Ab absurdo, ad libertatem
Previous   |   Next       

Alister McGrath: Inelegant Design

Oct 21, 2007

Recently, Big Ideas presented a lecture by Christian theologian Alister McGrath, entitled "Deluded about God? Responding to Richard Dawkins' God Delusion."

McGrath is an atheist turned apologist, and in this lecture he sets out to rebuke the logical foundations of Dawkins' atheist argumentation, as put forth in God Delusion. McGrath's predominant, if not consistent, character during this lecture was one of respect, whether presenting theist or atheist viewpoints; an admirable trait that McGrath shares in common with Dawkins. As Dawkins himself has noted, "I don't think the adversarial format is well designed to get at the truth" -- although there is much debate over Dawkins polite theory and his impassioned practice. At any rate, Dawkins and McGrath are gentlemen when speaking with each other in person.

At times McGrath's lecture was incisive, however the more penetrating observations that he presented were often the result of ideas that were not his own. McGrath's goal was the systematic deconstruction of Dawkins' logic, though McGrath's own arguments during this lecture positioned him as a sophist, not a scholar. McGrath's mistakes are not minor and there are no simple fixes for the illogical equivalencies and conclusions that he draws. The problems with McGrath's arguments lie in their foundations.

Observe, as McGrath's opening comments set a tone of ambiguity:

"atheism and theism are both faiths, neither can prove their case with total certainty"

This comment is rhetoric veiled as analysis; a reduction that serves no purpose, left to circle the philosophical entrypoint; "[i]s there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?" Doubt, though necessary, can not on its own provide meaningful insight or direction, and for this reason McGrath's subsequent statements lack progress, as he attempts to portray the scientific method as unjustifiable conjecture, rather than a systematization of experience:

"If the sciences are inferential in their methodology, how can Dawkins present atheism as the certain outcome of the scientific project? Now the point I'm making here simply is this: over the years science has changed its mind on a number of things. For example, the transition from classical to Einsteinian physics, is a very good example of this. What happens is that new theories begin to emerge, which certainly take up what was known in the past, but very often take it in new and unexpected directions. And you may know Micheal Polanyi, the very famous Hungarian chemist who became a philosopher who wrote a book called Personal Knowledge, and in his book he simply made this point: scientists believe many theories to be true, but they know that some of them will be shown to be wrong, the difficulty is they don't know which ones those are. So you see there's a real issue here, the provisionality, the tentativeness of scientific knowledge: this may be the way it seems today, but in years to come people may change their minds. Now Dawkins knows this ... how can Dawkins base his atheism on the tentative present state of science?"

One wonders how life might proceed in a McGrathian environment when a child begins to question belief in the existence of Santa Claus, for example. Would it be possible to go forth and lead a life of observation, investigation, and conceptual evolution? Or is the only option to forever hold undisprovable beliefs as true, thus maintaining ideas in the same form as they first occur, and obtaining answers only by working backwards from the (admittedly) undisprovable conclusion? For a response, I turn to Dawkins himself;

"Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book. By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn't happen with holy books."

McGrath continues, characterizing scientific progress as nothing more than speculation and defending the written word of the Bible as indisputable divine revelation. For a trenchant criticism of revelation I will turn to a remark from textual analyst Bart D. Ehrman, who in his book Misquoting Jesus divinely reveals the essence of revelation thus: "Texts do not simply reveal their own meaning to honest inquirers. Texts are interpreted, and they are interpreted (just as they were written) by living, breathing human beings, who can make sense of the texts only by explaining them in light of their other knowledge, explicating their meaning."

Turning our attention back to McGrath and his target; there is a marked difference between Dawkins linear ratiocination, and McGrath's random commentaries which quickly begin to approximate FUD. I do not believe that McGrath knowingly or maliciously disseminates FUD, as he appears to genuinely believe that his positions are rational. FUD simply happens to best describe the scheme he is operating under during this lecture. Perhaps McGrath's particular brand of FUD might be best described as I-didnt-know-it-was-FUD.

Moving on; McGrath discusses the questions of genesis and the meaning of life, and examines the following statement from Bertrand Russell: "While it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know." McGrath responds to Russell as follows:

"There's all the difference in the world between saying 'science cannot answer this question therefore there is no answer' and saying 'science cannot answer this question therefore we look for an answer somewhere else.' "

Russell's statement has not simply implied "there is no answer." Ethics are an incredibly complex phenomenon, and specific values vary with the society being studied. It is not clear that humans have the ability to discover a single, incontrovertible universal ruleset that governs ethical systems, using natural science, or, need I say it, religious interpretation. I won't attempt to deduce the full set of Russell's intensions, however, one interesting idea that arises from the latter half of Russell's statement is that there may exist phenomena that human senses are restricted from perceiving, let alone formulating abstract conceptions of. It is ignorance (or arrogance) to presume that all beliefs, principles, and phenomena are predetermined, and are accessible to humans via analysis, Biblical or otherwise. Such fatuous reasoning is a considerable misstep for McGrath, and he repeats the mistake when attempting to invalidate psychological explanations for atheism.

McGrath summarizes the psychological diagnosis of atheism as follows:

  • the basic idea is that belief in god is a "projection" of human longings
  • there is no god, so we invent one
  • this line of thought was developed by Freud into the idea of god as "wish-fulfillment"

McGrath replies to these points, stating;

"It's a very influential argument, but of course there are some difficulties. Let us reflect on this; let's agree that nobody would say that just because we want something to be true, it is true. I mean we might all wish that there were a pile of fifty dollar bills here to my side and you can wish as hard as you like but I don't think it's going to happen. No."

