Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Religion Pander: Stephen Crittenden and Alister McGrath

This week's Religion Report featured an interview with Christian apologist Alister McGrath on Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. McGrath has debated Dawkins on several occasions, as well as Christopher Hitchens, and on such occasions has always had his arse handed to him. So it was with great disappointment that I listened to presenter Stephen Crittenden treat McGrath's arguments with kid gloves in this interview.

The format of the programme was ridiculously one-sided, for starters:

  1. Crittenden plays a grab of Dawkins from an Oxford University debate (with McGrath),
  2. Crittenden elicits from McGrath a long-winded criticism of Dawkins--invariably prefaced by his signature phrase "I think what I'd want to say . . ."--and then eagerly joins in,
  3. Crittenden fails to submit McGrath's claims to the same level of scrutiny.

Crittenden was positively testy with Sam Harris when he appeared on TRR in December last year, and on an earlier show had opined that "people like Dawkins are just as fundamentalist as any southern Baptist, just as ignorant about religion as your southern Baptist is about science, and perhaps guilty of promoting, fuelling movements like Intelligent Design, because of their fundamentalism." But he could at least, in his capacity as a journalist, have tried to play the Devil's Advocate with McGrath.

Instead--having himself remarked that "Dawkins makes so little of Islam, even when he's writing about religious violence. He's really focusing much of this book on Christianity, isn't he?"--he allows McGrath to get away with pearlers like these:
Well he is, and I think that in many ways Dawkins finds that he can't criticise Islam directly because that would be politically really quite dangerous, and therefore he prefers to concentrate on soft targets, and there's no softer target than Christianity, so he and these other writers seem to be focusing on Christianity as being the easy target. It's really been very well received in certain parts of the public, because there is this very deep sense of alienation from what the Christian church has been saying.

Dawkins doesn't criticise Islam? Did McGrath really just say that? On pages 24-27 of The God Delusion Dawkins attacks the "incitement to mayhem" throughout the Muslim world (which he also describes as "hysterical") arising from the Danish cartoon controversy--he notes that "if you don't take [Islam] seriously and accord it proper respect you are physically threatened, on a scale that no other religion has aspired to since the Middle Ages." Elsewhere in the book he attacks blasphemy and apostasy laws in Muslim countries (he cites the case of Abdul Rahman, sentenced to death in Afghanistan in 2006 for converting to Christianity, and who is now in hiding in Italy), and the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. He suggests Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim could be retitled The Myth of Moderate Islam. Regarding the London bombings, he approvingly cites another author's suggestion "that the young men who committed suicide were neither on the fringes of Muslim society in Britain, nor following an eccentric and extremist interpretation of their faith, but rather that they came from the very core of the Muslim community and were motivated by a mainstream interpretation of Islam." Shall I go on? In 2001, four days after Sept. 11, he remarked: "testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world might be desperate enough to go for 72 private virgins in the next."

Why might Dawkins pay more attention to Christianity than to Islam in The God Delusion? "Unless otherwise stated, I shall have Christianity mostly in mind, but only because it is the version with which I happen to be most familiar. For my purposes the differences [between the Abrahamic religions] matter less than the similarities." Simple as that.

Next, Crittenden and McGrath tackle Dawkins' claim that there is a real conflict between science and religion:
Stephen Crittenden: Indeed, is that one of the biggest weaknesses in Dawkins' book, that he doesn't acknowledge the role of the churches and religious believers in the history of science: the Jesuits in astronomy and seismology, and medicine, for instance; or the fact that the Big Bang theory was first proposed by a Belgian priest. And of course the general public doesn't know all that much about this history either.

Alister E. McGrath: Well that's right. I mean Dawkins has this very simplistic idea that science and religion have always been at war with each other, and he says only one can win, and let's face it, it's going to be science. But the history just doesn't take into that place. The history suggests that at times there has been conflict, but at times there has been great synergy between science and religion and many would say that at this moment, there are some very exciting things happening in the dialogue between science and religion. What Dawkins is offering is a very simplistic, slick spin on a very complex phenomenon. It's one that clearly he expects to appeal to his readers, but the reality is simply not like that at all.

