Sunday, April 23, 2006

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

Quite by accident, I discovered Alister McGrath's book, Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, as I was browsing the stacks of my university library for another title. Having read much of the work of Richard Dawkins, my curiosity overcame my general disdain for theological writings and I promptly added the text to the pile under my arm & checked them out with the librarian.

McGrath begins his critique of Dawkins with very favorable words, citing how he "devoured with interest and admiration" Dawkins' earlier series of books, which McGrath characterizes as "brilliant and provocative."

Dawkins' brilliance, it would seem, is limited in McGrath's view to matters concerning zoology and biology but somehow less luminous for matters that concern McGrath's beliefs with regard to religion and God. Indeed, the work seems to become more of an apologetic attempt to defend Christianity's honor from the big, bad atheist.

McGrath criticizes Dawkins as well as Robert Ingersoll for asserting that "Darwinism is necessarily atheistic." In his criticism of Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, McGrath goes so far as to deride Dawkins for failing to include the word "God" in the index! This, he posits, is due to the Darwinian world that "Dawkins inhabits and commands" and that Dawkins "eliminates God altogether" in his work that is subtitled, Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Many who have read the work have commented that Dawkins doesn't so much "eliminate" God as he simply demonstrates that "design" is not necessary to explain the universe. McGrath is critical of Dawkins' position that one must either accept Lamarckism, God, or Darwinism, but, since the first two fail as explanations, only Darwinism is left. But Dawkins, in the very quote that McGrath includes on the same page, states: "life in the universe is either Darwinian or something else not thought of." Clearly, Dawkins isn't saying that Darwinism is the only choice, but rather stating that Lamarckism and God do not offer viable explanations. To date, the Darwinian explanation along with its modern improvements provides us with the only viable explanation, though there may be "something else that is not yet thought of."

McGrath further criticizes what he sees as Dawkins' "absolute dichotomy between either Darwinism or God." This assumption is reached by McGrath in spite of the statement "either Darwinian or something else not yet thought of." Perhaps Dawkins does assert elsewhere that God doesn't exist because Darwinism discredits him, though it isn't apparent in the material cited by McGrath, who is critical, too, of Dawkins' decision to choose an analogy that McGrath claims not to be "typical of the Christian tradition," which is Rev. William Paley's watchmaker analogy, popularized in his book Natural Theology. McGrath spends several pages exploring the history of this analogy, which are quite informative as we learn that Paley probably lifted his theory from naturalist John Ray of a slightly earlier time. However, Dawkins is right to criticize Paley's work, regardless of McGrath's opinion of its outdated nature, since it has been popularized by the pseudoscience of intelligent design (Dembski 2003). Admittedly, the Dembski article comes some years after The Blind Watchmaker, and others in Christianity may have "already rejected as inadequate" the watchmaker analogy, but it was and is still popular with certain influential fundamentalists of Christianity.

McGrath concludes at this point that "Dawkins' atheism is inadequately grounded in the biological evidence," yet he fails miserably in demonstrating this conclusion. Not one shred of actual biological evidence is discussed though it is thouroghly examined in The Blind Watchmaker as well as the earlier The Selfish Gene and, certainly, in The Ancestor's Tale of Dawkins' more recent work. McGrath seems content to say that the biological evidence Dawkins discusses cannot support his atheism, but he utterly fails to support the statement. Instead, McGrath is focused on the philosophical points that Dawkins involves himself with and refuses to digress on anything physical or tangible.

One of McGrath's main criticisms of The Blind Watchmaker comes in his assertion that Dawkins' Biomorph Programme is a "flawed" analogy that succeeds only in demonstrating the need for a creator to design the universe. Dawkins describes a computer program that was designed to take a target phrase and evaluate successive generations of 28 randomly ordered letters. It took the program only a few generations to get to the target phrase, "me thinks it is like a weasel." The intervening generations were compared by the program to the target phrase and letters that were correct were correct and those that weren't were allowed to mutate.

McGrath correctly points out that evolution hardly begins with a "target" of progression, but that wasn't the point of the demonstration. McGrath also points out that the demonstration itself, including the computer and the program, were designed. True enough, but, again, this is irrelevant to the demonstration since the goal of the program was to demonstrate the process of cumulative selection as opposed to random selection.

Obviously it is that we need not "posit a God explanation" as implied by Dawkins' work that really offends McGrath as it does many other Christian apologists. On page 58 of his book, McGrath poses the question, "[s]uppose we concede this point; what are its implications?" But McGrath doesn't appear willing to answer the question. No exploration of existence without a god or creator is discussed. And, yet, he freely criticizes Dawkins for his alleged failure to take the "logical steps to conclude" the lack of necessity for a god. Other readers of Dawkins "brilliant and provocative" work would disagree and find that he very logically reaches the no-god conclusion. McGrath, however, simply goes on to enjoy a very informative discussion about Thomas Aquinas' secondary causality argument.

