All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2018:

How Far Can We Take the Copernican Principle? (Dec.)

Dawkins and the McGraths: a Biologist versus two Theologians (Nov.)

The Atheism Question (Oct.)

The Religion Question (Sept.)

I, Starship (June)

Back to 2017:

Scenario Block Diagram Analysis of the Galactic Evolution of Life (Nov.)

Comments by Alex Tolley (Oct.)

Elon Musk’s “Great Martian” (Oct.)

Elon Musk’s Mars Plans: Highlights from His Second Iteration (Sept.)

What is a Supercivilisation? (Aug.)

Quantifying the Assumptions Behind the METI Debate (July)

Five Principles of a Sustainable Manned Mars Programme (June)

Pale Red Dot: Mars comes to Oxford (May)

Back to 2016:

Elon Musk and Mars: Looking for a Snowball Effect (Oct.)

New in 2020:

Download science fiction stories here

AE posts:

2021: New space company Planetopolis…

2020: Cruising in Space…

2019: The Doomsday Fallacy, SpaceX successes…

2018: I, Starship, atheism versus religion, the Copernican principle…

2017: Mars, Supercivilisations, METI…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index

General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Issue 143, 1 November 2018 – 49th Apollo Anniversary Year

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Dawkins and the McGraths: a Biologist versus two Theologians

The God Delusion cover

The Dawkins Delusion cover

How to read controversial books

After the appearance of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, his fellow Oxford professor Alister McGrath helpfully replied to it in his own (much shorter) book, written together with his wife Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath, entitled The Dawkins Delusion (a good title, but ruined by the addition of a wonky question mark).

According to the puffs on its cover, The God Delusion is “written with all the clarity and elegance of which Dawkins is a master” – “a fascinating book … expressed in sparkling language” – “a brave and important book” – written with “cutting intelligence” – “A magnificent book, lucid and wise, truly magisterial”.

But according to Professor McGrath and his wife, both Christian believers and members of the Anglican Church, in his book Dawkins is “a crude anti-religious propagandist who shows a disregard for evidence” – “incurious, dogmatic, rambling, and self-contradictory” – and he offers “half-baked nonsense” – “crude caricatures, prejudicial stereotypes and blatant misrepresentations” – “the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching”.

Were these two sets of comments even talking about the same book?

We shall here triangulate a course between these two contrasting world-views by evaluating twenty major areas of disagreement, awarding a point to the better argument each time. The conclusion at the end of this post will reveal the final score.

11. Religious extremism versus moderation 11. Suicide bombing
12. The existence of God 12. Undeserved respect accorded to religions
13. Irreducible complexity 13. Our source of moral values
14. The need for a “God of the gaps” 14. The power of prayer
15. Religious scientists 15. The problem of suffering
16. The origin of monotheism 16. The limits of science
17. The nature of God 17. The gospels
18. Reform of older forms of monotheism 18. Memes and viruses
19. The Old Testament 19. Magisteria and intellectual warfare
10. Use of violence by atheists 20. Monotheism and childhood abuse

(1) Extremism versus moderation: the McGraths complain that Dawkins sees only the religious extremists, not the moderate majority (p.5, 27). Dawkins claims that the extremists are the majority (p.15, p.358; all page references to the 10th anniversary paperback edition, 2016).

Dawkins argues that, by their acceptance of irrational doctrines, the majority – even if supposedly moderate in their beliefs – act as a breeding-ground for the violent extremists. If one is not willing to criticise, say, the virgin birth of Jesus or the mystical doctrine of salvation, then one may be equally credulous when extremists claim to promote the faith by violence, for example by attacks on abortion clinics, or when they promote money-making scams in the name of religion (Dawkins, p.341-48; neither Dawkins, p.329-40, nor the McGraths direct the reader to any relevant biblical or quranic passages on abortion).

But ultimately this is a sterile debate. Yes, there are militant extremists, and yes, there are also moderates who reject the bloodier parts of their tradition as anachronisms in the modern age, and who reinterpret them as outmoded or symbolic.

Dawkins’s attack is aimed specifically at the militant monotheism of the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He makes this clear when he specifically excludes Buddhism and Confucianism from his concerns (p.58-59). It is his mistake that he speaks of religion in general when he has in his sights only the parts of it that makes news headlines. And it is the McGraths’ mistake that they often fail to realise this (p.31-32, 34; but they do recognise it on p.46).

Religiously inspired violence is a real problem which cannot be dismissed by calling it “pathological” (the McGraths, p.5) – especially when one considers that monotheism claims to have a hotline to the Supreme Being, and therefore invites the application of higher ethical standards than those which might apply to those poor atheists, who can only improvise their ethics as they go along. Given the persistence of religious violence throughout history, this for me outweighs the McGraths’s appeal to a peaceable majority.

1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.

