on 5 February 2013
In this book, and The Dawkins Delusion, Alister McGrath (AM) frequently refers to 'evidence based thinking' and 'scholarly research'. He also accuse Richard Dawkins (RD) of preaching to the choir, and using turbo-charged rhetoric.
A significant part of this book is devoted to the question of faith.
AM :- "Lets begin by looking at that definition of faith (used by RD) and ask where it comes from. Faith means"blind trust,in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence" But why should anyone accept this ludicrous definition?.....So what is the evidence that anyone - let alone religious people - defines "faith" in this ludicrous way? The simple fact is that Dawkins offers no defence of this definition, which bears little relation to any religious (or any other) sense of the word.........It is Dawkins own definition, constructed with his own agenda in mind.....This definition is itself a piece of rhetoric, devised to meet the needs of Dawkins' agenda.....His idiosyncratic definition is his own invention, created, it would seem, for purely polemical purposes."
Collins English Dictionary (1998) (most important entries first)
faith 1.strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp. without proof or evidence.
2. a specific system of religious beliefs: the Jewish faith
3. Christianity.trust in God and in his actions and promises.
4. a conviction of the truth of certain doctrines of religion,esp. when this is not based on reason.
5. complete confidence or trust in a person, remedy etc.
6. any set of firmly held principles or beliefs.
7. allegiance or loyalty as to a person or cause...
(I take unshakeable to mean - it does not matter what you tell or show me, I will not change my mind - as close to blind, against the evidence etc. as you could wish.
The other mainstream dictionaries are similar, although not all include evidence in 1.
It is clear, from context etc. that RD was using 1. - he frequently warns against taking someones word for anything, without supporting evidence - as does the motto of the Royal Society.
It is also clear that he did not invent it himself.
There is a response that I have encountered, namely "I know lots of Christians, and none of them would define faith in that way"...but how would they describe the Young Earth creationists who deny all the evidence that the Earth is more than 6000 years old, and explain the Grand Canyon as being carved out by water escaping from Noah's Flood, (it's true, they do) ignoring all the obvious questions, such as, if the flood was world-wide where was the water flowing, from and to, why does the Grand Canyon meander, even incorporating horseshoe bends, why are there so many layers or rock, which must according to them,pre-date the flood.
There is an interview between RD and Wendy Wright,(President of Concerned Women for America), shown on the C4 documentary 'The Genius of Charles Darwin', and written up in The Greatest Show on Earth', where she keeps asking Where is the evidence, where are these fossils, why are the the museums not full of them? and being told that that the museums are full of them does not, as anyone with any intellectual integrity surely would, respond with "Show me", but repeats (and repeats) her denial of their existence, and then eventually goes off in another direction.
How would AM and others describe such beliefs if not as faith?
Would AM and others deny that meaning 1 in the Collins is an accurate description of such a belief, as is Dawkins?
AM has described these as a lunatic fringe - if so almost half of the population of the USA fit this description - some fringe!
AM tried to sidetrack this by going to 3. but even then, he blew it with his references to non-religious people.
The use of ludicrous, absurd etc sounds like overblown rhetoric to me.
It would seem that scholarly research does not extend to consulting dictionaries.
So what is AM's definition of faith? He quotes W H Griffith Thomas "...It commences with conviction of the mind, based on adequate evidence......." AM states that this is consistent with other Christian writers over the years. Well, of course it is - turkeys don't vote for Christmas - but what was that about preaching to the choir?
Just as I cannot find a dictionary that does not agree with RD's ludicrous, made-up, idiosyncratic etc. definition, I cannot find a dictionary that includes evidence as part of faith.
Another example of AM's evidence based thinking occurs when, after praising RD's refutation of Paley's watchmaker he tries to relegate this to a straw man achievement, by pointing out that theologians had rejected Paley by the middle of the 19th century.
There are two problems with this.
1. Watchmaker was rejected, because, in the words of J H Newman, quoted by AM "Nay,more than this,I do not hesitate to say that, taking men as they are, this so-called science tends, if it occupies the mind, to dispose it against Christianity
In other words, Paley's watchmaker was rejected not because of any inherent flaws, but because it did not lead to where they wanted to go.
The very antithesis of evidence based thinking.
2. Theologians rejected watchmaker over 160 years ago, but he is alive and well, and is the basis of the I.D. movement.For all the difference theologians have made, they might as well be in an airtight room on a planet in a distant galaxy.
AM cannot resist taking little digs at RD, but as often as not, they rebound on him.
"Now perhaps Dawkins is too busy writing books against religion to allow him time to read works of religion."
RD has written perhaps 10 -20 books, depending how you count editions of the same work.
AM has written perhaps 100 -200, again depending etc. It is true that some are quite short and there is an element of 'cut and paste', but... "Now perhaps.....consult a dictionary."
AM misquotes Ingersoll, who predicted the end of orthodox Christianity (not Christianity itself,as AM pretends) or is AM suggesting that Christianity has not developed since then.
IN view of the above, I cannot take AM's little anecdotes seriously, especially the one where he was told about wave/particle duality in "hushed conspiratorial tones". This is where he is cynically trying to introduce an undue suspicion of science, especially evolution.
It is true that in principle, no scientific theory is regarded as fully proven, but the major ones are so solidly based that it almost certain that future changes will be of the nature of refinement, rather than wholesale abandonment.
I am not going to discuss memes, - anyone who objects to this should remember that AM took the same attitude in TDD.
I am writing a review, not a book, but just as it takes only one piece of evidence to refute a scientific theory, I hope that I've done enough to stop some taking AM simply at his word - or anyone else, including RD.
I cannot resist one cheap shot of my own. Apart from the recent census report, the most worrying thing the Christian community has encountered has been AM's The Twilight of Atheism.(I did say it was cheap)