The Other McGrath Interviewed By Richard Dawkins

There is an interesting interview of Alister McGrath by Richard Dawkins that is available on Google Video, an interview that never made it into Dawkins’ program The Root Of All Evil:

Dawkins says he wants to give McGrath the opportunity to say something intelligent. McGrath does so, but it doesn’t get into the film. Dawkins even says that he acknowledges that McGrath rightly criticized him (!) for misconstruing what Christians like him mean by ‘faith’. McGrath’s explanation of what he means by faith being rational is very helpful: it takes the evidence seriously, but inevitably goes beyond it. Of course, when McGrath suggests that God is not so much something or someone improbable but rather one whose existence explains the improbable universe we inhabit, Dawkins rightly observes that this merely adds a greater improbability to that which palpibly exists.

Dawkins also would entertain a natural God who evolved elsewhere in the universe, seeded life here, and even watches over us – that could fit his worldview. I had an atheist ask me a wonderful set of questions about what could be changed in the doctrine of God, and yet I’d still believe. I share one of them with the religious believers reading this: If God was precisely as described in the Bible, did all those things, but evolved in an earlier age or even an earlier universe, would you still worship him? Recent discussions (e.g. in connection with Process Theology and Free-Will Theism) have suggested that traditional ideas of omnipotence could be set aside without sacrificing the Christian idea of God per se. What about omnipresence? Omniscience? But more interestingly, what if God has all those attributes, but had a beginning, and like the creator in the Rig Veda, perhaps doesn’t know where the universe came from?

I came across the link to this clip on the Uncommon Descent blog. I wonder what McGrath himself would make of the views usually put forward there. Certainly his books about Dawkins’ recent publications are really on target and balanced, which I have not found to generally be the case with ID proponents. Of course, it must also be pointed out that Dawkins’ program is just like his book in opting not to include the intelligent interaction with intelligent and well-informed religious believers like McGrath (the other one, I mean).

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  • BSM

    I’ve not been too impressed with A. McGrath and his arguments. However, he is a bit more fair than Dawkin’s “do as I say not as I do” approach. Speaking of…here’s a pearl from those who promote tolerance and reason:“The world is finally waking up to the dangers of religious faith.” It’s been my experience that if you paint with a broad brush some times you end up getting paint on yourself. ;-)~BCP

  • “Certainly his books about Dawkins’ recent publications are really on target and balanced.”Do you really think so? I find The Dawkins Delusion to be both off-target and unbalanced. (I’ve written about it here and here.)I also don’t find McGrath’s comments in the interview to be particularly interesting or intelligent. When he talks about faith and evidence, he seems to confuse the issue of whether there is evidence to support faith in any particular religious proposition, or whether faith, when pre-existing and applied to particular evidence, is capable of incorporating that evidence into its narrative. In other words, does evidence lead to the narrative of the faithful, or does the narrative of the faithful merely incorporate observations?The difference between the two is enormous, as a scientific approach attempts at all times (though does not always succeed) to entertain theories that are derived from evidence, in the sense that a revisable hypothesis is set forth and then modified as the evidence demands, while a “faithful” approach seems usually to begin with a non-revisable narrative and then later to re-cast evidence in such a way that it seems harmonious with the narrative, without actually revising the narrative.If religious beliefs are impervious to contrary evidence, as they typically seem to be, then they are not really rooted in evidence and indicate in those who hold them a profound misunderstanding of how evidence works.

  • The other McGrath is certainly working more in a traditional theistic framework, and seems far more impressed by the historical evidence about Jesus (for example) than I am. He even seems open to the possibility that there might be enough evidence in an ancient text for a modern reader of that text to believe its account of a miraculous event, whereas I cannot for the life of me see how one can legitimately do so. I am a religious believer, and I certainly have had to revise my beliefs in light of scientific, archaeological, and other evidence. Nonetheless, I think the other McGrath is right to point out that Dawkins is (1) a metaphysical reductionist in a way that is not required by science, and (2) is defining religion, faith, and God in such ways as to encompass much popular piety but exclude every bit as much of serious educated theology. I would add (3) that he ignores views such as panentheism and pantheism, treating the latter as merely ‘sexed up atheism’. For many of us religious believers, talking about God is using metaphor to point to a mystery. Because for others it is connected with claims to know, and perhaps even know with certainty, this equally old and equally mainstream mystical theological tradition is sidelined in many modern discussions – perhaps precisely because its lack of dogmatism doesn’t make for good sparring matches.I’ll post the same comments on your blog. I look forward to continuing the conversation!

