God's just too small

October 29, 2004

Religion has no more claim to true spirituality than science, says Richard Dawkins

Alister McGrath's book Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life does a fair and sophisticated job of summarising my position. His objections are equally clearly set out, which makes them gratifyingly easy to refute.

The same is true of his precis in The Times Higher (October 22): "Atheism is in trouble and Richard Dawkins, its champion, is not helping."

For McGrath, I am a "dogmatic anti-religious propagandist, more suited to the 19th than 21st century". But how else should one respond to opponents who still haven't realised that their predecessors lost the argument in the 19th century and have made no ground since?

Perhaps I have just lived up to McGrath's charge of "intellectual arrogance and intolerance". But "arrogance" and "intolerance" often turn out to be code for clarity and honesty.

McGrath would not be intolerant, just honest, if he came right out and described as pig-ignorant the 47 per cent of Americans who, polls tell us, believe the universe is younger than 10,000 years. The same 47 per cent, by the way, remind us that cosmic truths are not decided by counting heads, something McGrath would do well to remember when he ridicules "confident predictions of the demise of religion".

McGrath is not an apologist for "celebrity preoccupation with the Kabbalah or New Age", but he sees it as a telling sign of the times: a harbinger of "a deep-seated conviction that there is more to life than what we see around us".

Well, of course there is more to life, and more to the universe, than what we see around us! This is what makes science such a worthwhile occupation.

But what on earth makes him think the "more" has any connection with religion? Far from the arrogance attributed to me, I have a humble awareness of how little we know (and how even less I know) about origins and existence and the deep underpinnings of the universe.

The religious response to these deep mysteries is twice flawed. First, it underestimates their grandeur. Second, it encourages an incongruous coupling of false certainty with idle defeatism, to contrast with science's humble uncertainty blended with its constructive determination to work on the problem.

Worse, religious certainty, in historical Christendom and present-day Islam, has carried confidence to the point where dissenters, heretics and sceptics are killed.

The scientific attitude to the deep mysteries is akin to the "spirituality" that McGrath wrongly assumes atheists lack.

Einstein was profoundly spiritual, but he disowned supernaturalism and denied all personal gods. Unworthy to lace Einstein's sockless shoes, I gladly share his magnificently godless spirituality. No theist should presume to give Einstein lessons in spirituality.

McGrath presumably hopes that his low jibe about "the shocking legacy of institutional atheism in the 20th century" will make us think of Hitler and Stalin. But if they were atheists (which is highly disputable in Hitler's case), why assume that their brutality was caused by their atheism, any more than by their moustaches?

McGrath's central point, which undergirds his entire book, is childishly easy to rebut. It is that the natural sciences cannot help us answer the god question: if we were to decide it on scientific grounds alone, the outcome could only be agnosticism.

Of course science cannot prove or disprove God. To that extent we must be agnostic.

But there are infinitely many conceivables whose existence we can neither prove nor disprove. This does not place existence on a level footing with non-existence.

Bertrand Russell's example was a china teapot in orbit around the sun: neither provable nor disprovable, but our strict agnosticism is overshadowed by a presumption of improbability. I am happy to renounce my "atheism" for "teapot agnosticism".

The interesting question is whether God is more probable than Russell's teapot. There may be good reasons to say yes. If so, they will be scientific ones. Let's hear them.

Richard Dawkins is professor of public understanding of science at Oxford University.

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