Friday, 9 March 2007

Alister McGrath

I've been umming and ahhing about reading a book by Alister McGrath (Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University no less). He's something of a poster boy for theists having a PhD in some science or other and has published quite a few books about the perils of atheism, at least two focusing on attacking Richard Dawkins directly. I've always hesitated because anything I've heard from him has always sounded so trite and unimpressive, and I'm therefore loath to give him any of my money (normally I'm fairly happy to read books that challenge my beliefs, I find it gets the blood going). Although he doesn't seem to do so well on the national and international stage McGrath gets a lot of coverage on his home ground of Oxford (bigged up with various book signings and talks) and I feel I really should engage with the man just to prove to myself that he is indeed talking crap, particularly as his current argument seems to be that Dawkins is attacking something of a strawman.

To try and avoid having to wade through (and pay for) a whole book (incidentally, his latest, "The Dawkins Delusion" is some 8 quid yet barely more than a pamphlet) I tried to have a look at an article he'd written “Has Science Eliminated God? – Richard Dawkins and the Meaning of Life.” Couldn't access the journal (Science and Christian Belief) but found this presentation on the topic by McGrath.

So, what's he say, well quite a few things, including criticising memes, but let's look at some things he says:
  1. At the most general level, the scientific method is incapable of adjudicating the God-hypothesis, either positively or negatively.
  2. Dawkins’ arguments lead to the conclusion that God need not be invoked directly as an explanatory agent within the evolutionary process. This is consistent with atheist, agnostic, and Christian understandings of the world, but necessitates none of them.
  3. The concept of God as “watchmaker”, which Dawkins spends so much time demolishing, emerged as significant in the eighteenth century, and is not typical of the Christian tradition.
Unfortunately the talk doesn't back up any of these claims or examine them in any depth other than giving a list of quotes from people saying things like "Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs – and equally compatible with atheism." (SJ Gould). He does go into more detail on memes and the "religion does bad things" argument but they aren't really what I wanted to focus on (the talk is called "Has Science Eliminated God?" after all). I suppose I shall have to dig a little deeper to find the substance of an argument.

Rather worryingly, an article by McGrath in the Daily Mail says this:
For instance, Dawkins often compares belief in God to an infantile belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, saying it is something we should all outgrow. But the analogy is flawed. How many people do you know who started to believe in Santa Claus in adulthood?

Many people discover God decades after they have ceased believing in the Tooth Fairy. Dawkins, of course, would just respond that people such as this are senile or mad, but that is not logical argument. Dawkins can no more 'prove' the non-existence of God than anyone else can prove He does exist.
Now I may not be a Professor of Theology, but I'm not sure the best argument in favour of God over the Tooth Fairy is that adults believe in it therefore it is true, his only other argument ("Dawkins can no more prove...") applies equally well to the Tooth Fairy of course.

And here we are again with another article:
They know that they can’t prove that God is there, any more than an atheist can prove that there is no God. The simple fact is that all of us, whether Christians or atheists, base our lives on at least some fundamental beliefs that we know we cannot prove, but nevertheless believe to be reliable and significant. We all need to examine our beliefs — especially if we are naive enough to think that we don’t have any in the first place. It’s one of the best antidotes against the ideological fanaticism that The God Delusion manages to deride and represent at one and the same time.
You'd almost think his only argument in favour of God was that you can't disprove it, yah boo sucks. And even that seems arguable if his god is the Christian god.

Some further digging brings up this pamphlet from his "Has Science eliminated God? Richard Dawkins and the Meaning of Life" lecture. It is a good deal more explicit as to McGrath's thesis, which seems to be, at base, fairly trivial. As I surmised above McGrath's main argument against Dawkins is that evolution by natural selection may adequately explain the complexity of life, but that it doesn't disprove the existence of God. He then goes on to argue that Dawkins mischaracterises 'faith' by claiming that the faith of Christianity “commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence.”