  • But what, really, is “serious educated theology”? I hear that objection a lot, typically from people who draw paychecks from the practice of “serious educated theology” (“SET”), which makes me suspicious.I’m also suspicious because, when I was an undergraduate at a Christian liberal arts university, I read piles of SET and very nearly became one of those people who draws a paycheck from its practice. Ultimately, though, I decided to take another path because SET seemed more to me like a game of Professional Catch-Up, running around like a gleaner behind the march of culture and science, looking for anything to pick up and “redeem” with a post hoc rationalization to shunt—er, integrate— it into a theological meta-narrative.It also seems to me that SET is the practice of being sneaky like a fox and slippery like a fish. The whole thing derives from adhering to a few core principles—e.g., God (by whatever definition) is relevant (by whatever definition) to our lives (by whatever definition). The trick is to have lots of different definitions that you can pull out in lots of different circumstances. All things to all people, as one of the earliest practitioners said.I’ve had many conversations with practitioners of SET and have consistently found that it is utterly impossible to nail them down on anything less vague than my “e.g.” above. If you say, “God doesn’t exist,” then they redefine “God” to mean something that undeniably exists, and claim that was always the definition (like, say using a metaphor to point to a mystery—great, isn’t that poetry, too?). If you say “God may exist, but he/she/it is not relevant to my life,” then they redefine relevance to mean, from what I can tell, whatever it takes to meet your threshold of participation in the church (which, of course, is also defined so loosely as to be just about anything you want, from a warm-fuzzy social club to a locus of praxis, or whatever you want it to be—so long as you end up inside it).In other words, I’m not at all impressed with SET, and find that it offers nothing of value to discussion of the question: Does God exist? Because, ultimately, SET is required to answer that question in the affirmative. (Unless you’re one of those “death of God” guys, like, I think it was Thomas Altizer, who nobody really cares about.) Since you have to say Yes to the question of God’s existence, then you are free to spin out endless redefinitions that will get you to that answer from anywhere on the map. Thus, the important issue in the context of SET is not whether there is any objective phenomenon that may justly carry the label “God,” but whether the label “God” may reasonably be applied to anything at all.All it really takes to blow the whole thing over at that point is for one to step back and say, “And why does it matter, anyway?”Ultimately, if you stop talking about “God” or “the Divine” or anything supernatural, all of life remains, absolutely untouched, along with the mystery. Furthermore, you can still contemplate and discuss the mystery through art, music, poetry, hiking in the wilderness, watching waves on the beach, or whatever you enjoy.Your most effective rejoinder, I think, is then to point out that this is exactly the kind of perfectly safe, perfectly natural stuff that Dawkins is not railing against, and in fact “practices” himself, in the way he finds the natural world so awesome (which, of course, I mean in the more elevated sense, rather than the colloquial one).But if that is the case, then why should anyone bother continuing to tie him- or herself to a religion, such as Christianity in your case, that is demonstrably unnecessary for interface with The Great Mystery, but which remains, in its most resilient and visible form, little more than a self-maintaining institution that, wittingly or not, depending on who and when and where you are, welcomes and encourages the kind of violence, both physically and psychologically, that Dawkins is railing against? Why attach yourself to that? Why keep calling yourself a “Christian,” when you know that you’re going to spend almost all your time working very hard to distinguish yourself from almost everybody else who calls him- or herself a “Christian”?I notice that you’re big on movies (and a lot of your favorites are my favorites, too), so I’ll draw a quick analogy with a scene in the movie Contact.The climactic journey at the end of the movie sees Ellie Arroway strapped into the Machine via this dentist-chair-like apparatus that was not in the original design. It’s for her safety, they tell her, a reasonable precaution. Despite her misgivings, she buckles in.Then, when her journey begins, she begins to feel a terrible rattle. Things begin to come loose, she’s terribly uncomfortable, it distracts her from the amazing sights before her. Finally, the chair breaks loose and everything becomes quiet. She discovers that the journey is not rough at all, but extraordinarily peaceful. She floats within the spheroid vessel and watches the galaxy unfold before her.The chair, yes despite, from the perspective of the powers-that-be, being a reasonable precaution, was also an unnecessary one, and one that revealed the lack of imagination in the people who demanded it.I contend that continuing to call yourself a Christian and practicing “serious educated theology” is not much different than strapping yourself into that chair. You just make the ride a lot rougher and you unnecessarily tether yourself to an institution that, quite honestly, in the grand scheme of all the universe, life, existence, and everything, is not the only, the best, or even a good point of access.If one takes “serious educated theology” seriously, then I think one should note that the bulk of its work is explaining why it is not like those other “believers.” In fact, I think SET is really just a way for people to be classically nontheistic without taking that final, courageous step to leave the four walls of their institutions—to let the chair come unbolted, you might say.In my experience, practitioners of SET and people like Richard Dawkins or me are distinguishable only in the words they use and the institutions to which they attach themselves. Or not, as the case may be. Ultimately, we all share a common problem, which is helping the vast majority of people, who have been cowed by the drudgery of life and fed simplistic and false ideas by those (such as clergy) who are conflicted by the fact that they must answer to the needs of their institution.What good to a person needing guidance is a member of the clergy who has always in the back of his or her head the need to keep the wandering sheep in attendance, and what good to the institution is a member of the clergy who feels free to tell people that they may seek and explore The Great Mystery without the aid of the institution? Those who “officially” (e.g., by preaching or professing) practice theology, even SET, are bound to serve their institution.You can revise your beliefs all you want, but ultimately there is a point at which revision will result in your ouster, and if you want to keep your job, you will not make that revision. I’m sure you know this is true.Mysticism has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the less sophisticated religions to which its various sects are tied, probably because the authorities in those religions recognize mysticism as being only one step (or perhaps no steps) removed from outright nontheism. You occupy a borderland where “god” and “no-god” are intertwined, where the individual and the ultimate are locked in an impenetrable question. But so do I, and so does Richard Dawkins. The difference is that he and I don’t bother aligning ourselves with those on the inside of the religion-border.You’re right that Dawkins is railing against those other guys, that he doesn’t take account of SET, because he doesn’t need to. Because the only reason you would ever be lumped in with theists is because you lump yourself in with them! The people who are the lifeblood of the institutional church, the ones who attend services or mass, who donate money, who volunteer their time—the ones who aren’t paid by the institution, but who pay into the institution—are not comprised of people who would, on the whole, be amenable to your views on, for instance, the sufficiency of the biblical text as evidence for legitimate miraculous events.So why do you remain yoked to them?There is no point in talking about God. The moment you begin to conceptualize “God,” you are creating fiction. To paraphrase Shakespeare, there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your theology, serious, educated, or otherwise. I have almost always found that people who are voraciously curious about factual data will come to the points of mystery on their own, that they do not need a guide or a theologian or a minister or anyone else pointing the way. Conversely, I have almost always found that people who actually practice religion by following the guidance of ministers and theologians tend to be the least curious, and tend to actively avoid addressing the points of mystery. They just want a social network, a story to make their lives meaningful, a way to have their guilt allayed, someone to tell them what is right and wrong, a method to align themselves with the divine in a way that will bring them prosperity and good luck, and so on.Addressing the problem from that perspective, I cannot with good conscience say that supernaturalist religion of any kind should ever be encouraged. Rather, I think curiosity, thoughtfulness, and individual courage to face existential crises ought to be encouraged. For those, we need no “God” and no institutions; rather we just need each other. And the moment we start paying people to perform those functions for us, we’re off back into our incurious mole-holes, hoping for a stroke of good luck.

