Theologian Alister McGrath offers these thoughts about Richard Dawkins. Let’s have a look.
Actually, the fun begins with essay’s headline: “Do Stop Behaving as if You Are God, Professor Dawkins.” McGrath is about to devote roughly a thousand words to explaining all the ways in which Dawkins has been behaving badly. If Dawkins’ behavior is nonetheless reminiscent of God, then God is hardly someone to be admired.
We pick up the action in the fifth paragraph. McGrath writes:
Of course, back in the Sixties, everyone who mattered was telling us that religion was dead. I was an atheist then. Growing up as a Protestant in Northern Ireland, I had come to believe religion was the cause of the Province’s problems. While I loved studying the sciences at school, they were important for another reason: science disproved God. Believing in God was only for sad, mad and bad people who had yet to be enlightened by science.
It is a common rap on atheists that they think religious people are fools or idiots. (Theists, we are led to believe, show only respect and tolerance going the other way.) Speaking for myself, the only thing I think about theists generally is that they are mistaken on an important issue of fact. After that, you have to take things on a case-by-case basis. I also believe that widespread religious belief does far more harm than good to a society.
I went up to Oxford to study the sciences in 1971, expecting my atheism to be consolidated. In the event, my world was turned upside down. I gave up one belief, atheism, and embraced another, Christianity. Why? There were many factors. For a start, I was alarmed by some atheist writings, which seemed more preoccupied with rubbishing religion than seeking the truth.
Above all, I encountered something at Oxford that I had failed to meet in Northern Ireland – articulate Christians who were able to challenge my atheism. I soon discovered two life-changing things.
First, Christianity made a lot of sense. It gave me a new way of seeing and understanding the world, above all, the natural sciences. Second, I discovered Christianity actually worked: it brought purpose and dignity to life.
McGrath explains that he was alarmed that certain atheist writings seemed more interested in rubbishing religion than in seeking truth. As if religious writing is uniformly focussed on truth, as opposed to denigrating atheists and pagans. Bad writing on a subject reflects badly on the writer, not the subject.
He then notes that at Oxford he enountered articulate Christians, a sort of person Northern Ireland apparently lacks. I guess I can only say that for me it was meeting articulate, sensible Christians that persuaded me that Christianity has nothing to offer. When I was only familiar with the braying fundamentalists I could still believe that I had not yet seen the real thing, only a bizarre caricature. It was when I started studying Christianity in a serious way that I realized just how foolish the whole thing was.
McGrath then gives us two reasons for his conversion to Christianity: That it made sense and that it brought dignity and purpose to life. What makes sense is a matter of taste, I suppose. To me it makes no sense to say that a world notable mostly for its mind-numbing quanitites of suffering, pain and death, both in the human world and in nature, is nonetheless superintended by an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. It also makes little sense to me to conlcude, on the basis of a handful of accounts written long after the events in question, that roughly two thousand years ago one particular dead body behaved in ways that no dead body before or since has ever behaved. I would dearly like to know what it is about the world that makes sense in the light of Christianity.
And I think he should spell out how Christianity brings purpose and dignity to life. It seems to me that Christianity brings only the idea that a failure to accept God’s sacrifice on the corss will earn you an eternity of damnation. Nothing dignified there. And what is the purpose of life, according to Christians? To serve God in word, thought and deed? If you go through life doing what you can to leave your little corner of the world a little better than you found it, simply because it feels right to do so or brings you some personal satisfaction, you are living a purposeless, undignified life. But if you do the same things because you believe God wants you to do them, now you have purpose and dignity.
No one who believes such things should be accusing others of arrogance.
Skipping ahead a bit we come to this:
For instance, Dawkins often compares belief in God to an infantile belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, saying it is something we should all outgrow. But the analogy is flawed. How many people do you know who started to believe in Santa Claus in adulthood?
Many people discover God decades after they have ceased believing in the Tooth Fairy. Dawkins, of course, would just respond that people such as this are senile or mad, but that is not logical argument. Dawkins can no more ‘prove’ the non-existence of God than anyone else can prove He does exist.
I suspect Dawkins would not respond to people who come to theism later in life by calling them senile or mad. He would claim simply that they are mistaken. He would also claim that they can make no good argument in defense of their new found belief.
As for the business about not being able to prove God exists, it is really remarkable how religious people seem constitutionally unable to avoid that little canard. It is an utterly foolish and irrelevant point. The observation that God can not be conclusively disproved does not imply that belief and nonbelief are equally reasonable.
For example, the problem of evil is a serious difficulty for Christian conceptions of God, as every theologian has acknowledged. That is why to this day religious people spill a lot of ink trying to explain it away. When you couple this with the simple observation that science has uncovered no vestige of design in the natural world, claims of the ID folks notwithstanding, it pretty quickly shifts the burden of proof to the Christians. The point of Dawkins’ analogies of God to Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy is simply that it is no answer at all to jutsify your belief in something on the grounds that no one can disprove the belief.
The fact is that when no evidence can be adduced for an entity’s existence, and when such an entity can exist only in defiance of everything we have learned about the natural world, the burden of proof lies with those who claim the entity exists nevertheless. One wonders if McGrath has anything better than shallow canards with which to reply to Dawkins.
McGrath natters on like this for a while, but he says almost nothing of substance. Feel free to read the remainder of the essay if you wish, but don’t do so in the expectation of procuring food for thought.