On Tuesday night I went along to a public lecture given by Oxford Prof. and General-Wise-Theologian Alister McGrath. His subject was a brief look at some of the big ideas in Richard Dawkins’ work, and particularly those of his latest book The God Delusion (on which McGrath’s latest offering, The Dawkins’ Delusion is a critique). McGrath was articulate and stimulating as he identified and rebutted four of Dawkins’ key ideas:

1. Faith is delusional… Dawkins’ bills faith as ‘non-thinking’ or a ‘refusal to engage with evidence’, but McGrath showed that actually faith does think, see Lewis, Swindoll, Plantinga. There are plenty of worldviews in which faith makes sense, and which explain our world. To look at the world and remark that it can be interpreted in an atheistic way holds no more ground than to say the same about a theistic approach.

2. Science disproves God and/or illuminates the conceptual space God once occupied… In short McGrath said this view is riduculous as there are plenty of scientists who in no way see their faith as irreconcilable with their scientific background. In fact there are limits to scientific evidence, especially in the area of metaphysics and religion; ‘the ultimate questions’ as Karl Popper called them. Of course science may lead to atheism, and science may be interpreted with an already present atheistic worldview, but neither are the only option.

3. Origins of religions can be explained naturally/scientifically… The cry of the 1960’s was that religion was on it’s way out, and yet now it is evident everywhere. Dawkins summarised goes something like this: There is no God, yet people believe there is, so therefore they have to offer an interpretation. Obviously, wishing something to be true does not make something true, yet wishing something to be true does not also mean it cannot be true. Dawkins’ tries to explain religion by describing it as a virus, and also bringing up the meme theory. However both these ideas are merely exactly that, ideas for which the evidence is not at all great, and both can be turned around at pointed at to explain atheism.

4. Religion leads to evil… Empathising with most people’s thoughts no doubt, McGrath was quick to point out that there is no doubt that religion has and will cause violence, but this capacity is also present in anti-religion, races, politics. Noting that Dawkins’ was motivated to write the God Delusion after the suicide terrorism of 9/11, McGrath quoted Robert A. Pape who has written extensively on suicide-bomber-mentality. Pape writes that religion is neither necessary or a sufficient cause for suicide attacks, with it often bottling down to a group of minority people faced with a vastly suppressive enemy and no access to a military voice.

McGrath pointed also to the life and death of Jesus, who suffered great violence against him yet no violence came from him, and he noted that Dawkins’ discussion of Jesus in his work is ‘tantalizingly inadequate’. Sure, violence is evil, and religion can lead to violence, but it is not typical. A thoughtful pointer to the Amish community in Pennsylvania that last year faced the murder of a handful of school-children, showed that violence can be met with forgiveness. McGrath also asked for evidence: ‘if religion is destructive, the evidence must show that, but it doesn’t’.

So, overall all then, McGrath’s message to the Christian was:
a) there is nothing to fear from Dawkins’ book, and
b) think about your faith. This was certainly a big challenge to me, and is part of the reason why I blog, to become more skilled at articulating what I believe.

His word to the atheist was that actually Dawkins’ isn’t the great example of atheism that pop-culture makes him out to be, and consequently much of the secular left in America has distanced itself from Dawkins.

A couple of things that struck me during the lecture and the question-time…

i) Actually often Christianity is billed as wishful thinking, ‘simply choosing the worldview you like’. Now, I love the fact that I’m adopted by God, a c0-heir with Christ, destined for the glory of God, so in one sense Christianity is a worldview I like. Yet there are many aspects that I wouldn’t naturally seek to choose from a world view: self-sacrifice, hardship, unpopularity, rejection, not living for my worldy happiness.

ii) McGrath’s lecture seemed to spend much time, particularly in his fourth point, discussing ‘religion’ without any distinction made between religions. Now this may work on some levels as a rebuttal to Dawkins’ work, but surely it is a major mistake to classify all religions as equal, especially when weighing up whether ‘religion is destructive’, for anything must be destructive ultimately if it is not about the Lord Jesus.

iii) McGrath was an engaging speaker and performed well within his remit (a critique of Dawkins), yet I wonder what the role is for the Christian theologian in such a context, after spending forty minutes knocking down the false-idols, is there not a duty to then point people to Jesus Christ. McGrath had little time to mention the reasonableness of Christianity specifically, and did touch on his own conversion as a student (‘I had to work out what is the best way of making sense of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth’), but it seemed many may have left the lecture with no sense of urgency to bow before the one name under heaven by which men may be saved!

Dave has some more thoughts on Dawkins’ here.