  • Thanks for your detailed reply. I don’t think I’m a ‘supernaturalist’ in the sense that you are using the term. Panentheism does not view God and the world as separate things. The Sufis in the Islamic tradition are the best example of this. For me, when I’m talking about God, I’m talking about the nature of reality, and in using the language of God I am affirming transcendence – or to use the terminology of Paul Tillich, I cannot opt for atheism because I do not think that existence is shallow. The majority of religious believers are most probably people who have never had the sort of life-changing spiritual experience that usually gives birth to religion in the first place. It is as if a bunch of people made beautiful music and enjoyed listening to it, and so began a concert series. In later generations, people continued to practice them out of a sense of obligation, ritual, or to please to gods of music, but never explored the beauty or any of the reasons for the concert series existing in the first place. The mystical tradition is there in all the major religions – it got sidelined largely because of attempts to marry religion to reason during the Enlightenment era, I suspect.I don’t see the need to cast aside metaphors that have been useful over the years simply because some people can’t appreciate metaphor as metaphor.Let me share one of my favorite analogies. I view our place in the universe as like that of two cells in a human body. One cell says to the other “Our existence is meaningless. Everything is just cells, cells, cells. We’re born, we die, and that’s it”. A second cell replies to the first and says “Sometimes I think maybe we’re all part of one big cell.” The latter has no idea what human existence is like. Its view of transcendence is ‘cellulomorphic’ just as our language about God tends to be anthropomorphic. But isn’t that cell ‘on to something’? Doesn’t it have a genuinely insightful intuition about the nature of reality?We’re both fans of Contact. If you ask me, if we like the same movies, our worldviews cannot be that far apart! 🙂 I did spend time working in church-affiliated institutions, and I left because they were narrow and restrictive. Not all are that way by definition, but some certainly are. But I have never been asked to leave my faith community (an American Baptist Church) by those who have read my blog and know my views. On the contrary, such people have joined the Sunday school class I teach! :)Why do I consider myself a Christian? Because I think that historically valuable traditions are worth fighting for. I also gladly take a stand for science, not as something inherently reductionist in the way Dawkins and Dennett suggest, but as a quest for understanding, one that certainly can undermine traditional beliefs (both scientific and religious), but which can also lead to not merely awe and wonder but mysticism and worship. Leaving room for religion is not, for me, something that is intended to deny anything that science, history, archaeology, or any other branch of inquiry teaches us. It is simply leaving room for something more than these disciplines can study: for consciousness, beauty, and love. I cannot prove that these aspects of human experience tell us something fundamentally true about the character of existence, but I have yet to find science in any sense undermining them. They can explain aspects of them – but anyone who is satisfied with an evolutionary biologist’s account of falling in love should (if you ask me) stop reading all those books explaining it, and try actually falling in love instead! 🙂