I'm not sure that there is too much to get excited about in the dialogue between science and religion. Endeavours to demonstrate the efficacy of prayer in the science lab have invariably led up blind alleys. On the other hand, the emerging science of neurotheology suggests that the capacity for religious belief may be hardwired into our brains.

While it is possible to oversimplify the historical relationship between religion and science, the role played by religion in suppressing science is undeniable. But McGrath misses Dawkins' point, as articulated in a 1997 article:
Science is based upon verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops. Why else would Christians wax critical of doubting Thomas? The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence. Perhaps he should be the patron saint of scientists.
That is the crux of the issue between science and religion.

Crittenden continues:
Stephen Crittenden: There's one particularly outrageous moment in his book where he talks about the great scientist Gregor Mendel, and suggests that he became an Augustinian monk in order to support his scientific research. I'm not sure how he could know that.

Alister E. McGrath: I think this is Dawkins' rewriting of history to suit his own agendas, to be frank.

Rewriting history--really? Dawkins actually says (on p.99): "Mendel, of course, was a religious man, an Augustinian monk; but that was in the nineteenth century, when becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue his science. For him, it was the equivalent of a research grant." Which is true: Mendel, the second son of peasant farmers, was a brilliant student in his youth, but his parents lacked the means to pay for his higher education. So he entered an Augustinian monastery. Dawkins isn't "rewriting" anything here.

Stephen Crittenden: It seems obvious, on the other hand, that religion - I mean this is almost too obvious to say - that religion has indeed been in retreat before science, as science has answered more and more questions about the physical world.

Alister E. McGrath: Well I would certainly agree with that. And I think one of the issues we have here is that in the past, religious people have very often overplayed their hand, and said in effect, 'Look, we can tell you everything'. And then science has begun to encroach on that, and they had to retreat. What I'd want to say is - and I think many would agree with this - that science is wonderful when it comes to explaining the relationships we observe in the material world. But there are bigger questions of meaning and value. In other words, why are we here? What's the purpose of life? And I'd want to say very clearly that science actually can't answer those questions, and in fact if science does answer those questions, it's gone way beyond its legitimate sphere of authority.

The implication here is that if such questions do not fall within the "legitimate sphere of authority" of science, then they must be assumed to fall within the "legitimate sphere of authority" of religion. I'll let Dawkins speak for himself on this one:
It is a tedious cliche (and, unlike many cliches, it isn't even true) that science concerns itself with how questions, but only theology is equipped to answer why questions. What on Earth is a why question? Not every English sentence beginning with the word 'why' is a legitimate question. Why are unicorns hollow? Some questions simply do not deserve an answer. What is the colour of abstraction? What is the smell of hope? The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn't make it meaningful, or entitle it to our serious attention. Nor, even if the question is a real one, does the fact that science cannot answer it imply that religion can. (p.56)
But it is, as I said, rather disappointing that Crittenden didn't challenge McGrath on this point.

We then hear a grab of what is perhaps the most well-known argument advanced in The God Delusion: "There's a chapter on children, and what I regard as the abuse of children, which is the assumption, without the child's consent, that the child inherits the religion of its parents, and I've described that as a form of child abuse." Rather than address this argument directly, Crittenden suggests that Dawkins lacks "a theory of culture," and thus
Dawkins doesn't really understand the ethical and sociological dimension of religion. I'm talking about his idea that belief in God arises from a meme. That's a sort of anti-culture idea, a sort of biological theory of culture. I'm also thinking of his view that bringing up children in a religious tradition is a form of child abuse. That almost sounds like culture is something alien.

