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Religion's Critics Taken to Task

By Father John Flynn

ROME, MARCH 27, 2007 (Zenit) - The spate of recent attacks on God and religion has not gone unanswered. Among the replies to last year's book "The God Delusion," by Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, is the just-published book by Alister McGrath, "The Dawkins Delusion?" (SPCK). McGrath is a professor of historical theology at Oxford.

In the introduction to the book he co-authored, McGrath admits that in the 1960s he was, as Dawkins is now, an atheist. Dawkins is an expert in evolutionary biology; similarly, McGrath started out in science, earning a doctorate in molecular biophysics.

But he then switched to theology and, as he explains: "I subsequently found myself persuaded that Christianity was a much more interesting and intellectually exciting world view than atheism."

McGrath declares himself disappointed with the level of argument in Dawkins' book, which he describes as "the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbo-charged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking." He adds: "Dawkins preaches to his god-hating choirs," relying on pseudoscientific speculation and aggregating convenient factoids.

A delusion?

McGrath devotes a chapter to explaining why God is not a delusion, as Dawkins maintained. He observes that the definitions used by Dawkins to describe faith, such as a "process of non-thinking," are foreign to a Christian definition of faith.

Dawkins is correct in arguing that we need to examine our beliefs, McGrath acknowledges. To that end children need to receive a true and accurate instruction in Christianity. It would be far more damaging, he contends, for them to have their heads filled with the superficial and erroneous arguments that Dawkins uses.

Most of us, McGrath points out, hold many beliefs we cannot prove to be true, but they are, nevertheless, reasonable to entertain. Thus, these beliefs are justifiable, without being absolutely proven in an empirical sense. This situation occurs not only in the area of religion, but also in science, where there are many theories that have not reached the status of being conclusively proved.

McGrath also cites what some prominent scientists, such as Stephen Jay Gould, a biologist in the United States, and Sir Martin Rees, president of the British Royal Society, had said about religion. Both of them admitted the limits of science and accepted that science and religion are not by their nature mutually exclusive.

Moreover, many of the great questions about life, McGrath points out, can be explained by a number of theories and there is no absolute scientific proof available. In addition, there are questions that lie beyond the scope of the scientific method, such as deciding whether there is purpose within nature.

Another prominent scientist, Sir Peter Medawar, who was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work in immunology, dealt with this subject in his book "The Limits of Science." McGrath explains that Medawar distinguished between transcendent questions, which are better left to religion and metaphysics, and inquiries into the organization and structure of the material universe.

A further demonstration that Dawkins is not representative of scientific thought is the fact that in 2006, the year "The God Delusion" appeared, three leading research scientists published books that admitted the validity of a space for the divine in the universe. They were: Owen Gingerich, "God's Universe"; Francis Collins, "The Language of God"; and Paul Davies, "The Goldilocks Enigma."

"Dawkins is forced," McGrath concludes, "to contend with the highly awkward fact that his view that the natural sciences are an intellectual superhighway to atheism is rejected by most scientists, irrespective of their religious views."

Being evil

Another argument used by Dawkins is that God and religion are evil, being responsible for all sorts of violence and abuses in mankind's history. McGrath readily admits that violence which draws its inspiration from religion is clearly something to be rejected.

McGrath, who grew up in Northern Ireland, had plenty of experience with religious violence. Nevertheless, he points out that it is an entirely different proposition to argue that violence is an inherent element of religion. Dawkins also errs in making out atheism to be a universally benign influence. A look at 20th-century history readily provides abundant examples of politically motivated violence, not least of which was that committed by the atheistic regime of the Soviet Union.

Clearly, people are capable of both violence and moral excellence, McGrath points out, and both of these qualities may be provoked by worldviews, religious or otherwise. It is true that religion can turn human conflicts into battles of good and evil. At the same time, a society that rejects God then tends to hold up as an absolute other realities or concepts. Thus, the French Revolution in its effort to replace Christianity with secular ideals carried out violent repression as it sought to impose its principles.

Another book, from 2006, also dealt with the question of violence and replied to criticisms made against religion. Keith Ward, professor of divinity at Gresham College, London, in "Is Religion Dangerous?" (Lion Hudson), argues that the world would be a lot worse off without religion.

Ward admits that there are examples of religiously inspired violence, but that a lack of faith can also lead to destructive impulses and evil. It is true that religious texts such as the Bible can be misused for unjust purposes. But this is achieved only when vital precepts, such as love of God and neighbor are ignored, and when the texts are taken out of context.

Seeking good

All human beings, Ward argues, are susceptible to the temptation of evil, whether they be religious or not. How to guard against this? One of the best ways, he suggests, is a set of beliefs that teaches principles of right and wrong and motivates us to repentance and to seek goodness.

Instead of making generic charges about "religion being dangerous," we should be asking whether a particular religion in its specific context might be dangerous, Ward contends. The answer to this question will vary according to the circumstances. In general, he continues, most of the time religion is one of the forces making both for social stability and for morally serious debate and reform.

Certainly, the threat of Islamic terrorism has led to concerns over religiously inspired violence. But, this is just one way in which Islam has been interpreted. A number of other social and political factors, not religious in nature, have also played a role in promoting this violence. And while the media give much attention to religious violence, a lot of the strife in today's world has little to do with religion. Moreover, when religion does promote violence it is often in a situation where religion has become blended with political institutions, and it is then used in an instrumental way to justify the use of force.

We should also recall all the positive contributions made by religion, Ward explains in one chapter. The example of charity left to us by Jesus has inspired people over the centuries to follow a life of loving others. Christianity also has inspired countless hospitals, schools and universities, as well as great works of art, literature and music.

Christian faith also encouraged rational enquiry into the material world and gave rise to modern science. The Christian belief in the dignity of human life played a crucial role in developing ideals of human rights. Religion, Ward concludes, can be one of the most positive forces for good in human life.

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Atheist, God, Dawkins, Flynn

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