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Dawkins, Darwin, and and some muddled sources
on 17 May 2006
This book it is a prolonged attack on Dawkins and, indirectly through him, on Darwin. Nothing new in that. What did surprise me, however, was the selective way McGarth, an Oxford academic, treated his quoted sources, frequently dropping parts of them which do not support his argument. Another ploy is to constantly reiterate throughout the book that atheism is a sort of childish delusion, an adolescent phase intelligent people like McGarth grow out of.
McGrath says that "Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and later writings must be seen as a nineteenth-century refutation of of an early eighteenth-century idea [Paley's] - an idea already rejected by leading Christian writers of the age. He offers no evidence why they 'must' be seen in this light; far from being simply `an early eighteenth-century idea', Paley's `Natural Theology' wasn't published until 1802. Darwin was a prodigious letter writer, over 13,700 have survived, but in only one letter (Cambridge reference No. 2,532), dated 15 November 1859, did Darwin mention Paley. Hardly the actions of a man obsessed with him. The reason why a few Christian theologians dropped Paley's approach was that Natural Theology was eventually seen as counter-productive in promoting Christian dogma, having nothing to say about Christ and his miracles. Paley's `watchmaker' argument logically led to theism, little better than atheism in the eyes of some 19th century theologians. McGarth fails to say that Newman, and every other theologian, in all other respects was in full agreement with Paley and with his `demonstration' that man and the universe had been created by God.
But there are further distortions and half-truths in this book. We are told that Augustine of Hippo "stressed the importance of respecting the conclusions of the sciences in relation to biblical exegesis", but not a word is said about Augustine's authoritative dictum regarding science that "Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since greater is that authority than all the powers of the human mind", a stern pronouncement which set scientific enquiry back by centuries.
McGrath says that, "On the rare occasion when [Dawkins] cites classic theologians, he tends to do so at second hand, often with alarming results. ... Dawkins [he continues] singles out the early Christian writer Tertullian for particular acerbic comment, on account of two quotations from his writings: 'it is certain because it is impossible' and 'it is by all means to be believed because it is absurd'. McGrath tells us that Tertullian never wrote the words. It is, he tells us, a misattribution and from this concludes "So at least we can reasonably assume that Dawkins has not read Tertullian himself, but has taken this citation from an unreliable secondary source". Quite, this is a translation. The `unreliable secondary source' used by Dawkins is the Oehler text, the standard Victorian critical edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, a highly respected work of Christian theology still in print.
He then tries to justify Tertullian's absurd reasoning by telling us it was all probably meant as a joke. We are told, in terms, that the joke was not detected for several hundred years until it was happily discovered by James Moffat in 1916. But Moffat says only that "The odd thing is, however, that consciously or unconsciously he [Tertullian] was following in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle." From this, McGrath draws the conclusion that "it was probably meant as a rhetorical joke, for those who knew their Aristotle". But nowhere does Moffatt even tentatively suggest it was a joke. McGrath should know that the very last thing Tertullian, or any of the early Church Fathers, would do is crack jokes while discussing the mystical body of Christ. McGrath concludes his discussion on Tertullian with "Dawkins' views on the nature of faith are best regarded as an embarrassment to anyone concerned with scholarly accuracy". Scholarly accuracy? McGrath gives the source of the quotation as "Tertullian, de paenitentia (sic, for `poenitentia', a repeated McGrath misspelling), v, 4"; but do not waste time looking for it there - it is in another work and place, Tertullian, de carne Christi, v, 25. An astonishing misattribution, especially when berating another academic for faulty scholarship.
McGrath may hold a PhD in molecular biology, but his grasp of physics is startlingly limited. He seems to believe, for he repeats it several times, that the discovery that light did not consist purely of waves was made in the 1920s. He also implies that the wave theory of light was then dropped. Neither of these assertions is true. Light is still defined as electromagnetic waves in the visible spectrum. McGraw also seems to think that 'big bang' cosmology dates back to 1920 - even the expression wasn't used before 1950. Again and again McGrath hammers away at the notion that scientific theories are not to be trusted. He says " History simply makes fools of those who argue that every aspect of the current theoretical situation is true for all time." But no scientist has ever claimed this, Dawkins certainly hasn't.
As for God, we are given a long lecture on what McGrath claims is the illogicality of Dawkins' position and attributes to Dawkins the mistake of believing that 'since A hasn't been proven, A is false'. There is no proof that either the god Mars nor the goddess Venus exists or ever existed, although there is ample proof that for over 2,000 years to around 500 AD they had many sincere believers. As the Roman poet Horace said 'Caelo tonantem credidimus Jovem regnare' (The sound of thunder is evidence for our belief that Jove reigns in Heaven), a belief which made sense before the true cause of thunderstorms was known, but according to McGrath we should simply suspend our judgement on Jove's existence, since we cannot disprove nor prove it.
For me, the one good thing about this book is that it might lead curious and fair-minded readers to Richard Dawkins' work.