Christianity anthology 2: McGrath – Dawkins delusion


McGrath introduces Dawkins’ argument

Faith is blind trust in the absence, or even in the face of, the evidence. Religion is evil because it encourages this blind faith. Those who believe in God are thus deluded – they have lost touch with reality.

McGrath argues that this is a self-serving defining of faith, not a Christian definition. He agrees with Dawkins that faith and beliefs are very important to people, but points out (through an example) that there are those who have ‘faith’ in Dawkins’ worldview also.

McGrath thus claims he is against delusion and will attempt to show that Dawkins’ views on religion can have an ‘evidence-based rebuttal’.

Faith is infantile

“a recurring atheist criticism of religious belief is that it is infantile – a childish delusion which ought to have disappeared as humanity reaches its maturity.”

Dawkins analogised religious belief to belief in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus.

McGrath: the analogy is flawed since there are no adults who believe in Santa or the Tooth Fairy. McGrath himself didn’t believe in God until going to university, and the philosopher Anthony Flew didn’t start believing in God until his eighties.

There are adults who believe in fairies though – the tooth fairy is just a particular fairy. Maybe Witchcraft could be another analogy since that is generally thought to be a childish belief yet there are adults who still believe in it.

McGrath agrees with Dawkins about the problem of parents indoctrinating their children – this fits with his other agreement that religious belief, like all belief, should be subject to evidence-based reasoning and that blind faith is not truly Christian.

McGrath claims Dawkins makes a reasonable point, but that it gets lost in the ‘noise of the hyped-up rhetoric’ such as that raising a child religious is ‘child abuse’ and that we need to break the cycle of raising children religious in order to end religion itself – which implies that religion is just kept going thanks to indoctrination, not evidence or argument.

McGrath worries that secularists will merely force their own dogmas on their children if they listen to Dawkins’ misrepresentations of religion. He suggests Dawkins sounds ‘uncomfortably like’ the anti-religious form of secularism found in the Soviet Union in the 1950s which taught children that religion was a superstition, disproven by science.

McGrath claims that children should be taught ‘fairly and accurately, what Christianity actually teaches’ – not Dawkins’ misrepresentations, caricatures and stereotypes now being ‘aggressively peddled by atheist fundamentalism’.

McGrath implies that these misrepresentations actually indicate a flaw in secularists like Dawkins’ claim to be on the side of truth, evidence and reason. This is why McGrath calls Dawkins an atheist fundamentalist: Dawkins’ inaccurate beliefs about what religion is, are just as dogmatic and delusional as the beliefs of religious fundamentalists.

Dawkins’ response: “Other theologies contradict the Christian creed while matching it for brash overconfidence based on zero evidence. McGrath presumably rejects the polytheism of the Hindus, Olympians and Vikings. He does not subscribe to voodoo, or to any of thousands of mutually contradictory tribal beliefs. Is McGrath an “ideological fanatic” because he doesn’t believe in Thor’s hammer? Of course not. Why, then, does he suggest I am exactly that because I see no reason to believe in the particular God whose existence he, lacking both evidence and humility, positively asserts?”

McGrath’s argument really seems to be that it is Dawkins’ mischaracterisation of religion and his apparent abandonment of academic standards in his critique of religion which makes Dawkins a fundamentalist.

Faith is irrational

McGrath claims that there is a ‘lunatic fringe’ on both sides of the God debate. However what Dawkins does is try to suggest that the religious fundamentalists are representative of all religious people. This works for Dawkins’ audience who are not properly educated in religion (again showing the need for proper religious education). This is inaccurate and therefore not scientific.

Dawkins inaccurately quoted Tertullian as saying “it is by all means to be believed because it is absurd”, though Dawkins stopped when McGrath pointed out it was a false quote. This highlights Dawkins’ apparent willingness to just repeat what sounds good to him rather than properly check his sources like a scientifically minded person should.

In the God Delusion, Dawkins moved on to quoting Martin Luther’s concerns about reason. McGrath points out that Luther’s view was that salvation or justification was by ‘faith alone’, not the power of human reason doing something for God. Luther thought that salvation was by divine grace, that no human had the power to earn or merit that grace, and thus it is by faith alone that we are saved.

McGrath concludes that Dawkins’ engagement with Luther is thus ‘inept’ and not ‘evidence-based scholarship’ but merely selective ‘trawling’ of the internet for quotes that can be taken out of context. Dawkins “wants to write a work of propaganda”, not academic scholarship. The truth and making an accurate representation of religion is not required for his agenda, which is the destruction of religion. “It’s an unpleasant characteristic that he shares with other fundamentalists”.

