Richard Dawkins is no philosopher, nor theologian, nor biblical scholar. None of which automatically disqualifies him from expressing his opinions on religion, but all of which should make him exercise a little more care and caution in expressing those opinions.
For a man so committed to evidence and reason, it is remarkable that Dawkins pays so little attention to both in certain sections of The God Delusion. It is clear that before he wrote that book, he had read Alister McGrath’s Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (2005). Surprisingly, however, Dawkins pays no serious attention to McGrath’s arguments.
Dawkins refers to McGrath’s ‘admirably fair summary of my scientific works’, but then suggests that McGrath seemed to have only one point in rebuttal to offer: ‘the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God’ (any more than you can disprove the existence of those favourite figments of the atheist’s imagination, the orbiting teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster).
It is surprising that Dawkins feels that he can dismiss McGrath’s critique so summarily. Whatever one thinks of the point just mentioned (that you cannot prove a negative), the fact is that McGrath’s critique has much more substance than this. One area where I think that McGrath is unanswerable (which is, I suppose, why Dawkins has chosen to ignore it) is in his discussion of faith and evidence. McGrath quotes Dawkins’ long-held and often-expressed view that ‘faith’
means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.
Faith, says Dawkins,
is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence…Faith is not allowed to justify itself by argument.
I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate. Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion.
The trouble, as McGrath points out, the definition of faith assumed by Dawkins is itself absurd, one that is devoid of evidence and which is held by no major Christian thinker.
Turning to what Christians actually believe about faith, McGrath quotes the definition offered by W.H. Griffith-Thomas, an Anglican theologian:-
[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart of emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence and expressed in conduct.
As for Dawkins, once he has set up his straw man he then amuses himself by knocking it down. Faith in God, he says, is childish, like belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. This, as McGrath points out, is contrary to the evidence that most children stop believing in the Tooth Fairy at the age of, say, six, whereas many Christians start believing in God in their teenage years or beyond (for McGrath, it was at the age of 18; for me, it was at the age of 19).
Dawkins rests so much on his idiosyncratic definition of ‘faith’ that it is astonishing that, having read McGrath’s rebuttal, he then failed to take any account of it in The God Delusion.
McGrath, Dawkins’ God, Blackwell 2005, 84-91.
Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Press, 2006, 54-55.