McGrath Mars Augustine Article With Swipe at Richard Dawkins

Theologian Alister McGrath seems to see himself as the exasperated academic, carefully correcting the ignorantly anti-religious philosophical screeds of New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.  But if even if that picture were accurate, it would only make his recent Christianity Today article on St. Augustine doubly disappointing. It starts off with a nigh bitter swipe at the New Atheists that’s just as sloppy as anything he thinks the New Atheists have ever said about theology:

For some, such as Richard Dawkins, Darwinism has been elevated from a provisional scientific theory to a worldview—an outlook on reality that excludes God, firmly and permanently. Others have reacted strongly against the high priests of secularism.

Two sentences, lots of problems.

Let’s start with “provisional” part of scientific theory. The “provisionality” of science means that empiricists like Dawkins are required to be eternally open to the prospect of new evidence shaking things up. It doesn’t mean what McGrath must know many of his everyday readers will interpret it as (that scientific theories are uncertain, merely speculative).

Nor does it mean that provisionality is consistent with saying that any darn thing is as likely as any other, evidence aside: saying that empiricism itself is as provisional a matter as its inner assertions. The best evidence we have gives us the most certain conclusion we can make, and you can’t simply ignore what the evidence supports. What Dawkins and others object to are people who insist that the provisionality of science allows people to simply ignore or dissemble about what the evidence actually is, and how strong of a case it allows scientists to make for particular assertions about reality.

More importantly, I’ve never heard Dawkins arguing that the mere fact of evolution itself precludes the existence of God, let alone “firmly and permanently.” In countless books, he’s argued instead that the evolutionary scenario fatally undercuts the argument from design. In other words, the mere fact that evolutionary scenario is another possible explanation (let alone the fact that it’s well supported by all the evidence) undercuts the idea that it is logically necessary to believe that a God designed life on Earth. And given that the case for a designer seems to rely almost entirely on ruling out any other possible “explanation” (if “a being what we can’t explain did it in a way we can’t explain” is really an “explanation” for anything) rather than being based on any positive evidence, that makes the designer assumption pretty weak indeed.

But the fact that Dawkins does not believe in God is far more fundamental than his reading of biology: as I’ve always read him, Dawkins doesn’t believe because:

  1. he rejects faith as a reliable means to truth: he demands good reasons and evidence to support beliefs
  2. he doesn’t think there are any good reasons to believe in any personal or supernatural God, no matter how abstractly defined
  3. the reasons commonly advanced for god belief are mistaken or just plain absurd
  4. and that there even are many positive reasons why the existence of particular traditional Gods are implausible or even illogical

None of that really adds up to a dogmatic “worldview” that “excludes God” based on unwillingness to accept scientific conclusions as provisional, as implied.

McGrath can’t really claim to be innocent of misrepresentation here: I’m sure he’s heard the above retorts too many times for it to legitimately go unmentioned in his purported summary of his opponents views. It’s unfortunate that he mars what’s an otherwise pretty engaging discussion of St. Augustine’s decidedly non-fundamentalist musings on Genesis by engaging in such petty pronouncements.


~ by Drew on 2009/05/11.

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