McGrath is correct that Dawkins cherry-picked quotes from Luther without understanding the context. However, although Dawkins makes many mistakes in his characterisation of Religion when critiquing it for being irrational, arguably Dawkins’ main argument is just the claim that religion is irrational because it is belief in a God for which there is no evidence. Dawkins’ mistaken characterisation of religion could more fairly be attributed to his lack of education in it and the declining importance of religion in society making general knowledge on it less pervasive. It doesn’t show Dawkins is a fundamentalist, not when his main point is valid. The more critical thing that McGrath manage to show is that belief in God is reasonable.

Arguments for God’s existence

McGrath accepts that Dawkins’ book ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ was the ‘finest’ critique based on biological science of Paley’s teleological/design argument for God. Dawkins knows what he is talking about regarding biology.

However, Dawkins also turns to other arguments for God which McGrath doubts the wisdom of, claiming Dawkins is ‘out of his depth’. For example, Aquinas’ 5 ways were only meant to show the “inner consistency of belief in God”, but not its “evidential foundations”. Aquinas assumes based on faith that the world ‘mirrors God, as its creator’, and thus the apparent order in the world can be explained by God’s existence as its creator.

Faith in God thus offers a better ‘empirical fit’ with the world than its alternatives.

Aquinas never speaks of his ways as being ‘proofs’ of God’s existence. “Dawkins misunderstands an a posteriori demonstration of the coherence of faith and observation to be an a priori proof of faith”.

“Where Dawkins sees faith as intellectual nonsense, most of us are aware that we hold many beliefs that we cannot prove to be true but are nonetheless perfectly reasonable to entertain.” It is perfectly scientific to think beliefs may be justifiable without being proven.

Just because something is internally consistent and reasonable, that doesn’t justify belief in it. To justify belief, especially to the degree religious people do such that they base the meaning and purpose of their lives on it, arguably requires evidence that supports the belief.

Furthermore, consider Dawkins’ point about the multiple religions that exist – by McGrath’s standard it is ‘reasonable’ to believe in any of them – but they can’t all be true and there’s no ‘reasonable’ way to choose any particular one of them.

The extreme improbability of God

Dawkins devotes a “poorly structured” “rambling pastiche” to the claim that “there almost certainly is no God”.

Who designed the designer? Dawkins makes the argument that God himself requires an explanation and leads to an infinite regress of explanation.

Dawkins rejects the idea that there could be a terminus to the regress of explanation (usually the idea that God has always existed – eternally).

McGrath points out that physicists are trying to find the “grand unified theory” which can “explain everything, without itself requiring or demanding an explanation”. So, if such a theory could be scientific then Dawkins can’t dismiss the idea of a God that is its own explanation. There is no logical inconsistency in the idea of an “irreducible explanation”.

The anthropic principle. Dawkins argues: our own existence is astronomically improbably, yet belief in a God who would be even more complex would be even more improbable.

McGrath denies the “leap” from complexity to improbability. Again, the theory of everything may be more complex than lesser theories it explains, but that doesn’t make it improbable.

We may be highly improbable, yet we exist – so too may it be with God. The issue is whether God is actual.

The God of the gaps

Dawkins criticises “the worship of gaps”. McGrath contextualises this as referring to a method of Christian apologetics (justifying belief in God) that rose to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries. It claimed there were necessarily gaps in a scientific understanding of reality and that God is needed to fill those gaps.

McGrath thinks Dawkins is correct to criticise that approach to defending belief in God, Mcgrath himself rejects the approach as “a foolish move” but claims it was “increasingly abandoned” in the 20th century, implying it’s no longer relevant.

Dawkins goes on to weaken his argument, however, ‘by suggesting that all religious people try to stop scientists from exploring those gaps” teaching us to be “satisfied with not understanding”. McGrath claims that while that may be true of some “exotic forms of Christian theology”, it is a “crass generalization that ruins a perfectly interesting discussion”, which is: what are the limits of science and the limits of human understanding?

Nonetheless, the “real problem” is the method of the God of the gaps, which McGrath points out is still an issue in the “intelligent design movement” (creationists), primarily in north America, and their argument for “irreducible complexity” – which McGrath rejects scientifically and theologically. They, like all who use God of the gaps arguments, make Christianity “deeply – and needlessly – vulnerable to scientific progress”.

However the God of the gaps is only one approach, and a misguided and “obsolete” one.

McGrath claims that contemporary Christian philosophers have much better approaches, such as that of Richard Swinburne.

“The intelligibility of the universe itself needs explanation”. It is not the gaps in our understanding of the world which point to God but rather the very comprehensibility of scientific and other forms of understanding that requires an explanation. In brief, the argument is that explicability itself requires explanation.”

The more scientific knowledge is gained, the greater the need to explain the fact that the universe is so understandable. This approach therefore encourages science.