(2) The existence of God: Dawkins thinks he has proved that God is extremely improbable, and therefore “almost certainly” does not exist (ch.3-4). (He very properly avoids claiming certainty, as he recognises that non-existence can never be absolutely proved, p.77.) This is the “central argument” of his book (p.187). The McGraths correctly counter that the issue is not whether God is probable, but whether he is actual (p.8-10). They should have added that the “probability” of a unique phenomenon is a meaningless concept (except as a measure of what Dawkins elsewhere calls “personal incredulity”).

As I pointed out earlier, Dawkins’s claimed proof is not convincing. The McGraths’ rebuttal of it can be simply stated by pointing out that Dawkins’s is a circular argument (and a very clear example of one): he starts by assuming that all complex phenomena must necessarily derive from simpler phenomena, as in biological evolution. But this is an axiom whose validity when extrapolated beyond biology cannot be assumed, precisely because it is the whole point at issue.

On the other hand, Dawkins is correct to point out that the proofs of the existence of God offered so far are themselves worthless (ch.3). The McGraths fail to establish God’s existence, and are only able to respond with talk of trying to make sense of “a highly complex, multifaceted, multilayered reality” (p.14), which is not very helpful.

From my point of view, this is all very frustrating. I would say, firstly, that the personal and interventionist God of the monotheistic religions clearly and obviously does not exist: partly because I see no convincing evidence of the activity of any such being, and partly because his supporters and followers have spent the past 2,000 years of history dividing themselves up into opposing groups, whose differences flare up into murderous hatred often enough to refute, for me, their claim of universality.

I would say that this is all a distraction from the real issue, which is the existence or not of a higher or supernatural level of consciousness or reality, accessible in principle to everybody. In a nutshell: is normal waking life a dream compared to some other level of existence? Despite Dawkins’s denigration of subjective personal experience (p.112-17, 184), it should be clear that, if such a higher level exists, subjective sensations will be the only way to access it, and the sort of science one can do within the dream-world of normal life will have no purchase on it.

Meanwhile, the religious believers who make headlines do tend to believe in a personal, anthropomorphic God; Dawkins is responding to them and the McGraths to Dawkins, neither side to any great effect.

On balance, ½ a point to Dawkins; ½ a point to the McGraths.

(3) Irreducible complexity: if God exists, he represents a layer of complexity which is both eternal and not reducible to simpler elements. As part of his argument against the existence of God and in favour of the building of complexity only through gradual natural selection, Dawkins states: “if genuinely irreducible complexity could be properly demonstrated, it would wreck Darwin’s theory” (p.151).

I don’t follow this, and in fact it seems to me to be the other way around: Darwinian natural selection cannot take place except in a universe which is already sufficiently complex to support a variety of life-forms, which can then compete to spread their genotype into the future. A universe so simple that it could contain only one single kind of life, or none at all, would not be capable of Darwinism.

Professor Daniel Dennett

To borrow a helpful concept from Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: a universe capable of life must start out with a design space of potential, if not yet realised, complexity which life can fill over the course of time. Or in Dawkins’s own metaphor: natural selection needs to climb the gradual slope of Mount Improbable, but in the simplest universe which can be imagined there would be no Mount Improbable, but simply an eternally endless flat plain.

Dawkins gets around this through the multiverse: our universe is just one of many, and though nearly all of them are not suitable for life, the multiverse is complex enough to allow at least one universe to exist which is suitable, which is of course our own (p.173-76). But then the multiverse is saddled with irreducible complexity, which can only be removed by supposing the existence of a super-multiverse, complex enough to allow the existence of at least one multiverse which is complex enough to allow at least one universe which is complex enough to allow at least one planet whose surface conditions are complex enough to give rise to at least one kind of life which is complex enough to allow at least one species to attain intelligence. But then the super-multiverse exhibits irreducible complexity in turn, which can only be removed by postulating a hyper-super-multiverse…

In other words, the need to make a choice between irreducible complexity at some point in the system or else an infinite regress is as characteristic of the evolutionist reality as it is of the theological one.

Dawkins implies that a universe (or multiverse or whatever) of maximum simplicity must still be complex enough to support biological evolution. Clearly it would not necessarily have to be so: the simplest universe of which one can conceive (at the present state of knowledge) might be one whose creative processes are exhausted after the appearance of a spacetime continuum, perhaps containing a shimmer of radiation which never forms matter, galaxies, stars or planets but simply swirls around in its primordial state forever. The simplest multiverse would be one which only has what it takes to produce such simple universes; the simplest super-multiverse only has what it takes to produce such simple multiverses, and so on forever…

Dawkins states: “The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple” (p.176) – thus repeating in a less obvious way the fault for which on the next few pages he chides the theologians who dare to claim that God is simple. He means that he expects the multiverse to obey a few mathematical laws which would look simple when written down. But this would be to overlook whatever underlying machinery is required to bring such laws into existence and then produce substance for them to work on, which I would guess might well be not nearly so simple.

