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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting notes.

A few quick thoughts:

I'll be astonished if Dawkins' really does claim that science has disproved the existence of God. Unfortunately I won't get the book for a few weeks yet, as I ordered a few other out of stock books at the same time, but I'll keep an eye out for this claim.

I'd take issue with the statement that atheism is a faith. There is room for a longwinded discussion on semantics here, but I suspect we would end up having to agree to disagree! :)

Memes: I bought Susan Blackmore's 'The Meme Machine' some years ago. As an explanatory tool I found it to be useful, and I think it is valid in the sense of taking memes as cultural replicators, analagous to the biological role genes play. I haven't really looked into this for some years though and I am happy to concede that I could well be wrong in the light of better more recent studies.

'Religion causes violence': I don't really understand this statement as an argument against religion. I think some violence is caused by religion, and I don't mean by its 'misinterpretation'. However, authoritarian secular political systems have always lead to violence. As I said previously, the issue is one of abuse of power.

'Religion leads to poverty': demonstrably untrue in some cases. If a religion encourages behaviour and supports an ideology which is known to encourage economic growth then it plays a positive role in lifting people out of poverty.

But ... I still can't except McGrath's reasons for believing in God i.e. '...real in that it has the capacity to transform ... to give reasons for living and hope ...'


John said...

AC - you're pretty good at spotting where I don't agree with McGrath 100%...

I'd take issue with the statement that atheism is a faith. There is room for a longwinded discussion on semantics here, but I suspect we would end up having to agree to disagree! :)

OK, atheism might not be a faith, but belief that God does not exist does require going beyond the evidence.


I agree that they can be a useful concept. I think McGrath was primarily attacking Dawkins' conception of them as governed by Darwinian evolution - random mutation and natural selection. Instead he talked about how their development often was directed towards a goal and often with deliberate modifications, which is much more Lamarckian than Darwinian.

Religion causes violence - I'm inclined to agree, except those conventionally regarded as powerless still can (and often do) resort to violence.

I also agree that McGrath's weakest point was in discussing evidence for God's existence. He clearly argued that science can't prove it either way, but I agree that falsehoods can also give reason for living and hope.

What he was saying sounded as if it came close to Puddleglum's famous statement of faith (from CS Lewis's The Silver Chair):

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.

Except of course that McGrath was pretty confident that neither Christianity nor atheism could be proved or disproved scientifically. I guess to an extent the question is then aesthetic...

I'd have wanted more time spent on speaking about Jesus...

John said...

Worth adding that Lewis followed up the same idea elsewhere like this:

How could an idiotic universe have produced creatures whose mere dreams are so much stronger, better, subtler than itself? ... And now, another point about wishes. A wish may lead to false beliefs, granted. But what does the existence of the wish suggest? At one time I was much impressed by Arnold's line 'Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.' But surely tho' it doesn't prove that one particular man will get food, it does prove that there is such a thing as food! I.e. if we were a species that didn't normally eat, weren't designed to eat, would we feel hungry? You say the materialist universe is 'ugly.' I wonder how you discovered that! Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures? If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it you don't feel at home there?

Not saying I agree 100% (for what it's worth I think the existence of physical law is a good argument for the existence of God).

I think McGrath was coming close to saying that in the absence of other evidence, he'd much rather be a Christian than not. Except he didn't say that, so perhaps I'd better not put words into his mouth.

Anonymous said...

There was a pretty good debate on Lewis' Argument from Desire on dangerousidea/ not long ago. My own opinion is that the desire for everlasting life is simply an extension or perversion of the natural desire to stay alive.

Re: Dawkins' book, I have to agree it was not as good as I expected. It started out okay but seemed to go downhill. It seemed to lose focus in the last half of the book and became more of a diatribe against religion. Not without reason, IMO, but less than I expected from Dawkins. But still worth a read. I think McGrath did not understand some of Dawkins points perhaps.

"Science does not prove or disprove God, so anything except agnosticism requires going beyond the scientific evidence." This is, strictly speaking, true, but only in the sense that you cannot completely disprove the existence of fairies or Zeus or any of a number of beings whom most people would concur do not exist. Science and reason can demonstrate pretty well that the kind of omnipotent, omniscient and (depending on your theology) omnibenevolent God commonly conceived of by Xians most likely does not exist.

John said...

Lewis's Argument from Desire - in case you hadn't noticed, neither I nor McGrath were citing it as direct evidence for the existence of God. We were simply showing that it invalidated Dawkins' alleged argument that God is a construction of wish-fulfilment or a projection of desire.

John said...

It's also worth flagging up some reviews of Dawkins' book which are linked to and commented on here.

Steven Carr said...

'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.'

Dawkins says in the book that he cannot say with certainty that there is no God.

So I guess that makes him an agnostic in the eyes of McGrath, which is what McGrath says we should all be.

Steven Carr said...

Dawkins writes about McGrath 'the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God.'

Dawkins says McGrath's point is 'undeniable'.

Why then does McGrath continue to promote the line that Dawkins is an atheist, when Dawkins readily admits that you cannot disprove the existence of God?

Of course, McGrath is quite right that Dawkins is not up to date with the latest arguments in theology.

Take this irrefutable disproof of God.

1) God is a necessary being and exists in all logically possible worlds.

2) God is supposedly omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent

3) Therefore , suppose a omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being exists in all possible worlds

4) Many logically possible worlds contain large amounts of suffering with no redeeming features.

5) Therefore these logically possible worlds do not contain a being who would alleviate pointless suffering

6) Therefore there are logically possible worlds that do not contain an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being.

7) But this contradicts 3, showing that there is no necessary omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being.

John said...

'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.'

Dawkins says in the book that he cannot say with certainty that there is no God.

Now that is encouraging. Does he still claim science has disproved Christianity?

So I guess that makes him an agnostic in the eyes of McGrath, which is what McGrath says we should all be.

McGrath certainly doesn't claim we should only believe what can be proved by science. Do you? Does Dawkins?

John said...

Oh, and I thought your "irrefutable disproof" was quite funny.

In case anyone can't see why it's funny, point 4 assumes point 5 in its definition of "logically possible".

And that combined with the assumptions underlying point 1 (as to God's necessity) mean the argument actually assumes that God doesn't exist, then goes on to prove it. Impressive...