Archive for the ‘Articles by Alister McGrath of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford’ Category

A Sermon preached at the Inauguration of the General Synod of the Church of England at Westminster Abbey, London, on Tuesday 14 November 2000, by Revd Professor Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology, Oxford University; Principal, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak . . . He will glorify me” (John 16.13-14).

Our texts this morning are both challenging and reassuring. They speak of the continuing guidance and encouragement which a gracious God offers to God’s people. We may find such thoughts consoling, and rightly so. The Christian life is difficult, and we need such reassurance and comfort. Yet they are also texts which challenge any complacency which we may have. Nearly forty years ago, Pope John XXIII declared that it was time that his bishops “listened to what the Spirit says to the church”. The result was the Second Vatican Council – a council of reform and renewal, which went far beyond what many had thought possible in equipping that church for the challenges that lay ahead.

Today, we face new challenges. We cannot ignore them, nor should we. Many of our clergy and people are anxious about the future, and are looking for leadership. Some of those challenges are intellectual: how do we relate the Christian gospel to postmodern culture? It is a question we often hear raised, and perhaps less often answered. Some are ethical: how can the church give a moral lead in immensely complex medical and technological issues, where the scientific issues themselves are so hard to grasp, let alone to respond to. Some are social, not least the question of how the national church should respond to the changing shape of society, with new sensitivities over issues of inclusiveness. Still others are pastoral: what models of ministry are appropriate to changing patterns of church attendance, and new patterns of need?

These are questions that I know many at this synod will wish to explore, and the thoughts and prayers of all the church are with you as you do so. It is important that these issues are dealt with responsibly and accountably. It is a sad fact of life that you will receive little thanks for doing so; yet these things need to be done, and you are well placed to do this.

Our readings this morning help us to set these issues in context. They offer us, both in what they affirm and the contexts in which they state this, encouragement for the tasks which you face over the next five years. Let me explore three insights which I believe they offer us.

First, there is a need for discernment – that is, to hear what the Spirit is saying. For some, discernment is an admirably simple matter. You work out where the wind is blowing, and make sure that you head in the same direction. Discernment thus becomes a matter of going with the flow – of being led by others, preferably while continuing to use the language of “leading”. And if we turn out not to be especially good at this kind of discernment, we just end up reacting to the way things were five or ten years ago. And in the meantime, the culture has moved on, leaving us behind.

This is not how the New Testament views discernment, and it challenges us to reconsider things. Discernment involves prayer, the attentive reading of Scripture and – as our readings remind us – an openness to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. There will be times when you may need to take brave decisions, which run counter to what the world perceives as wise and right. It will applaud you when you are seen to follow its ways, and scorn you when you do not. Yet discernment is about that most difficult of matters – trying to be faithful and obedient, asking what the Lord’s will might be. This kind of language may well have little appeal to a culture which places a high value on creativity, innovation and personal freedom. But it is essential to any community which seeks to be Christian in its beliefs and behaviour, as I know this church does.

Second, there is a need for service. The church and this synod are called to serve, and to imitate Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Many of you will know the story of Laurence, a deacon of the church at Rome in the third century. During the persecution under the emperor Valerian, Laurence was called to bring the treasure of the church before the Roman authorities. Laurence responded by bringing some of his congregation. “These,” he declared, “are the treasure of the church”. The Roman authorities were not amused, which is why we remember Laurence as a martyr.

The point he made so powerfully must always be before our eyes. The people of God are precious, and have every right to be esteemed by those who serve them. We cannot allow the development of any form of paternalist professionalism which might lead clergy to look down on laity, or central church administrators to look down on parish priests. Perhaps the most significant and demanding Christian ministry now taking place in this nation is being undertaken by the laity in their places of work. And the heartbeat of this church lies firmly in its parishes, whose incumbents and people must be encouraged and enabled in their ministries. Yes, decisions must be made here in this synod – sometimes difficult and painful decisions – and you are the ones who must make or endorse them as an act of service, not of power. The Christian tradition does not use the language of authority, privilege or power in relation to leadership. Christ washed the feet of his disciples, and those who exercise any form of Christian leadership must show that same humility towards their people. Our leaders are called, not merely to serve, but to see service as the greatest privilege that can be conferred upon them. It is a privilege conferred upon you, and I and others will honour and respect you for accepting it.

Thirdly, there is a need to renew our vision – to enable those inside and outside this church to rediscover the vitality and sheer wonder of the Christian gospel, and thus to be reinvigorated in their lives and ministry. This year, we lost two much-loved former archbishops of Canterbury, both of whom continue to have much to say to us. Robert Runcie regularly stressed the importance of “blessings, not achievements”, and in his own gracious way reminded us of the need to look to God, rather than trust in our own strength. And I recall vividly Donald Coggan speaking to a group of Oxford students considering ordination back in the 1970s, and constantly reiterating this phrase: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 AV). That, for him, was part of the role of the ordained ministry – to bring visionary leadership to the people of God. Being a Christian is not easy these days, and we constantly need to be recalled to renewal and refreshment in the life of faith.

So what might this synod do in this respect? Perhaps it is appropriate to sound a gentle note of caution here. It is always right to ask whether the internal workings of the church or this synod can be improved, and it is always right to give careful thought to the procedures that we use in making such judgements. Yet there is a serious risk that the church is seen to be inward looking; that it gives the appearance of being so preoccupied with its committees, structures, procedures and the inevitable mass of paperwork that it will lose sight of something much greater – our constant need to proclaim and relate the gospel to the world.

I am sure that you will do all that you can to model good and professional practice in all your workings. But you must not allow yourselves to become engulfed and absorbed by internal debates and concerns, least of all about the minutiae of procedures; you must also look outwards. The church is called to bear witness to the “God of all compassion” (2 Corinthians 1:3) and to make Christ as the “bread of life” (John 6:48) known to a hungry and needy world. We need visionary leadership for this task – a leadership which will do more than just administer and manage us, but will excite us; which will make us long to achieve more; which will enable us to serve the gospel in our nation.

I must conclude, and I do so by noting another challenge posed to us by our readings this morning: to glorify Christ (John 16:14). Might your decisions – both in terms of what they are and the way in which they were taken – glorify our Lord and Saviour? That is no small challenge; it is, however, a helpful perspective to bring to your discussions. That is why it is so appropriate to inaugurate this synod in this Abbey, in the context of worship. Part of your service to the church as a whole could be encouraging us to work for a recovery and renewal of what John Donne once called “the exceeding weight of eternal glory”. How can we rediscover the excitement and wonder of the Christian faith, and share it once more with our nation? Many of us long for leadership in recovering a vision of the wonder of the Christian faith; to help us recover our confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and its relevance for individuals, churches and the nation; to make us dissatisfied with our present grasp of that gospel, and long to go further and deeper.

There is so much that needs to be done. Let us rise to whatever challenges await us, knowing that we are being supported and sustained by the prayers of others, and by the God who loved us in Christ, and calls us to the tasks of service and proclamation. To that God be glory for ever. Amen.


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Alister McGrath says that atheism has been discredited by the collapse of communism and the postmodern need for tolerance

When I was an atheist back in the 1960s, its future seemed assured. I grew up in Northern Ireland, where religious tensions and violence had alienated many from Christianity. Like so many disaffected young people then, I rejected religion as oppressive, hypocritical, a barbarous relic of the past. The sociologists were predicting that religion would soon die out; if not, suitably enlightened governments and social agencies could ensure that it was relegated to the margins of culture, the last refuge of the intellectually feeble and socially devious. The sooner it was eliminated, the better place the world would be.

Atheism then had the power to command my mind and excite my heart. It made sense of things, and offered a powerful vision of the future. The world would be a better place once religion ended. It was simply a matter of time, judiciously aided by direct action here and there. Although I am no longer an atheist, I retain a profound respect for its aspirations for humanity and legitimate criticisms of dysfunctional religion. Yet the sun seems to be setting on this shopworn, jaded and tired belief system, which now lacks the vitality that once gave it passion and power.

To suggest that atheism is a belief system or faith will irritate some of its followers. For them, atheism is not a belief; it is the Truth. There is no god, and those who believe otherwise are deluded, foolish or liars (to borrow from the breezy rhetoric of Britain’s favourite atheist, the scientific populariser turned atheist propagandist Richard Dawkins). But it’s now clear that the atheist case against God has stalled. Surefire philosophical arguments against God have turned out to be circular and self-referential.

The most vigorous intellectual critique of religion now comes from Dawkins, who has established himself as atheism’s leading representative in the public arena. Yet a close reading of his works — which I try to provide in my forthcoming book Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life — suggests that his arguments rest more on fuzzy logic and aggressive rhetoric than on serious evidence-based argument. As America’s leading evolutionary biologist, the late Stephen Jay Gould, insisted, the natural sciences simply cannot adjudicate on the God question. If the sciences are used to defend either atheism or religious beliefs, they are misused.

Yet atheism has not simply run out of intellectual steam. Its moral credentials are now severely tarnished. Once, it was possible to argue that religion alone was the source of the world’s evils. Look at the record of violence of the Spanish Inquisition (interestingly, recent research has challenged this historical stereotype). Or the oppression of the French people in the 1780s under the Roman Catholic Church and the Bourbon monarchy. The list could be extended endlessly to make the same powerful moral point: wherever religion exercises power, it oppresses and corrupts, using violence to enforce its own beliefs and agendas. Atheism argued that it abolished this tyranny by getting rid of what ultimately caused it faith in God.

Yet that argument now seems tired, stale and unconvincing. It was credible in the 19th century precisely because atheism had never enjoyed the power and influence once exercised by religion. But all that has changed. Atheism’s innocence has now evaporated. In the 20th century, atheism managed to grasp the power that had hitherto eluded it. And it proved just as fallible, just as corrupt and just as oppressive as anything that had gone before it. Stalin’s death squads were just as murderous as their religious antecedents. Those who dreamed of freedom in the new atheist paradise often found themselves counting trees in Siberia, or confined to the gulags and they were the fortunate ones.

Like many back in the late 1960s, I was quite unaware of the darker side of atheism, as practised in the Soviet Union. I had assumed that religion would die away naturally, in the

face of the compelling intellectual arguments and moral vision offered by atheism. I failed to ask what might happen if people did not want to have their faith eliminated. A desire to eliminate belief in God at the intellectual or cultural level has the most unfortunate tendency to encourage others to do this at the physical level. Lenin, frustrated by the Russian people’s obstinate refusal to espouse atheism voluntarily and naturally after the Russian Revolution, enforced it, arguing in a famous letter of March 1922 that the ‘protracted use of brutality’ was the necessary means of achieving this goal.

Some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were committed by regimes which espoused atheism, often with a fanaticism that some naive Western atheists seem to think is reserved only for religious people. As Martin Amis stressed in Koba the Dread, we now know what really happened under Stalin, even if it was unfashionable to talk about this in progressive circles in the West until the 1990s. The firing squads that Stalin sent to liquidate the Buddhist monks of Mongolia gained at least something of their fanaticism and hatred of religion from those who told them that religion generated fanaticism and hatred.

The real truth here seems to be that identified by Nietzsche at the end of the 19th century — that there is something about human nature which makes it capable of being inspired by what it believes to be right to do both wonderful and appalling things. Neither atheism nor religion may be at fault — it might be some deeply troubling flaw in human nature itself. It is an uncomfortable thought, but one that demands careful reflection.

A further problem for atheism is that its appeal seems to be determined by its social context, not intrinsic to its ideas. Where religion is seen to oppress, confine, deprive and limit, atheism may well be seen to offer humanity a larger vision of freedom. But where religion anchors itself in the hearts and minds of ordinary people, is sensitive to their needs and concerns, and offers them a better future, the atheist critique is unpersuasive. In the past, atheism offered a vision which captured the imagination of Western Europe. We all need to dream, to imagine a better existence — and atheism empowered people to overthrow the past, and create a brave new world.

The appeal of atheism as a public philosophy came to an undistinguished end in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Atheism, once seen as a liberator, was now cordially loathed as an oppressor. The beliefs were pretty much the same as before; their appeal, however, was very different. As the Soviet empire crumbled at a dizzying rate in the 1990s, those who had once been ‘liberated’ from God rushed to embrace him once more. Islam is resurgent in central Soviet Asia, and Orthodoxy in Russia itself. Harsh and bitter memories of state-enforced atheism linger throughout Eastern Europe, with major implications for the religious and cultural future of the European Union as former Soviet bloc nations achieve membership.

Where people enjoy their religion, seeing it as something life-enhancing and identity-giving, they are going to find atheism unattractive. The recent surge of evidence-based studies demonstrating the positive impact of religion on human wellbeing has yet to be assimilated by atheist writers. It is only where religion is seen as the enemy that atheism’s demands for its elimination will be taken seriously. Atheism’s problem is that its own baleful legacy in the former Soviet Union has led many to view it as the enemy, and religion as its antidote. In Eastern Europe, atheism is widely seen as politically discredited and imaginatively exhausted.

