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McGrath on Dawkins

I have not seen the television programme in which Richard Dawkins expresses his views on religion in general and Christianity in particular, but I am led to believe they portray him as aggressive and lacking any scientific rigour or method in developing his arguments.

By chance, I had recently visited a real live book shop and, whilst browsing the 'popular science' for a copy of Does Anything Eat Wasps? happened across a book called Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life which sets out to tackle precisely these ideas.

It's a fairly quick read - took me about 3 hours - but unless you have a basic knowledge of scientific and theological ideas and language might not be so easy.  Interesting really, since McGrath has a brief excursus into the role of language in understanding each other's worlds.  In terms of McGrath's target audience I am less sure: almost everyone has heard of Newton and Darwin, probably most have heard of Mendel or even Thomas Aquinas, but who outside theology knows of Tertullian and Paley?  Fortunately McGrath does explain the key aspects of everything he refers to.

I guess the thrust of McGrath's arguments is as follows:

  1. Dawkins is an eminent scientist the value of whose work in his field is unquestioned.  Indeed McGrath has been an avid reader and admirer of Dawkins' work for over twenty five years
  2. Acceptance of the theory of evolution does not automatically preclude belief in the concept of God.  It is possible to accept evolution and hold theistic, agnostic or athesistic views. 
  3. Science is always provisional and even if something currently seems absolutely convincing, it may one day turn out to be wrong (e.g. earth at the centre of the universe): this does not undermine the integrity of the scientists but should engender an appropriate humility.  [I liked this as I've argued this many times with both theologians and scientists!]
  4. Science does not assign value judgements: things 'are' they are not 'good' or 'bad'; moral judgement is not part of the scientific method.  Dawkins is assigning a value judgement to religious belief, not a scientific one.  As a reuslt his arguments (and methods) are not consistent with his scientific approach.  Further, he makes unreasonable leaps in his arguments: e.g. people with religious faith do bad things, hence religion is bad.  The flaws in this logic are obvious - it is easy to show that people with and without religious faith do things that are good, bad or indifferent - this not not imply that religion is necessarily any of these.
  5. The 'meme' theory is questioned - McGarth is not convinced by it and notes that it survives more in popular culture than in any form of science.  The concept of religion as a 'bad meme' or a 'virus' is not scientific - but maybe Dawkins' own memes force him to this view (Although a logical consequence of Dawkins' views, I also detect a little bit of tongue in cheek here!)

The book is good humoured and shows an immense respect for Dawkins as a scientist.  Probably my main criticism is the use of American spellings throughout, but that's just my prejudice showing through.

Anyway, I think I should leave the last word to Mcgrath himself (Dawkins' God p189-9)

I'm sure that we have much to learn by debating with each other, graciously and accurately.  The questions of whether there is a God, and what that God might be like, has not - despite the predictions of overconfident Darwinians - gone away since Darwin, and remains of major intellectual and personal importance.  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 [a quote from Dawkins book Unweaving the Rainbow].  Or even the heavens declaring the glory of the Lord (Psalm 19.1)   


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