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?
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.
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.