Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Dawkins' God"

I finished reading Alistair McGrath's book "Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life." Here are my thoughts on this helpful book:

This book is a helpful response to much of Dawkins' earlier work before his massively popular 'The God Delusion'. This book was originally published before "The God Delusion" and was republished in 2007 after 'The God Delusion' came out but it does not interact with 'The God Delusion'. However, one will find it a beneficial critique of Dawkins as a whole.

First, McGrath is both a scientist and a theologian. He is an expert on the history of idea and the history of both theological and scientific development. He respects Dawkins as a scientist where Dawkins makes reasoned and empirical observations but is quite honest about when and how Dawkins 'jumps the shark' into irrational critiques of religion with little or no logic, historical depth and empirical research to the extent that he even makes assertions trends established by the best scholarship and research. McGrath points this out through the work.

McGrath begins with a discussion of evolution and the role of genetics, including Dawkins' "the Selfish Gene". He then goes on to show historically and philosophcially that evolution did not entail the rejection of God. The reader may be surprised to find numerous 19th century theologians who accepted evolution along with scientists established at the forefront their field who either believe in God or believe that Darwinism cannot adjudicate on the issue.

McGrath shows how Dawkins' critique of William Paley misses where most Christians have stood on issue of God's relationship to the universe. Beyond that, he shows how scientific theories are often advanced by 'trust' in a prevailing theory until there is a paradigm shift. This undercuts Dawkins' notions radical empiricism as the only means of science. Indeed, McGrath shows that Dawkins himself is stuck in a sort of idealist 19th century worldview that is peculiar to a time period where naive notions about the Enlightenment and prosperity abounded. Such notions have long since been tempered by World Wars, the failure of atheistic regimes, such as the USSR, and the philosophical critiques of modernist utopias.

Finally, McGrath shows the almost utter worthless of 'memes,' cultural replicators analogous to genes. He dismantles it from scientific, historical and sociological perspectives. McGrath helpful points that religion and science have not historically been at odds and Christianity is more complex that Dawkins' belittling and "infantile" caricatures. For example, McGrath points out that no serious Christian theologian has ever held that faith is blind trust in contradiction to all evidence as Dawkins posits.

While not the last word on these issues, McGrath steers us away from the rocky shoals of Dawkins' reductionist, straw-man and disrespectful arguments, directing us to the deeper seas where the issues are debated with deeper seriousness, mutual respect and academic integrity.

One thing I would add is that McGrath's biography is helpful for those who wish to explore the issues. He brings a whole host of scientific, historical and sociological studies to the forefront. Obviously it cannot be exhaustive but it is a culling on the expertise of the various fields. This is McGrath's strength--not only is he a scientist and a theologian--he has an incredible understanding of the history of science and ideas. We see how they develop, fashion and progress. He is able to point out where we have been snookered by Dawkins' illogical and largely ahistorical arguments.

As the cover blurb says: "McGrath challenges Dawkins on the very ground he hold most sacred --rational argument--and disarms the master." Indeed, reading McGrath is often like hearing the boy in the crowd shout "The Emperor has no clothes."

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