But what of Western Europe, which has known state Churches and a religious establishment, but never the state atheism that casts such a dark shadow over its future in the East? Surely atheism can hope for greater things here? The West, having been spared first-hand experience of atheism as the authoritarian (anti)religion of the establishment, still has some vague, lingering memories of a religious past that atheism could build on. Yet there are real problems here. For a new challenge to atheism has arisen within the West, which atheist writers have been slow to recognise and reluctant to engage — postmodernism.

Historians of ideas often note that atheism is the ideal religion of modernity — the cultural period ushered in by the Enlightenment. But that had been displaced by postmodernity, which rejects precisely those aspects of modernity that made atheism the obvious choice as the

preferred modern religion. Postmodernity has thus spawned post-atheism. Yet atheism seems to be turning a blind eye to this massive cultural shift, and the implications for the future of its faith.

In marked contrast, gallons of ink have been spilled and immense intellectual energy expended by Christian writers in identifying and meeting the challenges of postmodernism. Two are of particular relevance here. First, in general terms, postmodernism is intensely suspicious of totalising worldviews, which claim to offer a global view of reality. Christian apologists have realised that there is a real challenge here. If Christianity claims to be right where others are wrong, it has to make this credible to a culture which is strongly resistant to any such claims to be telling the whole truth. Second, again in general terms, postmodernity regards purely materialist approaches to reality as inadequate, and has a genuine interest in recovering ‘the spiritual dimension to life’. For Christian apologists, this is a problem, as this new interest in spirituality has no necessary connection with organised religion of any kind, let alone Christianity. How can the Churches connect with such aspirations?

Atheism has been slow, even reluctant, to engage with either of these developments, tending to dismiss them as irrational and superstitious (Richard Dawkins is a case in point). Yet it is easy to see why the rise of postmodernity poses a significantly greater threat to atheism than to Christianity. Atheism offers precisely the kind of ‘metanarrative’ that postmodern thinkers hold to lead to intolerance and oppression. Its uncompromising and definitive denial of God is now seen as arrogant and repressive, rather than as principled and moral.

The postmodern interest in spirituality is much more troubling for atheism than for Christianity. For the Christian, the problem is how to relate or convert an interest in spirituality to the Church or to Jesus Christ. But at least it points in the right direction. For the atheist, it represents a quasi-superstitious reintroduction of spiritual ideas, leading postmodernity backwards into religious beliefs that atheism thought it had exorcised. Atheism seems curiously disconnected from this shift in cultural mood. It seems that atheists are greying, inhabiting a dying modern world, while around them a new interest in the forbidden fruit of the spiritual realm is gaining the upper hand, above all among young people.

Consider the immense popularity of the Alpha course, whose advertisements may be seen on London buses, and whose adherents are now said to number some 60 million worldwide; or the expansion of Pentecostalism, now attracting half a billion global followers. Even 9/11, a religiously motivated assault, did not prompt an atheist backlash, but an upsurge in interest in Islam. What, I wonder, are the implications of such developments for the future of atheism in the West?

I see no reason why atheism cannot regain some of its lost ground — but not as a public philosophy, commanding wide assent and demanding privileged access to the corridors of power. It will do so as a private belief system, respectful of the beliefs of others. Instead of exulting in disrespect and contempt for religious belief, atheism will see itself as one option among many, entitled to the same respect that it accords others. The most significant, dynamic and interesting critic of Western Christianity is no longer atheism, but a religious alternative, offering a rival vision of God — Islam. This is not what the atheist visionaries of the past wanted, but it seems to be the way things are going.


Alister McGrath is professor of historical theology at Oxford University.
© 2004 The Spectator.co.uk 18 September 2004

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To Capture the Imagination of Our Culture: Reflections on Christian Apologetics

Alister E. McGrath

We live in an era when apologetics has ceased to be peripheral to the task of the church. The Church of England has, perhaps unsurprisingly to those of us who know her ways, not quite fully woken up to this fact. Apologetics is not at present a core requirement in theological education, so that it is perfectly possible to move into a position of church leadership without any knowledge of the theory or practice of apologetics, or awareness of its strategic importance. In this article, I want to make it clear that this is unacceptable. It is utterly irresponsible for a church which faces hard questions about its beliefs, values, aspirations and traditions to fail to equip its public representatives to deal with these questions, in terms that our culture can understand.

In a survey conducted in late 2003 and 2004, the Ecumenical Research Committee questioned 14,000 people about why they believed churchgoing was in decline. The questions were open-ended; rather than asking people to tick boxes predetermined by the organizers, they were invited to set out their own concerns. The results were significant. 80% believed that the decline of home visiting and reduced pastoral care were a significant factor in diminished church attendance. But for our purposes, the most important finding was this: 73% believed that clergy failed to prepare congregations for challenges to their faith, including explaining faith to non-churchgoers.

The simple fact is that clergy are seen to be failing their congregations, who need reassurance about their faith, and want to be equipped to deal with the questions about Christianity that they are being asked at school, in the shopping malls, at coffee mornings, and in pubs. There is a real need for an apologetic ministry within the church for Christians who are unsure about their faith. It is a well-established fact that C.S. Lewis is now read mostly by Christians seeking reassurance about their faith, rather than by non-Christians interested in considering Christianity.

Yes, Christians want to be equipped to deal with their friends’ hard questions – but they also need to be reassured about their own anxieties, fears, and misgivings, which are often marginalized or ignored by doubtless well-meaning preachers. But if clergy have not been prepared for this critically important ministry, we can hardly blame them for any failures in this respect. The greatest failing lies in the system, which remains locked into a past vision and model of the church, more attuned to the social realities of an idealized, long-gone England than its present-day counterpart.

The central challenge that needs to be considered is this: how can we make evangelism and apologetics central to churches who live in the past, and are in denial about the cultural changes around us – including the need to develop an apologetic to reconnect with that culture, and recapture its imagination? Yet there are other pressing issues as well. How can we proclaim the gospel in a postmodern context, when so many Christian apologists operate within a modernist worldview, an intellectual empire on which the sun is about to set.

In this article, I propose to explore some areas of importance to the practice of contemporary apologetics, raising some hard questions.

In doing so, I intend no criticism of anyone; I am simply asking that we give careful thought to what needs to be done, the ways in which we have done things in the past, and how we might respond to our new challenges in the future. There are many welcome indications that interest in apologetics, especially among evangelicals, is blossoming.[1] It is a very encouraging trend, which I hope we can sustain. The newly-established Oxford Centre for Evangelism and Apologetics aims to do precisely this, equipping a rising generation of Christian leaders, both in the church and marketplace, to deal with the questions our culture is raising, and tp speak to the unsatisfied longings that make it so open to the gospel proclamation.

The most obvious point to begin any paper on apologetics is with the New Testament, which provides us with both the theological underpinnings for an authentically Christian apologetic, and, in the Acts of the Apostles, actually provides us with examples of early Christian apologetic addresses and approaches. Many apologists rightly single out 1 Peter 3:15 in this respect:

Sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being prepared to give an answer (apologia) to all those who ask you for a reason (logos) for the hope that is within you.

From what we know of the situation facing the recipients of this letter, this is an exceptionally important statement. It is presupposed that Christians are being asked about their faith, possibly to find pretexts for prosecution for failing to conform to the imperial cult. The hard, often blatantly hostile, questions asked of the church by its culture become channels for the communication of faith. We tend to see these questions as threats, and run away from them; we ought to see them as opportunities, and welcome them.[2]

The Babylonian captivity of older evangelical apologetics

How can we communicate the gospel effectively to today’s culture, when the church seems locked into values and worldviews of the past? It is a question that I am often asked by younger Christians, passionate about their faith, who are deeply discouraged by what they see as the outdated approaches to apologetics being used or encouraged by many older Christian leaders, especially in the United States of America. These strongly rationalist approaches to apologetics fail to connect up with the concerns of many younger people, many of whom simply find rationalist worldviews alien and unattractive, and some of whom are sufficiently academically able to know that they are ultimately intellectually untenable.

Back in 1977, a somewhat lightweight work entitled The Myth of God Incarnate made its appearance. The work made some interesting, through ultimately rather unpersuasive, criticisms of traditional Christian understandings of the identity and significance of Jesus Christ. Yet the most distinctive feature of this book was its core belief that the Enlightenment was something that was given and fixed for all time. It was here, and it was right. And that was that. For example, Professor Leslie Houlden argued that we have no option but to accept the rationalist outlook of the Enlightenment, and restructure our Christian thinking accordingly. “We must accept our lot, bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and make the most of it.”[3]

That was back in 1977. Since then, things have changed dramatically. Throughout the western world, the Christian church is faced with the challenges of adapting to cultural change. Public knowledge of the Bible is at its lowest for some considerable time, and many have little or no experience of Christian worship. Yet the assumption of the permanence of the Enlightenment worldview lingers on, particularly within those sections of the Christian community which, on the face of it, ought to be most critical of it. The rise of postmodernity has taken many older Christians by surprise, not least because the street credibility of older approaches to evangelism and apologetics has virtually evaporated. It is a profoundly uncomfortable situation for the church. How can it cope with postmodern culture, when its so many of its chief apologists still live in a modern world?

Faced with this situation, Christians have reacted in a number of ways. Some are in denial about the massive cultural change we see around us, and struggle to maintain their churches as tiny outposts of orthodoxy in the midst of what they see as cultural madness. Others excoriate postmodernity as satanic, deluded, or irrational, and work hard to get society and the churches back into the safe waters of the modern worldview. It is an understandable tactic. After all, Christians have become very experienced at proclaiming and defending the gospel within the Enlightenment worldview. Why not go back there?

Yet historians point out, not unreasonably, that contemporary Christians were appalled by the rise of precisely that modern worldview three centuries or so ago, seeing it as destructive of faith and as eroding critical Christian beliefs and values. The rise of modernity was regarded with alarm by conservative Christians of that era, who regarded it as destructive of faith. Those concerns have long since been forgotten, but they need to be recalled by those who seem to have got it into their heads that people have to be modernists before they can become Christians, and end up defending modernity as much as Christianity.

The simple yet awkward truth is that modernity and postmodernity are neither Christian nor anti-Christian, neither good nor evil. They are fundamentally cultural moods, each raising certain challenges and – very importantly! – creating certain openings for Christian faith. Many Christians have got so used to working in a modernist culture that they have assumed that this was a permanent state of affairs – or, even worse, that it was somehow sanctioned by the gospel itself, despite the protests of their predecessors in the eighteenth century. As a result, they have been left bewildered by recent cultural changes, and have only two strategies at their disposal – trying to turn the clock back, or ignoring what is happening, and hoping that it will go away.

As a Reformation scholar, I have always been impressed by the early Protestant insistence that the gospel must be proclaimed and taught in a language “understanded of the people” (Thomas Cranmer). If the gospel is proclaimed in a language that our culture cannot understand through a medium it cannot access, then the church has failed in its mission. It is just about as realistic as sending English evangelistic tracts to a people who, in the first place, speak French and in the second, cannot read.

My first plea is simply this: can we break free from this modernity-is-good, postmodernity-is-bad mindset? It is clearly incorrect; more importantly, it is destructive to any attempt to proclaim the gospel faithfully and effectively in a postmodern context. Ultimately, it demands that we first convert people to a rationalist worldview, so that they will then come to see the merits of out rationalist arguments for faith, and as a result, come to faith. Apologetics is about proclaiming and celebrating the truth and beauty of the gospel, not trying to turn back the cultural clock so that older forms of apologetics can have a new lease of life.

There is a real danger that we end up isolating the Christian faith from postmodern culture, not because of the faith itself, but on account of the manner in which we present it. The manner of presentation of the gospel can be a barrier to Christianity, if it is needlessly framed in terms of an outmoded worldview. In our apologetics, we need neither commend nor excoriate modernity nor postmodernity. Rather we seek to reach people who inhabit these worldviews in language they can understand.

This raises a fundamental question for apologetics – the importance of the audience.

The audience in apologetics

It is tempting to develop a “one-size-fits-all” approach to apologetics, not least because it alleviates the immense tedium of having to prepare a different talk for every audience. Yet there are some serious problems with this. Three issues may be identified as being of major importance.

1. The language we use

2. The authorities we cite

3. The style of argument we use.

Before we move on to consider this further, let us consider some of the apologetic sermons or speeches in the Acts of the Apostles, which have much to teach us on the importance of the audience.

Acts tends to deal with three specific audiences: Jews, Greeks and Romans. In each case, we find early Christian apologists adapting their message to these audiences, ensuring they use language and imagery that will be understood, cite authorities that will carry weight, and use forms of argument that conform to accepted patterns.

An excellent example of an apologetic address aimed at a Jewish audience is provided by Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14-36).[4]  The audience is Jewish; Peter therefore cites an authority which carries weight with this audience – the Old Testament. Peter’s apologetic is directly related to themes which were important and comprehensible to a Jewish audience. The expectation of the coming of the Messiah (a notoriously complex and multifaceted notion, as recent scholarship has indicated) was (and remains!) significant for Judaism. Peter demonstrates that Jesus meets the specific expectations of Israel, through appealing to authorities (here, prophetic passages in the Old Testament) which carried weight with his audience, while using language and terminology which would readily have been accepted and understood by his audience. Note in particular his specific reference to Jesus as “Lord and Christ”. No explanation is offered, or necessary. These were terms well familiar to his audience. What was new about Peter’s message was his emphatic insistence that Jesus was to be identified with both these figures on the basis of his exaltation through God having raised him from the dead.