Alister E. McGrath: Well that's certainly a very fair point, and indeed one of the major criticisms I'd make of 'The God Delusion' is that he doesn't seem to be able to distinguish between belief in God, religion, world views and culture. These are very important distinctions to make, and certainly you mentioned this idea of the meme, which plays a very significant role in Dawkins' book The God Delusion, and really the key point here is that Dawkins seems to think that his idea of the meme explains away belief in God, that somehow you can give a biological explanation of why people believe in God and that shows it is wrong, it can be disposed of. And of course the point you've made is a good one. Actually there are very important cultural reasons why people believe in God, because there's a cultural mandate to think about these things, to begin to evaluate the evidence for belief in God and then if there is a God to begin to express that belief in certain cultural ways. For example, ways of behaviour, rituals, actions and so forth. And again, I don't see Dawkins really engaging with that, which gives I think his critique of religion a real vulnerability at that point

Of course there are sociological explanations, cultural explanations, for why people not only believe in God but choose to raise their children with such a belief. That doesn't go anywhere near addressing the idea that children ought not to be labelled and coerced in this way, and that they ought instead be allowed to develop their own ideas regarding religion--just as they are permitted to do when it comes to political ideologies or political parties. McGrath makes no attempt to justify, to say why it is right that children be referred to as "Catholic children" or "Protestant children;" he is either stupidly confusing an "is" with an "ought," or arrogantly doing so.
Stephen Crittenden: Now one of the most interesting areas in his book I think is the section in his book that deals with the links between religion and violence. Because after all, if you're right, and 9/11 was the trigger for the book in the first place, this really gets to the heart of the matter.

Alister E. McGrath: Yes, there's no doubt that the most persuasive part of the book is where Dawkins argues that religion seems to have this innate propensity to lead to violence. In other words, if you believe in God, you are much more likely to be a violent person than if you don't believe in God. And I think personally, that's one of the reasons why the book has had such an impact in Australia because you are nervous about violence, nervous about extremism, and Dawkins offers an extremely simplistic answer to those concerns: it's caused by religion, get rid of religion and these things go away.

Actually, Dawkins acknowledges (p. 259) that "Religion is a label of in-group/out-group enmity and vendetta, not necessarily worse than other labels such as skin colour, language or preferred football team, but often available when other labels are not." For Dawkins, though, religion is particularly problematic for three reasons:
  1. Labelling of children. Children are described as 'Catholic children' or 'Protestant children' etc. from an early age, and certainly far too early for them to have made up their own minds on what they think about religion
  2. Segregated schools. Children are educated, again often from a very early age, with members of a religious in-group and separately from children whose families adhere to other religions. It is not an exaggeration to say that the troubles in Northern Ireland would disappear in a generation if segregated schooling were abolished.
  3. Taboos against 'marrying out'. This perpetuates hereditary feuds and vendettas by preventing the mingling of feuding groups. Intermarriage, if it were permitted, would naturally tend to mollify enmities.
Dawkins is only claiming that religious labelling exacerbates our propensity to violence; he is not claiming that if you get rid of religion, violence will disappear.
Stephen Crittenden: It's interesting that in Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene from the mid-1970s which is the book where he coins the term 'meme', we get Dawkins the social Darwinist, who suggests that selfishness and violence comes from our biology, and yet here he is in this book blaming it all on religion. It seems like an interesting contradiction.
Except he's not "blaming it all on religion." Shoddy journalism, Stephen. And here's where Alister McGrath makes one of his most outrageous statements:
Alister E. McGrath: Well it's an intriguing transition and certainly in the book The Selfish Gene he seems to say all these things are genetically programmed. But then right at the end of the book he says, 'Well somehow we can rise above this'. But I'd want to challenge him at this point I think and say Look, I have no doubt that some people who are religious, have done some very bad things, but I'd want to make a counterpoint very forcibly. And that is, this is not typical of religion. This is the fringes being presented as though they're the mainstream. And we saw that in his television program, The Root of All Evil, which many of your listeners may have seen, where he presented some extremists as if they were mainliners, and I think that's a very serious misrepresentation. I want to make it clear, I have no doubt there are some very weird religious people who might well be dangerous, but those of us who believe in God, know that, and we're doing all we can to try and minimise their influence. The centre needs to be reaffirmed, and Dawkins does not help us do that at all.