  • Sorry I’ve not been back sooner to respond. I’ve been pretty busy.I’m not sure how you can say “God” and “the world” are not separate things, that you are not a supernaturalist, but that you are a transcendentalist.First, if “God” and “the world” are not separate things, then why perpetuate two linguistic categories?Second, “supernatural” would appear to mean something like “beyond the natural world” and “transcendent” would . . . uh, well, also appear to mean something like “beyond the natural world.”I cannot escape the sense that you are doing exactly what I talked about above, which is playing a game of Linguistic Slippery Fish.You say you cannot opt for atheism because “existence is not that shallow.”What exactly does that mean? I am forced, for lack of a better term, to identify myself as an atheist, while you appear to identify yourself as a pantheist, but I have no doubt that we both live in the same universe. Neither of us exists in a universe that is more or less “shallow” than the other.Thus, I can only conclude that your “shallow” comment means to imply that one, such as I, who is not a theist of any kind, is therefore, despite living in the same universe as you, denying the depth of that universe.To be quite honest, I cannot take that as anything but an outright insult. You have no idea how I or anyone else perceives and experiences the universe, and in fact cannot have any idea how I or anyone else perceives the universe. In short, on the alleged “depth” or “shallowness” of existence, speak for yourself.But returning to “transcendence,” you cannot demonstrate anything that is objectively “transcendent” (i.e., you say “Look, that is transcendence” and anyone else can look and say “Yes, I see it, too”) so you are left with transcendence being mental states or, quite simply, stuff you made up.Mental states, of course, are quite real, but they say nothing of the world outside one’s own mind, and they can be induced by drugs, electrodes, or other methods. You can say that “deepens” your existence, but I can point to piles of brain research that indicates it does nothing but fires your neurons in interesting patterns that have interesting effects on “consciousness,” whatever that is.And as to traditions, I see no reason to defend anything simply because it is a tradition. Once upon a time, it was a tradition to put African people in slavery and it was a tradition to treat women like property. At some point, people had to say, “No, these traditions are not worth maintaining anymore.” The same should be said of religion, which offers little, if anything, that can’t be achieved by less psychologically harmful, philosophically suspect, and linguistically destructive ways.

