Rev Steve Midgley on Dawkins

The Rev Steve Midgley, who I remember from my days at The Square Church, has been featured on the Dawkins site. The sermon he gave on Professor Dawkins’s views is about a year old now, but I suppose that a posting on the Dawkins blog might generate some more interest in it. You can find MP3s of it on his church’s site (the church is the Cambridge “plant” from St Andrew the Great which I think nlj21 attends).

Rev Midgley comes across as a thoughtful and careful preacher, eager to ensure he has presented Dawkins’s views fairly.

Midgley speaks about Professor Alister McGrath’s responses to Dawkins. I’ve not read McGrath’s books, but I’ve heard his discussion with Dawkins at the Oxford Literary Festival, and also seen him and Dawkins talking at length in out-takes from Root of All Evil?, Dawkins’s Channel 4 opinion piece from last year. I didn’t find McGrath particularly impressive in either case, mostly because of his irksome habit of telling Dawkins he’d made an interesting point and then answering something other than Dawkins’s question (now I think of it, in Yes, Prime Minister, I think that’s one of Jim Hacker’s tips to Sir Humphrey for dealing with the press). For someone who’s been associated with the infamously evangelical Wycliffe Hall theological college, McGrath seems oddly evasive on some fundamental, if unpalatable, bits of evangelical doctrine, like the Virgin Birth, penal substitutionary atonement, and the sovereignty of God even in natural disasters. I’d be interested to hear what any of you who’ve read McGrath’s books thought of them.

Midgley quotes Terry Eagleton’s LRB article to illustrate that reviewers have criticised Dawkins’s lack of theological knowledge. I think I’d be more receptive to those sort of arguments if someone could point to a rebuttal of Dawkins based on that theology. Eagleton’s attempt founders on its own contradictory assertions about what God is, as Sean Carrol points out. I doubt Midgely is willing to sign up for Eagleton’s theology, which sounds suspiciously liberal to this ex-evangelical. It’s illuminating to ask how Midgley would demonstrate that his theology was more correct than Eagleton’s, though, of which more later.

Midgley talks about Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument. He makes the valid point that ordinary Christians generally aren’t concerned with the Argument from Design. Similarly, he says that forcing us to chose between evolution and God is a false choice, since God may use evolution. I think this mistakes what Dawkins’s argument is. If the universe does not require a designer (as Midgley seems to concede), life itself and the universe are not evidence for the existence of God. If there are no other good arguments for God’s existence (the one from Design isn’t the only one Dawkins talks about, although it’s the centerpiece of the book), it’s reasonable to suppose that God’s not there (or he doesn’t want to be found).

Midgley goes on to point out that scientific theories change, quoting McGrath again, and asserts that Dawkins has a faith as much as a Christian does. Dawkins’s own response to McGrath points out the inconsistency here: Dawkins, along with any good scientist, is willing to admit the scientific theories are provisional. Midgley, to get his old job at St Andrew the Great and to speak to CICCU, presumably assented to some extremely specific doctrines (never mind the Nicene Creed, if you want to test for “soundness”, try the CICCU Doctrinal Basis). These doctrines aren’t subject to testing, peer review or later revision. How are we supposed to know that Midgley is right and Eagleton’s Marxist Christianity is wrong? I think we’d just have to have faith 🙂

Finally, I wish he could pronounce Dawkins’s name correctly. That sort of mistake lays you open to parody.

20 Comments on "Rev Steve Midgley on Dawkins"

  1. Thanks for this. I’m a little puzzled as to why Midgely is on your mind, seeing as how none of his arguments are new and neither are the responses you consider pertinent.

    I’m enjoying Midgley. He’s a good lecturer. Maybe even a good preacher, though those two don’t have to go together. Right now he’s talking about the numerological features of Genesis one, the same thing that Rob Bell was so jazzed about at the beginning of his performance piece, “Everything is Spiritual.”

    I think part of what you have to consider with McGrath and Midgley is they make themselves relevant to Dawkins simply by knotting their ties properly and speaking in complete sentences and making an effort to actually dialogue. That’s because part of Dawkins’ rhetorical force is directed at not merely refuting the religious, but mocking the religious – making them sound like blithering idiots. If Dawkins didn’t waste so much verbiage in The God Delusion trying to paint a picture of the average practitioner of Christianity as verging on detachment from reality, political oppression, pathological self-deception or outright violence, maybe we’d be in a better position to insist on better arguments from the Xians.

    I don’t agree, incidentally, that McGrath is disingenuous when he sidesteps Dawkins’ questions… I think it’s the choice, in a debate-type situation, between fighting to a draw and making a related point that merits an airing. Not everything has to be said on the other guy’s terms. Dawkins himself is an expert at victory in advance by defining the permissible terms of debate.

    I love that part in Hero where two antagonists take a few seconds to play through the whole fight in their mind, since they are so hyper-aware of each other’s abilities and strategies that the whole thing can be anticipated in advance. Then they can fast-forward to the point where the conclusion actually hangs in the balance, and save everybody a whole lot of time. I think McGrath does that a little.

