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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Alister McGrath

 
Last night I went to hear Alister McGrath speak on the topic Deluded about God? Responding to Richard Dawkins' God Delusion. He was in town as part of a conference organized by Wycliffe College, an evangelical Anglican graduate school of theology at the University of Toronto [Refresh!].

The people who attended the conference are not fans of Richard Dawkins and neither is Alister McGrath. McGrath is a Professor of Theology at Oxford University (UK). The lecture consisted almost entirely of quotations from Dawkins followed by statements that Dawkins has not proven his case; or the issue is still being debated; or Dawkins has misrepresented true religion (i.e. Anglicanism). There were very few actual attempts to rebut the Dawkins arguments. For this audience it seemed to be sufficient to simply state that Dawkins is wrong. If you want to see what kinds of points McGrath raised, then read this review of McGrath's upcoming book called The Dawkins Delusion! [Deluding Who About What?].

PZ Myers does not seem to be a fan of McGrath either as he pointed out in a posting this morning [Somebody needs to write a book called "The McGrath Delusion" now].

McGrath's main points were,
  1. Atheism is a religion just like Christianity. Both require faith.
  2. Science cannot prove that God doesn't exist.
  3. Religion isn't all bad.
  4. The Dawkins version of religion isn't the one most people believe in.
These are all boring points, and, to be fair, the audience of 150 people was not receiving them with enthusiasm except for the "amen" crowd in the first few rows.

McGrath made one additional point that I'm hearing more and more frequently. He claims that the plethora of recent books on atheism is evidence that the atheists are frightened. They think they're losing the battle and that's why they have to get out books to rally the troops.

According to McGrath, Christianity is on the rise and that's why the atheists are scared. The atheists can't understand why religion hasn't disappeared yet. At the end of the lecture we were allowed to submit written questions. One that got through the screening asked about the clear increase in the number of non-believers in polls over the past thirty years. (In Canada the number of non-believers has gone from about 2% to almost 20% in some recent polls.) McGrath responded that these polls were very deceptive because they weren't really recording atheists but people who were abandoning organized religion in favor of a more personal spiritual religion. That's why the polls don't reveal the real truth; namely, that Christianity is winning and atheists are scared.

The real reason for the recent books is the exact opposite of what McGrath wants to believe. Atheism is more and more popular and it's time for all non-believers to come out of the closet. As Dawkins points out, ten years ago he never would have been able to sell copies of a book called The God Delusion but today it's on the best seller list and Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris, Dennett and other atheists are on television every single day. It's the Christians who should be worried and in spite of the bravado last night, I think they are.

I'm sure McGrath would object to my characterization of his talk but to me it seemed very defensive. He was reacting to the Dawkins book and making rather banal attempts to defend Christianity against the assault of rationalism (his term). This is not something I've seen before at a conference of believers. The Christians in the audience were told in no uncertain terms that they have to get their act together and learn how to mount a sophisticated, rational defense of their beliefs. (Strange that they would need this call to arms if they're winning the war, isn't it?)

BTW, McGrath is another one of those former "atheists" who have converted to Christianity. This seems to be the new badge of "honor" among theologians. He makes this point several times and compares himself to Antony Flew. The fact that Flew has not converted to Christianity is only one of several dozen errors in the lecture. See [Deluding Who About What?] for a list. McGrath is still making the same errors.

10 comments :

  1. So according to this guy, a plethora of books on atheism implies that atheism is on the wane.

    Let's suppose for a moment that the opposite evidence was observed: that there was a dearth of atheism publications. Do you think he would be arguing that atheism was on the rise? Of course not: I'd put money on him arguing that there were no publications because people were uninterested in a debate that was falling towards the theists' side.

    Looks like we have a case of "whether I observe E or not-E, it's evidence in favour of my hypothesis".

    The way forward (as you rightly do) is to ground the debate in actual data. Then the trends become clear...

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  2. "The atheists can't understand why religion hasn't disappeared yet."

    As for religion, people have the capability to be stupid or get fat. The former was never good for you but happened anyway, the later was at one time beneficial but is now harmful. [Go ahead, pick your own favorite analog for religious behavior among the alternatives.]

    Now, stupidity and fatness hasn't disappeared yet. [Though there are attempts of finding remedies for the later. Again, pick your preferred analog if you wish. :-) ]

    Am I supposed to be unable to understand why? That, I don't understand.

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  3. The Christians in the audience were told in no uncertain terms that they have to get their act together and learn how to mount a sophisticated, rational defense of their beliefs.

    By that he means ignore all the supernatural stuff. (I thoght he was against rationalism.)

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  4. The Christians in the audience were told in no uncertain terms that they have to get their act together and learn how to mount a sophisticated, rational defense of their beliefs.

    How excellent! It seems more than likely that some will examine the underpinnings of their belief and find that it cannot be rationally defended.

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  5. The Christians in the audience were told in no uncertain terms that they have to get their act together and learn how to mount a sophisticated, rational defense of their beliefs.

    What, 1900+ years of apologetics isn't enough? Including plenty of modern authors like C.S.Lewis, Strobel, Craig, Collins, Polkinghorne etc? Or are none of them sophisticated and rational enough for him?

    However, I will provisionally agree with him that some of the poll data on supposed religiosity looks soft to me -- it's not always clear that, when people abandon orthodox affiliation, they're necessarily going over to skeptical unbelief. There's a false dichotomy in play here.


    (Strange that they would need this call to arms if they're winning the war, isn't it?)

    And by McGrath's logic, when the wave of New Christian apologetic books appear next year, that will indicate that religion is losing the battle.

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  6. What, 1900+ years of apologetics isn't enough? Including plenty of modern authors like C.S.Lewis, Strobel, Craig, Collins, Polkinghorne etc?

    No, I think he meant a sophisticated and rational defense. A sophisticated and rational defense would have nothing to do with providing good evidence for the existence of god, but would have everything to do with providing good evidence for why people should at least pretend that their (benevolent) god exists. For example, if people don't at least pretend there is a benevolent moral god then everybody steals candy from babies and nobody ever helps elderly ladies to cross the street. That sort of thing.

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  7. I saw McGrath on The Hour the other night and wasn't impressed at all. He said that he "respected Dawkins' 'faith'" and several other talking points that went unquestioned by Strombo (who is usually quite on point with that sort of stuff).

    All in all, he was entirely unconvincing and unimpressive.

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  8. You and PZ don't seem more interested in the similarities than the differences of Miller and Behe, as if these could somehow invalidate the differences.

    The difference is crucial.

    There are those who argue a "scientific necessity" of concluding supernatural intervention.... and those who don't.

    Miracles cannot be commonplace. People can choose to belive in a miracle or two out of faith, if they wish. This does not imply that they believe 1) that god can be scientifically proven or 2) that the supernatural can be part of scientific explanations.

    These bad mixtures of science and religion is what
    people like Denton, Collins and Behe differ in that from Miller.

    I myself am interested in the lionk between these last three, and rationalists "a la Dawkins". They feed on each other the notion that they have a scientific disagreement. They both think that god can be scientifically tested, they "simply" disagree on the "results", drawing opposite conclusions.

    I think the Dawkins view provides conceptual foothold for "scientific" supernaturalism.

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  9. Atheism is a religion just like Christianity.

    I've never been able to quite figure out just what exactly is meant to be implied by this comparison. Is it a compliment or an insult?

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