What an astonishing ignorance of history this man has, if he thinks the Crusades or the Inquisition were the work of "fringe" elements and not mainstream Christianity. What an astonishing ignorance of current events this man has, if in the wake of countless sexual abuse scandals in the Church--not least of which has been the Church's complicity in attempting to sweep it all under the carpet--he can talk about "fringes being presented as the mainstream" and keep a straight face. You can't get more mainstream than the Catholic Church, a denomination comprising one sixth of the world's population.
Stephen Crittenden: No. On the other hand, it's true isn't it, that there's a very strong powerful view in popular culture about the churches, and their history. It may be a caricatured view that starts with the Inquisition and includes the Crusades and so on, it's a very one-sided view of course, but it's very, very deep in the culture.

Alister E. McGrath: That's right. And Dawkins is able to point to this narrative of violence, the Crusades, the Inquisition.

Stephen Crittenden: What can the churches do about that?

Alister E. McGrath: Well I think there are two things they can do. One is they can make sure the other side of the story is told. They can talk about the narrative of violence in atheism in the 20th century, for example in the Soviet Union, where there were a whole series of absolutely abominable events, which again reflected the imposition of atheism on a fundamentally religious people, and that needs to be said.
Tu quoque. And wrong: Stalin's purges were not a logical consequence of the official atheist stance of the Soviet state. The prevailing dogma in the Soviet Union was not atheism--it was Stalinism. Christopher Hitchens has a great answer to the kind of canard being peddled by McGrath:
Wiener: The final killer argument of your critics is that Hitler and Stalin were not religious. The worst crimes of the 20th century did not have a religious basis. They came from political ideology.

Hitchens: That’s easy. Hitler never abandoned Christianity and recommends Catholicism quite highly in “Mein Kampf.” Fascism, as distinct from National Socialism, was in effect a Catholic movement.

Wiener: What about Stalin? He wasn’t religious.

Hitchens: Stalin—easier still. For hundreds of years, millions of Russians had been told the head of state should be a man close to God, the czar, who was head of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as absolute despot. If you’re Stalin, you shouldn’t be in the dictatorship business if you can’t exploit the pool of servility and docility that’s ready-made for you. The task of atheists is to raise people above that level of servility and credulity. No society has gone the way of gulags or concentration camps by following the path of Spinoza and Einstein and Jefferson and Thomas Paine.
In short, for McGrath's Stalin analogy to work, he would need to show how the atheism mapped out in The God Delusion--an agnostic atheism grounded in the virtues of critical thinking, skepticism, and free inquiry--leads inexorably to the atrocities perpetrated under Mao and Stalin.

McGrath continues:
But against that, we need to make this point, that does not mean that all atheists are evil, it certainly doesn't. Just as the fact that some religious people do violent things, does not mean that all people who believe in God do these things.
Strawman: nobody is suggesting that all people believe in God do violent things.

We finally come to the end of the interview, where the following excerpt from Dawkins is played . . .
Given that right and wrong is a very difficult question anyway, once again what on earth makes you trust religion to tell you what's right and wrong? I mean if you do trust religion, where are you going to get it from? For goodness' sake don't get it from the Bible, at least not from the Old Testament, and certainly aspects of the New Testament have very agreeable vibes for us today, but how do we decide which of those are agreeable and which are not? It is the case that since we are all 21st century people, we all subscribe to a pretty widespread consensus of what's right and what's wrong. Nowadays we don't believe in slavery any more, we don't believe in child labour, we don't believe in physical violence in the home, there are all sorts of things that people used to believe in and no longer do, and that is a general consensus which we all share to a greater or lesser extent, whether or not we are religious.