    I am coming to love Dawkins. I think he’s right more often than not. I just don’t know if he’s really given me a reason good enough to actually leave my community and conclude that a whole string of decisions that led me to this point has decisively collapsed somewhere along the way. Dawkins is making a case that has existential, moral, emotional and intellectual dimensions, but will only cop to making an intellectual argument. There’s a limit on how much action I will take based solely on intellectual conviction. I have a far more ambivalent relationship with my intellect than allows that.


    1. Midgley is on my mind because I saw a link to his stuff on the Dawkins blog and thought “I know him, he used to be at my church”. So it’s a local interest piece 🙂

      I’m not sure I’d call McGrath disingenuous (although I suppose I am doing that by likening him to a politician), merely bad at debating convincingly. Not only does he not respond to Dawkins’s points, but his own assertions are vague and he’s oddly reluctant to defend orthodoxy. He’s been painted by some Christians as the great white hope against the New Atheists, but he’s no C.S. Lewis.

      Dawkins does tend to miss the point that for many people, religion is about emotion and community as well as the cold facts. For me, the facts win out against everything else, but I know I’m a typical Evangelical At College in that respect. I know lots of my peers who got in because evangelicalism seemed to be a sort of spiritual science and got out when it became untenable to believe like that. Liberal Christians like to blame evangelical rigidity for people leaving the fold after graduation, but ISTM that it’s also about a certain kind of mindset which is attracted to, and then repulsed by, evangelicalism. If I’d fallen among liberals at university, perhaps I’d still be a Christian, but perhaps I’d just’ve got annoyed with them for being vague and given up because of that. I admit I still don’t quite get what keeps liberals Christian, since they have a habit of agreeing with me and then being Christian anyway.

      I certainly admire Dawkins, even if I don’t always agree with him. To my sort of mind, TGD is a bit of a curate’s egg, certainly compared to the writing in his previous books. I’d like him to be more precise and less emotional, but I’m not sure that’ll win hearts as well as minds among the people whose beliefs I just don’t get, so maybe his tactics are right for achieving his aims.


      1. I’d like him to be more precise and less emotional, but I’m not sure that’ll win hearts as well as minds among the people whose beliefs I just don’t get, so maybe his tactics are right for achieving his aims. Do you think this is intentional strategy on his part?


    2. Eagleton’s attempt founders on it’s own contradictory assertions about what God is

      Those of us who know the commie git of old are far from surprised.


  2. McGrath’s apologetic project appears to be almost entirely defensive*. For example, in Dawkins’ God, which Midgley here uses extensively, he shows that science + evolution ≠ atheism, but doesn’t really go much further than that, except to argue that ‘memetics’ is a bit of a joke subject (and I agree – going the way of Freud sooner rather than later). It’s good for Christians to read, and there are some agnostics who like him too, but I certainly wouldn’t expect any atheists to be brought to repentance by anything he’s said in public. And yes, he did give a lousy showing in that Times debate.

    Dawkins’ ‘irrefutable argument’ has been refuted 1001 different ways already, and I do think there are good teleological (and other) theistic arguments. But I’ll leave that aside for a moment to comment on where I think you miss the point about what McGrath and others mean when they point out that paradigms shift and accuse Dawkins of dogmatism. In the Times letter to which you link, he says

    Scientists are working on these deep problems, honestly and patiently. Eventually they may be solved. Or they may be insoluble. We don’t know.

    So either science (presumably assuming methodological naturalism) can answer these questions, or they’re unanswerable. I’d like to know what scientific evidence Dawkins has to show that science alone is capable of answering important questions. This is an example of the ‘doctrinaire positivism’ to which Peter Medawar is referring in the quotation Dawkins mentions, and it is a charge he absolutely fails to repudiate.


    *A possible exception is The Twilight of Atheism, in which he argues that the broadly modern surge in unbelief is at least as much a result of political as of scientific causes, and that it’s on its way out.


      1. You’re anonymous to LiveJournal, so it’s not letting you create HTML links (it does this as an anti-spam measure). I’m not sure how it’d treat you if you logged in with OpenID, assuming you’ve got one of those from your other blogging site.


    1. I agree that memetics isn’t a worthwhile subject, oddly enough because it isn’t a science. I do think the concept of a meme provides a good analogy for looking at some topics, which is all that Dawkins seemed to advocate originally (memes were mentioned at the end of The Selfish Gene as a possible example of another replicator).

      So either science (presumably assuming methodological naturalism) can answer these questions, or they’re unanswerable

      Does religion have answers to those questions? Possibly they do: I suspect that there’s at least one answer per religion and probably more. So how do we go about telling who’s right? I’m not averse to supernatural explanations if someone can show me why I should believe one above all the others.


      1. According to The Selfish Gene chapter 11, memes are

        living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking…

        …and so on. For me (and McGrath), this is already way too much ‘analogy’. As to your main point, I have to ask, do you find any metaphysical claims more plausible than any others now, or is it all much of a muchness to you? I’d start with the fairly not-prima-facie-ridiculous ideas that there is some point to existence and that mind can’t be reduced to matter, and see where we go from there.


