Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2005

Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, by Alister E. McGrath

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

Alister McGrath (b. 1953) is that rara avis, an Oxford professor of historical theology who also has a PhD in molecular biophysics. As if that were not enough, he is also the principal of the Evangelical Anglican theological college, Wycliffe Hall, which numbers among its recent alumni Jonathan Aitkin, the former Tory minister jailed for perjury.

A feisty Ulsterman, from a Methodist background, McGrath became a Marxist and atheist during his mid-teens, but, soon after arriving at Oxford to read chemistry in 1971, he recovered his faith, became an Anglican, and for several years pursued an academic research career in science before deciding to read theology. In 1978 he obtained both his PhD and an honours degree in theology, prior to ordination.

After a brief spell of parish ministry, he returned to academe. While retaining a lively, avocational interest in the sciences, he has become something of a specialist in Reformation theology, though his many books cover other areas as well, including one entitled The Twilight of Atheism (2004), and a trilogy on Scientific Theology. His interest in Richard Dawkins (b. 1941) began in 1978, when he first read The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has been toying with the idea of writing a rejoinder, but it has taken until now to come to fruition.

Let it be said at the outset that McGrath is no fundamentalist or obscurantist, and this hard-hitting book will give no comfort whatsoever to young-earth creationists and biblical literalists. McGrath throughout evinces a thorough understanding and total acceptance of neo-Darwinian theory. Indeed, he includes several leading evolutionary biologists and philosophers – including Simon Conway Morris and Michael Ruse – among his friends. He regards Dawkins as an important writer, a brilliant communicator and a worthy opponent in debate. He has three main areas of criticism of Dawkins’s work:

  1. the aggressive atheism evinced in most of Dawkins’s popular writing;
  2. the idea of the meme, Dawkins’s term for a conjectural cultural replicator; and
  3. the idea that the gene is the unit of selection.

We are forced to admit – pace Dawkins – that it is completely possible to be both an eminent and thoroughgoing Darwinian and a believing Christian: examples include Francisco Ayala, Kenneth Miller and Theodosius Dobzhansky. Too many eminent scientists are both, as Stephen J. Gould – no believer he – once observed, to warrant the contrary view. Perhaps the most unfortunate thing that Dawkins ever said (in The Blind Watchmaker) was that before Darwin it was virtually impossible to be an atheist.

From my own point of view, the rejection of theism is warranted principally by philosophical criticisms (including those of David Hume – Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Richard Robinson – An Atheist’s Values, and J. L. Mackie – The Miracle of Theism), and of orthodox Christianity by historical and source criticisms (including those of D. F. Strauss – The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Walter Bauer – Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, and Geza Vermes – five unorthodox books on Jesus by this former Catholic priest, who has reverted to his ancestral Judaism). Some of these critiques (Hume and Strauss) antedate Darwin. Certainly, Darwinism underlines the redundancy of theistic explanations for the existence of life (if one had ever been naïvely convinced of their cogency), but, equally, it does not render them impossible.

It is perhaps a weakness of Dawkins’s approach that he relies too heavily on natural science to justify his atheism, and McGrath certainly exposes this particular weakness remorselessly. McGrath goes even further, imputing a hidden and unacknowledged basis for Dawkins’s atheism. He may well be right: I had rejected theism on what still seem to me perfectly sound and adequate grounds before I had read a word of Darwin (who has since become one of my three principal intellectual heroes).

I happen to think that McGrath’s criticism of the meme concept (following on from that of the philosopher Mary Midgley) is entirely sound, but it has very little relevance to the question of God. I recognise that there is an ongoing debate within evolutionary biology on the role of the gene as the unit of selection, and while Dawkins’s view is interesting, as well as proving extremely fruitful, I suspect that he himself would agree it represents only one perspective.

McGrath admits that Darwinism renders the God-hypothesis unnecessary (though not impossible). He is right. But, if we seek to put atheism on a sound intellectual basis, we shall need to look beyond Darwin, Marx and Freud to Strato, the ancient Greek who first argued that the theistic premise is itself both unnecessary and unwarranted. There is also the question of revelation, not directly addressed in this book, but nevertheless the sine qua non of all theistic religions.

Antony Flew (b. 1923), Britain’s most senior rationalist philosopher, and a long-time advocate of Stratonician atheism, has very recently stated that he now inclines to theism, because the sheer complexity of genetics may, after all, provide some evidence of a Designer. He is, however, still some way from embracing any revealed religion. (There is much of interest on this rapidly changing scenario posted on the WWW: type in “Antony Flew” and follow the links.) It must be remembered, however, that, while both Hume and Darwin denied that they were atheists, or even deists, neither was in the least enthused by popular religion, much of which, according to Hume, could be deemed “superstition” or “enthusiasm”. If the upshot of all this is that militant atheism is forced to temper its aggressiveness, that may be no bad thing. If only militant believers would do the same!

In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, first published in 1779, Hume’s spokesman, Philo, utters these wise words (I have modernised the punctuation):

“The Theist allows that the original intelligence is very different from human reason. The Atheist allows that the original principle of order bears some remote analogy to it. Will you quarrel, Gentlemen, about the degrees, and enter into a controversy which admits not of any precise meaning, nor consequently of any determination? ... If you cannot lay aside your disputes, endeavour, at least, to cure yourselves of your animosity.”

Let us hope that Dawkins will follow this sage advice when he pens the inevitable reply.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-06-05 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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