Dawkins Is Not Pleased With God

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction. Jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic-cleanser; a misogynistic homophobic racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential…." - Richard Dawkins

Evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins is not an atheist who sits quietly in the pews. Dubbed "Darwin's Rottweiler" he views religion as one of humanity's most pernicious creations. In 'The God Delusion', he attacks arguments for the existence of God; accuses religions of fomenting divisiveness, war, and bigotry and castigates believers in intelligent design. This book parallels themes also expressed by Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris in their books 'Breaking the Spell' and 'The End of Faith'.

In its review of the book Christianity Today stated: "Dawkins and Daniel Dennett (whose recent Breaking the Spell is his contribution to this genre) are the touchdown twins of current academic atheism. Dawkins has written his book, he says, partly to encourage timorous atheists to come out of the closet. He and Dennett both appear to think it requires considerable courage to attack religion these days; says Dennett, "I risk a fist to the face or worse. Yet I persist." Apparently atheism has its own heroes of the faith"

Alister McGrath's book 'Dawkins' God - Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life' is the first book-length response to Dawkins. His book explains and examines Dawkins' scientific ideas and their religious implications. Head-to-head, it takes on some of Dawkins' central assumptions, like the conflict between science and religion, the "selfish gene" theory of evolution, the role of science in explaining the world, and exposes their unsustainability. Moreover, this controversial debate is carried on in a style which can be enjoyed by anyone without a scientific or religious background.

McGrath has called Dawkins "embarrassingly ignorant of Christian theology”. He has asserted that Dawkins has become better known for his rhetoric than for his argument, and that Dawkins' hostility towards religion lacks empirical support. McGrath suggested in the London Times that "the ideological fanaticism of Richard Dawkins’ attack on belief is unreasonable to both religion and science.” When asked for his opinion of McGrath, Dawkins responded: "Alister McGrath has now written two books with my name in the title. The poet W B Yeats, when asked to say something about bad poets who made a living by parasitizing him, wrote the splendid line: 'Was there ever dog that praised his fleas?'" Dawkins and McGrath have debated these topics publicly. Download the podcasts.

Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Provessor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Alister McGrath, born in Belfast, N. Ireland is a world-renowned theologian . Growing up in war-torn Northern Ireland, McGrath witnessed firsthand the bitter conflict between Catholics and Protestants. What he saw turned him against religion. When McGrath enrolled in Oxford University in 1971 he was an atheist, a Marxist and a Darwinist. His view was simple -– get rid of religion and the conflict will go with it. He has a First Class Honours degree in Chemistry from Oxford, and a First Class Honours in Theology. He became a Christian while studying at Oxford and is presently Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University.

Posted March, 19, 2007

21 comments:

Peter said...

I heard a great debate between McGrath and Dennett which can be retrieved here

http://www.thersa.org/events/textdetail.asp?ReadID=710

http://www.thersa.org/audio/lecture130306.mp3

I had thought Dennett’s Breaking the Spell was a great book and I loved his comments at the beginning of this debate – that is until McGrath got up to speak and from that point on it was ‘no contest’. McGrath is brilliant! He has degrees in both science and theology – Dennett has neither – and at the end of the debate I was starting to feel sorry for Dennett and how he struggled to defend himself.

I have heard that Dawkins may coaxed to debate McGrath – he seems very reluctant to do so – and after hearing how McGrath handled Dennett I am not surprised.

Take care,
Peter

PRD said...

Hi Peter:

I agree that Dawkins won’t debate McGrath if he can avoid it. I have lost a lot of respect for Dawkins as I have become more aware how shallow his actual knowledge is. I’m not involved in any organized religion and would say I am an agnostic leaning towards atheism. It’s a pity he wrote this last book as some of his early stuff where he stuck to science was actually quite good. Now he seems to have gone off on a rant against religion using weak science and a lot of polemics and the rug is being pulled out from under him and the position that he is trying to promulgate.

