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57 of 84 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Does what it sets out to do, 21 Nov 2006
This review is from: Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Paperback)
Alister McGrath has been somewhat cautious in formulating his discussion of Richard Dawkins' views on religion. He has set himself a specific task and is careful to stick to it: this book is not, as at least one reviewer has suggested, a Christian apologetic. To be precise, it is Dawkins who is the apologist at this point in the debate, and McGrath who offers an assessment of his arguments. Several previous reviewers seem to have assumed that this book attempts (and fails) to prove the existence of God and thus refute atheism: it does not (it isn't called 'McGrath's God', after all). McGrath's aim is to examine the arguments used by Dawkins to justify his atheism, and he is careful not to extend the argument beyond this.

Dawkins' atheism, on McGrath's reading, is grounded in a perceived conflict between Darwinian evolution and natural theology (specifically, the eighteenth-century version that sees the natural world as yielding clear evidence of the existence and attributes of God). Dawkins' argument would run as something like: it was reasonable to believe in God when no other mechanism could be found to explain the apparent adaptedness of living organisms. Darwin, however, provides such a mechanism and the 'God' explanation is therefore no longer required. Since the natural world does not provide clear evidence of the existence of God, people who hold theistic beliefs must do so 'in the teeth of the evidence'. McGrath challenges this movement at several points:

1. The natural theology of William Paley is not typical of Christian tradition and provoked some unease within theological circles long before Darwinism arrived on the scene. Few historians of ideas would wish to disagree with this reading. Dawkins' rejection of Paley and his school, then, should not be seen as involving a necessary rejection of Christian theology as a whole.

2. Dawkins' view of faith as belief 'in the teeth of evidence' is itself unsupported by evidence. This is an important point and, unfortunately, McGrath does not make it as forcefully as he might. Even a brief reading of the history of Christian theology will reveal the centrality of questions of evidence to Christian faith. Dawkins is, of course, free to dispute the persuasiveness of this evidence, but to claim that faith is not concerned with evidence finds little support in the historical facts. McGrath makes this point, but does not extend the argument to cover two important consequences: (i) that Dawkins' characterisation of faith is part of a rhetorical strategy that allows him to present faith (irrational) as the direct opposite of science (rational). There is a middle ground here, which lies in the recognition that questions of ultimate reality and meaning are very hard, and that intelligent people might honestly come to different conclusions. Sadly, such a recognition lies outside Dawkins' worldview. (ii) McGrath might have questioned Dawkins' definition of 'evidence', which is bound up in his scientific naturalism. It seems reasonable to ask what kind of 'evidence' of God Dawkins would accept, and whether this is in fact compatible with theological representations of God. One of the central tenets of Christian theology is the belief that God's supreme self-revelation is in Christ: does this leave grounds to suppose that he would also choose to reveal himself in a way testable by natural science and therefore independent of Christ? Dawkins presupposes that if God exists we can expect to find scientific evidence of the fact: is this actually as clear-cut as he suggests? Dawkins' totalising view of science - that the methods used for establishing truth in the biological sciences are universal principles that may be applied across all disciplines - is one of the points at which he is philosophically vulnerable. McGrath unfortunately does not pursue these points.

McGrath's agenda in this book is to challenge Dawkins' assumption that atheism is the logical conclusion of scientific rationalism. He does this fairly well. At the same time, however, I can sympathise with those reviewers who feel that his argument doesn't quite have the payoff that it might have done. The problem is that McGrath seems determined to write at the popular level, presupposing no specific background in science, theology or philosophy on the part of his reader. Ultimately, however, the disagreements between McGrath and Dawkins occur at the philosophical level, in questions about how one interprets the physical world that is described by the natural sciences, whether materialism really offers the best description of reality as it is observed and experienced, and what kinds of meaning and value should be attached to the universe and the place of humanity wihin it. McGrath has addressed these issues with clarity and sophistication elsewhere (see his three-volume 'Scientific Theology' project and subsequent essay collection 'The Order of Things'). 'Dawkins' God' is a good introduction to the ongoing debate between McGrath and Dawkins, but readers will have to go elsewhere for its substance.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Apr 2014 23:41:58 BDT
george scott says:
Dawkins view of faith as belief 'in the teeth of evidence' is, however, supported by pretty well all the major dictionaries.
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