Now contrast this with Paul’s apologetic address at Athens – the famous “Areopagus speech”. The audience here is Greek. They have no knowledge of the Old Testament, nor would they see it as carrying any weight. In fact, it is an audience similar, in many ways, to our own postmodern situation. Paul opens his address to the Athenians with a gradual introduction of the theme of the living God, allowing the religious and philosophical curiosity of the Athenians to shape the contours of his theological exposition.[5]  The “sense of divinity” present in each individual is here used as an apologetic device, by which Paul is able to base himself upon acceptable Greek theistic assumptions, while at the same time demonstrating that the Christian gospel goes beyond them. Paul shows a clear appreciation of the apologetic potential of Stoic philosophy, portraying the gospel as resonating with central Stoic concerns, while extending the limits of what might be known. What the Greeks held to be unknown, possibly unknowable, Paul proclaims to have been made known through the resurrection of Christ. The entire episode illustrates the manner in which Paul is able to exploit the situation of his audience, without compromising the integrity of faith. Note also his appeal to the cultural authorities of his day – the “poets”, which are used to back up some important apologetic points.

Finally, we may note an apologetic address to a Roman audience. The most important speeches in Acts to deal with Christianity in the eyes of the Roman authorities are found in Acts 24–26. Recent studies have stressed the way in which these speeches conform to patterns which were well known in the legal proceedings of the period.[6]  More than 250 papyri of official court proceedings in the early Roman empire are extant, and offer important insights into the way in which forensic proceedings were conducted, and the manner in which they were recorded. In general terms, forensic speeches – whether offered by the prosecution or defence – tended to consist of four or five standard components. In the case of a speech for the defence, this would include a refutation of the specific charges brought against the accused.

The importance of this point can be seen by examining Paul’s speech at Acts 24:10–21, in which he responds to the charges brought against him by the professional orator Tertullus (Acts 24:1–8). It is important to note the way in which Paul follows – in the view of many scholars, with great skill – the “rules of engagement” laid down by Roman legal custom as he subjects Tertullus’ accusations to a point by point refutation. In particular, he stresses the continuity between his own beliefs and those of the Jews who had accused him, particularly in regard to the Scriptures and the resurrection. But most significant is his appeal to Roman rules of evidence; his accusers (some Asian Jews) were not present to witness against him.

My concern in this discussion is not so much to understand what is happening in this important confrontation, but to work out what its relevance might be to our apologetic situation today. I see the following points emerging clearly from Paul’s defence of himself at this point, and others.

First, it is clear that both Paul and the Christian gospel were being misrepresented by his accusers and their legal representatives. Paul’s general strategy is to set out clearly what he believes. A rejection of Christianity – whether this takes the form of a deliberate decision to have nothing to do with it, or an unconscious sense of hostility towards it – rests upon an understanding of what Christianity actually is. There is every possibility that it is actually a caricature or distortion that has been rejected, whereas the real thing has escaped unnoticed.

Secondly, we need to note the way in which Paul makes highly effective use of the “rules of engagement” of the Roman legal system. He knows the status of certain arguments in the eyes of those who are going to make the critical decisions concerning his future. And knowing what matters, he is able to deliver the most effective defence of himself as a believer, and of the Christian gospel.

This point seems to be of great important to us today. We have to defend the gospel against its many critics. Yet we cannot simply treat all those who dislike or reject Christianity as being one homogeneous group. The reasons for rejecting Christianity vary, as do the reasons for accepting it. What may seem to be a highly persuasive argument for Christianity to one group of people may actually be an equally effective argument against it for another.

The three addresses we have chosen to explore have very different audiences in mind. For example, Peter addressed Jews deeply versed in the Old Testament, and aware of the hopes of Judaism; at Athens, Paul addressed the interests of secular Greek paganism. In each case, the approach adopted is tailored to the particularities of that audience. We need to show that same ability to take the trouble to relate the unchanging gospel to the very differing needs of the groups to whom we will minister and preach. The pastor who has one standard apologetic or evangelistic address, which is used time and time again – irrespective of the audience! – is failing to do justice to the gospel.

Theology and apologetics

Apologetics is often presented as a technique – a way of winning arguments. As Avery Dulles once put it, “the apologist is regarded as an aggressive, opportunistic person who tries, by fair means or foul, to argue people into joining the church.”[7]  I have read, I regret to say, many apologetic manuals which seem to believe that the essence of apologetics is verbal manipulation, intellectual bullying, and moral evasion. They don’t describe their approach like that, of course, but it is what it amounts to.

But what about theology? What role does theology play in apologetics? I want to suggest that theology plays a major role in responsible apologetics, at two levels. First, by insisting that we set apologetics in its proper context; secondly, by allowing us to appreciate the richness of the gospel, and identifying what the best “point of contact” might be for the gospel in relation to a given audience. We will explore both these points in what follows.

First, theology reminds us that the whole enterprise of apologetics and evangelism has both divine and human elements. God’s grace and human responsibility are set side by side; neither is to be denied or ignored. A theological system which ignores or eliminates one or the other has manifestly lost sight of its moorings in Scripture, and succumbed to the perennial temptation of systematic theology – to make intrasystemic consistency the arbiter of truth, rather than its grounding in the totality of the biblical witness.

With this point in mind, let us consider a second concern about apologetics noted by Dulles: “Numerous charges are laid at the door of apologetics: its neglect of grace, of prayer, and of the life-giving power of the Word of God.”[8]  It is a powerful point, which cannot be ignored. Rational persuasion cannot convert. We are dependent on the grace of God. If people are blinded by the “spirit of the age”, divine grace is needed to heal them. This is something that we all know to be true; yet somehow, it often seems to get overlooked. Let’s listen to the famous words of John Newton, in his hymn Amazing Grace:

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

The point is obvious: it is God’s grace that illuminates and ultimately converts. We, as apologists, have a role within this process; it is an important role, but one that must never become a barrier to the operation of God’s grace.

Yet in the second place, theology informs apologetics, enabling the apologist to have a full and firm grasp of the richness of the gospel, and hence an understanding of which of its many facets might be the most appropriate starting point or focus for a given audience. We cannot hope to present the totality of the gospel in a single address. We have to start somewhere. Theological analysis very often enables us to identify the most helpful starting point. This is not about reducing the gospel to a single point; it is simply a tactical judgement about where to begin. The rest can and should follow. Yet the decision about where to start is often the most crucial judgement an apologist must make, and it is essential that it is informed by a thorough knowledge of both the gospel itself and the audience that is to be addressed.

Let me share an image with you that I developed fifteen years ago, and have often found helpful in thinking about the role of theology in informing apologetics.[9]  One of the most famous experiments in English scientific history was carried out by Isaac Newton in his rooms at Cambridge. He found that passing a beam of white light through a prism “decomposed” the white light into the colours of the rainbow. All those colours were already present in the beam of white light; the prism merely separated them out, and allowed them to be seen and appreciated individually. Theology is like that, enabling us to identify and appreciate the individual elements of the gospel.

The apologetic importance of this is immense. It means that we can conduct a theological analysis of the gospel, and identify which of its many aspects may relate particularly well to a specific audience. Different people have different needs and concerns. One aspect of the gospel may interlock with one group of needs, while another may match up with others. To appreciate this point, let us return to look briefly once more at a central theme of the Christian faith – the meaning of the cross.

It is impossible to summarize the immensely rich and complex message of the cross in a few words.[10]  Indeed, one of the great delights of theology is that it offers us the opportunity of reflecting deeply (and at leisure!) on the full meaning of the great themes of the Christian message, such as the cross of Christ. Yet it is important to note that a number of aspects can be identified within that message – each of which has particular relevance to certain groups of people. If we pass the “word of the cross” through a theological prism, we find, in the first place, that it has many components, and in the second, that each relates particularly well to a specific audience. We will explore this point briefly.

One great theme of the gospel is that the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ free us from the fear of death. Christ has been raised from the dead, and those who have faith will one day share in that resurrection, and be with him for ever. Death is no longer something that need be feared. We celebrate this supremely at Easter. This great message of hope in the face of suffering and death is crucial for us all. Yet it has a special relevance to those many people who wake up in the middle of the night, frightened by the thought of death.

Another great theme of the cross is that of forgiveness. Through the death of Christ, real forgiveness of our sins is possible. This helps us to understand that our redemption is both precious and costly. Yet it also helps us appreciate the relevance of the gospel to a particular group of people – those who are burdened by guilt. Many feel that they can hardly continue living on account of that guilt. Theology identifies one of the many facets of the gospel which has especial relevance to those people. Those sins can be forgiven, and their guilt washed away.

The same type of thinking can be applied again and again. The important thing is to bring the gospel into contact with people’s lives. Theology helps us identify the most appropriate point of contact with individuals, so that they can discover the joy of faith. Again, let me stress that this doesn’t mean that we are reducing the gospel to just one point. It simply means that we are looking for the aspect of the gospel which is of greatest relevance to the person we are talking to. The rest of the gospel will follow in due course. We have to start somewhere – and theology helps identify the best starting point in each case.

Learning the limits of argument

The second area I want to open up for discussion is not unrelated to the first. Rationalist approach to apologetics focus on arguments. Yet apologetics engages the mind, the heart and the imagination.

We impoverish the gospel if we believe it only impacts upon the human mind, and neglect the impact of the gospel on all of our God-given faculties. One of the most significant critics of a purely rationalist approach to apologetics is the great eighteenth-century American Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. For Edwards, rational argument has a valuable and important place in Christian apologetics. But it is not the sole, and perhaps not even the chief, resource of the apologist. The real resource is an apprehension of divine glory.[11]

Though great use may be made of external arguments, they are not to be neglected, but highly prized and valued; for they may be greatly serviceable to awaken unbelievers, and bring them to serious consideration, and to confirm the faith of true saints; yea, they may be in some respect subservient to the begetting of a saving faith in men. Though what was said before remains true, that there is no spiritual conviction of the judgment, but what arises from an apprehension of the spiritual beauty and glory of divine things.

Edwards’ argument is significant, and merits close consideration. For the heart of his analysis is that arguments do not convert; they may remove obstacles to that conversion, but in themselves and of themselves they do not possess the capacity to transform humanity. Instead, we must aim to convey or bring about “an apprehension of the spiritual beauty and glory of divine things”. As I argue elsewhere, divine revelation is about capturing our imaginations with glimpses of glory, not simply persuading our minds with impressions of rationality.[12]

Once the apologist appreciates this point, a whole series of misconceptions can be removed. We are not called upon to argue people into the kingdom of God by rationalist logic, or aggressive rhetoric. The task of the apologist is to bring people to a point at which they can catch a glimpse of the glory of God; or, to use Edwards’ phrase, gain “an apprehension of the spiritual beauty and glory of divine things”. This insight is liberating. It reminds us once more that apologetics is not about manipulative human techniques, but about the grace and glory of God. And it also affirms that the apologist does not need to be verbally skilled, possessing a dexterity with words and language that captivates an audience. The most faltering words may still point to the glorious reality of God, perhaps by confessing the impact that Christ has had upon his life, or the new hope that the gospel brings within her existence.

Just as importantly, we need to appreciate the importance of an appeal to the imagination, not just reason, in the apologetic task. This point has been emphasised by Christian writers from George MacDonald to C. S. Lewis: the imagination is capable of grasping the gospel as something that is profoundly attractive, so that people are brought to the point where they wish that it were true, and that it were accessible. The apologist is then able to assure people that it is both. The attractiveness of the gospel rests upon its truth – yet it is the former which may well be the gateway to the latter in our cultural situation.

Western apologetics has been impoverished through its Babylonian captivity to rationalism throughout the period of the Enlightenment, It is time to break free from this self-imposed imprisonment, and rediscover the power of the imagination in apologetics. How that can be done demands another article, or even a book[13] – but it is something to which we all need to give careful thought. It is my hope and prayer that many will feel themselves called to take up the mantle of the apologists of yesterday, not woodenly repeating their solutions to the challenges of their day, but facing the challenge of our own day in ways that builds on their faithfulness, and shares their wonder in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.


This article is an edited version of Alister McGrath’s inaugural address as Director of the Oxford Centre for Evangelism and Apologetics, delivered in February 2005.

[1] One of the best of these is John Stackhouse, Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[2] See especially Graham Tomlin, The Provocative Church. London: SPCK, 2002.

[3] Leslie Houlden, in J. Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate. London: SCM Press, 1977, p. 125.

[4] For detailed studies of this major text, see the classic study of Robert F. Zehnle, Peter’s Pentecost Discourse: Tradition and Lucan Reinterpretation in Peter’s Speeches of Acts 2 and 3. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1971. Although dated in some respects, the work remains an important analysis of the text itself and its underlying strategy.

[5] See Bertil Gartner, The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation. Uppsala: Gleerup, 1955. Once more, this work offers many important insights, even if scholarship has moved on somewhat since then. For some reflections on the issues, see Alister E. McGrath, The Order of Things: Explorations in Scientific Theology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006, 54-96.