Invoking the 13th century CE view of theology by Aquinas seems only to have the point of illustrating the "God did it" argument, which McGrath asserts is logical since whatever science might say about the world, God could have made it that way, either directly of through "secondary causality." I find this a bit of a cop-out from McGrath; particularly since the argument is concluded with the statement "there is no way that Aquinas' approach can be described as a post hoc attempt to defend Christianity in response to a perceived threat from the new science of evolutionary biology." This is the same Aquinas that advocated heretics be "separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death ( Summa Theologiae 1265-1272 II:II 11:3). Mentioning Aquinas' opinion of heretics isn't simply a device of character assassination. Aquinas was obviously moved to defend his religious beliefs from new paradigms that were emerging. Contemporaries like Roger Bacon was advocating empiricism and opposed the immorality of the church, so Aquinas didn't need evolutionary biology to prompt him to basically assert that no matter what the Bacons of the 13th century discover, it is all evidence of the glory of God.

McGrath's inclusion of the "God did it" argument is almost juvenile, particularly with his conclusion that, since Aquinas pre-dates Darwin, it obviously must be a valid argument because he couldn't have been attempting to refute Darwinism. Indeed, the inclusion of a self-validating argument that appeals to the wisdom of ancients like Aquinas presents precisely the failure he accuses Dawkins of: no logical progression. Where is the support for the claim that Dawkins fails to show a creator isn't necessary? Is it in the words of a 13 th century CE theologian? Is it in the notion that no matter what science discovers about the universe, that's the way God planned it?

Undeniably, a god or supreme deity cannot be excluded, but the sheer number of gods and deities that mankind has now and in the past makes pinning one or more down as the actual god of creation an impossible task, particularly since no god has ever been observed, nor is there any good evidence for one. A god can be assumed and speculated, but to suggest any specific deity is needed to explain the existence of the universe is intellectually dishonest. Particularly in the manner McGrath does, such as with capitalization of the "G," which personalizes his deity with the very European notion of the anthropomorphic old, white guy formally known as Yahweh.

Citing Aquinas provides McGrath with no more credibility than if he cited the Flying Spaghetti Monster (and I challenge him to demonstrate that one has more evidentiary support than the other). Aquinas' discussion of secondary causality is thought-provoking, but for the critical-thinker –the reasoned-thinker- the thoughts that are provoked in such discussions often include who caused the causer? Indeed, an infinite chain of "causers" becomes apparent, suggesting not one god, but an infinite number of gods that must be present in the universe. And, in a universe populated with an infinite number of gods, should we not expect to see more of them than stars, which are finite in number? What use would such a universe have with mere humans and other life forms? Particularly if each of the infinite number of gods were equally omniscient and omnipotent.

The logical conclusion that there is a god must also include that there are many gods, and that logic fails even for theologians. Dawkins' assertion, therefore, is the true, logical choice: there simply is no necessity for a god in the universe. For a universe that is capable of creating a god, is certainly capable of creating itself without one.

Dawkins' Engagement with Theology

McGrath refers to Dawkins "engagement with theology" as "superficial and inaccurate," deriding Dawkins as often resorting to "cheap point scoring" on the subject of religious belief. McGrath quotes Keith Ward (1996) who characterizes Dawkins criticisms of religion as "systematic mockery and demonizing of competing views, which are always presented in the most naïve light" and McGrath criticizes Dawkins "tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents" calling this "the least attractive aspect of his writings." It would seem that McGrath finds that Dawkins' characterization of faith to be the misrepresentation in question, though he fails at demonstrating how Dawkins is wrong. He says he's wrong, but he doesn't show why.

