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‘Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes And The Meaning Of Life’ by Alister McGrath

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‘Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes And The Meaning Of Life’ by Alister McGrath

Post by Ivan on Mon Jul 30, 2012 3:45 pm

This is a well researched book, with over 20 pages of references and a 12-page bibliography. It was published in 2005, a year before Richard Dawkins gave us ‘The God Delusion’. McGrath, a theologian who studied science at Oxford, comes across as a likeable person. Despite being poles apart from Dawkins, McGrath frequently praises him, for example describing him as “fascinating to read” and referring to “his wonderful way with words”, “his lucidity of expression and superb illustration of often complex points”. He says that Dawkins has “that rare ability to make complex things understandable, without talking down to his audience.” Dawkins has the advantage of having read McGrath’s book before he wrote ‘The God Delusion’, and he returns praise to McGrath for his “admirably fair summary of my scientific works”.

The book is slow to get going. The autobiographical details are not terribly exciting; McGrath has the not unusual experience of rejecting religion in his teens, seeing it as the enemy of humanity, only to return to God as a student. Some of the science in the early sections is hard work! Eventually, on page 48, one-third of the way through the work, McGrath says we can now “move on to the real agenda of this book”.

Thomas Huxley concluded that “science is, by definition, agnostic on matters of religion”. McGrath criticises Dawkins for expecting evolutionists to be atheists rather than agnostics. McGrath says that “the highly simplistic model proposed by Dawkins seems to recognise only two options: 0% probability (blind faith) and 100% probability (belief caused by overwhelming evidence).” Perhaps Dawkins has refined this since McGrath wrote his book, because in ‘The God Delusion’ he uses a seven-point scale between two extremes of opposite certainty:-
1. Strong theist, 100% probability of God, “I know”.
2. Very high probability but short of 100% theist, “I strongly believe in God”.
3. Higher than 50% but not very high, “I am uncertain but inclined to believe in God”.
4. Exactly 50%, completely impartial agnostic.
5. Lower than 50% but not very low, “Don’t know if God exists, I’m sceptical”.
6. Very low probability, but short of zero, “I think God is very improbable”.
7. Strong atheist, “I know there is no God”.
(Dawkins describes himself as “in category 6, but leaning towards 7”.)

McGrath had “a dreadful discovery of the dark side of atheism”, and he makes the strange remark that the terrible things done in the name of Communism were “one of the reasons that I eventually concluded that I could no longer be an atheist.” Surely not all atheists can be blamed for Stalin’s excesses, and is that a good reason to become a believer by default? Plenty of things have been done in the name of religion, whether you think of the Crusades, the Inquisition or the activities of the Taliban, but does that stop everyone from believing in God? Sadly no.

Is atheism a belief in its own right, or just a lack of belief? McGrath argues that atheism “is itself a belief, which requires explanation”. Others, such as Sam Harris in ‘Letter To A Christian Nation’, have argued that atheism is a term that should not even exist, since it is not a philosophy, not even a view of the world. Harris says that “atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”

According to McGrath, Dawkins claims that religion is bad for you. McGrath states that there is a “growing body of evidence that religion actually promotes human well-being.” However, the UN Human Development Report of 2005 stated that the least religious countries on earth (which it lists as Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and yes, the United Kingdom) are also the healthiest according to life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income and infant mortality. It’s well known that prosperity (or maybe greater intelligence?) seems, with the exception of the USA, to lead to a turning away from spiritual matters in favour of materialism (although many Americans seem able to combine both!).

I can’t agree with some of the tributes on the back cover of the book. The work is quite enjoyable (after the first 48 pages), but it is neither “wonderful” nor “devastating”. Dawkins criticises it on the grounds that all it has to offer is “the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God”. It’s disappointing that McGrath doesn’t consider Dawkins’ assertions on certain issues, such as the age of the world. Dawkins says that the world is 4.6 billion years old. 44% of Americans believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old.

In typical Church of England fashion, McGrath remarks that “Christianity is not a static entity; rather it is like a growing plant”. I could imagine Rowan Williams saying something like that, but not a Christian who takes the Bible literally as God’s word. Incidentally, there is only one quote from the Bible (Psalm 19:1) in the entire book, and that appears twice.

McGrath comes up with a couple of other strange comments. He says that “Dawkins offers a powerful, and in my view credible, challenge to one way of thinking about the doctrine of creation, which gained influence in England during the eighteenth century, and lingers on in some quarters today.” He also says that “intensive historical scholarly research has demonstrated that the popular notion of a protracted war between church and science which continues to this day is a piece of Victorian propaganda, completely at odds with the facts.” You may at that point be forgiven for wondering as to what, in that case, this book is all about! However, McGrath is a healer and a unifier, more tolerant than Dawkins, and striving to bridge the gap between science and faith. Perhaps the comment which sums up the whole book is his suggestion that “God endowed humanity with intelligence and reason both to investigate the world, and to discover God.” That makes me recall the Church of England vicar who said to me recently: “God created the world and then allowed it to evolve.”

The nub of the issue seems to be as follows. Dawkins is at least consistent when he takes the line that if something cannot be scientifically proven, he won’t accept it. McGrath’s own scientific studies led him to believe that matters are not so clear-cut and that “the vast majority of scientific information needs to be discussed in terms of the probability of conclusions reached on the basis of the available evidence.”. As McGrath concludes: “Some minds on both sides of the argument may be closed; the evidence and the debate, however, are not.” I don’t accept that Dawkins’ mind is closed, since he often says that he will change it if scientifically-proven evidence is put before him. I’m sure McGrath would make a genial parish priest (though he's currently Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University), but he doesn’t land any punches on Dawkins in this lightweight book.

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Re: ‘Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes And The Meaning Of Life’ by Alister McGrath

Post by Dr Sheldon Cooper PhD on Thu Feb 05, 2015 1:31 pm

"McGrath had “a dreadful discovery of the dark side of atheism”, and he makes the strange remark that the terrible things done in the name of Communism were “one of the reasons that I eventually concluded that I could no longer be an atheist.” Surely not all atheists can be blamed for Stalin’s excesses, and is that a good reason to become a believer by default? Plenty of things have been done in the name of religion, whether you think of the Crusades, the Inquisition or the activities of the Taliban, but does that stop everyone from believing in God? Sadly no. "

We hear this accusation from theists often but I don't recall anyone offering any cogent argument as to why atheism is cited as the root cause for the egregious crimes of Stalin.

After all atheism beyond one single criteria has no doctrine or dogma to adhere to. Unlike religions whose texts are so often quoted 'accurately' when theists resort to violence.

It's also worth pointing out that totalitarian regimes never respect human rights so suggesting the crimes of this one are the result of atheism is illogical.

Himmler insisted that every member of the S'S be a practicing christian,either protestant or Catholic.  His reasoning was that non believers were unlikely to value their oath before God.  

Even assuming for a percentage of opportunist liars this still leaves a huge section of a christian country that committed the worst crimes possibly in human history.

So clearly you're assessment of McGrath'so reasons for becoming a theist seem more valid than the reasons he cites.

Besides even if atheism were an appalling corruption on morals that dosent make the existence of a deity any truer.
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