In this week's New Scientist, Bryan Appleyard reviews Alister McGrath's book 'The Dawkins Delusion' (3 March 2007, p47). McGrath is a professor of 'historical theology' at Oxford, and his book is a response to Richard Dawkins's atheistic best-seller, 'The God Delusion'.
Appleyard's review raises a number of points worth considering. Firstly, he raises the charge that Dawkins is ignorant of theology. Dawkins's attack, however, is essentially upon religion and religious belief, not theology. The majority of people who hold religious beliefs are ignorant of theology, so an attack upon religion and religious belief can be made, quite legitimately, without engaging in theological debate.
Appleyard then asserts that "the idea that science necessarily entails an assault on religion has long been rejected by theologians and scientists." Certainly, there are numerous people, particularly in the US, who seek to partition science and religion into separate consistent domains. There are two primary reasons for this:
(i) Such is the power of religion in the US, that many atheistic scientists and politicians decide, as an act of strategic pragmatism, that a partition of science and religion is the only realistic policy that will enable them to perform their work unhindered.
(ii) Many people in the US are religiously indoctrinated from an early age, hence many American scientists are Christian, and find the need, within their own minds, to reconcile their religious and scientific beliefs.
Make no mistake, though, science and religion are not consistent. In particular, science cannot be consistent with Christianity because of the numerous, quite specific, historical claims it makes, in tandem with the proposed occurrence of various 'miracles' such as the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension of Jesus and Mary, not to mention the Garden of Eden and the Fall. All of these historical claims are inconsistent with the laws of physics, or refutable with empirical evidence.
Nevertheless, Appleyard attempts to find a variety of reasons to justify religious belief. He cites Swinburne's question, 'why is the world explicable at all?', and asserts that "As the Catholic church in particular makes clear, any investigation of the material world is, to evoke Stephen Hawking's famous pay-off to A Brief History of Time, an investigation of 'the mind of God'."
This is what theologians call the notion of God's 'immanence' in the world. It is also sometimes called the Pantheistic notion of God. The idea is that God is present throughout the natural world. Dawkins, however, does address this point:
"A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation...He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them)...Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, of for the lawfulness that governs its workings...
"Einstein was using 'God' in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. So is Stephen Hawking...The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light-years away from the interventionistic, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language." (The God Delusion, p18-19).
The explicability and intelligibility of the world isn't a mystery, merely a consequence of evolution by natural selection producing animals with brains capable of representing the world around them; an obvious survival trait.
Appleyard also turns to anthropic principle arguments, which show that the parameters of physics are very finely-tuned to values which permit the existence of life: "as Dawkins acknowledges and physicists have shown, the existence of conscious, rational beings is a wildly improbable outcome". Appleyard argues that "to insist that we are simply the products of the workings of, ultimately, physical laws is to avoid the question of the nature and origin of those laws."
This, of course, is quite true, but still doesn't provide a reason for believing in the existence of a supernatural creator. And, in terms of the anthropic principle, the multiverse-hypothesis explains the fine-tuning of the parameter values without the need to invoke a supernatural deity. This hypothesis proposes that there is a large collection of universes, realising all possible laws and parameter values, but only in those universes which permit the existence of life, is it possible for intelligent life to observe those self-same laws and parameters.
In the final paragraph, Appleyard points out that "Any view that religion is the source of all evil and atheism is the origin of none is plainly absurd when confronted with the largely atheist bloodletting of the 20th century." This is to ignore the point which Dawkins makes frequently, that people often kill because of their religious beliefs (e.g. Islamic suicide-bombers, who believe they are killing infidels under divine sanction, and that they will be rewarded for this with a luxurious afterlife), whilst atheists who kill, kill for reasons other than their atheism. Moreover, as Dawkins states in the preface to his book "In January 2006 I presented a two-part television documentary... called Root of All Evil? From the start, I didn't like the title. Religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of all anything."