On 8th May this year, seventy or so people crowded into a small church hall in north Oxford to attend a local meeting organized by the 'Christians in Science' group. The speaker was Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and author of Dawkins' God Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Blackwell, 2004). The full title of his talk was: 'Has Biology Eliminated God? Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the Meaning of Life'.
Professor McGrath is an exceptionally able speaker: easy on the ear, lucid in his reasoning, and, above all, penetrating and relevant in his analysis of current issues. The over-arching aim of his presentation was simple: to counter the vigorous assertion by Richard Dawkins - himself Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University - that modern science makes belief in God unnecessary. However, though the aim was straightforward, the approach that Alister McGrath took was to respond to Dawkins on multiple fronts.
First, McGrath showed us that religion and science, properly understood, are not in conflict with each other. One telling quote he used was from the late Stephen Jay Gould, one of America's foremost twentieth-century evolutionary biologists: "To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists."
Secondly, McGrath exposed to us Richard Dawkins' misconception of what faith is. For Dawkins, faith simply means blind trust even in the teeth of the evidence. But this is 'a straw man' and McGrath ably showed that Dawkins' understanding here is flawed.
Thirdly, McGrath spent much time working through Dawkins' rather quirky theory of 'memes' (A meme, as defined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (19761 is "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation." He elaborates: "Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation."). The main problem with this theory, apart from having no supporting evidence, is that it equally applies to atheism as it does to religious belief.
Fourthly, McGrath tackled the serious question of whether religion actually impoverishes our appreciation of the natural world. For Richard Dawkins, "the universe presented by organized religions is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited." At this point Professor McGrath was masterful in showing to us that belief in God in no way diminishes our sense of wonder at the created universe in which we live. In fact, for the Christian, there is an additional wonder because the creation itself bears glorious witness to its Creator (Psalm 19:1).
Fifthly and finally, McGrath looked at the current hot topic of whether 'religion is a bad thing'. This was the subject of Richard Dawkins' recent Channel 4 television series, The Root of All Evil? It will also be the subject of his soon-to-be-published book, The God Delusion. Again, McGrath ably showed the error of Dawkins' views. To quote Professor McGrath: "The real truth is that beliefs (religious or atheist) can make people do some very good and very bad things." More fundamentally, McGrath also showed that Dawkins' reasoning is faulty. Richard Dawkins asserts (rightly), "science has no methods for deciding what is ethical". But if this is true, asks McGrath, "how do we determine that religion is 'bad' empirically?"
This was an excellent meeting: Alister McGrath deserves our thanks for the efforts he has gone to in publicly raising some weighty and compelling arguments against the aggressive and populist atheism of Richard Dawkins. Perhaps one day Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins will face each other in public debate.
Ray Trainer has a Research MSc in Pure Mathematics from the University of Liverpool and subsequently worked in various capacities for IBM, both in the UK and the USA, for over 20 years. He and his wife, Sharon, live in Warwickshire and Ray is currently Assistant Pastor of Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Leamington Spa. This article is taken with permission from Origins, the Journal of the Biblical Creation Society