Doubting Dawkins: An Excerpt from Why There Almost Certainly Is a God



In 1991, I was happily living as a Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in the University of London when, out of the blue, I received a letter from the office of the Prime Minister, in an official envelope cunningly concealed inside a plain envelope, telling me that the Regius Chair of Divinity at Oxford was vacant, and asking if he could give my name to the Queen. I had not the slightest idea what this meant, and I had to telephone Downing Street to ask how many names the Queen had been given, and what she intended to do with them. It turned out I was being offered the job, and it was an offer I could not refuse.

So I turned up at Oxford, having been transformed by Her Majesty from a philosopher who surprised many people by having some religious beliefs into a theologian who was expected by many people to defend a whole set of religious beliefs as a professional duty. This was a very unexpected change.

When I was a philosopher, and defended belief in God, everyone said, ‘How interesting! That is a very original and unusual opinion.’ But when I became a theologian, and went on defending the same belief in God, everyone said, ‘How boring! That is just what you are paid to say, so you must be some sort of paid church lackey.’

The way I was perceived by other people changed considerably. For some, being a Regius Professor at Oxford (technically, the senior professor in the university) was very grand. But for others, it was a definite slide down the ladder of academic respectability. For from being a free-thinking and radical philosopher, I had suddenly, somewhere on the road from London to Oxford, developed what Richard Dawkins calls a ‘theological mind’. And that, he thought, was rather like developing some sort of mental illness.

My arrival in Oxford was heralded by a letter from Richard Dawkins to a public newspaper calling for my resignation, on the ground that there was no such subject as theology, and that I was a particularly stupid example of a theologian anyway.

The reason for his wrath was a short letter I had written to the same newspaper, following a discussion of the Christmas story in the paper. I had written, in what was meant to be a joke, that I knew the three wise men existed because I had seen their tomb in Cologne Cathedral. Admittedly, it was not a very good joke. But it proved too much for Richard Dawkins, who took it as an example of the sort of evidence theologians rely on, and of the best I could do in theological argument.

From that moment, the gloves were off. Even though Dawkins lived and worked in a university with one of the largest and ablest theology faculties in Britain, he went on refusing to admit that there was any such subject as theology. Despite the fact that he and I had entirely friendly and rational personal contacts – as he did with Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, and the vicar of the University Church in Oxford, and the chaplain of his college – he went on proclaiming that all religious believers were stupid, deluded and dangerous. Despite the fact that many Oxford scientists are Christians, and that there is even a Chair in Science and Religion in the university, he went on saying that science and religion were intellectually incompatible. And despite the fact that a number of us have criticized his views publicly many times, he goes on saying that theologians have never answered his arguments.

In fact there has been a series of public debates in Oxford over the last few years, and I do not think it is obvious that he has won them. They have involved, among others, Richard Dawkins and his even more vituperative atheist colleague Peter Atkins on the one side, and myself, Alister McGrath, Richard Harries and Arthur Peacocke on the other.

In recent years, Alister McGrath, a theologian with a doctorate in molecular biology, and John Lennox, Reader in Mathematics at Oxford, have written excellent books responding to Dawkins’ arguments. Now it is my turn to rejoin the Oxford God Debate. In a sense, Professor Dawkins got his way – I resigned as Regius Professor of Divinity. But I only did so because I reached retirement age, and I am glad to say that I was succeeded by an eminent medieval philosopher, Marilyn McCord Adams. And though resigned, my pugilistic instincts have not subsided, and I am happy to enter the lists in a head-to-head philosophical confrontation. I am even happier to know that I am bound to win, for when Dawkins talks about theology, he is, on his own admission, talking about a subject that does not exist. It is a traditional definition of Oxford scholars that they know everything about nothing (whereas Cambridge scholars know nothing about everything). So Professor Dawkins stands in a good Oxford tradition. But when a subject does not even exist, there is nothing to know about it. I presume, therefore, that Professor Dawkins actually knows nothing about theology. That gives me a head start. Thus I end my Oxford career, as I began it, with a bad joke. Or could it perhaps be true? 

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Part 1

On Chapter Two of The God Delusion


The God Hypothesis

A Philosophical Challenge Accepted

The title of this book is the title of Chapter 4 of Professor Richard Dawkins’ best-selling The God Delusion, with one little difference. I have changed the word ‘no’ to the word ‘a’, because I think that change reflects the situation more accurately.

So yes, this is yet another reply to Dawkins by one of those believers in a God whom Dawkins describes as ‘arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction’.1 My reply will concentrate on Chapters 2 to 4 of Dawkins’ book, because those are the chapters in which he enters into the territory of philosophy, of arguments about God and the ultimate nature of reality.

That is my territory. I have taught philosophy in British universities all my working life, and I welcome all comers into that world of clear definitions, sharp arguments and diverse conclusions. Professor Dawkins (I will call him simply Dawkins, for short, and hope it will be taken as a mark of respect and of acknowledgment of his status as a household name) is one of the most exciting and informative writers on science, especially on evolutionary biology. I own all his books. I have learned much from them, and have always been greatly impressed by his capacity to convey the awesomeness of modern science and of the universe it explores.