Here McGrath pauses for effect, glancing at the floor in search of phantom riches, and then adopts a knowing smirk when they do not appear, as though he's delivered the single most devastating argument of all time. Continuing;

"But here's my question to you, just because we do wish something to be true, does that mean that it's not true? Things don't exist because we want them to -- but it is nonsense to say that because we want something to exist, it cannot exist for that reason!"

Freud's theories postulate that humanity's belief in God is a result of basic and feral components of human consciousness. However, rather than addressing Freud's theories, what McGrath has done is to rephrase Freud's ideas in a nonsensical manner, and then attack his own weak reconstruction. Again, McGrath is countering an argument that was never made, and has entirely missed the mark of the statements being examined. This speaks nothing of atheism, and serves only to further reveal McGrath's I-didnt-know-it-was-FUD based framework. Heaping miscalculation on inacurracy, McGrath here ruminates on the meaning of Dawkins' phrase "virus of the mind":

"Belief in God is a virus of the mind. What does Dawkins mean by this? Basically the argument is that people believe in God not because there is a God to believe in, or because they have thought this through rationally and discovered that there is a compelling evidence for belief in God. But rather in some way you have picked this idea up from other people or from the culture and therefore there is almost an epidemiological reason for belief in God. It's something you've picked up in the same way you might pick up a flu virus or something even worse. Real viruses can be seen -- for example, using cryo-electron microscopy. Dawkins' cultural or religious viruses are simply hypotheses. There is no observational evidence for their existence.

The main problem is simply this: where is the science that actually gives us any reason to think this might be true. If belief in God is in some way caused by an alleged virus of the mind, well, where is the evidence for that. After all if we look for example at how flu or other viruses are transmitted you can establish their genetic makeup, their mode of transmission, there are all sorts of things you can do to clarify precisely how this works. But the major problem here is that these viruses of the mind -- these so called viruses of the mind -- remain remarkably elusive.

Dawkins holds that belief in God is a virus of the mind. But there are many other beliefs that cannot be proven, including atheism. Dawkins ends up making the totally subjective, unscientific, argument that his own beliefs are not 'viruses,' but those he dislikes are."

Let's take a look at Dawkins' "virus of the mind," in his own words;

"I made the comparison between falling in love and religion in 1993, when I noted that the symptoms of an individual infected by religion 'may be startlingly reminiscent of those more ordinarily associated with sexual love. This is an extremely potent force in the brain, and it is not surprising that some viruses have evolved to exploit it' ('viruses' here is a metaphor for religions: my article was called 'Viruses of the mind')."

Dawkins has used the phrase "virus" as a metaphor. It's interesting to note that the dictionary lists one of the definitions for the word virus as "a corrupting influence on morals or the intellect" -- however, McGrath has confused Dawkins' use of the term as a literal term describing a molecular organism, as displayed by McGrath's reference to microscopy. Again, McGrath has argued against his own misreading of a statement, and has not argued against the statement itself.

In closing, McGrath questions the purpose behind the release of God Delusion, and asks:

"Who is this book written for? I think it might be written for atheists who are alarmed at the persistence of religion when it ought to have died out years ago, according to those great secular prophecies of the 1960s. It hasn't. That in itself is a credibility issue for atheism. I think the God Delusion is best seen as a late attempt to re-establish the legitimacy of atheism primarily for atheists who are wondering will they have made a mistake."

The fact that religion has not disappeared is a credibility issue for atheism? The same baseless reasoning dictates that the fact that atheism has not disappeared is a credibility issue for religion. The only possible gain he may have made from delivering this sentence is to connect atheism with lack of credibility in the mind of an uncritical listener. Here, as elsewhere, McGrath has ignored the facts. The preface, on page one of God Delusion openly states Dawkins' purpose;

"I suspect -- well, I am sure -- that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don't believe in it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents' religion and wish they could, but just don't realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. It is intended to raise consciousness -- raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled."

Ignoring the first page of God Delusion, McGrath borders on conceit when questioning Dawkins' readership (and reading in general) in this way; for it is incalculably important that reading be expansive, including ideas from all disciplines, not being limited to -- or by -- any single mode of thought. Do we read Mein Kampf or Atlas Shrugged to learn what to think? Of course not. (At least, I certainly hope not.) We read them because it is just as important to know what you do not think, as it is to know what you do think, and to understand the reasons for both. "You can't really understand what you think until you understand why a rational person might think differently." When researching any topic, do not make the mistake of thinking "that you waste time reading sources that turn out to be irrelevant. In fact, when you read ... more than you use, you build up a base of knowledge crucial to the exercise of good thinking. Good thinking is a skill that you can learn, but you can exercise it only when you have a deep and wide base of facts, data, and knowledge to work on. So read sources not just to answer the question you ask today, but to help you think better about every question you'll ask for the rest of your ... career. To that end, everything you read is relevant."

In addition, when examining this final statement of McGrath's, I am loathe to point out that there almost certainly does not exist a group of atheists, significant enough in size to warrant the mass publication of books targeted solely at them, whose primary motivations lie in the impossible hope that religion would fade from earth in the span of a few years. Once again, a vague, I-didnt-know-it-was-FUD encrusted, unsubstantiated insinuation. Note that all statements above, from both McGrath and Dawkins, are premeditated and highly edited; neither is speaking off the cuff, a fact which proves damaging to McGrath's credibility in light of his untenable logistics.

At this point I'm unsure how to classify McGrath; faith based preacher, or FUD based phony. Unfortunately, it seems the former often produces the latter. He certainly appears to be sincere in his delivery, and must be awarded points for diplomacy. In any case, if you're further interested in apologetics then I wouldn't recommend any of McGrath's works. Instead, you can be secure in the knowledge that time devoted to C.S. Lewis is time well spent.