[6] See Bruce W. Winter “Official Proceedings and the Forensic Speeches in Acts 24–26”, in B. W. Winter and A D. Clarke (eds), Ancient Literary Setting. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994, pp. 305–36.

[7] Avery Dulles, A History of Apologetics. New York: Corpus, 1971, xv.

[8] Avery Dulles, A History of Apologetics. New York: Corpus, 1971, xv.

[9] It can be found in Alister E. McGrath, Bridge-Building: Effective Christian Apologetics. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992. US edition: Intellectuals don’t need God and other Modern Myths. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993.

[10] For some excellent attempts, see John Stott, The Cross of Christ. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985; Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James (eds), The Glory of the Atonement : Biblical, Historical and Practical Perspectives. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004.

[11] Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on the Religious Affections. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 307. Readers who enjoy Edwards yet are not familiar with his appeal to divine beauty will greatly appreciate exploring this aspect of his thought, which has immense implications for apologetics, evangelism and worship. A good starting point is Roland Delattre, Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

[12] McGrath, The Order of Things, 95.

[13] Readers may not be entirely surprised to learn that I am working on precisely such a book, provisionally entitled The Sovereignty of the Imagination: Christian Apologetics in a New Key. The phrase “the sovereignty of the imagination” comes from George MacDonald.

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Justice and the Transcendent: On the relation of religion and law

The Warburton Lecture

delivered at Lincoln’s Inn on Sunday 18 June 2006


Alister E. McGrath

Professor of Historical Theology, Oxford University

It is a great pleasure to be able to speak to you this morning on the theme of “religion and law”. In this lecture, I want to begin to explore – for I fear that I can do nothing more than explore – the importance of “seeing” things correctly for any understanding of justice and of ourselves. I shall explore this with reference to the Christian tradition, which has much to say on this fascinating theme.

Classic Christian theology was nourished and sustained by a passionate conviction that its vision of reality offered a compelling imaginative resource, fully capable of confronting the spectrum of complexities of human existence and experience without intellectual evasion or misrepresentation. On this view, Christianity offers a rich and viable account of the whole of reality, which theology can articulate and conceptualize. It enables us to see things in a certain way – a way of seeing that causes us to act in certain ways. As C. S. Lewis famously remarked: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”

So how do we see things rightly? One of Iris Murdoch’s most enduring moral insights is that before we can act morally, we must see things as they really are. And while the road from morality to law is not quite as straightforward as we might like it to be, there is unquestionably a connection here. Although best known for her remarkable series of novels, Murdoch (1919-99) was also a moral philosopher of substance, passionately concerned about what needed to be done if humanity was to break free from its selfishness, and act out the good life. Her famous formulation of the moral problem sets the scene admirably for our analysis.

One of the main problems of moral philosophy might be formulated thus: are there any techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly?

Murdoch’s answer is complex, yet is ultimately possessed of a central theme: there must be a transcendent ideal, capable of capturing our minds and imaginations, captivating us with a vision of the good. Alluding to the Book of Common Prayer (1662), she sets out the connotations of the term “good”: “the proper seriousness of the term refers us to a perfection which is perhaps never exemplified in the world we know (‘There is no good in us’) and which carries with it the idea of transcendence.”

Murdoch does not believe in God, as traditionally conceived; yet her disinclination to accept such a conventional notion does not prevent her from insisting on the critical role of the transcendent – above all, of “the Good” – in affecting and guiding the human moral quest. It is as if something is intimating that this world is not of final significance, morally or metaphysically. We sense that our attempts to live the good life are ultimately judged by some standard that we have not ourselves created, but is somehow built into the fabric of the world. It is our task, as reflective moral agents, to encounter these deep structures, and adjust our thinking and our acting accordingly. Iris Murdoch, writing from a Platonist perspective, sets out the issues in her characteristically robust manner: “How do we know the very great are not the perfect? We see differences, we sense directions, and we know that the Good is still somewhere beyond. . . . ‘Good is a transcendent reality’ means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.” Despite her mild demythologization of the notion, the critical role of the notion of the “transcendent” in Murdoch’s vision of the moral quest will be clear.

Murdoch is aware that the notion of transcendence is not without its difficulties, and that it was regarded with some disdain by Oxford philosophers during the 1960s and 1970s. For many such writers, “any true transcendence” was a “consoling dream projected by human need on to an empty sky”. Writing in the face of relentless opposition to the notion, characteristic of that bygone age, Murdoch insisted that some such notion was required to make sense of human experience in general, and moral experience in particular. Human moral activity can be thought of as a pilgrimage towards “a distant moral goal, like a temple at the end of the pilgrimage”, something that is “glimpsed but never reached.”

Where other voices of the era were insisting that morality was a matter of human invention, Murdoch refused to concede the then fashionable insistence upon the distinction between fact and value. Morality is about seeing things as they really are. It is a form of realism, which ultimately depends upon the recognition that some ideal of perfection, ultimately lying beyond us, informs and challenges our moral reflections, through what Murdoch calls “a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certainly perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.” The key point here is simple: We can only choose within worlds that we can see – that we can visualize. To act as we should we must first see things as they really are.

Murdoch is quite clear that the notion of the transcendent is not to be equated with God, even though there are important conceptual affinities and relationships to be discerned and explored. Yet the notion of the transcendent remains fundamental. As Murdoch pointed out, we need to believe that, “as moral beings, we are immersed in a reality which transcends us and that moral progress consists in awareness of this reality and submission to its purposes.” The question of how that reality is “seen” thus becomes of decisive importance. How can one give visible, tangible expression to this authorizing, transcending, enabling ideal? How may one gain access to the realm of the transcendent, in order to live the good life?

And it is here that we encounter perhaps the Achilles heel of Murdoch’s moral vision. Yet if there is a failure here, it is a profoundly enlightening failure, in that it points to the need to know, to perceive the Good before good can be done. For Murdoch, the ideal of “the Good” may lie beyond the limits of our volitional capacities; yet it possesses the capacity to inspire us to want to attain it, and directs our efforts to do so. But how can we give substance to this ideal? It is one thing to be morally unattainable; but what if it is also conceptually elusive, lacking in precision precisely because it is not susceptible to capture and interrogation? If “the Good” is to give direction to our moral longings – as opposed to merely exciting our longing to do good, while failing to inform us what this “good” might be – it must be in a form that we can “see” (to use an idiom that is characteristic of Murdoch’s moral parlance). It needs to be incarnated – made known and made accessible under the limiting conditions of human circumstances and history.

If we were to use classic Platonic imagery, we would need to be able to speak about access to the ideal of the “good”; otherwise, how could we embody or reflect it in our thoughts and actions? Yet here we encounter an instructive weakness – a problem shared by both Plato and Murdoch – which is overcome if we concede the possibility of mediation between the transcendent and the everyday world. This theme is central to the Christian faith, which uses the categories of revelation and incarnation to articulate the idea that God – the transcendent – has chosen to become known under the limiting conditions of human existence. Truth, beauty and goodness may thus be seen in Christ, incarnated within the actualities of life. If I had more time, I would wish to develop this point at length. For the moment, let me simply point out that the abstract notion of “justice” is therefore not left undefined and abstract, but is instantiated, illustrated, and embodied.

Yet there is another reason why an appeal to the transcendent matters profoundly. In 1933, the Nazis seized power in Germany, and promptly set about using the law to impose totalitarian rule. The story of how this happened is of enormous interest, demonstrating how laws established for an essentially democratic purpose could be subverted to other ends, given the necessary political will. As the historian Ernst Wolf remarks in his study of German Protestant attitudes towards these developments, the traditional Protestant notion that law was somehow grounded in objective realities of the world or in social consensus was utterly incapable of responding to the arbitrary enforcement of power by the Third Reich. What could be done? What intellectual opposition could be offered to these developments? Those positivists who defined justice in terms of predicting the judgements of the courts found themselves unable to challenge their legality, precisely because they had lost interest in the moral foundations and goals of positive law.

In 1936, Heinrich Rommen (1897-1967) published Die ewige Wiederkehr des Naturrechts (“The eternal return of natural law”). Rommen, a professional lawyer who had been imprisoned briefly by the Nazis for his work with a Roman Catholic social action group, pointed out that Germany’s modern dictators were “masters of legality”, able to use the legal and judicial systems to pursue their own political agendas. Germany’s legal professionals, he argued, were so used to thinking about law in purely positivist terms that they were left intellectually defenseless in the face of the National Socialist threat. In this dire situation, one needed to appeal to a higher authority than the State. Natural law offered precisely the intellectual lifeline that was so badly needed.

It may, not unreasonably, be pointed out that Nazi Germany represents a somewhat extreme situation, which cannot be used to justify the renewal of what, to its critics, is an essentially outmoded theory of law. While there is merit in this observation, the situation in Germany at this time merely highlights an issue which cannot be ignored – namely, whether there are transcendent grounds for concepts of justice and due process, which are not merely the product of human convention. Nor is the relevance of the Nazi situation limited to legal developments of the 1930s; related issues emerged when the Allies sought retribution for those events in the post-war era. The desire to prosecute war criminals at Nuremberg for “crimes against humanity” gave rise to a new interest in natural law. As Anthony Lisska points out, if the notion of “Crimes against Humanity” was to have a theoretical foundation, it required a “radically different account of the nature of law from that proposed by the then reigning theory, legal positivism.”

Yet the disturbing questions raised by the rise of the Third Reich and its aftermath have not gone away. They are raised again by a “pragmatic” approach to morality, such as that associated with Richard Rorty. On this reading of things, humanity creates its own values and ideas, and is not accountable to any external objectivity (natural law) or internal subjectivity (conscience) for the outcome of this creative process. “We figure out what practices to adopt first, and then expect our philosophers to adjust the definition of ‘human’ or ‘rational’ to suit.” Rorty argues that a consequence of this communitarian or pragmatic approach to truth must be the recognition that

. . . there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions.

Truth and morality are thus matters of social convention, created by human communities. Yet if Rorty is right, what justification could be given for opposing Nazism? Rorty finds himself unable to offer a persuasive justification for the moral or political rejection of totalitarianism. This being the case, Rorty admits, then he has to acknowledge that:

When the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form “There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society, which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.”

For Rorty, the truth of moral values depends simply upon their existence and acceptance within society. This view has been severely criticised as adopting an uncritical approach concerning prevailing social conventions. As Richard Bernstein points out, Rorty appears to have done little more than reify social practices, and treat these as being synonymous with “truth”, “goodness” or “justice”.

Natural law faces a host of intellectual difficulties, which at times seem overwhelming. Yet Rommen’s arguments suggest that it will never cease to appeal to the human imagination, above all in situations of manifest legal corruption, political violence, or cultural manipulation. The idea that there exist standards of justice and goodness which are above those determined, and often invented, by human beings and human institutions represents far more than “metaphysical comfort” (Nietzsche): it constitutes the basis for criticism and reform of otherwise potentially arbitrary or self-serving notions of “the good”.

So where does this clearing of the ground leave us? What relevance does it have to the theme of this lecture? Perhaps it helps us reflect on human nature – to see human nature as it actually is, rather than base our thought on utopian ideas of who we are, and what we are like. Law addresses a humanity which aspires to do right, yet often seems incapable of achieving it. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. More than that: we end up doing far less than we expect.

One of the most difficult and fundamental of all questions has to do with the ambiguities of human nature. For the optimists of the Enlightenment, we are the masters of our own souls, the determiners of our own destinies. In her book The Sovereignty of God, Iris Murdoch pointed out how it was in many ways the defining image of the modern era – the belief that humanity was autonomous, capable of determining and achieving its own destiny. On this view of things, we merely need to identify what is good, and its pursuit and achievement will follow as a matter of course. Tennyson’s famous words in his great poem In Memoriam often seem hopelessly idealist: “We needs must love the highest when we see it.” Yet is this so? Does this bear any relationship to the realities of human experience? The more cynical observation of antiquity seems much closer to our experience: “we see the good, and approve of it, but we actually go and do something worse.”

In a letter of 1887, Lord Acton famously observed: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” From this, he drew the conclusion that “great men are almost always bad men”. It is an idea that has become part of the settled assumptions that govern our thinking about public office, and the risks of concentrating too much power in too few hands. William Pitt, it will be remembered, had made a similar comment a century earlier, perhaps drawing on his own experiences in government: “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.” The idea, here focussed so pointedly, is that an essential benign human nature is corrupted by power. The natural goodness of humanity is placed under such severe stress by the temptations and privileges of power that it mostly proves incapable of resisting the shadowy side of this poisoned chalice.

Yet this idea of power corrupting innocent, well-meaning people is only one way of looking at this matter. There is an ancient Anglo-Saxon proverb, preserved in a collection at Durham, which offers a more disturbing way of considering the influence of power on human nature. A very literal translation of the proverb would be: “Man does as he is when he can do want he wants.” In plain English, it means: “We show what we are really like when we can do what we want.” In other words, when all constraints are removed, when there is no accountability or limitations, we behave according to our true natures, rather than according to what we think others might expect of us. When we are absolutely free, we are absolutely true to our natures. The possession of absolute power thus allows us to behave as we really are.