  • First, let me apologize for having insulted you. I was using the language of Paul Tillich, whose point was not to suggest that atheists see the world as shallow, but rather that unless you can say “life is entirely superficial” then you are not really an atheist in the full sense – denying not only theism but pantheism, panentheism and in the end anything that is greater than oneself in any ultimate sense. At any rate, I should not have made an allusion without explaining it.I would not call myself a pantheist, though I’m sure that some theists would feel there is not enough of a difference between pantheism and panentheism to make a distinction. For me, however, it is not that all that exists is God, but that God is the highest level of order and transcendence in the universe. I have a sense, an intuition, that I am part of something greater: both on a global level, as part of the ecosphere, of family and social relations, and so on, but also on a universal level. I would never claim to be able to prove this. But neither should this intuition that has been sensed by many people, in many cultures, over many centuries, some of them great minds, be dismissed as though it has no significance. I am not suggesting, therefore, that God is a supernatural immaterial other. I am suggesting, perhaps in a similar fashion to the Sufis, that the reality of which we experience a tiny part is the reality of God, and God relates to the world much as I relate to my body.Since you mentioned the firing of neurons, it is certainly possible that mystical experiences are all in my mind and the minds of others who have had them. But there have been those who have doubted all our perceptions of the outside world. In the case of the mystical, the fact that such experiences are had by people with healthy minds, and not merely by lunatics and the consumers of certain mushrooms, seems to me to at least allow for the possibility that these experiences are not just self-deception. But even if they are all in the brain, the brain itself is mysterious, as is consciousness, as is the fact that anything exists, much less that the universe has in us become aware of itself. I thus feel the need to leave room for ‘the ultimate mystery’, and that is what my talk of God is about. I do not intend such talk as an explanation of our existence, but as a pointer to the mystery thereof. Within Christianity as in most religious traditions, there have been from the beginning those who have placed emphasis on claims that one has the truth, expressed in doctrinal propositions, and alongside them others who use the same language to affirm with humility their conviction that there is something greater than themselves that they cannot put in words but which they experience as a positive force in life. If such language is slippery, it is because I am like a cell trying to talk about human existence, when all I can see is my level of existence. I will grant that such language is slippery, and will even admit that it is inadequate and in many respects bound to be wrong. But I have yet to find an alternative to symbols and pointers in the direction of this reality that I have experienced but can hardly express. My words are intended, not as slippery excuses for inaccurate or imprecise thought, but as arrows shot at the moon, to point in the direction of this thing that I can perceive, however dimly, but cannot reach, whether with my words or in any other way. But I have experienced it, as a life-changing power that has shaped me in positive ways. My conviction, ultimately, is not that it is a person who has done miracles, but simply that such experiences, even if a phenomenon within my brain, tell me something about reality.I’m currently away at a conference, and I took Dean Hamer’s The God Gene to read on the plane, so I will have more to say on this subject after I get back, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.