Friday, October 5, 2007

Dawkins' God by Alister McGrath

I almost feel guilty for reading another book about Dawkins specifically, and atheism in general. I honestly thought I was finished with him when I put down The Dawkins Delusion! When my brother lent me this book, however, it was an offer too good to refuse.

McGrath makes the direction of the book abundantly clear in the early pages: “this book is not a critique of Dawkins’ evolutionary biology. I do not propose to engage with Dawkins’ specific views on the theory of evolution, but the broader conclusions that he draws from these, particularly concerning religion and intellectual history…my concern…is supremely the critical and immensely problematic transition from biology to theology.” Elsewhere he states “the real issue for me is how Dawkins’ proceeds from a Darwinian theory of evolution to a confident atheistic worldview.” Because of this, readers seeking a purely scientific rebuttal of Dawkins’ ideas should turn elsewhere, as this book deals in the most part with the philosophy and history of science, and in particular it’s relation to religion.

That said, McGrath devotes a large portion of the first two chapters to providing his readers with a broad overview of the concepts of biological evolution and the history of their introduction. He effectively summarises the influences leading up to Darwinism, and the responses of mainstream theological thought after its conception. In particular I appreciated the section relating to ‘The Religious Views of Charles Darwin.’ In this McGrath offers a fascinating insight into Darwin’s response to his own theory, highlighting its impact in leading him to theism apart from orthodox Christianity. Throughout this early part of the book, McGrath’s purpose is clearly to demonstrate that Darwinism does not, by necessity, lead to atheism as Dawkins proposes, instead:

“There is a substantial logical gap between Darwinism and atheism, which Dawkins seems to prefer to bridge by rhetoric, rather than evidence. If firm conclusions are to be reached, they must be reached on other grounds.”

McGrath then proceeds to enter into a discussion on the place of evidence in science and religion. This chapter stresses that the Christian definition of faith is one that places a high value on evidence, and consequently demonstrates how Dawkins’ analogies between theism and a belief in the tooth fairy, Santa Claus etc. fall short of reality. McGrath expresses disdain at Dawkins’ personal definition of faith as “blind trust.” Referring to a quote by Dawkins decrying a philosopher’s misunderstanding of his terms, McGrath says:

“…is this the same Richard Dawkins who, knowing nothing about Christian theology, rushes headlong into the field, and tells theologians what they really mean when they use their own language? Or that they really mean “blind trust” when they speak of “faith”? There is a total failure on Dawkins’ part to even begin to understand what Christian theology means by its language.”

Apart from defending how Christian notions of faith are reasonable, this chapter takes the offensive in investigating whether a Darwinian worldview self-evidently follows from evolution. In this McGrath warns of the dangers of basing a worldview purely on a scientific theory in light of ‘radical theory change in science.’ “If theories are thus subject to erosion, what of worldviews that are based upon them?”

The chapter critiquing Dawkins’ concept of ‘memes,’ used to describe cultural evolution, is perhaps the most ‘scientific’ of the book. After giving a very helpful overview of the idea’s development, McGrath proceeds to give plenty of good reasons why it is a redundant concept that appears to have little grounding in empirical evidence and fails to effectively explain cultural trends. This is probably the most conclusive section of the book, however that makes sense given that the meme has always struggled to gain credibility in scientific circles.

Finally, McGrath turns again to the relationship between science and religion, discussing the concept of awe and mystery. He well addresses Dawkins’ claims that a theistic view of the universe is truncated and devoid of wonder, arguing that the opposite is the case. Furthermore, he suggests that the unison of science and Christianity leads to a greater sense of awe, operating on a deeper level than that of the purely scientific.

In this book, McGrath often takes time to describe the current intellectual climate on these issues. I found this helpful, and a refreshing contrast to Dawkins’ over-simplified generalisations about ‘all scientists being atheists.’ In doing so, however, McGrath risks over correcting and basing his arguments too much on contemporary thought. That is, his arguments sometimes tend towards being along the lines of ‘most modern historians/scientists/theologians etc believe this, so it must be true.’ This criticism is clearly an overstatement, and in reality the vast majority of the book is based on more substantial reasoning, however it is something readers should be aware of.

On reflection, what I most appreciated about this book were the various short biographical sketches interspersed throughout. I especially enjoyed reading McGrath’s personal account of his journey from atheism to Christianity, and finding out more about Dawkins’ background. McGrath’s frequent references to momentous scientific works through history gave me more of an insight into the story of science leading to where we are at the start of the 21st century. As such I valued this as much for it’s historical content as for its arguments refuting Dawkins.

Dawkins’ God is a well researched, easy to understand book that I’m sure will prove to be helpful to most readers. It is clear that McGrath has striven to be objective in his analysis, and seemed to me to be very fair to Dawkins. At the very least, he comes across as willing to have a constructive debate about the issues brought up. This is not an exhaustive rebuttal of Dawkins, as the conclusion makes plain, however it is intended as a platform for debate, with the goal of “moving the discussion on”. In this role I believe the book is immensely successful, and will be of value to anyone (theist or not) willing to consider its ideas. I liked the almost poetic last words

“Some minds on both sides of the argument may be closed; the evidence and the debate, however, are not. Scientists and theologians have so much to learn from each other. Listening to each other, we might hear the galaxies sing. Or even the heavens declaring the glory of the Lord.”

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