Dawkins’ response: McGrath imagines that I would disagree with my hero Sir Peter Medawar on The Limits of Science. On the contrary. I never tire of emphasising how much we don’t know. The God Delusion ends in just such a theme. Where do the laws of physics come from? How did the universe begin? Scientists are working on these deep problems, honestly and patiently. Eventually they may be solved. Or they may be insoluble. We don’t know.

But whereas I and other scientists are humble enough to say we don’t know, what of theologians like McGrath? He knows. He’s signed up to the Nicene Creed. The universe was created by a very particular supernatural intelligence who is actually three in one. Not four, not two, but three. Christian doctrine is remarkably specific: not only with cut-and-dried answers to the deep problems of the universe and life, but about the divinity of Jesus, about sin and redemption, heaven and hell, prayer and absolute morality. And yet McGrath has the almighty gall to accuse me of a “glossy”, “quick fix”, naive faith that science has all the answers.”

Swinburne’s argument

Swinburne created a modern design argument and a version of the anthropic argument from fine tuning.

Below is a lengthy explanation of it, since you need to know about it for the philosophy design argument topic also, and it is a significant pillar of McGrath’s claim that there is a rational basis for belief in God.

Tennent’s anthropic principle. Tennant points out that this universe being hospitable to living beings requires a “unique assembly of unique properties” on a “vast” scale, including “astronomical, thermal, chemical, and so on”. Our universe has to be orderly and the order must be of a particular kind in order for evolution to have been possible and thus for us to exist.

The anthropic fine-tuning argument. Modern science has discovered more about the universe since Tennent’s time and more recent philosophers have used such discoveries in adding to Tennant’s argument, which today is more frequently referred to as the anthropic fine-tuning argument.

This argument is put forward by philosophers such as Swinburne and Polkinghorne. It is based on an observation that the laws of physics seem to be exactly how they would need to be for life to be possible. If the laws of our universe, such as the charge of the electron, were a tiny degree greater or lesser, life could not exist at all. It is unimaginably unlikely for it to be by chance that the physical laws have the variables they do to the degree of precision required for our existence to be possible.

The argument then claims that this is not something science can explain. Science tells us the what but not the why. For example, science can tell us that E=MC2, but it cannot tell us why E-MC2. Science can only discover the laws of nature but cannot tell us why there are laws which means it cannot tell us why the laws are fine-tuned for life. Science cannot even explain why the universe can even be understood by science at all. The best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe is God.

Multiverse theory: Max Tegmark, a physicist, suggests a scientific explanation of fine tuning. The multiverse theory suggests our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes, all of which have different laws of physics. So, the fact that some universes are so perfectly fine tuned for human existence doesn’t require any special explanation, since there are an infinite number of every possible configuration of universes.

Swinburne’s defence: However, there is very little evidence for the multiverse theory. Polkinghorne agrees and claims that the multiverse theory is a ‘bold speculation’, a ‘metaphysical guess’.

Fecundity. Tegmark also puts forward the argument of fecundity, which is that although human life might not be possible with different laws of nature, other forms of life could be possible. So there is no fine-tuning because intelligent life could arise in many forms in many different types of universes.

Anthropic fine tuning makes assumptions about what a non-designed the universe is like. The fine-tuning argument claims that it’s unimaginably unlikely that fine tuning happened by chance. But this seems to assume that were it not for the efforts of a God, the ‘default’ state of nature would not be fine tuned. But how could we know that? How could we know the ‘default’ or non-designed state of a universe? That seems to assume that a universe which is created by chance does something like roll some dice to figure out what its laws will be, but that might not be how it works at all. The claim that a universe with the physical laws ours has is ‘fine-tuned’ is only valid if we know what a universe which is not fine-tuned were like. The claim that it would likely be chaotic and random is merely an assumption. To really know that a universe is designed or fine-tuned, we would have to compare it to non-designed universes or see the universe’s creation, as Hume argued.

By referencing Swinburne, McGrath is echoing a point he makes elsewhere, that modern Christian philosophers (e.g. Swinburne & Polkinghorne) have argued that science is limited and cannot answer all questions. It can tell us the what but not the why. Science can tell us what the universe is like, but it cannot tell us why it is this way, nor why it exists. It cannot answer questions about purpose

Dawkins responds that the ‘why’ question is valid regarding scientific explanation, but when we ask ‘why’ about purpose it becomes ‘a silly question’. Just because a question can be phrased using the English language, that doesn’t make it valid. Dawkins makes an analogy: ‘what is the color of jealousy?’ That question is assuming that jealousy has a color. Dawkins seems to be claiming that questions of purpose also assume that existence or human life has a purpose over and above scientific explanation, but there’s no evidence for that.

Dawkins accepts there may be limits to science and that where the laws of physics came from may be one of them. However he points out that scientists may one day actually solve that problem, but if they don’t, that doesn’t justify a non-scientific explanation of purpose.