Great theory, but not divine

Dawkins' God

December 10, 2004

However good the science behind evolution theory is, it can not be used to disprove God's existence, says Richard Harries

Alister McGrath did doctoral work in molecular biophysics under Sir George Radda at Oxford University. While completing his PhD, he also did a degree in theology. Since then, without losing his earlier passionate love of the sciences, he has been a prolific author on theological subjects and is now professor of historical theology at Oxford. At school, McGrath was a militant atheist of the kind he now recognises in Richard Dawkins.

But at Oxford he became a Christian believer. Although he was approached as long ago as 1978 to write a response to Dawkins, he did not feel it was right to do so at the time. The result is that we now have a clear, highly readable analysis of the whole corpus of Dawkins' writings, and a careful critique of what he has to say about religion.

McGrath considers Dawkins' view that genes are the key element in survival rather than the individual organisms that contain the genes. He begins with Darwin's account of how new species develop through natural selection, moves on to Mendel's work on pea plants that showed how a given characteristic could be passed from one generation to another and further work on genes, and then brings us to the culminating discovery of DNA as a key agent of replication. He is sympathetic to Dawkins' account and defends him in his analogical use of the phrase "selfish" and in the role he gives to the phenotype, as well as genes. In contrast to Monod, who stressed the role of chance, Dawkins maintains that the most important ingredient is cumulative selection, which is in essence non-random. So where does Dawkins go wrong?

One of the strengths of McGrath is his work as a historian of ideas. He is able to show, therefore, that William Paley's argument for God based on the apparent design of the universe arose in a specific cultural context in the 18th century, in response to Newtonian physics. Before this, Christians had seen the glory of God in creation but, he argues, before the 18th century they did not use this as a basis to argue that creation itself provided independent evidence, through its design, for the reality of God. Indeed, that approach was specifically rejected before Darwin, by people such as Cardinal Newman, as fundamentally flawed. So Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker , may show the intellectual errors of a particular form of 18th-century apologetics associated with Paley, but does not get to the heart of the Christian understanding of creation.

The second fundamental error is to use a Darwinian theory of evolution, which is based on induction, as the basis for a deductive line of reasoning leading to a particular world-view. The theory of evolution is a hypothesis of great explanatory power. But it is based on observation and is open to modification and even, in principle, refutation in the light of further observations. In its broad outlines it is the best account we have of the origin of new species, but it is not a theory that is true by definition.

According to McGrath, the world-view of Dawkins assumes that it is true by definition, a statement on the basis of which to make a number of logically consistent deductions.

McGrath is highly critical of Dawkins' concept of the meme, which assumes that ideas can be culturally replicated in much the same way as physical characteristics: but Dawkins seems to have distanced himself somewhat from this. McGrath also looks at a number of Dawkins' statements on religion and finds them seriously lacking in intellectual content, let alone plausibility.

I think it is a pity that the writings of Dawkins on science are now so associated in the public mind with his atheism. He is a brilliant writer on science and in a society that, while it enjoys the benefits of technology, has surges of irrational anti-science attitudes, his role of helping people to understand the nature of science and its excitement is vital. Many school pupils are drawn to the arts because they seem to fire the imagination while science, in comparison, can seem dull, so the ability to communicate the excitement of science, as well as making it understandable, is a rare and precious gift.

A further reason for regretting Dawkins' atheist associations is the fact that he has a profound sense of wonder before the universe and feels deeply its beauty. He is also clear that as human beings we have a capacity to discern right from wrong, and must "rebel" against any idea that we should follow nature in letting only the fittest survive.

Finally, atheism, like religion, deserves to be taken seriously. The fact is that there are enough serious reasons put up against a religious view of the universe without dragging science into it. As far as science is concerned, the vast majority of people who have ever thought about the issue know very well that a Darwinian account of the origin of species is quite compatible with either an agnostic, an atheist or a Christian view of existence, and this has been maintained strongly by scientists who define themselves in each of these three ways. Darwin found his faith eroded - I do not believe he ever lost it completely - not by the theory of evolution as such but by the existence of suffering in his own family life and the pain he observed in the animal creation: "nature red in tooth and claw", and all that. These are desperately serious considerations, and a focus on the totally spurious clash between science and religion is a distraction from where true discussion needs to take place.

As it happens, I have had the pleasure of working with Dawkins in trying to combat the teaching of creationism in some of our new academies. It is amazing that this is something that still needs doing. Interestingly, McGrath shows that the originators of US fundamentalism, those who wrote a series of short publications titled The Fundamentals from 1912 to 1917, saw evolution as perfectly compatible with a Christian understanding of creation.

McGrath is a huge admirer of Dawkins' writings on science, especially when they are closest to the empirical evidence, as in his original doctoral thesis, "Selective picking in the domestic chick". He also knows his writings in German journals. I hope Dawkins will find his ideas fairly set out by McGrath and recognise that there is a real intellectual debate to be had, but on rather different grounds from those he has proposed.

McGrath has produced so many books in recent years, I hesitate to suggest another for him to write. But he is better equipped than anyone to write an account of creation that has a proper theological understanding of the role of evolution within it. It would, I am afraid, lose him some friends among certain literalists who have until now been fans of his, but there is important work still to be done.

It began in the 1860s with people such as Frederick Temple, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury, arguing that God does not just make the world, he does something much more wonderful, he makes the world make itself, a concept later taken up by Austin Farrer. This work has been continued by Arthur Peacock, also a former biologist, with his theological understanding of how a combination of random mutation and natural selection can be affirmed as perfectly congruous with a divine wisdom working behind, beyond and within creation.

Nevertheless, there remain great difficulties for many people. One is the fact that the vast majority of species on this earth have died out. How are we to understand this in the light of a God who is believed to be good? Then, of course, there is the problem already mentioned, the endless competition in nature to survive, to survive at the expense of other creatures, with all the pain this involves. Finally, at least for me, there is how we reconcile our own aesthetic sense, our recognition of beauty in nature and art, with our horror of, say, some of the creatures who live at the bottom of our deep oceans, or the billions of microbes of various kinds. Are we to think of God delighting in these?

For now, in Dawkins' God McGrath has written a brilliant book, and it is difficult to think that the exposition of Dawkins' writings and their religious implications, will ever be better stated, explored and criticised. But there remains what is perhaps a more difficult book for him to write, which is a theological perspective on creation that regards evolution as integral. I hope Dawkins might be willing to look at such a book in the same way as McGrath has considered his: at once dispassionate, robust and readable.

Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.

Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life

Author - Alister McGrath
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 202
Price - £45.00 and £9.99
ISBN - 1 4051 2539 X and 2538 1

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