Faith as Blind Trust

"Faith means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence (Dawkins 1976: 198). McGrath asks, "why should anyone accept this ludicrous definition?" The first question the reader should ask in response is, "why is the definition ludicrous?" Perhaps it can be found in McGrath's next query: "what is the evidence that anyone – let alone religious people – defines 'faith' in this absurd way?" For McGrath, this is, perhaps, one of the more offensive positions Dawkins has taken, and he criticizes in rapid-fire:

  • Dawkins offers no defense of this definition
  • The definition bears little relation to the religious sense of the word
  • No evidence is presented that this is of a religious opinion
  • No authority is cited
  • McGrath doesn't accept the definition
  • McGrath has yet to meet a theologian that takes it seriously
  • The definition cannot be defended from any official declaration of faith from any Christian denomination
  • It is Dawkins own definition
  • It is a definition constructed with Dawkins own agenda in mind
  • The definition is represented as characteristic of those Dawkins wishes to criticize
  • Finally, McGrath is worried that Dawkins really believes faith equates to blind trust ( McGrath 2005: 85)

It is at this point that McGrath's readers may be following with bated breath in anticipation of a definition of faith that defies Dawkins' own. Instead, we get one, single definition from a 19 th century theologian that focuses on "the heart and emotions," but fails to contradict Dawkins.

[Faith] affects the whole of man's nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind base on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart of emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct (McGrath 2005: 86).

Of course, evidence adequate for the mind is often not the same as evidence that can actually be quantified or qualified. An assertion easily supported by noting the number of tarot readers, psychics, homeopathic healers, faith healers, UFO buffs, believers in alien abduction, and so on, that exist in modern society. It would seem that these people all have "faith" in the claims that are presented to them. I wonder if McGrath would suggest that there is evidence for tarot or alien-abduction. Perhaps.

The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition 1989) provides the following definitions for faith:

Belief, trust, confidence.

1. a. Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).

b. Belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority.

What is revealing is McGrath's failure to show the evidence that exists in even the most simple matters of faith that exist for Christians: there is trust that Jesus was God incarnate; there is reliance in the doctrine of original sin; there is belief that an afterlife awaits those in good-favor; belief in immaculate conception; belief in resurrection; belief that Jesus walked on water and drove demons out of people and into swine. But not one shred of evidence exists to support a single matter of faith with regard to any of these.

Which brings us back to the question that all rational readers of Dawkins' God should have asked: why is the definition of faith as blind trust ludicrous ?

McGrath, through Dawkins' God, succeeds only in revealing his extensive knowledge of the philosophies and theologies of antiquity as well as expressing his disdain for atheism and the audacity of atheists, particularly Dawkins, that dare formulate opinions about the universe that exclude his particular god. There is no surprise that McGrath and other Christians (or believers of any religion or superstition where "faith" is required) would refuse to accept Dawkins' definition of faith, since it points out the elephant in the room: there simply isn't a shred of evidence to support the core beliefs of Christianity outside of a doctrine largely written by Bronze Age authors. This alone supports and provides the authority for Dawkins' characterization of faith.


Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, Richard (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton.

Dembski, William (2003). Intelligent Design, Entry to Lindsay Jones's Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition, found on the web at:

McGrath, Alister (2005). Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Ward, Keith (1996). God, Chance and Necessity. Oxford: One-World.

NEW: Richard Dawkins Interviews Alister McGrath

5 Epigraphic Artifacts:

Silas said...

Superbly written deconstruction of McGrath's inability to take the beam out of his own eye. Nice work!

Andrew said...

Thanks for this well written review. I've seen the book on the shelves (normally in the science section, annoyingly) and there's always that part of me that wonders whether it contains any valid points. Good to see that it doesn't :-)

nerzhin said...

How can you claim that saying faith "commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence" fails to contradict Dawkins's definition of faith as "blind trust, in the absence of evidence"? You claim first that McGrath's definition of faith is no different from Dawkins, but what you really seem to be saying is that McGrath's definition can't be right because he has no evidence. Fair enough. But the two definitions are substantively different, and if McGrath is right in saying that no thinking religious person would define faith this way, he is also right to criticize Dawkins for attacking a straw man.

CFeagans said...

From my perspective, the two definitions are the same. McGrath's definition is saying faith is comprised of convictions in the mind, heart and emotions. He's saying evidence is "adequate" as long as one believes it to be.

Dawkins' version of "faith" is blind trust without evidence. I don't see how McGrath defines it otherwise since a mental or emotional conviction is *not* evidence.

Even Christian doctrine itself doesn't contradict Dawkins' definition: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1). Blind trust without evidence.

The devoutly religious would like to phrase their definitions of 'faith' different than Dawkins, but the definitions are, in substance, the same. McGrath's criticism of Dawkins for the "blind trust" version is intellectually dishonest, particularly since he fails to provide a contrary definition.

Moreover, the point of "faith" is hardly a strawman argument since it is central to the very core of religious doctrine.

Steven Carr said...

An excellent review.

As for blind faith, what else could describe Abraham's faith that it really was God who had asked him to kill his son?

Or Jesus praise in the Gospel of John of people who believe without seeing, in contrast to Thomas who only believed after he had asked for evidence.

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