McGrath makes some killer points in my view where he analyzes Dawkins’ knowledge of theology. McGrath takes on Dawkins criticism of the Christian writer Tertullian (ca 160 – ca. 225). Dawkins had quoted two comments from Tertullian’s writings for some acerbic comments; “it is certain because it is impossible” and “it is by all means to be believed because it is absurb.” Dawkins said in ‘The God Delusion’ that he (Dawkins) had little time for such nonsense writing “that way madness lies.”

McGrath points out that Tertullian never wrote “it is certain because it is impossible” and that this is a misquotation from secondary writings showing that Dawkins hadn’t even consulted original texts! Tertullian did write “it is by all means to be believed because it is absurb” for which McGrath supplies the original quote in Latin and in its original context demonstrating that Tertullian was parodying a passage from Aristotle’s ‘Rhetoric’ and that Tertullian was making a rhetorical joke which was clear to anyone who had a basic understanding of Aristotle.

McGrath then dismisses Dawkins theological readings with “let’s just draw a line under this nonsense and pass on to something more interesting”.

Great stuff!! Yet it is somewhat sad that modern atheism has allowed itself to be high-jacked by Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris as its key ‘apostles’. prd

Megan Zamprelli said...

I read The God Delusion because my college kids are all reading it. I was quite shocked by the stupidity of some of it but my kids think he is the best 'religious' thinker around and of course they are completely drawn by his extreme examples. And in a way I can't blame them when I see some of the stupid extreme things being put out by the likes of the TV evangelists - the rapture! Gimme a break!

I have spoken to a number of other parents about Dawkins but none of them seem to care about what he says - intellectually lazy is how I would put it. They don't seem to realize how many weeks it has been on the best seller lists.

I haven't got around to McGrath yet but I intend to read his rebuttal. I understand that he has another book coming out entitled 'The Dawkins Delusion'. That should be interesting!

MAZ

Peter said...

PRD

The way McGrath demolishes the concept of the meme is interesting. Dawkins should not rely so strongly on analogies with genes in the future!

Also I thought Dawkins reference to religious people talking about 'mystery' as 'insanity' was neatly turned around with McGrath's analysis of quantum mechanics and the references of scientists to the 'mystery' of quantum mechanics.

The strength that McGrath has over Dawkins is that he has top degrees in both science and theology and is clearly comfortable with any discussion in either field. Dawkins got a second class honours degree in zoology I believe and once he wanders off that area he gets into hot water and has to resort to the polemics.

Take care,
Peter

Pianoman said...

I see now why Michael likes McGrath!

Both born and educated in Belfast!

Both have PhDs in Chemistry!

Both take up Philosophy after Chemistry!

What have I missed here?

;-)

ps: I promise to read both books!

Michael N. Hull said...

One of the things that Dawkins implies is that religion is the root of a lot of evil in the world and a lot of wars etc. But this seems a strange thing to say if, as Dawkins says, the world is purposeless and is all just predetermined cause and effect controlled by physical forces.

I wonder how he would answer Douglas Hofstadter who asked in "I Am A Strange Loop":

Have religious beliefs caused any wars, or have all wars just been caused by the interactions of quintillions of particles according to the laws of physics?

Regards,
Michael

Vinny Hall said...

Michael:

As a scientist I think you will find that Hofstadter makes an interesting analogy between thermodynamics and statistical mechanics as used to study the properties of material and what he calls ‘Thinkodynamcs and Statistical Mentalics' to describe the properties of the brain. For example, we don’t describe a gas’s behavior in terms of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces). Instead we use thermodynamics and statistical mechanics to make things comprehensible, that is we speak of a gas in terms of its pressure, volume and temperature. We give away a lot of fundamental information of what a gas ‘is’ by doing this but in so doing we are able to conceptualize how to handle, use, and exploit things like gases with greater ease.

In the same way our brains have to reduce things to a level that is comprehensible and so for example we are comfortable in using the term ‘a pile of leaves’ to describe a collection of things without going into the exact number, shape, orientation etc of every leaf and relating these to the fundamental forces in the brain such as the electrical flows that go across synapses. We as humans work therefore with 'Thinkodynamics and Statistical Mentalics' and that allows us to discover abstract essences from poetry, music, philosophy etc and understand phenomena such as love, desire, greed etc in the metaphysical world the same way we can understand how sugar dissolves in water in the physical world.

