Dawkins’ God by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath. Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. Paperback, vi + 202 pp.

The British ethologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976) and other popular scientific works, contributed, among other things, the term “meme” to our dictionaries. His book expounded the so-called mid-1960s “Williams Revolution” within the discipline of population genetics, which replaced the earlier Darwinian notion of a “survival of the species” with a gene-centered view of evolution.

Over the past nearly three decades, there have been a variety of reactions to Dawkins’ ideas, many assuming the form of sharp criticism. The present book is possibly one of the more significant and spirited of these evaluations. Alister McGrath is a professor of historical theology at Oxford University who, significantly, also happens to have a doctorate in molecular biophysics.

While admiring Dawkins’ erudition and consummate ability to write for the lay reader, McGrath (who displays the same talents) objects to the antireligious bias that is undoubtedly present in Dawkins’ publications. McGrath is particularly sensitive to Dawkins’ anti-Christian atheism, because he himself at one time was a convinced Marxist and had dismissed religion as “medieval superstition.”

McGrath is specifically pondering the question of how Dawkins can possibly arrive at an atheistic worldview from a Darwinian perspective on evolution. Dawkins writings themselves readily supply various reasons for his hostility toward religion, but McGrath settles for the explanation that Dawkins arrived at his conclusions about religion on moral rather than scientific (Darwinian) grounds and then read these back into the scientific data, which is not really surprising.

Dawkins believes that there are only three models available for understanding the organic universe: Darwinism, Lamarckism, or theism. He further maintains that Darwinism necessarily implies atheism. McGrath argues that the Darwinian perspective itself does not permit a leap from biology to theology or metaphysics.

McGrath has the ability to put things so simply that some readers might be tempted to conclude that his argument is simplistic, which is surely not the case. When we follow McGrath’s argument carefully, we come to realize that a good deal of Dawkins’ criticism of religion is actually little more than shadow boxing, for he has largely attacked views that even within theology are outmoded. As he notes, Dawkins’ “engagement with theology is superficial and inaccurate, often amounting to little more than cheap point scoring” (p. 83).

McGrath’s book, which is at times perhaps overly pugilistic, exposes the weaknesses in Dawkins’ argumentation in favor of atheism. However, it does not—and also is not meant to—constitute a detailed point-by-point examination of Dawkins’ antimetaphysical views. Given Dawkins’ caricature of religion and theism none would be needed were it not for his immense popularity.

McGrath writes for the same readership that would also find Dawkins’ work of interest. He clearly does so as a religionist and committed Christian but does so rationally and as objectively as possible and without jarring theistic undertones, unless you find talk about awe and mystery too religiously charged (he introduces both notions at the end of the book).

Dawkins’ God makes for a few hours of worthwhile and enjoyable reading on one of the great controversies of our time.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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