Now if you look at the Bible, either the Old or New Testament, you can pick and choose verses of the Bible which chime in with that decent moral consensus that we all share, and you can say Oh well, this comes from the Bible; this comes from the Bible. But of course you'll find plenty of other bits in the Bible which are simply horrendous by today's standards. So something other than religion is giving us this general moral consensus, and I haven't time to go into what I think it is, but whatever else it is, it's not religion. And if you try to cherrypick your Bible or your Qu'ran, your Holy Book, whatever it is, you can find good bits and you can throw out bad bits, but the criterion by which you do that cherrypicking has nothing to do with religion.
. . . which is studiously ignored by Crittenden and McGrath. The obvious question to put to McGrath would be: do you think we get our morals from the Bible, and if so, why? Crittenden, however, prefers to ask:
Alister the church seems more on the back foot than ever on this point of where values comes from. It sometimes seems to me that part of what's going on is that this is a very vibrant time for biology in particular, and we're seeing the kind of youthful exuberance of a new biological paradigm, as the biotech revolution gets under way. And religion creates a lot of problems for science at this particular time. It seems to me that one of the things that perhaps we've allowed scientists to get away with is the idea that science creates value.

Alister E. McGrath: I think that's a very important point. And actually Dawkins and I, I think, agree at one point on this. Because Dawkins is very, very clear that rightly, science cannot tell us what is right or wrong. In other words, that those who science creates a system of values are misunderstanding what science is all about. And I think we do need to challenge science at this point and say Look, the fact that something can be done, doesn't make that good in itself, that by doing something new, we very often open the door to possibilities that cannot be changed, that might actually be destructive. There's a real concern there. And certainly I want to affirm that science offers us many very good things. For example, better medical procedures. But we all know the dark side, that science is able to make available new methods of mass destruction that really can be enormously dangerous for humanity. So I think we need to be deadly realistic about what we're talking about here.

That's nice, but Dawkins was making a specific point which you have failed to address: wherever we get our morals from, it can't be from the Bible. He's not saying we get them from science--you acknowledge this yourself. So why not address his actual point?
Stephen Crittenden: Are the churches also perhaps on the back foot here? We've been through a period where there's been so much debate particularly about sexual politics and sexual morality, people are less inclined than ever to take their values from what the churches say.

Alister E. McGrath: I think the real difficulty is that we need values at this time more than ever. And the churches perhaps are feeling discouraged about trying to get their values heard in this secular culture. And very often the problem for the churches is that their values are simply heard to be No, to this, No, to that. That we need to really present Christian values in a positive, engaging way and say Look, it's not about negation, don't do that, it's trying to say Look, here is an understanding of who we are as human beings, but what our role is here on earth and in the light of that there are certain things we should be doing, and certain other things we need to be much more critical of. And we need to sell this big picture, not just individual Nos to this, that and the other, but rather a powerful, persuasive, compelling view of human identity, which enables us to show that there are certain things we should be doing, and certain things also that we should not.

Based on what evidence? What evidence is there to support this "powerful, compelling view of human identity" that you refuse to sketch out? What is our "role" here on Earth, and how do you know that it is our role, or that we indeed have a "role?" At some point McGrath needs to peel himself out of his comfortable armchair, desist with the hand-waving, and actually explain why he thinks Christianity is a good source of morality, rather than assume that it is.

Well, it all goes pear-shaped from here, I'm afraid, because even after McGrath has acknowledged Dawkins affirmation that science cannot tell us what is right and what is wrong, Crittenden introduces the dread strawman TEH DARWINIAN WORLDVIEW, upon which McGrath seizes with gusto:
Look, Darwinism presents us with a narrative which is about the strongest winning out. Can we transfer that to society as a whole, and say Look, let's let the strong win. And you can see that Darwinism does pose a challenge, not simply to some Christian values, but to some values that are deeply embedded in civilisation as a whole. And the real question is this. Do we just say Well Darwinism may help us understand what's happening in nature, but that does not have an impact on the way we ought to behave, either as Christians or simply as good citizens. And that certainly to me is a very important point. Darwinism is articulating a value system which if it were to be applied rigorously, would I think lead to the weak being marginalised, set to one side, so that the strong can simply overwhelm everyone else.

