largely because of evidence and reason. Furthermore, he cited C.S. Lewis and John Polkinghorne, among others, who used reason as evidence for Christianity. He quoted Lewis - "I believe in Christianity as I believe the Sun has risen, not just because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

McGrath then pointed out that atheism itself is faith. Science does not prove or disprove God, so anything except agnosticism requires going beyond the scientific evidence.

A belief in God is the result of a virus of the mind

McGrath noted that it was a particularly vivid image, especially in terms of values. He also noted that Dawkins is making less use of it than he used to, but that Dawkins needs a reason for people believing in God.

He then addressed it by pointing out that we can see and examine real viruses. Further, Dawkins claims that irrational ideas count as viruses of the mind, but not rational ones. However, that is ultimately a subjective distinction!

On questioning, McGrath clarified his comment about viruses of the mind not being visible in terms of needing to examine whether or not it was a valid description of the spread of ideas - it is not clearly "something" in the way that a physical virus is.

Memes - believing because it is effective

McGrath pointed out that the gene / meme analogy is very tenuous and is now generally rejected in science and cultural anthropology, principally because the development of ideas seems to be far more Lamarckian than Darwinian (i.e. with intent). On the other hand, Dawkins remains committed to cultural Darwinism, and treats the idea as if everyone accepts it to be true. With genes, there is no other way of explaining the evidence. With memes, there are other ways that work much better.

Since there is no God, there has to be a natural explanation

McGrath considered Dawkins' claim that we are psychologically predisposed to believe in God, an idea which goes back at least to Feuerbach's argument that God was invented as a projection of our desire.

First he pointed out that traditional Christian doctrine also says that people are predisposed to believe in God. Using the analogy of a glass of water, McGrath pointed out that just because we want something, doesn't mean it is there, but neither does it mean that it isn't there.

He then highlighted how the desire for autonomy in the 18th century was a key factor in the development of modern atheism, and hence that the argument cuts equally both ways.

He also pointed out how frequently Dawkins uses "might" and "maybe" when discussing this area - highlighting that it is conjectural. In the questions afterwards, McGrath did discuss briefly some of the issues in neurology and so on, concluding that the issue would probably need to be revisited by both sides in 20 years' time.

Religion Causes Violence - 9/11, 7/7, etc. To get rid of violence, we need to get rid of religion

There is a narrow line between getting rid of religion, and getting rid of religious people....

McGrath pointed to the work of Paik on suicide bombing, showing that religion is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for suicide bombers, but that there seeemed to be a very strong correlation with people groups who felt oppressed and that there was no other way of changing society.

He also agreed that sometimes violence is caused by religion, but pointed to the Amish reaction to the recent shootings as an example showing that it was not typical. He mentioned in passing Dawkins' dismissal of the Amish... He then went on to point out that violence arises from anything that people regard as important and gave the example of the transcendentalisation of human values at the time of the French Revolution. He also asked the simple question as to which issue would be most likely to cause a violent riot in Oxford today, with the answer of Animal Rights. It therefore seems to be an aspect of human nature that is the underlying cause of violence, rather than religion per se.

McGrath also pointed to institutional atheism's somewhat spectacular record when it comes to violence, which Dawkins dismisses offhand. He gave the particular example of Stalin...

Religion leads to gross impoverishment - delusion, danger to society, etc

Here, McGrath accused Dawkins of cognitive bias - that he airbrushes out all the good bits of religion and the bad bits of atheism, and reiterated the point that Dawkins was now less effective as an apologist for atheism than he was 10 years ago. The term "atheist fundamentalist" was used quite a few times, and it was pointed out that Dawkins now seemed to be being disavowed even by intelligent atheists.

Other questions

A variety of questions were asked afterwards (this was a meeting for postgrads at Oxford). They included:

Asking about whether Dawkins had read the Bible. McGrath wasn't sure but cited some examples which suggested a near complete lack of knowledge or comprehension - "Paul's Letter to the Hebrews", and not being aware of the parable of the Good Samaritan or the importance to Christian ethics of loving enemies.

Another questioner highlighted Dawkins' use of sources - specifically quoting Luther hugely out of context with quotes that appeared to be copied and pasted from the web.

McGrath was also asked about why there was no evidence for the existence of God cited in Dawkins' God. His response was that that was not the aim of the book, his aim being solely to critique Richard Dawkins' view of God. Actually, that was one of the things that really made me think that McGrath was far more concerned about the truth than about being right. Most Christians would have taken the opportunity to talk about God - McGrath seemed content merely to discuss Dawkins' views.

He was then asked why he believed in God, and he replied that it wasn't because of science, and he did not think there were any knockdown arguments for the existence of God. Instead, he said that it was because Christianity seemed to make more sense of the universe than atheism, that it was real in that it had the capacity to transform, specifically to give reasons for living and hope, as well as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

He was also asked about his views on creation / evolution. He replied that he saw Darwinian evolution as plausible, but not necessarily true. The key point, according to McGrath, was that atheism is not built into Darwinianism - it works equally well using a doctrine of divine providence instead.

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