One has to be careful about analogies however. Dawkins makes an analogy between memes and genes and says that memes will be accepted when they find their ‘Watson and Crick’. McGrath cautions us to be careful of such analogies pointing out that in their study of light physicists made an analogy between light and sound. Light and sound are waves, sound needs air to travel in therefore light needs an ‘ether’ to travel in. It was Michelson and Morley who proved that light does not need a medium to travel in and so the analogy, while plausible, was completely mistaken.

McGrath summed this up with the statement “Dawkins may not find his ‘Watson and Crick’ with respect to memes, he may instead find his ‘Michelson and Morley’.”

Sincerely,
Vinny

Michael N. Hull said...

Vinny:

You wrote: “As a scientist I think you will find that Hofstadter makes an interesting analogy between thermodynamics and statistical mechanics as used to study the properties of material and what he calls ‘Thinkodynamcs and Statistical Mentalics' to describe the properties of the brain.”

Vinny: I think along similar lines as Hofstadter. For example, I believe that we function as humans in two realities: an outer reality and an inner reality. The outer reality is ‘objective’ while the inner reality is ‘subjective’. Examples of outer reality are physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, astronomy, pain, reason, linear time, gravity, scientific writings etc. Examples of inner reality are suffering, intuition, eternal time, love, art, poetry, literature (which includes religious writings), music.

From the human symbol making ability we developed language. With language and symbols we began to think about the outer and inner realities. We developed ‘models’ to describe the outer reality and ‘metaphors’ to describe the inner reality. An example of a model in the outer reality is the symbol we use for the hydrogen atom. The hydrogen atom is modeled as a point in the center of a circle to symbolize a proton with another point on the circle’s circumference to represent an electron. We use language (in this case mathematical language) to deepen this model’s utility by writing equations to describe things protons and electrons ‘do’. With the use of the model we have an understanding of how a ‘hydrogen atom’ manifests itself but we still do not know what a hydrogen atom ‘is’.

Models are descriptions of the way things might be, but never are.

Metaphors refer to stories that, while they may or may not be strictly factual, reveal fundamental truths and insights about human nature, often through the use of archetypes. In the inner reality we create metaphors. An example of a metaphor is the story of the boy who was asked to guard the sheep against the wolves and to call ‘wolf’ to the villagers if they were threatened. As a joke on the villagers he called ‘wolf’, they came and found no wolf, same thing the second time. The third time the wolf actually came and the boy cried ‘wolf’ but the villagers didn’t come. Why? They no longer had ‘trust’ in what he said. We don’t know the historical ‘truth’ of this story i.e. did it physically happen at some place and at some time? But that is of no consequence because we have an intrinsic truth in the story of how ‘trust’ can be lost by acting dishonestly.

Metaphors are descriptions of the way things never were, but always are.

Both models and metaphors have both real and imaginary components. In mathematics, real and imaginary numbers are essential for describing outer world reality using models. Imaginary numbers have essential applications in areas such as signal processing, control theory, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics. Without imaginary numbers modern science would be paralyzed. Likewise real and imaginary situations and persons are essential for describing inner world reality using metaphors. "Metaphor" does not imply that a story is either objectively false or true, it rather refers to a spiritual, psychological or symbolical notion of truth unrelated to materialist or objectivist notions.

In my view in the inner reality we have free will and in the outer reality we do not. In the outer reality the only option is to state “I accept” - what is, ‘is’. In the inner reality, however, we have the option “I choose”. For example, in the outer world we experience the sun’s heat on our face or hear the wind rustling the trees or suffer the consequences of an earthquake - we have no control over these observations – we can simply experience them through our perception. The physical experience regardless of how painful or how joyous can only be ‘accepted’. In the inner world we might experience anger at something or someone. In this case we are not trapped with the single option of ‘acceptance’ for we can ‘choose’ to let the anger go. Pain, an outer reality, is not what makes us suffer. It is how we choose to deal with pain in the inner world that causes us to suffer.

However, what I would add (and I apologise for the length) is that we must be agnostic about both our models and our metaphors.

Regards,
Michael

Helen Wright said...