It is a very troubling thought. Power, on this reading of things, does not tend to corrupt. It tends to expose – to bring out what is already there, but which is suppressed through the force of social convention or the need to conform to customs and expectations. Power, on this view, is a mirror of the soul, a diagnostic tool which reveals what we are really like. What is most disturbing of all is that we may not realize our true natures until we are put in a situation when those limits are finally removed. Readers of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies will recognize the point immediately.

In both law and religion, the question of human nature plays a major role. Our understanding of the characteristics of human nature underlies so many things. Are we fundamentally good and educable, in which case we merely need to be told what is good? Or is there something about human nature which prevents it from acting on its insights, so that it may know the good, but choose to do what is not good? Or, knowing what is not good, find that this possesses an allure that is irresistible?

The Christian perspective is quite straightforward. We are part of God’s creation, and must learn and accept our place within that created order. This insight is deeply countercultural, and often provokes a ferocious reaction. Some argue that the world would be a better place if we got rid of God altogether, and put human beings in his place. Many of the more idealistic writers of the nineteenth century insisted that the only way to eliminate the ills of the world was to enthrone humanity as lord of the earth. After the horrors of the earlier twentieth century, which saw Nazism and Stalinism built on precisely this exalted view of humanity, a more realistic approach has returned to favour.

Yet although Christians believe that humanity is part of the created order, this does not mean that we are indistinguishable from the remainder of creation. We have been set a little lower than the angels, and been “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:5). Men and women are created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). This brief yet deeply significant phrase opens the way to a right understanding of human nature, and our overall place within the created order. Although humanity is not divine, it possesses a relationship with God which is different from that of other creatures. Humanity bears the image of God. For some, this is a statement of the privileged position of humanity within creation. Yet for most Christian theologians, it is above all an affirmation of responsibility and accountability towards the world in which we live. There is some kind of resonance between the good, and both the human longing for such goodness, and our actual concepts of what that good might be.

It is an important point, as it stresses the ambiguities of human nature. We feel ourselves raised upwards by our aspirations, yet at the same time dragged down by the reality of things. One and the same human being may experience a longing for justice, yet end up doing some things that are quite different. There is a tension between our longings and our achievements.

Humanity is thus to be seen as their height of God’s creation, bearing God’s image, yet at the same time as being a fallen creature. Over the years, Christian theologians have developed a series of images to help make sense of this puzzling human predicament. Two of the most interesting are deflection and defection. For the second-century writer Irenaeus of Lyons, humanity has been deflected from its true path by sin. We have lost our way, and need to be helped back onto the right road. Irenaeus tends to see humanity as weak and easily misled. We were created as infants, not as mature human beings, and must learn and grow. Asked why God did not create humanity already endowed with perfection, Irenaeus replied that they were simply not ready to cope with it. “A mother is able to offer food to an infant, but the infant is not yet able to receive food unsuited to its age.”

For Augustine, humanity has defected from its true calling. Instead of using our God-given freedom to love God, we used it to advance our own agendas. We are now caught in a trap of our own making: Augustine argues that we are unable to break free from our entanglement with sin. As Paul points out, we are captivated by indwelling sin, unable to do the good that we would like to do, and instead doing the bad things we do not want to do (Romans 7:17-25). Our only hope lies in being set free by God himself. The freedom to love that ought to have led to fellowship with God – as Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden of Eden – led instead to self-love, and a desertion of God for the lesser good.

Augustine uses a series of images to illuminate how we have become trapped by sin in this way. It is like an illness which we have contracted, and are unable to cure. It is like having fallen into a deep pit, and being unable to get out. The essential point he wants to make is that once sin – which he conceives as an active force in our lives – has taken hold of us, we are unable to break free from its grasp. To use a modern analogy, it is like being addicted to heroin, and unable to break the habit.

Augustine therefore used the image of the Good Samaritan to stress the need for healing. For Augustine, the parable sets out the problem of humanity and its solution. He explains its symbolism as follows:

The wounded man stands for Adam; Jerusalem, the heavenly city from which he has fallen; the thieves, the devil who strips Adam of his immortality and leads him to sin; the priest and Levite, the Old Testament Law and ministry which was unable to cleanse and save anyone; the good Samaritan who binds the wounds, Christ who forgives sin; and the inn, the church.

For Augustine, the law enables us to appreciate our dilemma, and restrains us from unwise actions. But it cannot heal us. Thus for Augustine, a key theme is the need for transformation and healing. Reverting to our narcotics analogy, the law may control the problem – and it needs to be controlled. It helps us identify the problem – and again, it needs to be identified. Although the law can control and inform, it cannot heal. But limits need to be set to our actions – limits that can be defined, and that can be enacted. As Martin Luther pointed out in 1516, the physician both brings about the healing of individuals, while laying down prescribed limitations of action that are essential if the healing process is to be successful.

So where do these reflections take us? In this lecture, I have been exploring the relation between law and religion in the most general of terms, trying to make the point that our concepts of justice need to be anchored to something transcendent, if we are to avoid the deeply troubling possibility that it is simply a matter of convenience, the interests of power groups, or temporary consensus. I have cited Iris Murdoch, more to illustrate the issues than to provide a watertight answer. Yet Murdoch is important, not simply because of her insistence on the abiding importance of the transcendent, but also her emphasis on the need to see things as they really are. And this means seeing ourselves as we really are, being profoundly realistic of what we can do, and how we can do this.

Law and religion converge – or at least begin a significant conversation – when they address the question of the nature of humanity as a moral agent, and the ultimate goals that we seek. That conversation has some considerable way to go; nevertheless, I believe it is immensely important, and, if I dare say so, equally interesting. It has been my privilege to begin that conversation this morning. I hope that it will continue, and prove to be fruitful.

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by Alister McGrath


It is a great pleasure to be able to speak to you this evening on the fascinating topic of the way in which the atheism of Richard Dawkins is grounded in his understanding of the natural sciences. I first came across Richard Dawkins’ work back in 1977, when I read his first major book, The Selfish Gene. I was completing my doctoral research in Oxford University’s department of biochemistry, under the genial supervision of Professor Sir George Radda, who went on to become Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council. I was trying to figure out how biological membranes are able to work so successfully, developing new physical methods of studying their behaviour.

The Selfish Gene was a wonderful book, considered as a piece of popular scientific writing. Yet Dawkins’ treatment of religion – especially his thoughts on the `god-meme’ – were unsatisfying. He offered a few muddled attempts to make sense of the idea of `faith’, without establishing a proper analytical and evidential basis for his reflections. I found myself puzzled by this, and made a mental note to pen a few words in response sometime. Twenty-five years later, I got round to penning those words, and you will find them in Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life.[1]

In the meanwhile, Dawkins went on to produce a series of brilliant and provocative books, each of which I devoured with interest and admiration. Dawkins followed The Selfish Gene with The Extended Phenotype (1981), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), River out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), the collection of essays A Devil’s Chaplain (2003), and most recently The Ancestor’s Tale (2004). Yet the tone and focus of his writing changed. As philosopher Michael Ruse pointed out in a review of The Devil’s Chaplain, Dawkins’ `attention has swung from writing about science for a popular audience to waging an all-out attack on Christianity.’[2] The brilliant scientific populariser became a savage anti-religious polemicist, preaching rather than arguing (or so it seemed to me) his case. Yet I remained puzzled. Let me explain.

Dawkins writes with erudition and sophistication on issues of evolutionary biology, clearly having mastered the intricacies of his field and its vast research literature. Yet when he comes to deal with anything to do with God, we seem to enter into a different world. Careful evidence-based reasoning seems to be left behind, and be displaced by rather heated, enthusiastic overstatements, spiced up with some striking oversimplifications and more than an occasional misrepresentation (accidental, I can only assume) to make some superficially plausible points. Most fundamentally, Dawkins fails to demonstrate the scientific necessity of atheism. Paradoxically, atheism itself emerges as a faith, possessed of a remarkable degree of conceptual isomorphism to theism.

The approach I shall adopt in this lecture is simple: I want to challenge the intellectual link between the natural sciences and atheism that saturates Dawkins’s writings. Dawkins proceeds from a Darwinian theory of evolution to a confident atheistic worldview, which he preaches with what often seems to be messianic zeal and unassailable certainty. But is that link secure? Let me stress that it is not my intention to criticize Dawkins’ science; that, after all, is the responsibility of the scientific community as a whole. Rather, my aim is to explore the deeply problematic link that Dawkins at times presupposes, and at other times defends, between the scientific method and atheism.

Since this lecture represents something of a critical engagement with Dawkins, I think it is important to begin by making clear that I have respect, even admiration, for him in some areas. First, he is an outstanding communicator. When I first read his book The Selfish Gene back in 1977, I realized that it was obviously a marvellous book. I admired Dawkins’ wonderful way with words, and his ability to explain crucial – yet often difficult – scientific ideas so clearly. It was popular scientific writing at its best. No surprise, then, that the New York Times commented that it was `the sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius’. And although every Homer nods occasionally, that same eloquence and clarity has generally remained a feature of his writing ever since.

Second, I admire his concern to promote evidence-based argumentation. Throughout his writings, we find the constant demand to justify statements. Assertions must be based on evidence, not prejudice, tradition or ignorance. It is his belief that people who believe in God do so in the face of the evidence that gives such passion and energy to his atheism. Throughout Dawkins’ writings, religious folk are demonized as dishonest, liars, fools and knaves, incapable of responding honestly to the real world, and preferring to invent a false, pernicious and delusionary world into which to entice the unwary, the young and the naive. Douglas Adams recalls Dawkins once remarking: `I really don’t think I’m arrogant, but I do get impatient with people who don’t share with me the same humility in front of the facts.’[3] Perhaps we may wince at the pomposity, which will remind Christian readers of the legendary self-righteousness of the Pharisees. Yet an important insight lies embedded in that sentence – the need to argue on the basis of evidence.

Dawkins’ Criticisms of Religion

To begin with, let’s lay out the basic reasons why Dawkins is so critical of religion. These criticisms are dispersed throughout his writings, and it will be helpful to bring them together to give a coherent view of his concerns.

1. A Darwinian worldview makes belief in God unnecessary or impossible. Although hinted at in The Selfish Gene, this idea is developed in detail in The Blind Watchmaker.

2. Religion makes assertions which are grounded in faith, which represents a retreat from a rigorous, evidence-based concern for truth. For Dawkins, truth is grounded in explicit proof; any form of obscurantism or mysticism grounded in faith is to be opposed vigorously.

3. Religion offers an impoverished and attenuated vision of the world. `The universe presented by organized religion is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited’.[4] In contrast, science offers a bold and brilliant vision of the universe as grand, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. This aesthetic critique of religion is developed especially in his 1998 work Unweaving the Rainbow.

4. Religion leads to evil. It is like a malignant virus, infecting human minds. This is not strictly a scientific judgement, in that, as Dawkins often points out, the sciences cannot determine what is good or evil. `Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.’[5] It is, however, a profoundly moral objection to religion, deeply rooted within western culture and history,[6] which must be taken with the greatest seriousness.

In this lecture, I am going to engage with five areas of Dawkins’ polemic against belief in God, identify the trajectory of his argument, and raise concerns about its evidential foundations. While at times I will draw on some insights from Christian theology – and then mostly to correct Dawkins’ misunderstandings – it will be clear that most of the points I shall be making are grounded in the rather different discipline of the history and philosophy of the natural sciences. The five areas we shall explore are the following, which I shall summarise briefly, before offering a fuller exposition and criticism in what follows.

  1. Dawkins asserts that Darwininism has made God redundant or an intellectual impossibility. To accept a Darwinian worldview entails atheism. Although this theme permeates Dawkins’ writings, it is explored in particular detail in The Blind Watchmaker.
  2. Dawkins asserts that religious faith `means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence,’[7] which is totally inconsistent with the scientific method.
  3. The reason that belief in God remains widespread is due to the effectiveness of its means of propagation, not the coherence of its arguments. This propagator is variously referred to as a `meme’ or a `virus’, which infects otherwise healthy and sane minds.
  4. Religion presupposes and propagates a miserable, limited and deficient view of the universe, in contrast to the bold, brilliant and beautiful vision of the natural sciences.
  5. Religion leads to violence, lies and deceit, and its elimination can therefore only be a good thing for the human race.

Let’s proceed immediately to the first of these points.

Darwinism and the Elimination of God?

Before Darwin, Dawkins argues, it was possible to see the world as something designed by God; after Darwin, we can speak only of the `illusion of design.’ A Darwinian world has no purpose, and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. If the universe cannot be described as `good’, at least it cannot be described as `evil’ either. `The universe we observe had 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.’ [8]

Yet some insist that there does indeed seem to be a `purpose’ to things, and cite the apparent design of things in support. Surely, such critics argue, the intricate structure of the human eye points to something that cannot be explained by natural forces, and which obliges us to invoke a divine creator by way of explanation? How otherwise may we explain the vast and complex structures that we observe in nature?[9]

Dawkins’ answer is set out primarily in two works:The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. The fundamental argument common to both is that complex things evolve from simple beginnings, over long periods of time.[10]

Living things are too improbable and too beautifully `designed’ to have come into existence by chance. How, then, did they come into existence? The answer, Darwin’s answer, is by gradual, step-by-step transformations from simple beginnings, from primordial entities sufficiently simple to have come into existence by chance. Each successful change in the gradual evolutionary process was simple enough, relative to its predecessor, to have arisen by chance. But the whole sequence of cumulative steps constitutes anything but a chance process.