The McGraths respond with: “the holy grail of the natural sciences is the quest for the ‘grand unified theory’ – ‘the theory of everything’ ” (p.9). They proceed to apply Dawkins’s own logic to it: “What explains the explainer?” Clearly the appeal to a hoped-for grand unified theory of everything is not necessary: such a theory is not known to exist, and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem suggests that no such theory can exist, even in principle. But the McGraths are certainly correct to haul Dawkins up for his exaggerated claim.

Dawkins has the grace to concede: “we on the science side must not be too dogmatically confident. Maybe there is something out there in nature that really does preclude, by its genuinely irreducible complexity, the smooth gradient of Mount Improbable” (p.150-51). But he fails to see that such a statement must be true of the universe (or multiverse, or whatever) at some fundamental level, because he is still thinking primarily of biology, for which a suitable physical substrate is assumed as a matter of course (p.144-50).

0 points to Dawkins; 1 point to the McGraths.

(4) The “God of the gaps”: Dawkins criticises believers for relying on God to fill the gaps in explanation of natural phenomena (p.151-61).

Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath

The McGraths, following Richard Swinburne, counter that, on the contrary, God is needed, not to explain the gaps, but to explain the explanatory power of science itself (p.12). (A very similar point is made in C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.167-68.) Dawkins fails to engage with this angle at all. While not an argument for God as such, it certainly strongly suggests a hierarchical nature for reality, with our own consciousness on a supernatural level relative to the material world (“our logic was participation in a cosmic Logos” – Lewis).

Clearly, religious believers have and maybe sometimes still do employ the “God of the gaps” argument, and Dawkins is right to expose them for doing so. But the question of explaining the comprehensibility of the universe is to my mind such a profound one that the McGraths come out ahead of Dawkins here.

0 points to Dawkins; 1 point to the McGraths.

(5) Religious scientists: “not particularly rare”, according to Dawkins, though he expresses bafflement as to why they exist at all (p.125). But to the McGraths, “Dawkins is forced to contend with the highly awkward fact that his view that the natural sciences are an intellectual superhighway to atheism is rejected by most scientists, irrespective of their religious views” (p.21).

I once read an anecdote about Einstein, who, when faced with the Nazi claim that a huge number of German scientists had disproved his “Jewish” theory of Relativity, responded: “Why so many? If I was wrong, one would be enough!” In this spirit, one scientist who believed in God should be enough to give Dawkins pause.

On the other hand, this is a matter of cultural evolution. Consider slavery: banned in developed countries during the 19th century, equality of civil rights was still a highy contentious issue over a century later, as shown in a recent Dr Who episode (S11 E03), “Rosa”. These sorts of changes don’t occur overnight. There’s a huge cultural inertia behind religious belief. The fact that some scientists still believe in religion a mere couple of centuries after the Enlightenment began means nothing.

On balance, ½ a point to Dawkins; ½ a point to the McGraths.

(6) The origin of monotheism: the McGraths claim that Dawkins assumes that God does not exist, finds a plausible naturalistic explanation of monotheism and uses that explanation to show that God does not exist: “In the end, this is a circular argument, which presupposes its conclusions” (p.31).

Professor Richard Dawkins

The McGraths are mistaken: Dawkins does not make such an argument (see his ch.5, “The roots of religion”). He thinks he has settled the question of God’s existence separately, in the previous chapter. His explanation of the origin of religion is that it is a by-product of the functioning of the brain. While this is speculative, he produces circumstantial evidence in the form of the cargo cults of the islands of South-East Asia. These illustrate his thesis that a new cult can spring up with amazing speed from practically nothing, the process of its birth quickly covers its tracks, similar cults pop up independently in different places, and modern cults resemble the traditional monotheisms such as Christianity, which therefore surely began in a similar way (p.234-39).

The McGraths ask for Dawkins’s evidence (p.30), seemingly unaware of his descriptions of the cargo cults. Presumably they hold the view – a perfectly valid one – that the fact that some cults begin in this way does not prove that all do.

Dawkins would have done better to focus on the fact that, even if God does indeed exist, the monotheistic religions devoted to his worship are so mutually antagonistic that a strong naturalistic element must be present in their origin, even if that is not the whole story. Monotheism, for all its claimed universality, works in practice as a vehicle for human tribalism, dividing people from different tribal or national groups rather than uniting them. Consider the history of the Middle East or of pre-Enlightenment Europe; consider too the vivid contrast with genuinely universal subjects such as science, art or music, long known to build bridges between otherwise conflicting groups.

The McGraths fail to offer any explanation of the origin of religion of their own, and fail to respond to the example of the cargo cults.

1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.

(7) The nature of God: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak;…” – thus begins Dawkins’s outburst at the start of his ch.2, “The God Hypothesis” (p.51).

