Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge


FAITH Magazine May-June 2007


The biologist Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (published September 2006) has generated much discussion, and not a little anger, for its prejudiced, unscientific attack on religion, and has caused many to suggest, ‘There needs to be a book to answer all this.’ Well, Dawkins’s relentless diatribe of 374 pages has now received one just response, in a slim, volume of only 65 pages calmly written and closely argued by a fellow Oxford professor and former atheist, Alister McGrath, supported by Joanna Collicutt McGrath. They are, respectively, professor of historical theology at Oxford, and lecturer in psychology of religion at Heythrop. Both have science backgrounds, in molecular biophysics and clinical psychology respectively. The McGraths’ book, entitled TheDawkins Delusion? (published February 2007 by SPCK), does not set out to answer each and every one of Dawkins’s “aggregation of convenient factoids, suitably overstated to achieve maximum impact.” They say:

“Every one of Dawkins’ misrepresentations and overstatements can be challenged and corrected. Yet a book that merely offered such a litany of corrections would be catatonically boring. Assuming that Dawkins has equal confidence in all parts of his book, I shall simply challenge him at representative points, and let readers draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of his evidence and judgement” (p. xii).

So, in four short chapters, they address the themes: 1. Deluded about God? 2. Has science disproved God? 3. What are the origins of religion? 4. Is religion evil? It is, in many regards, a good response to the Dawkins outpouring of vitriol, being a work temperate in tone and neatly ordered – the very antithesis of Dawkins’s book – and yet at times the authors are hard-pressed to contain their exasperation at the continual misrepresentations Dawkins offered his readers. More typical, however, of the new work, is the McGraths’ sadness at the intellectually flimsy and scientifically bankrupt nature of Dawkins’s arguments. They commend his early work, The Selfish Gene, at least for its “brilliant popularization of difficult scientific ideas,” buthere rue the abuse of his scientific credentials:

“It’s hard not to believe that science – or rather, a highly contentious and unrepresentative account of science – is here being abused as a weapon to destroy religion. One of the melancholy aspects of The God Delusion is how its author appears to have made the transition from a scientist with a passionate concern for truth to a crude anti-religious propagandist who shows a disregard for evidence” (p. 27).

In the second chapter of their book, Has science disproved God?, the McGraths muster several arguments in opposition to Dawkins’s claims, and particularly his core assumption that ‘real scientists must be atheists.’ First, that plenty of excellent scientists are not atheists, or at least do not dismiss out of hand the idea of a realm of reality beyond the material. Second, how a ‘science explains everything’ outlook is not an opinion that is rigorously tenable, given the transcendent questions for which man legitimately seeks answers. Third, that unlike Stephen Jay Gould’s idea that science and religion are ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ or Dawkins’s idea that science is the only magisterium, these authors defend “a realization that science and religion offer possibilities ofcross-fertilization on account of the interpenetration of their subjects and methods” (p. 19). Fourth, that even in 2006 there were many significant books written on faith and science by eminent scientists, e.g. Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich, and Paul Davies, and that the percentage of believing American scientists has not significantly changed between a survey in 1916 and a survey in 1997, i.e. 40\%.

The McGraths conclude, “Dawkins is forced to contend with the highly awkward fact that his view that the natural sciences are an intellectual superhighway to atheism is rejected by most scientists, irrespective of their religious views” (p. 21). Whereas most scientists seem happy to adopt a view that “one can be ‘real’ scientist without being committed to any specific religious, spiritual or anti-religious view of the world” (p. 23), Dawkins believes that science is at war with religion, and must vanquish it.

In this magazine we go a little further than the McGraths have in their book. If a ‘real’ physicist is to be a ‘real‘ metaphysicist he should be open to discerning that the evidence of the natural and human world leads quite specifically towards an understanding of matter and spirit which is consonant with the revelation of God made in Israel and most fully in Jesus Christ.

The McGraths have kept clearly and calmly focussed upon the task of debunking what they term Dawkins’ ‘atheist fundamentalism.’ They are extremely critical of this ‘crusading vigour’ of his: “One of the greatest disservices that Dawkins has done to the natural sciences is to portray them as relentlessly and inexorably atheistic. They are nothing of the sort …” (p. 25). What a sad comment regarding the academic biologist whose very professorship is entitled ‘of the public understanding of science.’ The ire and the bigotry, not to mention the unscientific partiality in his evidence make some wonder if indeed Dawkins has ‘shot himself in the foot’ with this book. The McGraths ask: “Might The God Delusion actually backfire, and end up persuading people that atheism is just asintolerant, doctrinaire and disagreeable as the worst that religion can offer?” (p. 64). Dawkins will be hoping, but presumably not praying, that that doesn’t happen.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2007