What might seem to be a highly improbable development needs to be set against the backdrop of the huge periods of time envisaged by the evolutionary process. Dawkins explores this point using the image of a metaphorical `Mount Improbable’. Seen from one angle, its `towering, vertical cliffs’ seem impossible to climb. Yet seen from another angle, the mountain turns out to have `gently inclined grassy meadows, graded steadily and easily towards the distant uplands.’[11]

The `illusion of design,’ Dawkins argues, arises because we intuitively regard structures as being too complex to have arisen by chance. An excellent example is provided by the human eye, cited by some advocates of the divine design and direct special creation of the world as a surefire proof of God’s existence. In one of the most detailed and argumentative chapters of Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins shows how, given enough time, even such a complex organ could have evolved from something much simpler.[12]

It’s all standard Darwinism. What’s new is the lucidity of the presentation, and the detailed illustration and defence of these ideas through judiciously selected case studies and carefully crafted analogies. In that Dawkins sees Darwinism as a worldview, rather than a biological theory, he has no hesitation in taking his arguments far beyond the bounds of the purely biological. The word `God’ is absent from the index of The Blind Watchmaker precisely because he is absent from the Darwinian world that Dawkins inhabits and commends.[13] The evolutionary process leaves no conceptual space for God. What an earlier generation explained by an appeal to a divine creator can be accommodated within a Darwinian framework. There is no need to believe in God after Darwin.

If Dawkins is right, it follows that there is no need to believe in God to offer a scientific explanation of the world. Some might draw the conclusion that Darwinism encourages agnosticism, while leaving the door wide open for a Christian or atheist reading of things – in other words, permitting them, but not necessitating them. But Dawkins is not going to leave things there: for Dawkins, Darwin impels us to atheism. And it is here that things begin to get problematic. Dawkins has certainly demonstrated that a purely natural description may be offered of what is currently known of the history and present state of living organisms. But why does this lead to the conclusion that there is no God? A host of unstated and unchallenged assumptions underlie his argument.[14]

We shall explore one of them: the fundamental point that the scientific method is incapable of adjudicating the God-hypothesis, either positively or negatively. The scientific method is incapable of delivering a decisive adjudication of the God question. Those who believe that it proves or disproves the existence of God press that method beyond its legitimate limits, and run the risk of abusing or discrediting it. Some distinguished biologists (such as Francis S. Collins, director of the Human Genome Project) argue that the natural sciences create a positive presumption of faith;[15] others (such as the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould) that they have negative implications for theistic belief. But they prove nothing, either way. If the God-question is to be settled, it must be settled on other grounds.

This is not a new idea. Indeed, the recognition of the religious limits of the scientific method was well understood around the time of Darwin himself. As none other than `Darwin’s Bulldog’, T. H. Huxley, wrote in 1880:[16]

Some twenty years ago, or thereabouts, I invented the word `Agnostic’ to denote people who, like myself, confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with utmost confidence.

Fed up with both theists and atheists making hopelessly dogmatic statements on the basis of inadequate empirical evidence, Huxley declared that the God-question could not be settled on the basis of the scientific method.

Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. . . Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology.

Huxley’s arguments are as valid today as they were in the late nineteenth century, despite the protestations of those on both sides of the great debate about God.

In a 1992 critique of an anti-evolutionary work which posited that Darwinism was necessarily atheistic,[17] Stephen Jay Gould invoked the memory of Mrs McInerney, his third grade teacher, who was in the habit of rapping young knuckles when their owners said or did particularly stupid things:

To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists. If some of our crowd have made untoward statements claiming that Darwinism disproves God, then I will find Mrs. McInerney and have their knuckles rapped for it (as long as she can equally treat those members of our crowd who have argued that Darwinism must be God’s method of action).

Gould rightly insists that science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny the existence of God. The bottom line for Gould is that Darwinism actually has no bearing on the existence or nature of God. For Gould, it is an observable fact that evolutionary biologists are both atheist and theist – he cites examples such as the humanist agnostic G. G. Simpson and the Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky. This leads him to conclude:

Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs – and equally compatible with atheism.

If Darwinians choose to dogmatize on matters of religion, they stray beyond the straight and narrow way of the scientific method, and end up in the philosophical badlands. Either a conclusion cannot be reached at all on such matters, or it is to be reached on other grounds.

Dawkins presents Darwinism as an intellectual superhighway to atheism. In reality, the intellectual trajectory mapped out by Dawkins seems to get stuck in a rut at agnosticism. And having stalled, it stays there. There is a substantial logical gap between Darwinism and atheism, which Dawkins seems to prefer to bridge by rhetoric, rather than evidence. If firm conclusions are to be reached, they must be reached on other grounds. And those who earnestly tell us otherwise have some explaining to do.

Faith and Evidence

Dawkins’ emphasis on evidence-based reasoning leads him to adopt a strongly critical attitude towards any beliefs that are inadequately grounded in the observable. `As a lover of truth, I am suspicious of strongly held beliefs that are unsupported by evidence.’[18] One of his core beliefs, repeated endlessly in his writings, is that religious faith is `blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.’[19] Faith, Dawkins argues, is `a kind of mental illness,’[20] one of the `world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.’ This is to be contrasted with the natural sciences, which offer an evidence-based approach to the world. And quite rightly so. But I wonder if his own strongly held atheist views are quite as supported by the evidence as he seems to think?

Dawkins here opens up the whole question of the place of proof, evidence, and faith in both science and religion. It is a fascinating topic. But is it really quite as simple as Dawkins suggests? I certainly thought so during my atheist phase, which ended towards the end of 1971, and would then have regarded Dawkins’ arguments as decisive. But not now.

Let’s begin by looking at that definition of faith, and ask where it comes from. Faith `means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.’ But why should anyone accept this ludicrous definition? What is the evidence that this is how religious people define faith? Dawkins is coy at this point, and adduces no religious writer to substantiate this highly implausible definition, which appears to have been conceived with the deliberate intention of making religious faith seem a piece of intellectual buffoonery. I don’t accept this idea of faith, and I have yet to meet a theologian who takes it seriously.[21] It cannot be defended from any official declaration of faith from any Christian denomination. It is Dawkins’ own definition, constructed with his own agenda in mind, being represented as if it were characteristic of those he wishes to criticise.

What is really worrying is that Dawkins genuinely seems to believe that faith actually is `blind trust’, despite the fact that no major Christian writer adopts such a definition. This is a core belief for Dawkins, which determines more or less every aspect of his attitude to religion and religious people. Yet core beliefs often need to be challenged. For, as Dawkins once remarked of Paley’s ideas on design, this belief is `gloriously and utterly wrong’.

Faith, Dawkins tells us, `means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.’ This may be what Dawkins thinks; it is not what Christians think. Let me provide a definition of faith offered by W. H. Griffith-Thomas (1861-1924), a noted Anglican theologian who was one of my predecessors as Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. The definition of faith that he offers is typical of any Christian writer.[22]

[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 or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.

It’s a good and reliable definition, synthesising the core elements of the characteristic Christian understanding of faith. And this faith `commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence.’ I see no point in wearying readers with other quotations from Christian writers down the ages in support of this point. In any case, it is Dawkins’ responsibility to demonstrate that his skewed and nonsensical definition of `faith’ is characteristic of Christianity through evidence-based argument.

Having set up his straw man, Dawkins knocks it down. It is not an unduly difficult or demanding intellectual feat. Faith is infantile, we are told – just fine for cramming into the minds of impressionable young children, but outrageously immoral and intellectually risible in the case of adults. We’ve grown up now, and need to move on. Why should we believe things that can’t be scientifically proved? Faith in God, Dawkins argues, is just like believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. When you grow up, you grow out of it.

This is a schoolboy argument that has accidentally found its way into a grown-up discussion. It is as amateurish as it is unconvincing. There is no serious empirical evidence that people regard God, Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy as being in the same category. I stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy when I was about six years old. After being an atheist for some years, I discovered God when I was eighteen, and have never regarded this as some kind of infantile regression. As I noticed while researching The Twilight of Atheism, a large number of people come to believe in God in later life – when they are `grown up’. I have yet to meet anyone who came to believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy late in life.

If Dawkins’ rather simplistic argument has any plausibility, it requires a real analogy between God and Santa Claus to exist – which it clearly does not. Everyone knows that people do not regard belief in God as belonging to the same category as these childish beliefs. Dawkins, of course, argues that they both represent belief in non-existent entities. But this represents a very elementary confusion over which is the conclusion and which the presupposition of an argument.

The highly simplistic model proposed by Dawkins seems to recognize only two options: 0% probability (blind faith) and 100% probability (belief caused by overwhelming evidence). Yet the vast majority of scientific information needs to be discussed in terms of the probability of conclusions reached on the basis of the available evidence. Some have argued for assessing the reliability of probability of a hypothesis on the basis of Bayes’ theorem.[23] Such approaches are widely used in evolutionary biology. For example, Elliott Sober proposed the notion of `modus Darwin’ for arguing for common Darwinian ancestry on the basis of present similarities between species.[24] The approach can only work on the basis of probability, leading to probabilistic judgements. But there’s no problem here. It’s an attempt to quantify the reliability of inferences.

One of the most striking things about Dawkins’ atheism is the confidence with which he asserts its inevitability. It is a curious confidence, which seems curiously out of place – perhaps even out of order – to those familiar with the philosophy of science. As Richard Feynman (1918-88), who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965 for his work of quantum electrodynamics, often pointed out, scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degree of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.[25] Yet Dawkins seems to deduce atheism from the `book of nature’ as if it were a pure matter of logic. Atheism is asserted as if it was the only conclusion possible from a series of axioms. Yet given that the natural sciences proceed by inference from observational data, how can Dawkins be so sure about atheism? At times, he speaks with the conviction of a believer about the certainties of a godless world. It is as if atheism was the secure and inevitable result of a seamless logical argument. But how can he achieve such certainty, when the natural sciences are not deductive in their methods? Others have examined the same evidence, and come to quite different conclusions. As will be clear from what has been said thus far, Dawkin’s insistence that atheism is the only legitimate worldview for a natural scientist is an unsafe and unreliable judgement.

Yet my anxiety is not limited to the flawed intellectual case that Dawkins’ makes for his convictions; I am troubled by the ferocity with which he asserts his atheism. One obvious potential answer is that the grounds of Dawkins’ atheism lie elsewhere than his science, so that there is perhaps a strongly emotive aspect to his beliefs at this point. Yet I have not come across anything that forces me to this conclusion. The answer has to lie elsewhere.

I began to find an answer to my question while reading a careful analysis of the distinctive style of reasoning that we find in Dawkins’ writings. In an important comparative study, Timothy Shanahan pointed out that Stephen Jay Gould’s approach to the question of evolutionary progress was determined by an inductivist approach, based primarily on empirical data.[26] Dawkins, he noted, `proceeded by elaborating the logic of Ôadaptationist philosophy’ for Darwinian reasoning.’ This being the case, Dawkins’ conclusions are determined by a set of logical premises, which are ultimately – yet indirectly – grounded in the empirical data. `The very nature of a valid deductive argument is such that, given certain premises, a given conclusion follows of logical necessity quite irrespective of whether the premises used are true.’ In effect, Dawkins uses an essentially inductive approach to defend a Darwinian worldview – yet then extracts from this worldview a set of premises from which secure conclusions may be deduced.

Although Shanahan limits his analysis to exploring how Gould and Dawkins arrive at such antithetically opposed conclusions on the issue of evolutionary progress, his analysis is clearly capable of extension to his religious views. Having inferred that Darwinism is the best explanation of observation, Dawkins proceeds to transmute a provisional theory into a certain worldview. Atheism is thus presented as the logical conclusion of a series of axiomatic premises, having the certainty of a deduced belief, even though its ultimate basis is actually inferential.

Is God a meme? Or a virus?

Since faith in God, for Dawkins, is utterly irrational, it remains to be explained why so many people share such a faith. The answer lies in the `meme’, which Dawkins defines as an intellectual replicator. People do not believe in God because the intellectual case for such belief is compelling. They do so because their minds have been infested with a highly contagious and highly adapted `God-meme’.[27] They are the innocent, unsuspecting victims of a malignant `g`virus of the mind’.

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain by a process which, in the broad sense of the term, can be called imitation.

This view is first set forth in The Selfish Gene in 1976, although it later writings Dawkins prefers to speak of God as a `virus of the mind’. The notion of an invasive replicator is retained; the biological analogue is, however, reworked.