The McGraths quote this only to say that they themselves do not believe in a God like that, and neither do they know anybody who does (p.46). But they never get to grips with Dawkins’s description, either to say that the biologist has failed to understand the God of the Old Testament, or to justify these unpleasant attributes, or to render them acceptable in any other way.

They do, however, seem to think that this concept of God has been superseded in the New Testament – see the next point below. Yet they do not then explain why the Old Testament still forms part of the Christian Bible at all, or why God reappears, centuries later, in the Quran, having reverted to something closer to his Old Testament personality.

1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.

(8) Reform of older forms of monotheism: still responding to Dawkins’s condemnation of God, the McGraths claim that their religion “possesses internal means of reform and renewal” (p.56-59).

I find this claim unconvincing. The fundamental texts of monotheistic religions are never rewritten or replaced, and their beliefs and practices change only very slowly, over generations. The ancient texts are regarded as sacred – the eternal word of God – and no editing in the light of later discoveries or insights can be allowed. New ideas cause, not renewal, but schism into competing sects, as happened after the deaths of both Jesus and Muhammad. The McGraths state: “Jesus’ mission was to challenge the religious forms of his day and, in the end, that is what led to him being crucified” (p.57). But the result was not the reform of Judaism, but the creation of a new sect, followed by centuries of violence between the new and the old.

Though Dawkins does not say so explicitly, the claim that science is vastly better at self-correction than religion belongs firmly in his camp.

1 point to Dawkins, 0 points to the McGraths.

(9) The Old Testament: the McGraths state that Dawkins’s discussion of the Hebrew scriptures is “highly selective”, taken as it is from a small fraction of the books of the Old Testament, and that it only picks out the shocking bits, ignoring the passages which contain “forgiveness and compassion”. “He also ignores the prophets and the wisdom literature, in which the heights of Jewish moral insight are expressed – insights that continue to shape and nourish the human quest for moral values” (p.56-59).

The McGraths thereby miss Dawkins’s point. Of moderate believers, Dawkins writes: “We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories”. Of the extremists, he adds: “a frighteningly large number of people still do take their scriptures, including the story of Noah, literally. According to Gallup, they include approximately 50 per cent of the US electorate” (p.269).

So obviously Dawkins’s quotations are intentionally selective: it’s precisely the portions of the Old Testament unacceptable today – and whose moral depravity is not remarked upon in the text – which it is his purpose to highlight, and which ruin any claim of the Bible as a whole to be the literal word of an infallible and morally superior supernatural being.

Meanwhile, the McGraths shy away from explaining how the “insights that continue to shape and nourish the human quest for moral values” apply to modern-day ethical problems such as dealing with nuclear weapons, space colonisation, global economic development, and above all the looming question of artificial intelligence.

In defence of the Old Testament, the McGraths state: “Historically, it is important to appreciate that these ancient texts arose within a people who were fighting to maintain their group or national identity in the face of onslaughts from all sides, who were making sense of their human situation in relation to a God about whose nature their thinking became more and more developed in the millennium over which the material that makes up these Scriptures was being produced, orally and in writing” (p.58).

Clearly this is true. So why do later texts not condemn any specific instance of violence, genocide, misogyny etc. of the earlier ones? Why do the later prophets or the gospels express not the least sign of revisionism or regret for the wholesale slaughter of the populations living in Palestine by the Jewish invaders, aided and abetted by God, which are recounted in the book of Joshua? Why do we not find any explanation that Noah’s flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was actually a natural disaster, caused by geological forces over which God had no control, rather than the result of a fit of murderous rage by an insanely jealous supernatural tyrant?

1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.

Professor Alister McGrath

(10) Use of violence by atheists: Dawkins claims that atheists are never violent for atheism’s sake (p.309, 315-16). The McGraths disprove this with reference to Soviet and Romanian communist persecution of religion in their countries specifically in order to impose an atheist state (p.48-49). Dawkins would perhaps be correct to say that the body-count from religious wars is greater than from these anti-religious campaigns, but his point that atheists “don’t do evil things in the name of atheism” (p.315) is refuted.

Dawkins is in any case aiming at the wrong target. It is not religion as such which is to blame for violence, but uncompromising ideologies – including but not restricted to religious ideologies – which are held with fanatical zeal, overriding any sense of common humanity between adherents of that ideology and non-adherents.

It’s hardly surprising if religious killings outnumber atheist killings throughout history, since atheism is a relatively recent invention.

The McGraths are also correct to point out: “when a society rejects the idea of God, it tends to transcendentalize alternatives – such as the ideals of liberty or equality” (p.50-51). Or indeed “the Revolution”: a huge amount of violence has been perpetrated in pursuit of an atheistic social revolution, in France, Russia, China, Cambodia and elsewhere. The McGraths correctly identify the root of the problem in the transformation of normal human conflicts into cosmic battles between supposedly transcendent forces of good and evil.

0 points to Dawkins; 1 point to the McGraths.

