NOTE 1: THIS ANTHOLOGY EXTRACT RELATES TO YOUR 4B CHRISTIANITY PAPER. THIS MEANS THAT YOU COULD BE ASKED TO COMMENT ON A SECTION FROM IT IN YOUR CHRISTIANITY EXAMINATION. HOWEVER, THE CONTENT ALSO RELATES TO SECTION 5.1 OF YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION SYLLABUS (‘CRITIQUES OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF’), ESPECIALLY THE DISCUSSION ABOUT ‘THE EXTREME IMPROBABILITY OF GOD’ THAT YOU WILL READ ABOUT BELOW. SO DO BEAR THIS IN MIND.
NOTE 2: Copyright issues may come into play here. So what you will find below are the FIRST and LAST couple of sentences of the section that is commented on followed by the commentary itself. If anyone finds this commentary useful, feel free to cut and paste the full text of McGrath and combine it with these notes.
The Full McGrath extract can be found HERE
God is a delusion – A ‘psychotic delinquent’ invented by mad, deluded people. That’s the take-home message of The God Delusion..….Might he argue, I wonder, that parents who read The God Delusion aloud to their children were also committing child abuse? Or are you only abusive if you impose religious, but not antireligious, dogmas and delusions?
Note the use of the words ‘atheist fundamentalism’. In using this phrase (which McGrath repeats elsewhere in the book), he is seeking to establish the point that Dawkins’ brand of atheism mirrors that of fundamentalist religious believers, who adopt an uncritical approach to their own faith and scripture. McGrath suggests that Dawkins’ atheism is sustained by caricaturing religious believers and an insistence that religion is invariably harmful and irrational (delusional) because it is based on blind faith.
The first of these claims is almost certainly impossible to sustain evidentially by Dawkins own standards, due to the difficulties of defining what a religion is (there is no scholarly consensus) and the range of application of the claim (it is made about any and all faiths and so would involve establishing beyond doubt that they are invariably harmful in some way). This empirical research would also have to be capable of identifying religion as an exclusive causal factor in every instance where harmful events take place. For example, although terrorist organisations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda seem to be religiously inspired, it may not be possible to single out faith as being the sole motivating factor here, even it is one of the main driving forces. Political, economic, territorial and other factors may also be implicated.
Additionally, while one might agree with McGrath that ‘high quality religious education’ is required to prevent atheist fundamentalism and the stereotyping of religious faith from arising, he seems to miss the point that it might also be required in order to challenge some of the beliefs maintained amongst Christian fundamentalist, charismatic and Pentecostal communities and in some forms of more conservative and radical Islam.
Examples might include creationism and other anti-evolutionary views, misogynistic attitudes to women, and homophobia, all of which are widely maintained through an uncritical approach to a scripture that is regarded as infallible. This, in turn, impacts on Dawkins’ argument that to bring up children within a religious tradition is a form of child abuse, and that children should not be brought up religiously. Although many parents might disagree with him about their right to teach religion to their children, they might join Dawkins in arguing that parents should not have the right to insist that that their children be taught creationism instead of evolution.
Faith is irrational
There is, I suppose, a lunatic fringe to every movement. Having been involved in many public debates over whether science has disproved the existence of God, I have ample experience of what I think I must describe as somewhat weird people, often with decidedly exotic ideas, on both sides of the God-atheism debate…..There is no difficulty, for example, in believing that Darwin’s theory of evolution is presently the best explanation of the available evidence, but that doesn’t mean it is correct.
McGrath’s use of Aquinas is particularly apt but for another reason: when studying Natural Law theory, students quickly learn that for Aquinas, God himself is rational. This rationality is reflected in us as we are made in God’s ‘image’. Using our ability to be rational and our propensity to seek good and avoid evil, we are in a position to make sound moral decisions through a process of rational reflection on our God-given inclinations.
Unfortunately, this exposes Aquinas to the issue posed by Plato in his Euthyphro dilemma, namely, that if, for God, something is good because it is rational, then we can bypass God and simply use rationality itself as a means to arrive at good moral decisions. Interestingly, due to a process that began with the Enlightenment, this is eventually what happened: rationality became the driving force behind many academic disciplines, for example science, philosophy and ethics. So a line can arguably be drawn from Aquinas to Dawkins in terms of the history of ideas, which calls into question the latter’s claim that faith is irrational.
Aquinas shows some awareness of the implications of his claim that God is rational and he tries to get around this issue by arguing that certain truths can only be known through revelation (e.g. the Trinitarian nature of God).
However, this point can be used against McGrath because it does seem to indicate that Aquinas was therefore ultimately a ‘faith-head’. It is one which – as we saw in the aforementioned handout on Dawkins – McGrath does not sufficiently acknowledge: reason is valued in the Christian tradition, but only up to a point.
