Dawkins, Oxford University’s Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, is on a crusade. His salvo of outrage and ridicule is meant to rid the world of its greatest evil: religion. “If this book works as I intend,” he says, “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” But he admits such a result is unlikely. “Dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads” (that’s people who believe in God) are “immune to argument”, he says.I have known Dawkins for more than 20 years; we are both Oxford professors. I believe if anyone is “immune to argument” it is him. He comes across as a dogmatic, aggressive propagandist.
Of course, back in the Sixties, everyone who mattered was telling us that religion was dead. I was an atheist then. Growing up as a Protestant in Northern Ireland, I had come to believe religion was the cause of the Province’s problems. While I loved studying the sciences at school, they were important for another reason: science disproved God. Believing in God was only for sad, mad and bad people who had yet to be enlightened by science. I went up to Oxford to study the sciences in 1971, expecting my atheism to be consolidated. In the event, my world was turned upside down. I gave up one belief, atheism, and embraced another, Christianity. Why?
There were many factors. For a start, I was alarmed by some atheist writings, which seemed more preoccupied with rubbishing religion than seeking the truth. Above all, I encountered something at Oxford that I had failed to meet in Northern Ireland – articulate Christians who were able to challenge my atheism. I soon discovered two life-changing things. First, Christianity made a lot of sense. It gave me a new way of seeing and understanding the world, above all, the natural sciences. Second, I discovered Christianity actually worked: it brought purpose and dignity to life. I kept studying the sciences, picking up a PhD for research in molecular biophysics. But my heart and mind had been seduced by theology. It still excites me today.
Dawkins and I both love the sciences; we both believe in evidence-based reasoning. So how do we make sense of our different ways of looking at the world? That is one of the issues about which I have often wished we might have a proper discussion. Our paths do cross on the television networks and we even managed to spar briefly across a BBC sofa a few months back. We were also filmed having a debate for Dawkins’s recent Channel 4 programme, The Root Of All Evil? Dawkins outlined his main criticisms of God, and I offered answers to what were clearly exaggerations and misunderstandings. It was hardly rocket science. 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. Most of us are aware that we hold many beliefs we cannot prove to be true. It reminds us that we need to treat those who disagree with us with intellectual respect, rather than dismissing them – as Dawkins does – as liars, knaves and charlatans.
But when I debated these points with him, Dawkins seemed uncomfortable. I was not surprised to be told that my contribution was to be cut. The Root Of All Evil? was subsequently panned for its blatant unfairness. Where, the critics asked, was a responsible, informed Christian response to Dawkins? The answer: on the cutting-room floor.
The God Delusion is similarly full of misunderstanding. Dawkins simply presents us with another dogmatic fundamentalism. Maybe that’s why some of the fiercest attacks on The God Delusion are coming from other atheists, rather than religious believers. Michael Ruse, who describes himself as a ‘hardline Darwinian’ philosopher, confessed that The God Delusion made him ‘embarrassed to be an atheist’. The dogmatism of the work has attracted wide criticism from the secularist community. Many who might be expected to support Dawkins are trying to distance themselves from what they see as an embarrassment.
Aware of the moral obligation of a critic of religion to deal with this phenomenon at its best and most persuasive, many atheists have been disturbed by Dawkins’s crude stereotypes and seemingly pathological hostility towards religion. In fact, The God Delusion might turn out to be a monumental own goal – persuading people that atheism is just as intolerant as the worst that religion can offer.
Alister McGrath is professor of theology at Oxford University. His new book The Dawkins Delusion?, co-authored by Joanna Collicutt McGrath, is published by SPCK at £7.99.
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