There is no doubt that Dawkins’ greatest impact on popular culture has been through his concept of the `meme’. Although the notion of a cultural replicator was far from new, Dawkins has done much to popularise the concept, and make it accessible to a wider audience through his simple terminology and illustrations. As Dawkins immediately applied the idea of the `meme’ to issues of religious belief, it is clearly important to explore this concept in this lecture.

In what follows, I shall explore Dawkins’ concept of the `meme’. There are four critical difficulties that confront this specific idea, as follows.[28]

1. There is no reason to suppose that cultural evolution is Darwinian, or indeed that evolutionary biology has any particular value in accounting for the development of ideas.

2. There is no direct observational evidence for the existence of `memes’ themselves.

3. The existence of the `meme’ itself rests on an analogy with the gene itself, which proves incapable of bearing the weight that is placed upon it.

4. Quite unlike the gene, there is no necessary reason to propose the existence of a `meme’. The observational data can be accounted for perfectly well by other models and mechanisms.

In view of Dawkins’ emphasis on evidence-based reasoning, the second of these two concerns is of especially pressing importance in this lecture. Dawkins is aware that his thesis is seriously underdetermined by the evidence. Quite simply, there is no observational evidence that demands the meme hypothesis. In his preface to Susan Blackmore’s Meme Machine (1999), Dawkins points out the problems that the `meme’ faces if it is to be taken seriously within the scientific community:[29]

Another objection is that we don’t know what memes are made of, or where they reside. Memes have not yet found their Watson and Crick; they even lack their Mendel. Whereas genes are to be found in precise locations on chromosomes, memes presumably exist in brains, and we have even less chance of seeing one than of seeing a gene (though the neurobiologist Juan Delius has pictured his conjecture of what a meme might look like).

Dawkins talking about memes is like believers talking about God – an invisible, unverifiable postulate, which helps explain some things about experience, but ultimately lies beyond empirical investigation.

And just what are we to make of the point that `the neurobiologist Juan Delius has pictured his conjecture of what a meme might look like’? I’ve seen countless pictures of God in many visits to art galleries – such as William Blake’s famous watercolour known as The Ancient of Days (1794). So being able to picture the meme verifies the concept? Or makes it scientifically plausible? Delius’ proposal that a meme will have a single locatable and observable structure as `a constellation of activated neuronal synapses’ is purely conjectural, and has yet to be subjected to rigorous empirical investigation.[30] It’s one thing to speculate about what something might look like; the real question is whether it is there at all.

The glaring contrast with the gene will be obvious. Genes can be `seen’, and their transmission patterns studied under rigorous empirical conditions. What started off as hypothetical constructs inferred from systematic experiment and observation ended up being observed themselves. The gene was initially seen as a theoretical necessity, in that no other mechanism could explain the relevant observations, before being accepted as a real entity on account of the sheer weight of evidence. But what about memes? The simple fact is that they are, in the first place, hypothetical constructs, inferred from observation rather than observed in themselves; in the second place, unobservable; and in the third place, more or less useless at the explanatory level. This makes their rigorous investigation intensely problematic, and their fruitful application somewhat improbable.

And what about the mechanism by which memes are allegedly transmitted? One of the most important implications of the work of Crick and Watson on the structure of DNA was that it opened the way to an understanding of the mechanism of replication. So what physical mechanism is proposed in the case of the meme? How does a meme cause a memetic effect? Or, to put the question in a more pointed way: How could we even begin to set up experiments to identify and establish the structure of memes, let alone to explore their relation to alleged memetic effects?

Undeterred, Dawkins went on to develop his meme-concept in another direction – a virus of the mind. `Memes’, Dawkins tells us, can be transmitted `like viruses in an epidemic.’[31] The idea of God is thus to be thought of as a malignant, invasive infection, which infests otherwise healthy minds. Again, Dawkins’ key point is that belief in God does not arise on rational or evidential grounds: it is the result of being infected by an infective, invasive virus, comparable to those which cause chaos to computer networks. As with the meme, the key to the `God as virus’ hypothesis is replication. For a virus to be effective, it must possess two qualities: the ability to replicate information accurately, and to obey the instructions which are encoded in the information replicated in this way.[32] Once more, belief in God was proposed as a malignant infection contaminating otherwise pure minds. And again, the whole idea founders on the rocks of the absence of experimental evidence.

Not only is there a total absence of any observational evidence that ideas are like viruses, or spread like viruses – a decisive consideration that Dawkins glosses over with alarming ease. It is meaningless to talk about one kind of virus being `good’ and another `evil’. In the case of the host-parasite relationship, this is simply an example of Darwinian evolution at work. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s just the way things are. If ideas are to be compared to viruses, then they simply cannot be described as `good’ or `bad’ – or even `right’ or `wrong’. This would lead to the conclusion that all ideas are to be evaluated totally on the basis of the success of their replication and diffusion – in other words, their success in spreading, and their rates of survival.

And again, if all ideas are viruses, it proves impossible to differentiate on scientific grounds between atheism and belief in God. The mechanism proposed for their transfer does not allow their intellectual or moral merits to be assessed. Neither theism nor atheism are demanded by the evidence, although both may be accommodated to it. The merits of such ideas are to be determined on other grounds, where necessary going beyond the limits of the scientific method to reach such conclusions.

But what is the experimental evidence for these hypothetical `viruses of the mind’? In the real world, viruses are not known solely by their symptoms; they can be detected, subjected to rigorous empirical investigation, and their genetic structure characterised minutely. In contrast, the `virus of the mind’ is hypothetical; posited by a questionable analogical argument, not direct observation; and is totally unwarranted conceptually on the basis of the behaviour that Dawkins proposes for it. Can we observe these viruses? What is their structure? Their `genetic code’? Their location within the human body? And, most importantly of all, given Dawkins’ interest in their spread, what is their mode of transmission?

We could summarise the problems under three broad headings.

1. Real viruses can be seen – for example, using cryo-electron microscopy. Dawkins’ cultural or religious viruses are simply hypotheses. There is no observational evidence for their existence.

2. There is no experimental evidence that ideas are viruses. Ideas may seem to `behave’ in certain respects as if they are viruses. But there is a massive gap between analogy and identity – and, as the history of science illustrates only too painfully, most false trails in science are about analogies which were mistakenly assumed to be identities.

3. The `God as virus’ slogan is shorthand for something like `the patterns of diffusion of religious ideas seem to be analogous to those of the spread of certain diseases.’ Unfortunately, Dawkins does not give any evidence-based arguments for this, and prefers merely to conjecture as to the impact of such a hypothetical virus on the human mind.

The `thought contagion’ metaphor has been developed most thoroughly by Aaron Lynch,[33] who makes the crucially important point that the way in which ideas spread has no necessary relation to their validity or `goodness’. As Lynch puts it:[34]

The term `thought contagion’ is neutral with respect to truth or falsity, as well as good or bad. False beliefs can spread as thought contagions, but so too can true beliefs. Similarly, harmful ideas can spread as thought contagions, but so too can beneficial ideas. . . . Thought contagion analysis concerns itself primarily with the mechanism by which ideas spread through a population. Whether an idea is true, false, helpful or harmful are considered mainly for the effects they have on transmission rates.

Neither Dawkins’ concept of the `meme’ or the `virus of the mind’ helps us validate or negate ideas, or understand or explain patterns of cultural development. As most working in the area of cultural development have concluded, it is perfectly possible to postulate and study cultural evolution while remaining agnostic to its mechanism. Stephen Shennan, who once thought that memes might play a critically important role in understanding cultural evolution, but has since changed his mind, commented thus on this superfluous and evidentially underdetermined notion: `All we need to do is recognize that cultural inheritance exists, and that its routes are different from the genetic ones.’[35] And that seems to be where the debate rests at present.[36]

Religion impoverishes our view of the universe

One of Dawkins’ persistent complaints about religion is that it is aesthetically deficient. Its view of the universe is limited, impoverished and unworthy of the wonderful reality known by the sciences.[37]

The universe is genuinely mysterious, grand, beautiful, awe-inspiring. The kinds of views of the universe which religious people have traditionally embraced have been puny, pathetic, and measly in comparison to the way the universe actually is. The universe presented by organized religions is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited.

The logic of this bold assertion is rather hard to follow, and its factual basis astonishingly slight. The `medieval’ view of the universe may indeed have been more limited and restricted than modern conceptions. Yet this has nothing to do with religion, either as cause or effect. It reflected the science of the day, largely based upon Aristotle’s treatise de caelo (`on heaven’). If the universe of religious people in the Middle Ages was indeed `poky’, it was because they were na?ve enough to assume that what their science textbooks told them was right. Precisely that trust in science and scientists which Dawkins commends so uncritically led them to weave their theology around someone else’s view of the universe. They didn’t know about such things as `radical theory change in science’, which causes twenty-first people to be cautious about investing too heavily in the latest scientific theories, and much more critical of those who base worldviews upon them.

The implication of Dawkins’ unsubstantiated criticism is that a religious view of reality is deficient and impoverished in comparison with his own. There is no doubt that this consideration is an important factor in generating and maintaining his atheism. Yet his analysis of this issue is disappointingly thin and unpersuasive.

A Christian approach to nature identifies three ways in which a sense of awe comes about in response to what we observe.

1. An immediate sense of wonder at the beauty of nature. This is evoked immediately. This `leap of the heart’ that William Wordsworth described on seeing a rainbow in the sky occurs before any conscious theoretical reflection on what it might imply. To use psychological categories, this is about perception, rather than cognition. I can see no good reason for suggesting that believing in God diminishes this sense of wonder. Dawkins’ argument at this point is so underdetermined by evidence and so utterly implausible that I fear I must have misunderstood it.

2. A derived sense of wonder at the mathematical or theoretical representation of reality which arises from this. Dawkins also knows and approves of this second source of `awed wonder’, but seems to imply that religious people `revel in mystery and feel cheated when it is explained’.[38] They don’t; a new sense of wonder emerges, which I will explain in a moment.

3. A further derived sense of wonder at what the natural world points to. One of the central themes of Christian theology is that the creation bears witness to its creator, `The heavens declare the glory of the Lord!’ (Psalm 19:1). For Christians, to experience the beauty of creation is a sign or pointer to the glory of God, and is to be particularly cherished for this reason. Dawkins excludes any such transcendent reference from within the natural world.

Dawkins suggests that a religious approach to the world misses out on something.[39] Having read Unweaving the Rainbow, I still haven’t worked out what this is. A Christian reading of the world denies nothing of what the natural sciences tell us, except the naturalist dogma that reality is limited to what may be known through the natural sciences. If anything, a Christian engagement with the natural world adds a richness which I find quite absent from Dawkins’ account of things, offering a new motivation for the study of nature. After all, John Calvin (1509-64) commented on how much he envied those who studied physiology and astronomy, which allowed a direct engagement with the wonders of God’s creation. The invisible and intangible God, he pointed out, could be appreciated through studying the wonders of nature.

Dawkins’ most reflective account of `mystery’ is found in Unweaving the Rainbow, which explores the place of wonder in an understanding of the sciences. While maintaining Dawkins’ core hostility to religion, the work acknowledges the importance of a sense of awe and wonder in driving people to want to understand reality. Dawkins singles out the poet William Blake as an obscurant mystic, who illustrates why religious approaches to mystery are pointless and sterile. Dawkins locates Blake’s many failings in an understandable – but misdirected – longing to delight in a mystery:[40]

The impulses to awe, reverence and wonder which led Blake to mysticism . . . are precisely those that lead others of us to science. Our interpretation is different but what excites us is the same. The mystic is content to bask in the wonder and revel in a mystery that we were not `meant’ to understand. The scientist feels the same wonder, but is restless, not content; recognizes the mystery as profound, then adds, `But we’re working on it.’

So there isn’t actually a problem with the word or the category of `mystery’. The question is whether we choose to wrestle with it, or take the lazy and complacent view that this is conveniently off-limits.

Traditionally, Christian theology has been well aware of its limits, and has sought to avoid excessively confident affirmations in the face of mystery. Yet at the same time, Christian theology has never seen itself as totally reduced to silence in the face of divine mysteries. Nor has it prohibited intellectual wrestling with `mysteries’ as destructive or detrimental to faith. As the nineteenth-century Anglican theologian Charles Gore rightly insisted:[41]

Human language never can express adequately divine realities. A constant tendency to apologize for human speech, a great element of agnosticism, an awful sense of unfathomed depths beyond the little that is made known, is always present to the mind of theologians who know what they are about, in conceiving or expressing God. `We see’, says St Paul, `in a mirror, in terms of a riddle;’ `we know in part.’ `We are compelled,’ complains St Hilary, `to attempt what is unattainable, to climb where we cannot reach, to speak what we cannot utter; instead of the mere adoration of faith, we are compelled to entrust the deep things of religion to the perils of human expression’.

A perfectly good definition of Christian theology is `taking rational trouble over a mystery’ – recognising that there may be limits to what can be achieved, but believing that this intellectual grappling is both worthwhile and necessary. It just means being confronted with something so great that we cannot fully comprehend it, and so must do the best that we can with the analytical and descriptive tools at our disposal. Come to think of it, that’s what the natural sciences aim to do as well. Perhaps it’s no wonder that there is such a growing interest in the dialogue between science and religion.

