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Religious persuasion

By Judith Cole

World famous atheist Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion was published to massive media hype last year. Now, in a major response to its claims, Alister McGrath (54,), Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and his wife Joanna Collicutt McGrath (52), lecturer in the psychology of religion at University of London, hit back in their book The Dawkins Delusion?

Professor McGrath, who grew up in Downpatrick and attended Methodist College, Belfast, before becoming a research biochemist at Oxford and then an ordained priest in the Church of England, tells Judith Cole how he found faith in God and why it is atheism itself which is deluded

What did you think of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion?

I thought it was very interesting but not very good. It contains a lot of hopeless exaggerations and rather odd arguments. My wife and I decided we would together write a response to identify the main line of arguments Dawkins uses and respond to them.

Richard Dawkins says that faith is irrational. What do you think?

Dawkins has this idea that faith is simply a refusal to think, a process of non-thinking. But it's obvious that people think a lot about their faith and this is grounds for evidence - but it's not the same as scientific proof. It belongs in a different category. We're particularly critical of his statements that religious people are not allowed to try and prove their beliefs when it's clear that lots of people do. In Belfast you might think of CS Lewis, an obvious example of a Christian who thought it was very important to set out the rational grounds for belief.

Dawkins says that because faith must be irrational, there has to be some biological or psychological way of explaining why so many people - in fact, by far the greater part of the world's population - fall victim to such a delusion. One of the explanations that Dawkins offers is that believing in God is like being infected with a contagious virus, which spreads throughout entire populations. Yet biological viruses are not merely hypothesised. They can be identified, observed, and their structure and mode of operation determined. This hypothetical 'virus of the mind' is an essentially polemical construction, devised to discredit ideas that Dawkins does not like.

As a scientist you spent years carrying out research in biochemistry at Oxford University before becoming a theologian. What do you say to Dawkins' claim that real scientists can't be religious believers?

It's obvious that this is simply not an adequate analysis of the situation. In the same year that Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, was published two other books came out, one called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis Collins, who directed the human genome project, and the other was God's Universe, by Owen Gingerich, who is professor of astronomy at Harvard University. These are both top of the range scientists who say their Christian faith makes a lot more sense of science than anything else.

What about his main argument, that religion leads to violence and oppression?

Dawkins treats this as a defining characteristic of religion, airbrushing out of his somewhat skimpy account of the roots of violence any suggestion that it might be the result of political fanaticism - or even atheism. He is adamant that he himself, as a good atheist, would never fly aeroplanes into skyscrapers, or commit any other outrageous act of violence or oppression. Good for him. Neither would I. Yet the harsh reality is that religious and anti-religious violence has happened, and is likely to continue to do so.

As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, I know about religious violence only too well. There is no doubt that religion can generate violence. But it's not alone in this. The history of the 20th century has given us a frightening awareness of how political extremism can equally cause violence. In Latin America, millions of people seem to have 'disappeared' as a result of ruthless campaigns of violence by right wing politicians and their militias. In Cambodia, Pol Pot eliminated his millions in the name of socialism. The rise of the Soviet Union was of particular significance. Lenin regarded the elimination of religion as central to the socialist revolution, and put in place measures designed to eradicate religious beliefs through the 'protracted use of violence.' One of the greatest tragedies of this dark era in human history was that those who sought to eliminate religious belief through violence and oppression believed they were justified in doing so.

They were accountable to no higher authority than the state.

Dawkins is clearly an ivory tower atheist, disconnected from the real and brutal world of the 20th century.

We make the point that religion can lead to violence and one of the things we need to work at very hard is to eliminate religious violence - but that means the reformation, not the abolition, of religion.

So who do you think Dawkins' book was written for?

The arguments that Dawkins put together can only lead to, at best, agnosticism or a very dogmatic form of atheism which isn't well grounded in facts. That makes me wonder who he wrote this book for. Clearly, Christian readers will say it's completely inaccurate, while more informed atheists will be very nervous about it because they'll say it's so simplistic and dogmatic that no one will take it seriously. I think the sort of person who reads it would be a poorly informed atheist who wants their faith reinforced.