I find the model/metaphor distinction interesting though a bit hard for a lay person like me to follow. But does your model idea work only with reason and then don't you need faith with the metaphor stuff? Isn't that what Dawkins says is the problem with religion that it requires blind faith and no reason?

Helen Wright

Peter said...

Helen:

McGrath handled the issue of "blind" faith in his debate with Dennett. Basically he said that faith and reason have to be used in both the physical and the metaphysical sciences (Michael's models and metaphors).

For example he pointed out that when physicists were studying how light travels from point A to point B they had faith that there had to be an 'ether' to carry the light waves. Through reason that proved not to be the case i.e. the 'faith' was incorrectly placed but 'reason' corrected this.

Now if some scientists continue to believe that there must be an 'ether' then this becomes 'blind' faith.

In the metaphysical realm we can employ the same approach i.e. we can have 'faith' in something but we do not need to have 'blind' faith. If I can hop on Michael's example of the boy and the sheep. I have faith that this story is 'true' that if you keep cheating people they will no longer interact with you. I might also have 'faith' that this story is actually factually true (meaning that there really was a boy and sheep at some time and in some place). If someone proved to me that the boy never existed and I continued to insist that he did that would be an example of 'blind' faith. However, my faith in the underlying truth about cheating would still remain valid.

I think a lot of fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist religionists do accept things on 'blind' faith. The present situation with extremist muslim positions falls into the same problem area.

So I agree with Dawkins that 'blind' faith is to be rejected while 'faith' and 'reason' are to be applauded.

Take care,
Peter

ps Sorry, Michael, if I have stolen your thunder on this but I have read your stuff on the Crawley blog!

Helen Wright said...

So help me, Peter, with creationism and say the Virgin Birth.

I don't believe that the world was created in six days but should I then not also disbelieve the Virgin Birth? Using reason can I say that God created the earth but that it wasn't accomplished in a week? I have never seen a virgin birth so if one believes in that is it in your view blind faith?

Helen Wright

Peter said...

Helen

There is nothing wrong with believing something per se. The problem comes if one continues to believe it once it has been proved false. What science does is put probabliities on its beliefs and religious beliefs can be treated the same way. If I pick up on Michael's 'boy crying wolf example' I have nearly a 100% probabality that the moral of this story is true and I have a 50% probabality belief that it actually happened (mainly because I haven't researched the story so I don't know if it has an historical basis or not). I could of course research the story and find that it came out of some fairy tale written in the 18th Century and then I would move my probabality of belief in the historic truth of the story to close to 0%. But that wouldn't change my nearly 100% probabality belief in the truth of the 'story behind the story'.

Earlier there was a discussion here about Borg. He emphasizes that Christianity is a religion of 'relationship' not a religion of 'belief' so if the Virgin Birth were shown tomorrow to have had 0% probabality of having physically happened, it would not make one iota of difference to me in terms of my practice of Christianity.

Hope this is helpful?

Take care,
Peter

Megan Zamprelli said...

Well said, Peter!

MAZ

Helen Wright said...

Michael and Peter .. you said (Michael) that you were agnostic about your 'models and metaphors' - what exactly does this mean in terms of religious belief? I don't get how someone could believe in God and be agnostic. What I am missing here?

Helen

Michael N. Hull said...

Helen:

I don't know you personally but I can make certain statements of 'belief' about you based on your writings in this blog.

However, if in making a statement about you someone asked "Is that true?" I would have to reply that I am 'agnostic' about the matter. I do not know with 100% certainity that my statement is 100% true.

So while holding a belief about which I am agnostic I can still act on that belief in the expectation that my belief is indeed true. Thus because of my 'belief' about you I relate to you in a certain way on this blog.

As to your specific question about God and agnosticism. A belief in atheism means that one believes that life is purposeless. A belief in God means (to me anyway) that life has purpose. There is no way that one can prove which position is 'true' and so in a discussion with others one should be 'agnostic' and not 'fundamentalist' or 'dogmatic'.

I prefer to believe in a life with purpose over a life of no meaning - for me it is a much more satisfactory belief. That does not mean that if you believe something else I think there is something wrong with you.