Curiously McGrath does not elaborate on this position, moving on to a digression about God as meme (which won't concern me here, particularly as McGrath makes the extraordinary concession that "Ideas may seem to “behave” in certain respects as if they are viruses" which is presumably all Dawkins's argument requires), about the aesthetics of atheism vs. theism, and a discussion of the evils of religion including the obligatory 'what about Communism?' response (again, I won't deal with it here as it is not germane to the question of the truth or falsity of theism).

Now this all seems a bit thin for someone to have made such a name for himself, and for someone holding a Professorship in Theology. Perhaps his books contain something a bit more meaty, but I really need at least a hint of a substantive argument before I go and give this man my money. But is this argument as thin as I make out? Well let's consider the first article I accessed by Dawkins after skimming the World of Dawkins biography (I started with the oldest, this is from '94):
Religious people split into three main groups when faced with science. I shall label them the "know-nothings", the "know-alls", and the "no-contests"...The "no-contests" are rightly reconciled to the fact that religion cannot compete with science on its own ground. They think there is no contest between science and religion, because they are simply about different things. the biblical account of the origin of the universe (the origin of life, the diversity of species, the origin of man) -- all those things are now known to be untrue.

The "no-contests" have no trouble with this: they regard it as naive in the extreme, almost bad taste to ask of a biblical story, is it true? True, they say, true? Of course it isn't true in any crude literal sense. Science and religion are not competing for the same territory. They are about different things. They are equally true, but in their different ways.
I think McGrath is probably coming from the "no-contest" perspective if he regards evolution by natural selection (and other scientific knowledge) as compatible with both atheism and theism. He clearly can't be a young Earth creationist for instance.

I shall now return to the "no-contests". The argument they mount is certainly worth serious examination, but I think that we shall find it has little more merit than those of the other groups.

God is not an old man with a white beard in the sky. Right then, what is God? And now come the weasel words. these are very variable. "God is not out there, he is in all of us." God is the ground of all being." "God is the essence of life." "God is the universe." "Don't you believe in the universe?" "Of course I believe in the universe." "Then you believe in God." "God is love, don't you believe in love?" "Right, then you believe in God?"


It has obviously not the smallest connection with a being capable of forgiving sins, a being who might listen to prayers, who cares about whether or not the Sabbath begins at 5pm or 6pm, whether you wear a veil or have a bit of arm showing; and no connection whatever with a being capable of imposing a death penalty on His son to expiate the sins of the world before and after he was born.

The Fabulous Bible

The same is true of attempts to identify the big bang of modern cosmology with the myth of Genesis. There is only an utterly trivial resemblance between the sophisticated conceptions of modern physics, and the creation myths of the Babylonians and the Jews that we have inherited.

What do the "no-contests" say about those parts of scripture and religious teaching that once-upon-a-time would have been unquestioned religious and scientific truths; the creation of the world the creation of life, the various miracles of the Old and New Testaments,, survival after death, the Virgin Birth? These stories have become, in the hands of the "no-contests", little more than moral fables, the equivalent of Aesop of Hans Anderson. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is irritating that they almost never admit this is what they are doing.


I have the impression that clergymen are so used to treating the biblical stories as fables that they have forgotten the difference between fact and fiction. It's like the people who, when somebody dies on The Archers, write letters of condolence to the others.
I'm afraid I'm with Dawkins on this one. Being a Christian carries with it some rather weighty doctrinal baggage, just as belief in Santa or the Tooth Fairy involves commitments to some fundamental truth claims, you can't hide these things away when anyone comes along to point out their falsity. It may well be that atheists can't really disprove some minimally specified deism or non-interventionist first cause god - but this is certainly not the God of McGrath or any other mainstream religious believer - and the truth or falsity of this minimally specified god would not have the implications for our everyday conduct that religious believers want it to have, why worship something that has never asked for it, nor shown any interest in you? How can you derive your moral code from a being that is little more than a brute fact, it's like trying to get stock tips from the Big Bang. By paring down their god until it has no causal ramifications in the world the theists have indeed decreased the implausibility of it, but at the cost of being able to claim any further knowledge of it - in effect they have argued away all the remaining content of their religion. They are no more theists than people who claim to be 'a bit spiritual' or who simply believe that there is 'something out there'.

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