Sunday, July 31, 2005

Dawkins' God - A Review

Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life by Alister McGrath (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 159 pages. US$18.95 <$12.89 at>)

A Review by Richard Kew

If you ever doubted that Alister McGrath is a very clever chap, then his latest book should put such doubts to rest forever. What is remarkable about this book is that here is a world class theologian with a chair in that discipline at one of the world's leading universities, who also holds a doctorate in biochemistry, and who was deeply engaged in postgraduate work in that field before, as it were, changing horses. What he does in this book is examine the works of Richard Dawkins, one of the foremost exponents and popularizers of an atheistic brand of scientific Darwinism, and who also teaches at the same university as McGrath -- Oxford.

Dawkins' God is not so much a theologian critiquing Dawkins from the remoteness of a divinity-laden perch, but a scientist bringing rational scientific argument to bear on Dawkins' assertions and arguments, and doing so from a strongly held and significantly reflected-upon Christian presupposition. If nothing else, Dawkins' God is a classic example of how intelligent and gracious apologetic should be undertaken.

"(Richard) Dawkins raises all the right questions," McGrath tells us as he concludes this book, and then damns him with ironic faint praise by saying, "and gives some very interesting answers" (Page 158). Richard Dawkins came from a traditional Anglican background, but like so many of our generation, was innoculated against the real thing during his time at Oundle School, a once all-male preserve of which my elder daughter was in the first class of girls! For purposes of full disclosure, my mother-in-law was employed by Oundle for many years, and my younger daughter also studied there.

Dawkins read zoology at Oxford, and did further research at the University of Sussex. Following his time on that delightful campus by the English Channel he crossed an ocean and a continent and spent a few years at Berkley, that delightful campus overlooking the Pacific, before returning to Oxford University where he has hung his hat ever since. It was Dawkins' assertions in books like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, that turned him into a popularizer of an atheistic spin on Charles Darwin's insights.

It is Dawkins belief that Christian theology is "cosmic sentimentality," and that to believe in God today is to be "hoodwink'd with faery fancies." Do not think that because Professor Dawkins has, unlike so many scientists, a great facility with words, that his statements come from someone who hops, skips, and jumps across the surface. Dawkins has been an influential thinker in his field, although as McGrath suggests, his grasp of the ontological, theological, and a-theological, dimension is not as secure as his grasp of the interpretation of the science upon which he bases his position.

This is a classic contest between science and religion. The trouble is, as McGrath, a towering student of theology, philosophy, and the history of ideas, the so-called battle between science and faith was greatly exaggerated when it erupted in the Victorian era, and things have moved on considerably since that time. Today, for example, there is more and more research that suggests a faith dimension is healthy rather than destructive, and that there is a deepening cooperation between the scientific community and the faith community. Dawkins conveniently overlooks this.

McGrath finds Richard Dawkins' earlier works, (all of which you are likely to find on the science shelves of any Barnes and Noble or Borders), more convincing than his later ones, because they are based in the scientific method with evidence-based arguing. His later works tend to deteriorate in McGrath's opinion as they reiterate "the same stale old atheistic equivalents of the 'mad, bad, or God' arguments use by some Christians to prove the divinity of Christ... It became increasingly clear to me that the grounds of Dawkins' atheism might ultimately lie beyond the sciences, not within them" (Page 10).

This is as far as McGrath is prepared to go in personal inuendo, and that is a lesson all of us can learn when engaged in debate. I know that I have at times been guilty of arguing against opponents by allowing personal invective to take the place of reasoned discussion, so there was an object lesson here. Character assassination should not prevail in intelligent debate over ideas, ethics, facts, and perceptions. While the Apostle Paul has some pretty tough things to say about his detractors, he always does so within the context of the discussion of faith, doctrine, and practical Christian living, not solely on the basis of his detractors' characters. So it should be with us, and McGrath models this for us.

Early on in his research and teaching career Richard Dawkins hit upon the very effective technique of looking at evolution from the viewpoint of the gene. He wrote, "Life is just bytes and bytes of bytes of digital information. Genese are pure information -- information that can be encoded, recoded and decoded, without any degradation or change of meaning." Organisms that are able to replicate this genetic coding and pass it on to the next generation are there to enable this digital database to survive -- and not the other way round. Thus -- the Selfish Gene. In the process of unpacking Dawkins, McGrath unpacks Darwin and Mendel, too, and as effectively as I have seen either of these great gentlemen explained.

For Dawkins evolution by natural selection, Darwinism, "is a worldview, a total account of reality." Darwinism is a "universal and timeless principle capable of being applied throughout the universe." In comparison worldviews such as Marxism are "parochial and ephemeral. Where most evolutionary biologist would argue that Darwinism offers a description of reality," McGrath comments, "Dawkins insists that it offers more than this -- it is an explanation. Darwinism is a worldview, a grand recit, a metanarrative -- a totalizing framework, by which the great questions of life are to be evaluated and answered" (Page 42-43).

With grace, subtlety and intelligence, McGrath spends 159 pages gently but firmly challenging and demolishing the integrity of Dawkins' case, and questioning his presuppositions. He makes it clear by the use of both ideas and evidence, that whatever the legitimacy of Darwinian thought, Darwin's presuppositions do not necessarily lead to atheism as Dawkins is convinced, and neither does an evolutionary framework make sense of the manner in which culture develops and functions.

I have not read a lot of Richard Dawkins, but what I have read has always seemed to me to reflect a personal agenda against religion, as much as stating a position which he believes to be emminently defensible. Yet Dawkins has influenced a lot of people, yet at the same time I suspect he has been under-estimating both the ability and the intelligence of those who believe he is incorrect in his forthright rejection of any notion of God or a First Cause.

It is clear that in Alister McGrath he has met his intellectual and scholarly match. McGrath is someone who uses the scientific method and the explications of facts, the arena in which Dawkins considers himself king, to undermine the arguments Dawkins is making. What excites me about this book is not just the case McGrath makes, but the manner in which he makes it.

I commend Dawkins' God as a tutorial in godly apologetics and a model for the manner in which we need to learn to address ourselves to an unbelieving world. It is also an extremely useful guide to follow as we within the Christian community engage in debate and dialogue with one another.


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