(11) Suicide bombing: Dawkins writes: “If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior value of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers” (p.348). The McGraths refute this with reference to a major study by Robert Pape (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Random House, 2005), which shows that religious belief is neither necessary nor sufficient to motivate suicide bombers (p.50).

The McGraths don’t mention this next point, but they certainly ought to have: who better than Dawkins to know that suicide bombing is practised by a number of ant and termite species? These eusocial insects are presumably not strongly motivated by their uncompromising religious faith? Or can we expect to see editions of The God Delusion translated into ant and termite languages in the hope of stamping out this ungodly practice?

In the non-human world this method of defence of the nest is known as autothysis.

0 points to Dawkins; 1 point to the McGraths.

(12) Undeserved respect accorded to religions in modern culture: this is criticised at length by Dawkins (p.41-50). The McGraths do not respond at all, nor do they say anything about religious violence following on from perceived insults, beyond a ritual “All of us need to work to rid the world of the baleful influence of religious violence. On that point, Dawkins and I are agreed” (p.46) – while offering neither any realistic programme for achieving that, nor any explanation as to how such horrendous cruelties could ever have been perpetrated by people with a supposed hotline to the divine.

The McGraths recommend the example of Jesus as a cure for religious violence: “If the world were more like Jesus of Nazareth, violence might indeed be a thing of the past” (p.47). But it isn’t, and 2,000 years of history say that the world will never be so.

1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.

Neocapritermes taracua

(13) Our source of moral values: not in the Bible, says Dawkins in chapters 6-7. Those who would seek their morality in the Abrahamic religions must apply discretion in picking and choosing which bits of biblical or quranic prescription to believe and which to ignore, or to reinterpret as mythical.

And it is true that progress in ethical standards over the past couple of hundred years has been striking, and has in part involved the removal of religion from the centre of public life and its restriction to the realm of private belief.

The McGraths do not respond to this point beyond their claim that religion is capable of reform, discussed in point (8) above.

Note that they deliberately did not set out to address every one of Dawkins’s arguments. Their weak excuse for not doing so is that if they had written such a book, it would have been “catatonically boring” (p.xii). The McGraths plead the difficulty of responding to The God Delusion on the grounds that it is badly written: “The book is often little more than an aggregation of convenient factoids, suitably overstated to achieve maximum impact, and loosely arranged to suggest that they constitute an argument. To rebut this highly selective appeal to evidence would be unspeakably tedious, and would simply lead to a hopelessly dull book that seemed tetchy and reactive” (p.xi-xii).

Unfortunately for the McGraths, the result of their fastidious disdain of Dawkins’s “entertaining, wildly informative, splendidly written polemic” (according to the reviewer in the Sunday Times) is that the reader of The Dawkins Delusion? finds a great deal of dismissive ridicule such as the vigorously drafted prose quoted in the previous paragraph above, but very little hard detail to back it up. The lasting impression is that for much of the time the McGraths are unable to respond with anything more than moral outrage and angry bluster.

(I have not read Alister McGrath’s earlier book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, and, after reading The Dawkins Delusion?, do not feel particularly inspired to do so. If any readers of this post notice any points which are covered in that book and which I should have taken account of here, I would appreciate the information.)

Meanwhile, on the source of moral values: 1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.

(14) The power of prayer: in “The Great Prayer Experiment” (p.85-90) Dawkins describes experimental tests of the efficacy of prayer: does God intervene to help when asked?

Since what is being claimed by the monotheistic religious is a personal relationship with a supernatural being, treating prayer on the same basis as one would test a new drug is bizarre. Yet many believers do think that prayer works for them in this way, and the experiment was a valid test of what is believed.

Amazingly, despite the central importance of prayer in producing a sense that God is present with the believer, the McGraths say nothing about it, or about Dawkins’s criticisms of its efficacy.

In fact, neither side seems to understand prayer in the same way that I do. I once went to church (the University Church of St Mary, Oxford, Christmas Eve, in the early 1990s) and listened to a sermon in which the preacher made it clear that prayer is not – like magic – the summoning of a supernatural being to do the will of the human at prayer. Rather it is a way of resigning oneself (possibly not the exact term the preacher used) to what one cannot change by accepting it as the will of God. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: not my will be done, but thine.

The same point is made in the well-known quote from Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of C.S. Lewis in William Nicholson’s movie Shadowlands: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time – waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God – it changes me.” Although this is not a quotation from Lewis himself, Nicholson has clearly given us an authentic expression of Lewis’s voice (see for example Ransom’s prayerful struggle with Maleldil in Perelandra, ch.11).

So although neither side gets to grips with what prayer is really about, Dawkins does refute a popular view of it, and the McGraths fail to respond.

1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.

(15) The problem of suffering: Dawkins does not spend much time on the perennial theological problem of reconciling human suffering with belief in a loving and all-powerful God, except to give a couple of quotes from Richard Swinburne (p.88-89). Swinburne, like Lewis in The Problem of Pain, rationalises suffering as being good for us – in God’s eyes, if not our own. When he applies this reasoning to the Holocaust and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Dawkins describes it as “grotesque”, and in my view rightly so.