Strawman. Strawman. Strawman. (Or perhaps Projection, projection, projection.) There really is no better way of putting it. Who's articulating this "Darwinist value system," and advocating that the weak be marginalised, and the strong overwhelm everyone else? Certainly not Dawkins. And it is not a belief--as you yourself acknowledge--that follows from the acceptance of Darwinian evolutionary biology. So why introduce this red herring into the discussion at all?
Stephen Crittenden: A last question, Professor McGrath, is there a sense perhaps in which you and Dawkins share the same premises? You both come out of an English empirical philosophical tradition. Perhaps you as an Evangelical are just as caught up with propositions and proof as he is?

Alister E. McGrath: Well Dawkins and I are both men of faith. We both believe certain things to be true, and we know we can't prove them. Dawkins I think has perhaps an exaggerated sense of what he can show, but certainly when you look at him rigorously, he is a man of faith who believes certain things, that cannot actually be demonstrably so. And he and I both believe that we are telling the truth, and we both believe also that if we are right, this has a major implication for the way people live their lives.

Except that Dawkins is able to offer evidence in support of what he believes is true, while you, McGrath, refuse to do so, and Crittenden refuses to challenge you on this. That's poor journalism on Crittenden's part, and poor apologetics* on yours.

(*This is especially so considering that McGrath is currently in Australia, so the Religion Report tells us, to help evangelicals counter Dawkins arguments. Given that McGrath's brand of apologetics consists largely of obfuscations, misrepresentations, and logical fallacies galore, my advice to Australian evangelicals is: ask someone else.

And would someone please pin McGrath down on why he became a Christian? McGrath tells us "First, Christianity made a lot of sense. It gave me a new way of seeing and understanding the world, above all, the natural sciences." You can get the same effect from any number of exotic substances, not all of them legal. So what? Why does McGrath think Christianity--not just theism, but Christianity--make more sense than atheism? "Second, I discovered Christianity actually worked: it brought purpose and dignity to life." There's a lump in my throat. Really. So Christianity makes you feel better about yourself: you once woz lost but now iz found. Are you suggesting that atheists in general lack purpose and dignity in their lives, just because you feel you did when you were an atheist? Hasty generalisation fallacy.

You're an evangelical, McGrath. Who could you possibly hope to convert with such feeble reasoning?)

UPDATE: When he has been pressed on his reasons for believing in God (as he is in the Oxford University debate referred to in The Religion Report, his answers are not surprising. Fallacious, certainly, but not surprising:
. . . the very strong sense that this world is ordered, and that this ordering is something both excellent and beautiful in itself, but also that it needs to be accounted for. [Argument from design.] And again it seemed to me that one of the strong points of the Christian faith was this postulation of an ordered universe created by God, which we could begin to investigate and uncover. [Begging the question.] Second, there is a whole range of things to do with human experience, experience with our own lives, of culture, which very often involves, for example, this very unusual sensation of a longing for transcendence [wishful thinking]: in other words, an idea you find in writers like Iris Murdoch, or even John Dewey [little Johnnyism], that there's something beyond us, which somehow brings legitimacy to some of our core notions both of morality and general philosophical ideas [argument from ignorance].

It's so tempting to transcribe the discussion as it proceeds from here. Dawkins presses McGrath on whether he--as a man of science--believes in miracles such as the Virgin Birth, and McGrath waffles on about ". . . different levels of explanation." It's beautiful.

Cross-posted at Punditocracy Watch.