Religion Challenge: Dawkins vs. McGrath debate

(note: this is part of a debate between myself and two Christian friends. You can find a link to the entire series below)

Posted by Adam on 9/15

Ah, a great place to start a discussion. I've heard McGrath speak many times. For some reason he gets a little more cred because he was on the other side (it goes both ways - this is true of Christians that convert as well). He seems like a nice enough guy. I do believe that his heart is in the right place and he, like many secular humanists, just wants us all to get along. I admire that.

The one thing that really strikes me is that McGrath really comes off as a deist. That is, he believes that there is a creator. As I've said before, most non-theists have no problem with this belief. Who knows, maybe it is the right one. But as Dawkins astutely points out, the jump from believing in a creator and believing any of the religions is monumental.

And I think that is where McGrath gets into trouble in these debates. He speaks of how Christianity enriches the human experience and how the belief in science alone is unfulfilling. I don't understand or agree with either of those points, but what amazes me is that McGrath uses them as arguments for his way of thinking. After all, even if you believed that humans need to have another set of answers, why would you pick the supernatural explanation? If science can't explain everything, how could religion? He says early on in the debate that he doesn't believe in the "God of the gaps" but then repeatedly says that religion fills in the answers that we do not yet know.

I do acknowledge that many people feel the need to have an explanation (no matter how weak) of how we got here. They like thinking that there is a supernatural watchdog in the sky. I think McGrath is a perfect example of this. While it may sound impressive that he is a converted atheist, that left him open to obvious questions. First, how can a scientist make the jump from there being a creator to believing in religion. He said that too much stuff required explanation. Second, why Christianity? He said that Islam seemed to require God to pass down his word through too many people. I found this answer to be interesting because when non-Chrisitans point out the absurdities in Christianity, Christians will often say "that's just the way it is". Either way, McGrath apparently needed more answers.

I think Dawkins did a great job here. He points out that Science and religion are incompatible and contradictory. Science is the search for truth while faith is believing where there is no evidence. Just as science has eroded the ancient texts for centuries and forced the religions to change God's word and come up with new "explanations", the science of the future will be magnitudes better at telling us where we came from. Dawkins also hammered McGrath at his jump from deism to Christian, calling it "dishonest" (not that he is a Christian but that he linked the belief in a creator to the Christian revelation).

McGrath also tried to argue that faith is rationale. At one point he said that "faith is rationale because it tries to make sense of things". Huh? What does the attempt to answer a question have to do with making the attempt rationale? He also said that Christianity makes a better way of seeing things. Once again, this is weak. If you're a Christian, fine. But "a better way of seeing things"? Once again, I don't understand the premise that we need to know more. But more importantly, McGrath might as well just say that people need to be placated. Give them an answer, any answer. He insinuates that the comfort is more important and I completely reject that notion.

Finally, Dawkins asked how McGrath would counsel other religions that have their own sets of truths. He said that he would advise them that Christianity would be the right way to go. And we wonder why the world is the way it is. Your book from the dark ages is better than their book from the dark ages.

McGrath did make one pointed that he agreed with. He appears to endorse science and scientific principles. He said that gravity is one of them and should not be considered anything else. Of course, that left him open to the point that miracles (so very central to religion) are the suspension of the laws of nature and there is no evidence to this ever happening. And I'll reiterate an observation that I've made before about these debates. I never, ever see anyone defend the Bible.

I did see some interesting comments on this debate in the youtube forums. They seemed to sum it up nicely:

"The only question worth discussion is, as Dawkins said, "Is it true?' meaning 'Is there a god?'. All the rests is just pussy footing around this fundamental core issue. McGrath, for all his eloquence, came across as a typical Deist, a platitude for every awkward question. How a grown man, a biologist at that, can believe in fairy stories such as the Virgin Birth, defies belief. I could almost see Dawkins laughing. McGrath offered absolutely nothing other than his 'Faith'."


"Every time I hear McGrath, his logic seems erratic, and unfocused. I would be happy, if a religious person just said, "I know religion is superstition, but I want to believe, so I do. Science is a superior process to search for truth, but I need identity reinforcement, so I go to church" That would be honest, instead of trying to seem intellectual by combating critics, with clever quips, ad hominem attacks, and double speak, but no evidence whatsoever. "

I've also included a snipped from Hitchen taken from the Christian Expo. I thought it was relevant because so many people talk about how Christianity enriches our lives. He was asked what the other side has to offer.

Link to the original article
Link to the entire series

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