Again, the McGraths make no response, despite the centrality of the topic to the religion-atheism debate.

I think there is more to be said on the subject of suffering than the purely evolutionary explanation which Dawkins gives (p.197). In River Out of Eden, responding to a tragic road accident, he famously wrote: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (p.155). This implies that humans are indistinguishable from zombies: our behaviour fully determined by mindless physical forces. Maybe we are, maybe not. Note that Lewis reached the opposite conclusion: “Unless I were to accept an unbelievable alternative, I must admit that mind was no late-come epiphenomenon; that the whole universe was, in the last resort, mental; that our logic was participation in a cosmic Logos” (Surprised by Joy, p.168).

Dawkins does not recognise the possibility that the universe is “in the last resort, mental”, allowing only two alternatives: one in which mind is a property of matter and unable to exist apart from it, and one in which mind is a disembodied spirit that inhabits the material body (p.209). He does not address the possibility of a universe in which matter is unable to exist apart from mind – which is odd, given his statement: “The human brain runs first-class simulation software. Our eyes don’t present to our brains a faithful photograph of what is out there […] Our brains construct a continuously updated model: updated by coded pulses chattering along the optic nerve, but constructed nevertheless” (p.113).

In other words, we have no direct experience of the material universe; only of our own mental model purporting to present such a world to our consciousness. This raises two obvious questions which are missing from The God Delusion:

However, for the present discussion, Dawkins makes a telling point and the McGraths fail to reply.

1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.

(16) The limits of science: Dawkins does not recognise any in his final conclusion: “I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding [clearly meaning: scientific understanding]. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits” (p.419). Again: “The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question […] So also is the truth or falsehood of every one of the miracle stories that religions rely upon to impress multitudes of the faithful” (p.82).

But the McGraths agree with Sir Peter Medawar in his The Limits of Science: that there are legitimate “transcendent” questions which science cannot answer.

I agree with the McGraths. Science can only elucidate the relationships between things (mass, length, time, energy etc.). It can offer no conceivable explanation of why anything (including science) exists at all, or of why mathematical models are so effective in capturing aspects of the material world. It can only explain one thing in terms of another thing (like a foreign language dictionary which is all in the same language), never what things (electrons, light, space and time) are in and of themselves.

Furthermore, science is intrinsically a social activity: what one observer sees, another observer must always be able to replicate. But with God and the supernatural, I am as utterly on my own as I am in my relationship with my own subconscious mind – brain science notwithstanding. If a creative super-intelligence is only knowable after death (as a film-maker is only knowable when one is not totally immersed in watching the film), then the question of its presence or absence is unequivocally beyond science.

0 points to Dawkins; 1 point to the McGraths.

Gospel of Thomas and Secret Book of John

(17) The gospels: Dawkins claims that the key texts of Christianity are, like any modern novel or movie: “fabricated from start to finish: invented, made-up fiction” (p.123). This claim is based on the undoubted facts that the four canonical gospels are mutually inconsistent and sometimes contradict historical knowledge of the era, that they contain a number of elements clearly derived from other religions of the period, and that they are accompanied by apocryphal gospels (“Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew and Mary Magdalen”) containing stories which are even more fantastic and implausible than those recounted in the four gospels chosen for inclusion in the Bible.

I think that 100% skepticism about the contents of the gospels is as intellectually unsatisfactory as 100% credulity. Any ancient documents (and a good many modern ones) purporting to give accounts of historical events are liable to contain a mixture of truth, confabulation and propaganda, and the gospels should be treated as such, which is how an unbiased modern historian or a Jewish scholar such as Professor Vermes, author of several books on the life of Jesus, would approach them.

Furthermore, the key claim on which Christianity hangs is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the key evidence for that is the accounts given in the gospels. But it seems to me that the gospel accounts as they stand will bear a purely naturalistic explanation. Many others must have deduced the same thing. Such a scenario may or may not be what really happened (without time travel, that cannot now be known), but what it does demonstrate is a point of maximum economy of explanation.

Dawkins should be criticised for his unseemly haste to dismiss everything in the gospels as pure fiction. But his point that the gospels are not “gospel truth” (the McGraths use this expression uncritically, p.53-54) is a good one and it stands unchallenged. The McGraths say nothing to defend the canonical gospels – or the resurrection of Jesus – beyond general accusations that Dawkins ignores or twists evidence which does not suit his case (p.x, xii, 63, 64), and that he has “a generally superficial engagement with its [the Bible’s] core themes and ideas, and a depressingly inadequate knowledge of the text itself” (p.57). Their main evidence for the latter statement is that Dawkins misidentifies the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews – a pretty minor quibble in the overall scheme of things. On Dawkins’s specific evidence for the unreliability of the gospels (p.117-23) – and hence for the resurrection itself – the McGraths are silent.