Religion is a bad thing

Finally, I turn to a core belief that saturates Dawkins’ writings – that religion is a bad thing. It is clear that this is both an intellectual and moral judgement. In part, Dawkins regards religion as evil because it is based on faith, which evades any human obligation to think. We’ve already seen that this is a highly questionable viewpoint, which cannot be sustained in the face of the evidence.

The moral point is, of course, much more serious. Everyone would agree that some religious people do some very disturbing things. But the introduction of that little word `some’ to Dawkins’ argument immediately dilutes its impact. For it forces a series of critical questions. How many? Under what circumstances? How often? It also forces a comparative question: how many people with antireligious views also do some very disturbing things? And once we start to ask that question, we move away from cheap and easy sniping at our intellectual opponents, and have to confront some dark and troubling aspects of human nature. Let’s explore this one.

I used to be antireligious. In my teens, I was quite convinced that religion was the enemy of humanity, for reasons very similar to those that Dawkins sets out in his popular writings. But not now. And one of the reasons is my dreadful discovery of the dark side of atheism. Let me explain. In my innocence, I assumed that atheism would spread through the sheer genius of its ideas, the compelling nature of its arguments, its liberation from the oppression of religion, and the dazzling brilliance of the world it commended. Who needed to be coerced into such beliefs, when they were so obviously right?

Now, things seem very different. Atheism is not `proved’ in any sense by any science, evolutionary biology included. Dawkins thinks it is, but offers arguments which are far from compelling. And yes, atheism liberated from religious oppression, especially in France in the 1780s. But when atheism ceased to be a private matter, and became a state ideology, things suddenly became rather different. The liberator turned oppressor. Unsurprisingly, these developments tend to be airbrushed out of Dawkins’ rather selective reading of history. But they need to be taken with immense seriousness if the full story is to be told.

The final opening of the Soviet archives in the 1990s led to revelations that ended any notion that atheism was quite as gracious, gentle and generous a worldview as some of its more idealistic supporters believed. The Black Book of Communism, based on those archives,[42] created a sensation when first published in France in 1997, not least because it implied that French communism – still a potent force in national life – was irreducibly tainted with the crimes and excesses of Lenin and Stalin. Where, many of its irate readers asked, were the `Nuremberg Trials of Communism’? Communism was a `tragedy of planetary dimensions’ with a grand total of victims variously estimated by contributors to the volume at between 85 million and 100 million – far in excess of those committed under Nazism.

Now one must be cautious about such statistics, and equally cautious about rushing to quick and easy conclusions on their basis. Yet the basic point cannot really be overlooked. One of the greatest ironies of the twentieth century is that many of the most deplorable acts of murder, intolerance and repression of the twentieth century were carried out by those who thought that religion was murderous, intolerant and repressive – and thus sought to remove it from the face of the planet as a humanitarian act.

Even his most uncritical readers should be left wondering why Dawkins has curiously failed to mention, let alone engage with, the blood-spattered trail of atheism in the twentieth century – one of the reasons, incidentally, that I eventually concluded that I could no longer be an atheist. Or one of the greatest charlatans of the twentieth century: Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists Inc.[43] Its omission is deeply revealing.

Now I could draw the conclusion, based on a few choice stories and a highly selective reading of history, that atheists are all totally corrupt, violent and depraved. Yet I cannot and will not, simply because the facts do not permit it. The truth, evident to anyone working in the field, is that some atheists are indeed very strange people – but that most are totally ordinary people, just wanting to get on with their lives, and not wanting to oppress, coerce or murder anyone. Both religion and anti-religion are capable of inspiring great acts of goodness on the part of some, and acts of violence on the part of others.

The real issue – as Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out over a century ago – is that there seems to be something about human nature which makes our belief systems capable of inspiring both great acts of goodness and great acts of depravity. Dawkins, of course, insists on portraying the pathological as the normal. He has to. Otherwise, the argument doesn’t work.

Pretending that religion is the only problem in the world, or the base of all its pain and suffering, is simply no longer a real option for thinking people. It’s just rhetoric, masking a difficult problem we all need to address – namely, how human beings can coexist and limit their passions. There is a very serious problem here, which needs to be discussed openly and frankly by atheists and Christians alike – namely, how some of those who are inspired and uplifted by a great vision of reality end up doing such dreadful things. This is a truth about human nature itself. It can easily be accommodated with a specifically Christian understanding of human nature, which affirms that we bear the `image of God’ while being fallen on account of sin.[44] To put it very simplistically, the lingering remnant of divine likeness impels us to goodness; the powerful presence of sin drags us down into a moral quagmire, from which we can never entirely escape.

But there is another issue here which we need to note. Dawkins is quite clear that science cannot determine what is right and what is wrong. What about evidence that religion is bad for you? And what criteria might one use to determine what was `bad’? Dawkins himself is quite clear: `science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.’[45]

Dawkins’ discussion of what religion does do people is littered with flagrantly biased anecdotes and hopelessly unsubstantiated generalizations. Rhetoric displaces careful observation and analysis. Yet there is a large and growing body of evidence-based literature dealing with the impact of religion – whether considered generically, or as a specific form of faith – upon individuals and communities.[46] Although it was once fashionable to suggest that religion was some kind of pathology, [47] this view is now retreating in face of mounting empirical evidence that suggests (but not conclusively) that many forms of religion might actually be good for you.[48] Sure, some forms of religion can be pathological and destructive. Others, however, seem to be rather good for you. Of course, this evidence does not allow us to infer that God exists. But it does undermine a central pillar of Dawkins’ atheistic crusade – the core belief that religion is bad for you.

A 2001 survey of 100 evidence-based studies to systematically examine the relationship between religion and human wellbeing disclosed the following:[49]

1. 79 reported at least one positive correlation between religious involvement and wellbeing;

2. 13 found no meaningful association between religion and wellbeing;

3. 7 found mixed or complex associations between religion and wellbeing;

4. 1 found a negative association between religion and wellbeing.

Dawkins’ entire worldview depends upon precisely this negative association between religion and human wellbeing which only 1% of the experimental results unequivocally affirm, and 79% equally unequivocally reject. The results make at least one thing abundantly clear: we need to approach this subject in the light of the scientific evidence, not personal prejudice. I would not dream of suggesting that this evidence proves that faith is good for you. But I need to make it clear that it is seriously embarrassing for Dawkins, whose world seems to be shaped by the core assumption that faith is bad for you – a view which is unsustainable in the light of the evidence.

For Dawkins, the issue is simple: the question is `whether you value health or truth.’[50] As religion is false – one of the unassailable core beliefs which recurs throughout his writings – it would be immoral to believe, whatever benefits it might bring. Yet Dawkins’ arguments that belief in God is false just don’t add up. That’s probably why he supplements them with the additional argument that religion is bad for you. The growing body of evidence that religion actually promotes human wellbeing is highly awkward for him here. Not only does it subvert a critical functional argument for atheism; it begins to raise some very troubling questions about its truth as well.


This lecture has barely scratched the surface of a series of fascinating questions raised by the writings of Richard Dawkins. Some of these are directly, others indirectly, religious in nature. I am conscious that I have failed to deal with any of them in the detail that they rightly demand. I have opened up some questions for further discussion, and have not settled anything – except that the issues raised here are important and interesting. Dawkins asks all the right questions, and gives some interesting answers. They’re not particularly reliable answers, admittedly, unless you happen to believe that religious people are science-hating fools who are into `blind faith’ and other unmentionable things in a big way.

It’s time to move the discussion on, and draw a line under the unreliable account of the relation of science and religion that Dawkins offers. An evidence-based approach to the question is much more complex than Dawkins’ `path of simplicity and straight thinking’.

The question of whether there is a God, and what that God might be like, has not – despite the predictions of overconfident Darwinians – gone away since Darwin, and remains of major intellectual and personal importance. Some minds may be closed; the evidence and the debate, however, are not. Scientists and theologians have so much to learn from each other. Listening to each other, we might hear the galaxies sing.[51] Or even the heavens declaring the glory of the Lord (Psalm 19:1).

Thank you for listening!


[1] Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. [2] Michael Ruse, `Through a Glass, Darkly.’ American Scientist. 91 (2003): 554-6.

[3] Cited by Robert Fulford, `Richard Dawkins Talks Up Atheism with Messianic Zeal’, National Post 25 November 2003.

[4] Richard Dawkins. `A Survival Machine.’ In The Third Culture, edited by John Brockman, 75-95. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

[5] Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2003, 34.

[6] See Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

[7] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, 198.

[8] Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden : A Darwinian View of Life. London: Phoenix, 1995, 133.

[9] An excellent study of this issue may be found in Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design : Does Evolution Have a Purpose? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

[10] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986, 43.

[11] Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable. London: Viking, 1996, 64.

[12] Climbing Mount Improbable, 126-79.

[13] The index, of course, is not exhaustive: see, for example, the brief (and somewhat puzzling) discussion of God found at The Blind Watchmaker, 141. But the omission is interesting.

[14] For a full analysis of five grounds of concern about Dawkins’ approach in The Blind Watchmaker, see McGrath, Dawkins’ God, 49-81.

[15] Francis S. Collins, `Faith and the Human Genome.’ Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 55 (2003): 142-53.

[16] See his 1883 letter to Charles A. Watts, publisher of the Agnostic Annual. For further comment, see Alan Willard Brown, The Metaphysical Society : Victorian Minds in Crisis, 1869-1880. London: Oxford University Press, 1947.

[17] Stephen Jay Gould, `Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge.’ Scientific American 267, no. 1 (1992): 118-21.

[18] A Devil’s Chaplain, 117.

[19] The Selfish Gene, 198.

[20] The Selfish Gene, 330 (this passage added in the second edition).

[21] Dawkins suggests that this definition is found in Tertullian, on the basis of a worryingly superficial engagement with this writer. For details, see McGrath, Dawkins’s God, 99-101.

[22] W. H. Griffith-Thomas, The Principles of Theology. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1930, xviii. Faith thus includes `the certainty of evidence’ and the `certainty of adherence’; it is `not blind, but intelligent’ (xviii-xix).

[23] See David Corfield and Jon Williamson. Foundations of Bayesianism. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2001; Eric D. Green and Peter Tillers. Probability and Inference in the Law of Evidence : The Uses and Limits of Bayesianism. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1988.

[24] Elliott R Sober, `Modus Darwin.’ Biology and Philosophy 14 (1999): 253-78.

[25] See especially Richard P. Feynman, What Do You Care What Other People Think? London: Unwin Hyman, 1989; Richard P. Feynman, The Meaning of It All. London: Penguin, 1999.

[26] Timothy Shanahan, `Methodological and Contextual Factors in the Dawkins/Gould Dispute over Evolutionary Progress.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 31 (2001): 127-51.

[27] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 192.

[28] For detailed discussion, see McGrath, Dawkins’ God, 119-38.

[29] A Devil’s Chaplain, 124.

[30] Juan D. Delius, `The Nature of Culture.’ In The Tinbergen Legacy, edited by M. S. Dawkins, T. R. Halliday and R. Dawkin, 75-99. London: Chapman & Hall, 1991.

[31] A Devil’s Chaplain, 121.

[32] A Devil’s Chaplain, 135.

[33] Aaron Lynch, Thought Contagion : How Belief Spreads through Society. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

[34] Aaron Lynch, `An Introduction to the Evolutionary Epidemiology of Ideas.’ Biological Physicist 3, no. 2 (2003): 7-14.

[35] Stephen Shennan, Genes, Memes and Human History : Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002, 63.

[36] See further Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution : Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 324.

[37] Dawkins, Richard. `A Survival Machine.’ In The Third Culture, edited by John Brockman, 75-95. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

[38] Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. London: Penguin Books, 1998, xiii.

[39] Unweaving the Rainbow, xii.

[40] Unweaving the Rainbow, 17.

[41] Charles Gore, The Incarnation of the Son of God. London: John Murray, 1922, 105-6.

[42] Stephane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

[43] For the details, see Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism : The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

[44] On which see Alister McGrath, A Scientific Theology: 1 Nature. London: Continuum, 2001.

[45] A Devil’s Chaplain, 34.

[46] W. R. Miller and C. E. Thoreson. `Spirituality, Religion and Health: An Emerging Research Field.’ American Psychologist 58 (2003): 24-35.

[47] The `religion as pathology’ view originates largely from the pseudo-scientific studies of Sigmund Freud: see Frederick Crews, ed. Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend. New York: Penguin, 1998. On the growing recognition of the positive social and personal impact of faith, see Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God : How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

[48] For example, see Harold G. Koenig and Harvey J. Cohen. The Link between Religion and Health : Psychoneuroimmunology and the Faith Factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001; A. J. Weaver, L. T. Flannelly, J. Garbarino, C. R. Figley, and K. J. Flannelly. `A Systematic Review of Research on Religion and Spirituality in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1990-99.’ Mental Health, Religion and Culture 6 (2003): 215-28.

[49] Koenig and Cohen, The Link between Religion and Health, 101.

[50] Cited in Kim A. McDonald, `Oxford U. Professor Preaches Darwinian Evolution to Skeptics’. Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 November, 1996.

[51] Unweaving the Rainbow, 313.

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