We have been conned into believing the idea that unless something can be proved, it is false.
‘Final adjudication on the God question,’ writes McGrath, ‘lies beyond reason and experiment.’
[Review first published by the London Institute of Contempory Christianity 10th Dec 2004.]
Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, is a gifted individual. A man of considerable intelligence and erudition, with a passion for the truth and an enviable way with the English language, he has been one of the world’s leading scientific communicators for many years.
He is also an aggressive atheist, whose conviction that the scientific method and evolutionary theory utterly refute religious claims has bred years of vigorous anti-Christian polemic.
Although he has faced challenges in the past (the philosopher Mary Midgley wrote a famously hostile review of The Selfish Gene in Philosophy and Michael Poole engaged him in a more temperate debate in Science and Christian Belief), Dawkins has not received a book-length critique – until now.
Alister McGrath, director of the Oxford Centre for Evangelism and Apologetics, holds doctorates in molecular biophysics and historical theology and is thus well placed to criticise Dawkins’ thought. His most recent book, Dawkins’ God, engages his subject on a number of fronts: his take on evolutionary theory, the atheistic conclusions he draws from it, his theory of memes (the supposed cultural equivalent of genes), his division of faith and proof, and his analysis of religion.
Throughout, McGrath maintains a balanced tone, treating Dawkins’ writing respectfully even when it is ignorant or nasty. He also contents himself by showing that Dawkins’ atheism is suspect rather than demonstrably wrong.
If that sounds odd, it is because we have been conned into the kind of over-simplistic thinking that Dawkins sometimes promotes and that McGrath criticises – specifically, the idea that unless something can be proved, it is false; that either you know something by proof or you don’t know it at all.
McGrath shows that this is not so; that many theories are critically ‘underdetermined’ by evidence and that it is not just religious people who live by faith.
In doing so, he undermines Dawkins’ rhetoric. Evolutionary theory is no more necessarily atheistic than it is theistic. ‘Final adjudication on the God question,’ he writes, ‘lies beyond reason and experiment.’
This can seem an unsettling conclusion. As human beings, we like to feel we stand on unquestionably true and verifiable ground. But life is not like that.
In reality, it is the absolute conviction that we are demonstrably right that is the hallmark of infancy, not the religious claims that Dawkins rubbishes. Thinking adults live by faith.