But when he enters into the world of philosophy, his passion tends to get the better of him, and he sometimes descends into stereotyping, pastiche and mockery, no longer approaching the arguments with his usual seriousness and care. I suspect that he dislikes philosophers, and thinks they are wasting their time sitting around in armchairs instead of carrying out some worthwhile experiments. I often sympathize with him, and regret the fact that I will never make even a half-way decent scientific discovery.

Every now and then, however, I recover my self-respect, and remember that it is important to be critical of all our beliefs – to ask what we mean by them and what reasons there are for accepting them. Philosophy is a systematic attempt to carry out such a process of informed critical enquiry on all our beliefs. In our world, that will involve an enquiry into the nature of science and the nature of religious belief. Whether he likes philosophy or not, Dawkins is doing philosophy in Chapters 2 to 4 of The God Delusion. He has come into my world, a world in which I welcome a good argument. In this short book I want to challenge his arguments, to show that they are not at all strong, and to show that there are much stronger arguments in favour of believing in a God – in fact, that it is almost certain that there is a God.

The Spectrum of Philosophical Views of Reality

Dawkins begins by stating the God hypothesis: ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us’.2 This is one of the few statements he makes about God that I entirely agree with. The question for discussion, then, is whether the God hypothesis is reasonable and true.

Dawkins advocates an alternative: ‘any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution’.3 That is a nicely provocative argument that is well worth defending. Oxford is, after all, the home of lost causes, and it is nice to see a cause as lost as this defended.

He has put his finger at once on the central point at issue. Is intelligent mind an ultimate and irreducible feature of reality? Indeed, is it the ultimate nature of reality? Or is mind and consciousness an unforeseen and unintended product of basically material processes of evolution?

If you look at the history of philosophy, it soon becomes clear that almost all the great classical philosophers took the first of these views. Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel – they all argued that the ultimate reality, often hidden under the appearances of the material world of time and space, is mind or Spirit.

Even the great philosophical dissenters – most notably David Hume, whose arguments Dawkins often uses, and A. J. Ayer, another great atheist from New College, Oxford – were not materialists. Hume and Ayer thought that the ultimate realities were what they called ‘impressions and ideas’ or ‘sense-data’, respectively. These included such things as patches of colour, sounds, touches, smells and tastes. These, they thought, were the primary data, and the world of physical objects and other minds were logical constructs out of them.

This is such a peculiar theory that they often did not believe it themselves, and instead fell back on ‘common sense’ about what is real. Of course there is a world of enduring physical objects, of course the future will be like the past, of course there are universal laws of nature, of course we are continuing selves who are aware of sense-data, and of course there are other sets of sense-data, in other minds. But none of these things can be proved by argument. They are just common sense beliefs, and we accept them largely because they enable us to navigate our way in a confusing world, because in some sense they ‘work’.

Most philosophers in the world have been in some sense idealists – that is, they have thought the ultimate reality is mind. Theists are philosophers who accept this, but add that the physical world does have its own proper reality, which originates from but is different from God, the ultimate mind. An important minority have been phenomenalists, who think that the ultimate reality is the flowing succession of perceptions, thoughts and feelings of which we are aware in immediate experience. From that succession we may construct a world of external physical objects or we may construct the idea of a continuing Self that observes the succession. But in fact there is ultimately only the succession itself. Some forms of Buddhist thought are outstanding examples of this view.

Then there have been common sense philosophers – like Thomas Reid, Hume’s contemporary, who was much better known than Hume in his day – who tend to think that human reason is not competent to tell us the truth about ultimate reality. So we must rely on common sense beliefs, a sort of consensus that we accept because it works, or is conducive to survival, health and happiness. Most common sense philosophers have assumed that belief in God is a common sense belief, as it happens.

There have also been scientific realists, like John Locke, who think that there are good arguments for the view that the world consists of colourless clouds of particles in mostly empty space, though we perceive it as a set of coloured solid objects. And there have been sceptics, who do not think that we know anything about the ultimate nature of reality at all, and that even common sense is suspect. But they rarely appear in public, since they are never sure there is any public to whom to appear.

The world of philosophy, of resolute thought about the ultimate nature of things, is a very varied one, and there is no one philosophical view that has the agreement of all competent philosophers. But in this world there are very few materialists, who think we can know that mind is reducible to electrochemical activity in the brain, or is a surprising and unexpected product of purely material processes.

In the world of modern philosophy, there are idealists, theists, phenomenalists, common sense pragmatists, scientific realists, sceptics and materialists. These are all going concerns, living philosophical theories of what is ultimately real. This observation does not settle any arguments. But it puts Dawkins’ ‘alternative hypothesis’ in perspective. He is setting out to defend a very recent, highly contentious, minority philosophical world-view. Good. That is the sort of thing we like to see in philosophy! But it will take a lot of sophisticated argument to make it convincing. It is not at all obvious.

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