Friday, November 03, 2006

Taking On Dawkins' God:An interview with Alister McGrath

Here's a few excerpts from Taking On Dawkins' God:An interview with Alister McGrath:

Alister McGrath wants the world to know that Richard Dawkins is wrong: good science is not tantamount to atheism.

Do you have a personal relationship with Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins and I have met, and we’ve discussed these issues, but I think it’s probably fair to say that I’m interacting more with the books than with the man. I thought that it was essential to interact with the Richard Dawkins who was in the public arena, rather than Richard Dawkins the private man. And the reason for that is simply that his ideas are known so widely through his books. Therefore, the book I wrote is basically an interaction with what Dawkins has published.

Certainly, there is an amount of parallelism between our careers. But I think the reason I’ve been so interested in interacting with him is just this sense that there is a very important public dialogue that needs to take place here — and that maybe I was the right person to get this dialogue underway.

Can you talk about the way in which Dawkins’ focus has seemed to change over the years?

There’s no doubt that Dawkins has changed. He began by being a very adept scientific popularizer and, in The Selfish Gene, you see someone who really knows Darwinian theory and is capable of explaining it very, very clearly. But by the time you get to A Devil’s Chaplain, what we have is a very crude religious propagandist, only loosely connected with the whole scientific culture. Certainly, in reading everything Dawkins has written, I saw nothing that helped me to understand that transition.

It seems to me, he has a real animus against religion, but I’m unable to identify any single factor that seems to be a legitimate explanation of that hostility. The media now perceives Dawkins not as a scientific popularizer — if they want to talk to somebody about science they’ll go to other people — but rather as an aggressive atheist who can be relied upon to “rubbish” religion, almost like a knee-jerk reaction.

It’s very puzzling. In reading him, I can see no persuasive reason for being so hostile to religion. I can see good reasons why he might say, “I think religion is wrong,” but I don’t see why he says religion is evil and, above all, that religious people are fools, demonical or mad. That just doesn’t follow from the examples he brings.

What do you think of Dawkins’ understanding of religion and theological matters?

Dawkins seems to assume that his audience is completely ignorant of religion and, therefore, will accept his inadequate characterizations of religion as being accurate. And I think his entire method is based on the assumption of the transference of competence.

In other words, because this man is a very competent evolutionary biologist, that same competency is evident in, for example, his views on religion. And really, one of the things I find so distressing and so puzzling in reading him was that his actual knowledge of religion is very slight. He knows he doesn’t like it, but he seems to have a very shallow understanding, for example, of what religious people mean by the word “faith.”

So why has the media not called out Dawkins on his religious ignorance?

The reason that Richard Dawkins has become so influential is that his rather strident, rather aggressive views resonate with what quite a lot of people hope is indeed the case. And so, if you like, Dawkins has become a figure who is better known for his rhetoric than his reasoning.

On those relatively few occasions when he does try to engage Christian theology, he does show himself to be embarrassingly ignorant of what Christian theology is saying.

Ernan McMullin, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, told me recently that the Christian right loves Dawkins because he is so extreme, because he is so easy to focus on, and because he is so easy to turn into an icon of everything that they dislike about secular society. What do you think of that?

That’s happening. There’s no doubt that many people are treating Dawkins as a kind of atheist role model. It suits Christians very well because he’s so aggressive and, at the same time, so poorly informed. He is really easy to critique. I think that if any atheists read your magazine, I would strongly recommend they find a more responsible spokesperson. Richard Dawkins is only creating an impression that atheists simply are people who have knee-jerk reactions to faith and know very little about them.

In your book, The Science of God, you make an interesting claim that in October and November of 1971 you began to discover that the intellectual case for atheism was rather insubstantial. This coalesced into the idea that atheism itself is a belief system. What was providing the impetus for that?

In Oxford people sit up late into the night arguing, and I was doing this. I was arguing with people about A.J. Ayer and about Bertrand Russell and discovering that what I thought were very secure arguments actually were extremely vulnerable. Now it wasn’t so much I was reading — I was engaging. What I was doing was engaging with Christians who clearly were very articulate and extremely well informed. And I hadn’t really come across people like that before. So I guess that what you could say is I was breathing the intellectual oxygen that Oxford makes possible and discovering that my ideas needed urgent revision.

So it wasn’t a matter of particular written text? It was more just dialogue with real people?


Do you expect or anticipate a book-length response from Dawkins?

No, I don’t. What I do hope for is a public debate in which he and I can dialogue with each other. I don’t necessarily mean a point-scoring debate. Neither one of us is trying to wrestle the other one to the ground. I do think that because the issues are so important, there is a genuine case for a public dialogue with an audience able to listen to us exchange views and then critique both of us. I think that’s extremely important.

Dawkins is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. And I would argue he’s, therefore, under a professional responsibility to engage in precisely this type of dialogue because after all, what we’re talking about here is an issue of the public interpretation of science. I think here to misrepresent is a very serious thing, and I think it’s fair for him to be able to defend himself in public against that. And I’m very happy to have that debate any time he wants to. But at the moment I fear the initiative is with me, and I’m not getting a favorable response.

What do you mean you’re not getting a favorable response? Do you mean from Dawkins himself or from others who are his followers?

I am ready to have a public discussion with Richard Dawkins at any time and place he chooses. He knows that.

He refused?


Are there good reasons for observing that the methodologies of science are dependent upon a worldview that holds that there is order in the universe to begin with?