1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.

(18) Memes and viruses: Dawkins applies two unflattering comparisons to religion: it is a species of mental virus which infects people’s minds (p.218), or it is a type of narcotic codenamed “Gerin Oil” (p.215). Either way, each religion is a meme, or rather a whole coordinated memeplex, which reproduces and mutates as it passes from mind to mind (p.222-34).

The McGraths are having none of this. They pour scorn on the ideas of the mental virus and the meme, claiming that they are “pseudoscientific”, “conceptually redundant” and “flaky” (p.40-45). The meme is “a hypothetical, unobserved entity” – exactly Dawkins’s criticism of God, in fact. But they say nothing about the various examples of memes which Dawkins produces.

So the McGraths are criticising Dawkins for introducing the meme as a “theoretical interpretation” of the way that ideas are passed from mind to mind, on the grounds that this theoretical interpretation is only a theoretical interpretation. In other words: a trivial verbal quibble which avoids getting to grips with what the term actually means. Dawkins uses it as shorthand for a group of related points – that belief in God is passed on from one person to another by imitation, that the belief is usually copied accurately but sometimes modified, that the variant belief systems which become most widespread are those which get copied faithfully to the largest number of people, and that this whole process provides a good explanation of the current abundance of religious beliefs. The McGraths do not attempt to refute any of these processes.

The McGraths do have a good point when they say that if religion is a meme, then so is any world-view (p.41). But this is no contradiction of any claim made by Dawkins. Although he does not discuss this, it should be clear that a meme might be more or it might be less valuable as a guide to reality, just as the genes which cause the eye of an animal to develop might be more or they might be less efficient a means to acquiring good eyesight.

If we can get away from the derogatory language of viruses and narcotics: saying that scientific reason, like religion, is made of memes does not invalidate it. Rather, it merely identifies scientific reason as a memeplex which provides a clearer view of reality – like a geneplex which builds a better eye.

Lurking behind all this, there is a deeper question to do with the problem of knowledge (also touched upon in points 4, 15 and 16 above, and point 19 below). Does this allow a zombie to make valid claims to truth and reason? I don’t know. But meanwhile, that question does not invalidate the meme as a verbal shorthand for a set of related statements about how ideas are passed on within the material world.

1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.

Professor Stephen Jay Gould and friends

(19) Magisteria and intellectual warfare: Stephen Jay Gould famously stated that science and religion have non-overlapping magisteria, i.e. non-overlapping domains of validity. So while science can answer questions about factual, material matters, religion is there to answer questions about the purpose and meaning of it all, and they should not come into conflict.

Dawkins retorts that science can answer all questions which he considers to be meaningful, and the magisterium of religion doesn’t even exist (p.77-85).

The McGraths argue for partially overlapping magisteria, in which science and religion “offer possibilities of cross-fertilisation” of each other (p.18-19). They condemn Dawkins’s view that science and religion are “locked into a battle to the death. Only one can emerge victorious – and it must be science” (p.23). Thus Dawkins sets up, in their view, an atheist theology of good versus evil – simply inverting the definitions of what is good and what is evil from those which fundamentalist religions preach.

The reality is that the claimed magisteria of science and religion do indeed overlap. Scientists aim to fully explain consciousness and beliefs in terms of brain microbiology, and the miracles of Jesus in terms of mundane myth-making, leaving no role for the supernatural. On the other side, religious believers make statements about the age of planet Earth and the process behind the origin of species which contradict the relevant scientific disciplines.

The McGraths are therefore correct in practice that science and religion overlap, but incorrect in their optimistic reading of their relationship. Their protests to the contrary, when these two disciplines come into contact the result may just as well be conflict as harmony (as in the scandal of a British school, supported by an initiative of the Blair government, teaching Bible stories as science, described by Dawkins on p.372-79, and which is not mentioned by the McGraths in connection with Francis Collins’s “richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews”, p.19).

I would agree with the McGraths, against Dawkins, that some kind of magisterium of the supernatural does exist, if only to give force to the claim that one or another kind of belief is more worth having. True, Dawkins does not exactly deny this, but states: “Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science. Maybe quantum theory is already knocking on the door of the unfathomable. But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?” (p.80). I understand him to be saying: the only questions unfathomable to science must be ones about the material universe, not private, subjective questions. Since the latter are clearly related to the religious concept of the soul, and since Dawkins makes it generally clear that he has no patience for any concept of the supernatural, my “against Dawkins” in the first sentence of this paragraph is justified.

Dawkins states (correctly) that not every “why?” question is meaningful (p.80; River Out of Eden, p.113-14). It’s clear that he would place questions such as “why am I here? why do I even exist at all?” in the meaningless category – contradicting the widespread human yearning for an answer which goes beyond the scientific, resolutely materialist explanation in terms of physics, chemistry and selfish genes.

