alister mcgrath

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.

As you might be aware, I enjoy listening to, and occasionally taking part in debate and discussion on religion. This post is mostly links to and commentary about a few such debates I’ve come across recently.

robhu has been posting about William Lane Craig. I don’t like watching Craig, partly because he usually cows his atheist opponents, but also because of how he does it. After you’ve watched or heard him in action more than once, you realise that Craig has a script which he rattles off, and some debating tricks which he uses to great effect (for instance, because debates are time-limited, you can always use your opponent’s lack of time to claim that your opponent cannot refute your argument because they have not had time to do so). Craig often seems to omit the basic courtesy of listening to your opponent. I don’t find his arguments that persuasive either (see gjm11‘s recent blog posting on the evidence for the Resurrection, for example).

Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath’s discussion at the Oxford Literary Festival was a gentler affair than one of Craig’s debates. McGrath seems a little unwilling to spell out what he does believe, which I found odd for a Christian, and which allowed Dawkins to land some easy blows merely by asking him to spell it out:

Dawkins: Well I mean, do you believe in the virgin birth?

McGrath: Well I do, but the issue I think really is not simply how one makes sense of these things but actually what they point to.

Dawkins: No, no. Look, you are a scientist, you are a biologist and you believe in the virgin birth, on scriptural grounds. You actually elevate scripture above science in this case.

McGrath: Well in this case, here is something which seems to me to be an integral part of the Christian tradition, which may well be in conflict with part of our present day scientific understanding, that’s certainly an area of tension.


Dawkins also turns up alongside a host of other public intellectuals (A.C. Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Julia Neuberger, Roger Scruton and Nigel Spivey) in a debate on the motion “We’d be better off without religion”. The two sides sometimes seemed to be speaking past each other, in that the proponents were mostly thinking of the religious as people who believe something, and the opponents talked in terms of community and feelings of transcendence. Some commenters on the Dawkins forum took this is a sign of victory, in that so much ground has been yielded to atheism that the proponents of religion are not even prepared to argue that it is true.

Not being a huge follower of politics, I wasn’t aware that these Drinked Soaked Trots took their name from George Galloway’s insult to Christopher Hitchens. I’m not sure about the war, but I’m more in agreement with Hitchens’s views on the moral necessity of atheism.