Dawkins seems to think that saying something more loudly and confidently, while ignoring or trivialising counter-evidence, will persuade the open-minded that religious belief is a type of delusion. For the gullible and credulous, it is the confidence with which something is said that persuades, rather than the evidence offered in its support. Dawkins' astonishingly superficial and inaccurate portrayal of Christianity will simply lead Christians to conclude that he does not know what he is talking about - and that his atheism may therefore rest on a series of errors and misunderstandings. Ironically, the ultimate achievement of The God Delusion for modern atheism may be to suggest that it is actually atheism itself which may be a delusion about God.

He even compares believing in God like believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy

This is a very bad analogy to use. There is no empirical evidence that people regard God, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy as being in the same category. I stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy when I was six, and after being an atheist for some years discovered God when I was 18. Many people come to believe in God when they're older, but I've yet to meet somebody who has started to believe in Santa Claus later on in life.

Why do you say that denying the existence of God on the basis of science is dishonest?

Science just doesn't take you there. It raises some very good questions about what God is like or whether we need to involve God at all. But what most science says is that you don't have to involve God in day to day explanations of how the world works.

So does Dawkins overstate the case for science in saying that it proves or disproves things relating to God?

Yes, and he's very naughty about this - often scientists say that what we believe today is the best way of looking at a certain thing, but in 20 years' time we might have changed our mind. Science is an ongoing project. Dawkins himself says in his book The Devil's Chaplain that in 150 years' time we may not believe Darwin's view of evolution any more. There are limits to science; science can't actually tell us the answer to lots of important questions such as whether there is there a God and what is the meaning of life.

What do you think was behind his writing the book?

I personally think that the public credibility of atheism is beginning to hit trouble, and that one of the reasons Dawkins wrote the book was to bolster the faith on the part of an atheism that's beginning to feel itself threatened. The big problem for atheism is that religion is coming back in a very big way, and if you're an atheist that shouldn't be happening. That helps us to understand the aggressiveness and hype you see in the book. It seems to me that what Dawkins presents us with is an atheism that is getting very shrill and angry because it feels it's not being taken seriously enough in Western culture.

Is atheism based on fear?

There is an element of fear. Atheism will appeal to someone who is very frightened about the resurgence of religion and the possibility of religious violence. One of the things the religious community needs to be aware of is the way it behaves and the impact on our church and faith.

As a schoolboy you were an atheist. What formed those beliefs?

I attended Down High School before going on to Methody to study pure and applied mathematics, physics and chemistry. It seemed obvious to me then that science led to atheism. Also, while I was at school the Troubles began and that seemed to confirm everything, that all religion did was generate conflict and violence, and therefore the best way of stopping conflict and violence was to get rid of religion. I tried, unsuccessfully, to start up an atheist society at school, which was certainly not a wise thing to do at the time and I didn't get much support!

Did your parents have any religious beliefs?

My parents (my father was a medical officer of health for Co Down; my mother was nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital) belonged to the Church of Ireland and I tagged along to services most unwillingly, and when I was a boarder at Methody there were compulsory services, which I didn't like at all. But my parents were very good at letting me find my own way - but my way at that stage was reacting against the whole thing.

How did you find faith in God?

When I went to Wadham College at Oxford University in 1971 to study chemistry I was forced to re-examine my thinking. My own work in the sciences brought home to me that the link between science and atheism was much weaker than I thought, and also being confronted with very articulate Christians in Oxford showed me that my thinking was quite shallow. I realised that Christianity makes much more sense of things, and of life, than anything else. CS Lewis wrote: 'I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else'. I would also argue that in terms of its own place in history the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is extremely well grounded. And above all, it's relevant.

What do you think future patterns in religion might be?

The real issue is that the heartland of Christianity these days isn't western Europe at all; it's places like Latin America and Africa. Just last week I received a copy of a book of mine which has been translated into Chinese by Peking University Press. Forty years ago the Peking University Press only published communist books and the reason they have started publishing mine is that there are so many Christians in China.

I think that Pentecostalism will be a big thing of future, even in Belfast and especially in working class areas, which is very interesting. In visiting various places in the world, I have noticed that in areas where Marxism used to predominate, such as some of the big slum areas of Latin America and the Philippines, Pentecostalism is popular today because it speaks very powerfully to people and takes their social concerns very seriously.

Is a public debate with Professor Dawkins on the cards?

I would like a proper discussion with him. This year I'm debating three of the world's leading atheists: Daniel Dennett, Peter Atkins and Susan Blackmore. As I know a lot about Richard Dawkins I think it would be good to have a discussion and see where it takes us.

The Dawkins Delusion?, £7.99, by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath is published by SPCK

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