The extreme improbability of God
NOTE: some of this section also relates to your Philosophy syllabus, which requires you to study ‘probability’ in relation to religious belief.
Dawkins devotes an entire chapter to an argument—or, more accurately, a loosely collated series of assertions—to the general effect that “there almost certainly is no God.” ……We may be highly improbable—yet we are here. The issue, then, is not whether God is probable but whether God is actual.
First of all, here is a paraphrased summary of what Dawkins actually says.
According to a theistic interpretation of the anthropic principle, the laws of physics seem to be precisely tuned to allow life as we know it, including ourselves, to eventually emerge. Such tuning is not only vastly improbable but cannot be explained by evolution and the Big Bang, which apply only to biology and physics, so there must have been a designing God.
However, Dawkins points out that there are alternative explanations. Some physicists believe that physics could not have been any different; its properties are not ‘finely tuned’ so much as necessary. Others believe that our universe is only one of a vast number of universes all varying in their basic properties. That one of these universes contains our properties is therefore unsurprising.
Still other physicists believe that our universe is only one in a long series of universes, each beginning with a big bang and then collapsing with a big crunch, which in turn leads on to the creation of a fresh universe with perhaps different physical properties. If this has happened enough times then it wouldn’t be so improbable that one of the universes is like ours.
We may not know yet which theory is the correct one, but the existence of these alternative explanations means that the remarkable properties of our universe do not demand a designing God to account for them any more than does the remarkable complexity of the biological world.
In fact, the situation is just the opposite (and this is the main thrust of Dawkins’ argument – so take careful note of what comes next).
We begin with the need to explain extremely improbable things. But invoking an intelligent designer does not help as we’re merely being told that an even more improbable being was the creative driving force behind our present reality. More importantly, we cannot explain something improbable and inexplicable by appealing to something even more so, and what could be more improbable than a transcendent being transcending time and space that designed our own cosmos? A truer appreciation of improbability is therefore to be found in the explanations represented by a designer-free evolutionary theory and contemporary physics.
So what does McGrath make of this? And what are we to make of McGrath’s assessment?
Firstly, McGrath dismisses Dawkins’ arguments as ‘brash’ and ‘simplistic’. But perhaps this is unfair. In his recent book Ultimate Questions, the philosopher Bryan Magee argues that if, indeed, God exists, His existence would also require an explanation as it would be something even more miraculous than the fact of our existence, that there is something rather than nothing to begin with.
For Magee, the question ‘How come everything (including God) exists? is a valid one, though he goes on to admit that ‘this is a question to which nothing could possibly an answer’ (page 55) as ‘there lies infinite regress’(page 98), the reason being that whatever is suggested as an explanation would itself require further explanation. For Magee, ‘Existence is the unbelievable thing. It is incomprehensible. Nothing could be an explanation of it.’
Given that a respected philosopher like Magee has taken a similar line to Dawkins on this issue, McGrath’s dismissive comments are therefore unwarranted, and he does not seem to be aware that questions may be meaningfully posed that are incapable of generating anything other than inadequate answers.
There is also one additional example that McGrath does not consider: assuming that one day a grand unified theory of everything is arrived at by physicists, surely it would still be reasonable to ask, ‘Why is there a grand unified theory?’
McGrath’s additional contention that increasing complexity does not entail improbability is more worthy of consideration. The fact that we are complex, improbable and actually exist could indeed mean that an even more complex, improbable God actually exists too. But this does not address Dawkins and Magee’s basic point that the buck does not and never could stop with God. McGrath needs to go on to come up with an argument to buttress his belief that it does. Perhaps something based on the infinite attributes of God would work as it might suggest that we need look no further than Him but McGrath needs to make that case.
The God of the gaps
In The God Delusion, Dawkins criticizes “the worship of gaps.” This is a reference to an approach to Christian apologetics that came to prominence during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the so-called God of the gaps approach…..But what of the relationship of science and religion more generally? Dawkins has had much to say on this, and we must move on to consider it.
Again, the point made by both Dawkins and Magee applies to Swinburne too: whatever is invoked as an explanation for the intelligibility of the universe will itself require a further explanation.
Perhaps another way to short-circuit this infinite regress (apart from an argument based on God’s infinite attributes) might be to appeal to Ockham’s Razor. Such an appeal does seem to be made by Swinburne if he has been accurately paraphrased by McGrath when it comes to the statement that ‘the most economical and reliable account of this explanatory capacity lies in the notion of a Creator God’.
This is a claim that probably would not find favour with either Dawkins or Magee. They might reply that simpler explanations are not always to be preferred. Perhaps potentially endlessly multiplying explanations for a reality that is essentially incomprehensible is something that they could live with because it reflects a more honest assessment of the limits of human knowledge.