        1. I’d start with the fairly not-prima-facie-ridiculous ideas that there is some point to existence and that mind can’t be reduced to matter Can you please define: “some point to existence”, and “mind”?


        2. I’d misremembered how literally Dawkins presented memes, then (ISTR they were presented, everyone got excited, and then he backed away from the idea a bit before deciding he was OK with them after all). I’m happy describing things as memes (the quizzes which get passed around on LiveJournal, fashion trends, or even religions) where I think the analogy to a biological replicator is reasonable. What we don’t seem to know is what the limits of the analogy are (is a religion one meme, or lots of them?, and how to use the meme idea to make predictions, so I don’t think memetics itself can be a science, yet.

          Metaphysical ideas: I don’t consider many religious ideas very plausible, but clearly not all of them are impossibly inconsistent, so there’s a non-zero chance that some of them are true.

          The point to existence is whatever you decide it is. I that sense, there is a point, but I doubt it’s the same for everyone.

          It’s possible that mind cannot be reduced to matter, but I’ve no reason to think that must be true. Physical brains seem pretty important. Arguments based on qualia (which I now realise are what Swinburne was talking about in the quotation on your blog, although I think I can be forgiven my false trail on the process of science given how he goes into his argument) seem, from what little I’ve read, to be equivocal. To my mind (heh), even if we can’t understand what it’s like to experience something by looking at the outside, that doesn’t mean what is inside requires something non-physical to run on. Perhaps it’s my SF reading. People like Greg Egan and Charles Stross talk about virtualised consciousness all the time, but in some stories you can’t draw a distinction between working out what someone would do based on their brain and actually creating a conscious replica of them: the simulation you’re running is conscious.


          1. Sure: ideas, trends, beliefs etc. spread, and some last longer than others. I just don’t think the analogy with the gene goes any further than that. And that’s not really enough.

            By ‘point’ I meant more like a reason. If there were no people, would there be a point to existence? Or will ‘the universe is just there, and that’s all’ do it for you?

            RE: mind, no point re-running our last discussion. Rob, I suggest that’s where you look for some background.


  3. I think there are two problems with Dawkins’s argument. Firstly, I don’t think he adequately addresses the historical arguments (i.e. resurrection) for Christianity, so I don’t think he provides an adequate argument for what he thinks happened around 30AD. (Sure there are post-modernist who say we can’t be sure what happened yesterday, in WWII, or a few thousand years ago, so must be irrelevant or maybe phrase it as “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”: what’s wrong with normal evidence???!?)

    Secondly, I think your last paragraph is nonsense. What do you think faith is, and what is its relationship to certainty (actually I’d be interested to know what your thoughts are on and the definitions of doubt/certainty). Do you think there is some system you can have certainty without faith (i.e. some sort of logical positivism) if so, please enlighten the rest of us with what it is!!


    1. Hello! Is that nlj21 or someone else? Sounds a bit like what Nick was saying to me the other day.

      I don’t think the historical evidence of the Resurrection is that great, as gjm11 tells us in his parable. As Gareth points out, that’s not a refutation of Christianity, but arguments which claim that the evidence of the Bible means the Resurrection must have happened are flawed. Sometimes the Resurrection is used to play what one blogger describes as M.C. Escher style games (a reference to this sort of drawing).

      What’s wrong with ordinary evidence is that our overwhelming experience is that people don’t rise from the dead, and our currently understanding of the universe gives us some good reasons to think that resurrection is unlikely. If someone wants to claim otherwise, their evidence had better be extremely good. I don’t think I’m uniquely prejudiced against Christianity in this: I don’t believe the Roman Emperor Vespasian cured blindness with his saliva any more than I think Jesus did. I’m quite prepared to believe Jesus and Vespasian existed, because there seems to be reasonable evidence for that and it’s not particularly incredible to start with.

      “The assurance of things hoped for and the promise of things not seen”, of course. My comment about just needing to have faith is slightly tongue in cheek, as the smiley indicates. I don’t think there’s absolute certainty outside of mathematics. I do think there are ways to be confident about some things. My problem with Rev Midgley and Prof Eagleton (or at least, the sort of Christianity he’s using for the sake of his argument, since I assume he remains resolutely Marxist) is that they claim to be talking about the true that’s “out there”, and they may argue until they are blue in the face about who is right, but, as I’ve said before, there’s no way for a disinterested third party to tell. Whence comes the certainty of the CICCU DB or the other Creeds?

      Fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian would kill off Dawkins’s acceptance of evolution, yet a liberal isn’t convinced by “what the Bible says” and an evangelical isn’t convinced by textual or historical criticism of the Bible (reasonable conclusion: God doesn’t care what either of them believes). Christian apologists who criticise the “fanaticism” of scientists or claim that science rests on faith just as much as religion does just make themselves look silly, because science has a way of demonstrating its claims.


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