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Dawkins, McGrath & me

By John Warren - posted Friday, 14 October 2005

On reading the book Dawkins’ God by Alister McGrath ...

Richard Dawkins is a professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford and a declared atheist. He has, for a long time, been one of the most articulate defenders of Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. That is the theory which explains the process by which human beings evolved from the beginning of life about four billion years ago.

Alister McGrath is a professor of theology at Oxford and an ordained priest in the Anglican Church as well as being the director of the Centre for Evangelism and Apologetics. He was born into a Methodist family in 1953. He remained attached to that branch of Christianity until early youth when he lost his belief in God and declared himself an atheist.


On entering Oxford University as an undergraduate he chanced on a book on the history and philosophy of science which renewed his interest in theology and, in particular, Christianity. He gained degrees in both biophysics and theology and is an evangelical defender of the Christian God. The book Dawkins’ God is specifically aimed at the ideas of his fellow-Oxfordian, and if the cover blurbs are any guide, he has reached an enthusiastic audience of like-minded academics. As one who is quoted says: “In this remarkable book, Alister McGrath challenges Dawkins … and disarms the master.”

Me? I have an abiding interest in the development of the science and religion debate and its relevance to the wider community.

A clash of world view

McGrath is a theologian, Dawkins is a scientist. There is a deep gulf between them in their attempts to understand the world.

McGrath believes a supernatural being named "God" exists. In that belief, he follows “the view of the world set out by the leading Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas”. In the 13th century Aquinas put forward five “proofs” of God’s existence and presented them in his Summa Theologiae. Although apparently accepted by McGrath, they are not proofs in the scientific sense of the word. They are arguments, manipulations of words to convince himself and others that there must have been a first cause to the beginning of the world, and that cause is given the name God. Subsequent to its naming that being was credited with a variety of characteristics and powers which, as the philosopher Feuerbach noted in his Essence of Christianity, are simply projections of human qualities writ large. The qualities are: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, righteousness and mercifulness.

Dawkins, on the other hand, requires something tangible in a proof: something which can be tested; something material which can be manipulated, experimented on, to enlarge the understanding of the real world.

The difference is that between the idealist and the materialist. Idealists use words in the brain to try to create an image, an interpretation, of the world. Materialists use experience of the real world to try to create the words (theories) to describe it.


I have made the point in a previous article (“The Science of Religion”, On Line Opinion) that both science and religion derive from the same source: the need for human beings to control their environment from the very earliest days of their existence some million years ago. The idealist/religious approach arose from the use of magic and spells with the practitioners, the witchdoctors, evolving into priests with their prayers and ceremonies. The materialist/scientific approach arose from experiencing the real world by actually handling it. The resulting science is really the systematic collection of experience of the world as a basis for extending control of that world. There is no equivalent in religious theory or practice, although religious leaders do attempt to control human behaviour by using words to manipulate conscience.

Science, that is, the result of scientific investigation, goes from strength to strength. Each new step in understanding how parts of the world relate to all the other parts always opens up further avenues for exploration.

Religion, on the other hand, has nowhere to go, it runs out of the very words on which it is based. The God of theology is, apart from all his other qualities, thought of as absolute and unchanging so, once described, there is no need for further words. That is not to say that theologians such as McGrath would agree. They do in fact indulge in an endless production of works in which the words are re-arranged in an ongoing attempt to overcome the basic contradiction between their mental image of a pure unchanging God and his relation to an impure turbulent world.

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This article was first published in the Australian Skeptic of Spring 2005, Vol 24 No.3.

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About the Author

John Warren has retired from work in soil conservation, agriculture and horticulture.

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