I think that, by contradicting that feeling, Dawkins is going beyond the remit of science. His implicit claim that all subjective impressions are reducible to objective material phenomena, to chemistry and physics demonstrable in the laboratory, is ultimately unprovable. The only knowledge I have of brains, of the neurons and atoms in my own head, comes to me in what Dawkins has already stated is a simulated universe – a dream-world, in fact. Nothing observed in a simulation can be the cause of the simulation itself.

Dawkins would presumably reply that the simulation is an accurate one, and made ever more faithful to the unknown external reality by the memeplex of science (as we discussed above). – To which I respond that he has no means of knowing that it is accurate; he is merely remarking on its self-consistency. – To which he says that, if it is self-consistent, then assuming that the material world is all that exists is the most economical hypothesis. – To which I object that science has no explanation of conscious experience in terms of material particles and forces, so the fact that something exists beyond science is a given. – And so on and so forth, with neither side able to convince the other of its rightness.

Note that Carl Sagan entitled a chapter of The Demon-Haunted World as follows: “No Such Thing as a Dumb Question” (p.300). True, that chapter was about encouraging children to learn science. But I would say that the poetry quote at the beginning implied an open mind even to the most open-ended “why?” questions:

So we keep asking, over and over,
Until a handful of earth
Stops our mouths –
But is that an answer?

(Heinrich Heine, “Lazarus”, 1854)

Meanwhile, however, I would agree with Dawkins, against the McGraths, that most of what theologians actually have to say (about salvation, about the meaning of passages of scripture, about the nature of God) is fantasy, adrift from reality, “Splitting Christendom by splitting hairs […] characteristically obscurantist” (Dawkins, p.54-55).

½ a point to Dawkins; ½ a point to the McGraths.

(20) Monotheism and childhood abuse: Dawkins writes: “Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong” (p.348). He goes on to speak of the “violation of childhood by religion”, describes the labelling of children with the religious beliefs of their parents as “a form of child abuse” (p.354), and discusses cases where the fear of hell-fire inflicted on a child was plausibly judged worse than physical sexual abuse at the same early age (p.354-66).

The McGraths first offer mild agreement: “The God Delusion is surely right to express concern about the indoctrination of children by their parents” (p.3). But this turns out to be a feint before the attack: Dawkins’s approach “sounds uncomfortably like the anti-religious programmes built into the education of Soviet children during the 1950s”, due to the “crude caricatures, prejudicial stereotypes and blatant misrepresentations now being aggressively peddled by atheist fundamentalism” (p.4). In their view, mental abuse may as well be delivered in the form of atheist as religious dogma.

Of course, what Dawkins does advocate is the teaching of comparative religion to youngsters, in order to make them aware of what religious doctrines actually contain and how they contradict one another (p.382). At the same time the McGraths demand that children “need to be told, fairly and accurately, what Christianity actually teaches – rather than be subjected to the derisory misrepresentations of Christian theology that litter this piece of propaganda” (p.4).

It is again striking that the McGraths rely on the general accusations quoted above. The strong language they use against Dawkins is not backed up by specific detail: they do not offer any case-studies of children who benefited (in their own or anybody else’s judgement) from being terrorised with stories of eternal damnation when they were young, and they do not attempt to justify the teaching of the virtues of blind faith over evidence-based reasoning to impressionable minds. They say nothing to defend the common practice of labelling children with the religion of their parents, as if religion were passed on biologically.

Neither does the McGraths’ jibe about Soviet education strike home: Dawkins does not seem to be advocating the use of a police state to crush religion. His concern is to teach children how to make their own minds up on these questions. Too bad if the claims made by the various books of holy scriptures are less convincing in the light of critical reason than in that of unquestioning faith.

1 point to Dawkins; 0 points to the McGraths.


Summing up, the score is as follows:

13½ points to Dawkins (67½%); 6½ points to the McGraths (32½%).

Clearly, this is a rough and ready exercise. I have no doubt skated lightly over many subtleties, and perhaps missed some other specific points of conflict. But the general conclusion is right: while I am on balance about twice as often in sympathy with Dawkins (and his writing style is unquestionably both more lucid and more entertaining), I also agree that the McGraths have scored a number of hits which succeed in weakening Dawkins’s position.

But I’ll give the last word on Dawkins-style atheist polemics to a certain Charles Darwin, who would clearly not have approved of an evolutionary biologist writing something like The God Delusion. In a letter of 13 October 1880 to the British socialist and radical atheist Edward Aveling, Darwin wrote:

“It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, and I have confined myself to science.”


Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006; 10th anniversary edition, Black Swan, 2016).

Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995; Phoenix, 1996).

Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007).

Charles Darwin letter is quoted in Stephen Jay Gould, “The Darwinian Gentleman at Marx’s Funeral”, p.175-76 in Stephen Jay Gould, ed. Paul McGarr and Steven Rose, The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (Vintage Books, 2007).

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