We are delusional, God is a virus and therefore harmful, religion the root of all evil. Well quite apart from the fact that atheism and secularism (embodied by Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot) has killed more people in the 20th century the religion has ever managed, these are threatening assertions. They are of course passionately-held convictions of Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins (and i use the word ‘passionately’ there advisedly – far from being reasonable and logical, Dawkins seems to stray way beyond the boundaries of his expertise). It’s all back on the agenda because of his God Delusion book.
Dawkins and I have a long history – though he wouldn’t remember it. I was at the same Oxford college where he is still a member – and one day i nearly killed him. Well that’s rather an exaggeration – i was cycling very fast through the college main gates and had to swerve violently at the last minute to avoid crashing into him and embroiling myself in a little maiming. I would have probably come off worse. Now that has absolutely nothing to do with anything in particular – but one other thing i remember from those days is an essay crisis moment late at night in the college library. It was one of those situations where absolutely anything is more interesting than the topic in hand and i remember picking up a biochemistry text book left on the table. I couldn’t make head or tail of it of course – but i could understand the foreword – by Richard Dawkins no less. Only 2 or 3 paragraphs, it provided him with another platform to lambast religion. Extraordinary really when the book had nothing to do with the philosophical or theological implications of the processes it was analysing. I remember thinking, this guy has a problem – he protests too much perhaps; he’s certainly obsessed.
I read over the holiday, Alister McGrath’s book Dawkins’ God. McGrath is not only a fellow Oxford Professor (of Historical Theology) but also holds a PhD in molecular biophysics (whatever they are). As a result he is in rather a unique position to respond (and in fact he’s got another book coming out soon called Dawkins’ Delusion or something like that). And i have to say that this book was a rip-roaring read. Its aims are modest – not to prove theism but simply to demonstrate that Dawkins’ claims go far beyond the realms of reason, logic or anything else. Dawkins claims neo-Darwinism is the final nail in the theism coffin and is incensed by the persistence of such faith (which is delusional and contrary to evidence, in his mind). Well this is palpable nonsense – there are atheists, agnostics (including Darwin’s bulldog Huxley himself, who actually coined the word) and theists who believe in evolution and neo-Darwinism. It simply is wrong to say the evidence points only one way.
But one of the most helpful parts of McGrath’s argument was to show how completely Dawkins has misunderstood Christian faith and consequently erected straw men which are by definition easy to burn down. On the last page or two, he says something that i found really helpful – and certainly has relevance for the whole Quaerentia thing:
A perfectly good definition of Christian theology is ‘taking rational trouble over a mystery’ – recognizing that there may be limits to what can be achieved, but believing that this intellectual grappling is both worthwhile and necessary. It just means being confronted with something so great that we cannot fully comprehend it, and so must do the best that we can with the analytical and descriptive tools at our disposal. Come to think of it, that’s what the natural sciences aim to do as well. Perhaps it’s no wonder that there is such a growing interest in the dialogue between science and religion.
McGrath, Dawkins’ God, p158 (Blackwell Publ, 2005)