Blind faith to me means 'fundamentalism' and 'extremism' and I think these characteristics are seen in some aspects of the religious communities and also in some aspects of the secular humanists. I am not uncomfortable in a position of 'not knowing' everything and living with a sense of 'uncertainity'. But on the other hand 'not knowing' and 'uncertainity' gives me tremendous opportunities to grow my beliefs.

Regards,
Michael

Michael N. Hull said...

Dawkins and McGrath have debated! You can download the mp3 files here:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/audio_video/podcasts/books/article1570989.ece

Regards,
Michael

Peter said...

Good debate! I thought both sides had some weaknesses though.

Dawkins weakest point was when he said something to the fact that if all good in the world was associated with 'believers' and all bad in the world was associated with 'non-believers' he still wouldn't think that was proof of 'God'. Yet it seems to me that as a scientist one would adopt that 'theory' quite quickly and begin to act as if it were true until there was contrary scientific evidence.

McGrath fell into a hole with his attempt to explain the resurrection and the virgin birth in terms of the suspension of science. That really surprised me!

Take care,
Peter

Michael N. Hull said...

Peter:

I agree with you on both points particularly McGrath's response on the virgin birth etc.

Earlier in this tread in a reply to Vinny I put forward my model and metaphor approach. McGrath tried to bring a model (suspension of science) into something that can only be addressed in terms of metaphor.

Metaphors are descriptions of the way things never were, but always are. In the metaphysical world we already understand many matters such as love, hatred, jealousy, greed, the goodness of God etc. However, one continues a never ending search for better ways to describe these realities. One’s metaphors are expressed in poetry, novels, and biblical stories that, while they may or may not be strictly factual, reveal intrinsic truths about human nature and our relationship with the Divine. Romeo and Juliet is not a factual tale but it reveals truths about love, human behavior, and death etc. Romeo and Juliet 'never were' but one learns from this narrative several truths that 'always are’. Some of our metaphorical narratives are the stories we tell about the relation between this world and the sacred. The bible should be read mostly from this perspective – the perspective of metaphorical narrative. Thus, for example, one can accept that the Genesis creation stories are metaphorically true (God created the universe) but also accept that they do not portray a correct ‘model’ of His creation.

I think McGrath reads the OT as metaphor but reads the NT factually and that is what got him into some logical problems.

Regards,
Michael

Megan Zamprelli said...

Going back to our discussion on Borg, I doubt McGrath and Borg would be in agreement on the resurrection and the virgin birth? My impression is that Borg would not take either of these events literally and he is NOT a scientist. McGrath does take them literally and he IS a scientist!

Things are never simple!

Any thoughts?
MAZ

Peter said...

Megan:

It's hard to take things 'literally' since there are so many different ways that original texts were copied and translated.

I recently came across a reference which stated that recent scholarship found previous translations of the eight beatitudes in Matthew were "wrong" because of their interpretation as passive consolation in the face of tribulations.

The writer refered to Andre Chouraqui and his translation 'La Bible'. Chouraqui (not that I had ever heard of him) makes no concession to readability in his translation (which I gather was into French) so as to stick as close as possible to the original sense of the text (Greek in the case of the NT). The phrase translated as "Blessed are" he translates as "En marche!" or "Walk forth!". His translation means that the beatitudes are to be rendered as 'active' and not 'passive'. The phrase 'poor in spirit' as 'humiliated of breath' - the Greek word for spirit coming from that for breath.

Thus he renders the beatitudes as follows:

Walk forth, you in whom the breath is held back and restrained by emotions and fear!

Walk forth, you gentle and humble ones, for your gentleness is your strength!

Walk forth, you who weep, for you shall be consoled!

Walk forth, those who starve and thirst for justice!

Walk forth, the pure of heart! You shall see God.

Walk forth, merciful ones! You shall receive mercy.

Walk forth, peacemakers! You shall be proclaimed sons of God.

Walk forth, those persecuted for justice's sake! The kingdom of heaven is theirs.

I like this version better!

Take care,
Peter

Vinny Hall said...

I just listened to the McGrath Dawkins debate again and I agree that McGrath struggled badly with the resurrection and virgin birth questions.

Sincerely, Vinny