I think that’s right. Dawkins doesn’t really engage with historical analysis very much. He doesn’t ask why did the sciences emerge in a predominantly Christian culture, for example, and I think that his lack of knowledge of history does lead him astray at a number of very important points.

If you had a message for Dawkins that I could help you convey, what would that be?

Let’s talk in public.


  1. This isn't Dawkins, but the following should be of interest:

    The Future of Atheism with Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett, Feb. 23-24, 2006 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

  2. You could've posted Dawkins' responses. I will do it for you:

    Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, had a chance to comment on Alister McGrath’s interview with Science & Theology News.

    Dawkins on McGrath saying he is hostile toward religion:

    “I certainly do not think all religion is evil. But a good case can be made that a high proportion of evil today is religious — from Osama bin Laden to George Bush, from the Taliban’s treatment of women to missionary lies about condoms not protecting against AIDS, from the brainwashing in madrassas to the suppression of stem cell research.”

    When McGrath argues the alleged Dawkins’ quote: “religious people are fools, demonical or mad,” Dawkins says:

    “I am quite sure I never said that. My only statement that even comes close was not about religious people, but about anti-evolutionists. I wrote, in The New York Times in 1989, ‘It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane.’ Now, that sounds terribly extreme and intolerant, doesn’t it? But think about it. All I was doing was stating, more clearly and unequivocally than appeals to some people, a proposition that they themselves would accept on reflection.”

    McGrath challenges Dawkins’ knowledge of Christian theology. Dawkins responds:

    “Yes, I have, of course, met this point before. It sounds superficially fair. But it presupposes that that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about. The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject. It is empty. Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content. I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer. How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?

    The only part of theology that could possibly demand my attention is the part that purports to demonstrate that God does exist. This part of theology I have, indeed, studied with considerable attention. And found it utterly wanting.
    As for McGrath’s book, I read it with genuine curiosity to discover whether he had any argument to offer in favor of his theistic belief. The nearest I could find was his statement that you cannot disprove it. Well, that may be true, but it isn’t very impressive, is it?”

  3. Dawkins' attempt at self-defense is just as damaging to himself asthe original interview with McGrath.

  4. hostus twinkius11/03/2006 2:36 PM


    That quote made him sound like an ignoramous, I agree with Steve. You didn't do your guy any favors there...

  5. Daniel, I read with some interest Dawkins' declaration:

    “Yes, I have, of course, met this point before. It sounds superficially fair. But it presupposes that that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about. The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject. It is empty. Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content. I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer. How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?"

    Dawkins here is guilty assuming his conclusion. I can see from the first point that Dawkins is indeed massively ignorant. He does not believe that he needs to read up on Christianity because it is devoid of meaning. He speaks with the authority that only a clever man speaking outside his field can exhibit.

    If a Christian made that statement about evolution after writing a book about how untrue evolution is, would Dawkins accept that? Of course not! And I trust I would have sufficient grace to agree with him.

    On the second, I imagine most people would not speak or write authoritatively about Viking Mythology or astrology without doing proper research. As an historian, I am only too aware that one does not have to agree with a position, or even believe in it, in order to take it seriously. Dawkins' problem is that he does not take religion seriously, as witness his examples.

    Dawkins is simply seeking to excuse intellectual laziness. Now, doubtless Dawkins feels he has better things to do with his life than do in-depth reading about Christianity/religion in general. After all, the man is not a theologian or a philosopher.

    However, when a man writes a book entitled 'The God Delusion', one does rather expect the man to have done his homework. After all, he does expect people to take the time to read his book. A book addressing the subject of God. In the preface, he apparently expresses the hope that Christians will read this book.

    And of course Prof. Dawkins is quite devoid of condescension, as his numerous TV and radio appearances have demonstrated.

  6. Hiraeth said: I imagine most people would not speak or write authoritatively about Viking Mythology or astrology without doing proper research.
    How much research is necessary to discover, for example, that Thor is not responsible for lightning, or Mars in Gemini for the fact that you didn't get the promotion at work you hoped for?

    Let's not forget that the "God Delusion" (the myth, not the book) is based on a tangle of tribal legends liberally dotted with flights of imaginative rewriting and invention, reassembled and shuffled over centuries of editing under the influence of this or that cleric or emperor, translated, mistranslated and retranslated scores of times over two thousand years. Let's remember that there is no historical evidence whatsoever for the bare existence of any of the principal characters in the latter part of the collection, and hardly any in the first part. Let's consider that there's little or no physical or archaeological evidence for any of the events recounted anywhere in it.

    And then let's not be too surprised that people, rather than spending decades studying the ins and outs of turgid speculation and comparison made on the various aspects of the myths, should decide that it contains no information of relevance to the past, the present, or the future.

    As Robert Heinlein said, "Theology is the most useless study of all. It has no subject matter."

    And I write as one who was carefully brought up as a Presbyterian, and only became an atheist after successive ministers, vicars, chaplains and writers could not answer my questions.

    I just can't get over how polite Dawkins has been!

  7. Thank God for rhetoric.

  8. The guy is afraid to debate Alister McGrath.....My faith in god has become stronger after reading his moronic book!

  9. @Hiraeth:

    All Dawkins is saying in that quote is that you first have to prove a phenomenon in order to debate about it. Theology assumes the existence of God. There is a big difference between writing what Vikings believed about Thor and concluding from Thor's existence.

    Dawkins does look at all evidence provided for existence of God. If one wanted to find out whether evolution was true or not, he would have to look at the evidence and not necessarily at the conclusions you can draw from the theory.