tothesource: In your The Dawkins Delusion? you take atheist Richard Dawkins to task for sloppy, even embarrassing arguments against the existence of God. You are not alone. Dawkins’s fellow atheist Michael Ruse has said that Dawkins’s God Delusion “makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.” As you make clear, you are a theist, yet you seem almost disappointed in the caliber of Dawkins’s arguments. Is that so?
Alister McGrath: Yes, I am disappointed. I would have expected an Oxford professor to use a much more careful, scholarly approach, always trying to see an opponent at his best, and not using simplistic generalizations. I can entirely understand why Michael Ruse and many other atheists are embarrassed by The God Delusion. What concerns me most, however, is what this book shows us about today’s atheism. I think this book is being read primarily by atheists who want to bolster their faith, when all around them God is being taken more seriously than he has for many years. It is almost as if atheists want cheap, slick answers, and don’t want to face up to the big questions. Dawkins gives them a simple way of looking at life: people who believe in God are mad, bad and sad; atheists are bold, brilliant, and brave. You don’t need to think about things; you don’t need to read books by Christians. You can write them off in advance as the predictable rantings of deluded idiots. It’s very worrying, and shows how dogmatic and simplistic atheism has now become.
tts: You accuse Dawkins of atheist fundamentalism. When you debated Dawkins last March at Oxford he categorically denied the existence of God and miracles and dismissed any validity to theology, religion, religious morality, and faith. Even more telling, during your opening statement you referenced Dr. Dawkins or his work ten times, yet he never made reference to you. At the end of the debate, after your final comment, he simply laughed. Given Freud’s characterization of narcissism, that all libido is invested in the self and no other objects exist, perhaps Dawkins’s fundamentalism is really narcissism. Since Dawkins is an atheist then only atheism is relevant. Neither the lives of billions of believers, nor the collective works of Augustine, nor Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, nor the countless acts of Christian charity over the last two thousand years seem to matter to Dawkins.
McGrath: That’s how it looks to me. Fundamentalism is really a kind of mindset – an absolute conviction that you are right, and that anyone who disagrees with you is a fool or a charlatan. Because he wants to portray religion as invariably evil or mad, he has to airbrush out of existence the many good sides of faith. This may well suit dogmatic atheists, but it doesn’t persuade anyone else. Terry Eagleton, a British professor of cultural studies, put it rather well: “Such is Dawkins’s unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false.”
I believe in taking Dawkins seriously, partly as a matter of intellectual honesty, and partly because, as a Christian, I believe it is important to treat people with respect. If Dawkins doesn’t return the compliment, I will leave it to your readers to judge what that tells us about the moral and intellectual probity of atheism.
tts: As you note, “Dawkins is driven by his core assumption that real scientists must be atheists.” Obviously you don’t share that assumption, and from what you’ve said in The Dawkins Delusion?, most of your scientific colleagues agree with you. How scientific is it to believe that real scientists must be atheists?
McGrath: It is totally unscientific. Dawkins has little interest in trying to understand why so many scientists believe in God. He’s far too busy stigmatizing them to take them seriously. Scientific surveys show that many scientists do believe in God. Dawkins responds by saying that, if they do, they can’t be real scientists. It’s a highly dogmatic view of science, which appalls many scientists. I have heard many scientists complain that Dawkins is giving them a bad name, by implying that all scientists are as dogmatic as he is!
tts: Dawkins muddles religious belief, faith and theism all together. These are not at all the same things. Science employs faith. A scientist must have faith in her theory before she subjects the theory to tests and then she must have faith in her instruments and test procedures to provide her with valid empirical evidence. Isn’t Dawkins’s dismissal of faith naïve?
McGrath: Dawkins has his own definition of faith – “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”, or as a “process of non-thinking”. Needless to say, these are highly pejorative, and don’t correspond to what Christians actually think. Countless Christian writers – from Thomas Aquinas to C. S. Lewis to Josh McDowell – have emphasized that faith is based on evidence; that faith makes sense; and that faith can be defended in the public arena. Dawkins seems determined to portray people who believe in God as non-thinking. In doing so, he ends up in a hopeless mess, failing to distinguish between “religion” and “belief in God”, and – maybe more importantly – between “a religion” and “a worldview”.
Dawkins fails to take seriously how worldviews – such as Nazism or Stalinism – can lead people to acts of extremism and violence. He’s so convinced that only religion causes these problems that he fails to look long and hard at the evidence. Most tellingly, he substitutes creedal statements for evidence-based arguments at this point. Here’s an example: “I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca – or Chartres, York Minster, or Notre Dame.” Now this noble sentiment is a statement about his personal credulity, not about the reality of things. The history of the Soviet Union is replete with the burning and dynamiting of huge numbers of churches, not to mention the persecution of Christian clergy. Dawkins’s naïve plea that atheism is innocent of the violence and oppression that he associates with religion is simply untenable, and suggests a significant blind spot on his part.