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Gloves off, and seconds out

30 September 2008

John Saxbee cheers as a heavyweight squares up to an atheist crusader

Why There Almost Certainly Is a God
Keith Ward

DURING THE recent furore over the enforced resignation of Michael Reiss as director of education for the Royal Society, Richard Dawkins declared that an Anglican priest in such a post was like something out of a Monty Python sketch.

He would say that, wouldn’t he? After all, exposing the Dawkins delusion has become the pastime of choice for a succession of best-selling Christian authors — or­dained and lay. Dawkins must be getting sick and tired of deluded theists who have had the temerity to enter the sacred space where he holds sway as High Priest of scien­tific materialism.

Now Keith Ward has joined the fray. He was actually quoted, or rather, misquoted, by Dawkins in The God Delusion, and, as he puts it, “from that moment the gloves were off.” As a former Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford, Ward is well placed to chal­lenge Dawkins’s somewhat fragile theological credentials; but it is as a leading philosopher that Ward exposes the logical and philosophi­cal fallacies at the heart of Daw­kins’s atheist crusade.

Those familiar with The God Delusion will recognise that the title of this book simply substitutes the word “a” for the word “no” in the title of Dawkins’s Chapter 4, “be­cause”, as Ward puts it, “I think that change reflects the situation more accurately.”

This confirms that Ward wishes to use wit as well as wisdom in what is not only a demolition job on Dawkins, but also a reconstruction of theism as an intellectually and philosophically coherent account of reality.

The book is in three parts, each of which deals with one of the three chapters in The God Delusion which rely on philosophical arguments against the existence of God.

Part One argues that while the God hypothesis is not scientific, it is certainly factual and reasonable — “more reasonable than its main competitor, the materialist hypo­thesis”. Crucial to Ward’s arguments are the irreducible existence of consciousness, and the irreducible nature of personal explanation. The latter points to desires and inten­tions as being as valid as scientific explanations when it comes to accounting for why things happen the way they do. This opens the way for God as eternal mind to be at least as plausible an explanation for the existence of complex entities as any scientific explanation.

So Part Two proposes a new argument from design. Dawkins uses words such as “simple” and “complex” in ways that are far too restrictive. Ward shows that there is a sense in which God as simple is a far more appropriate explanatory principle than Dawkins’s obsession with complexity can ever grasp. This is the most challenging part of the book, but it is philosophically very satisfying.

Ward then tackles multiverse theories, and a range of classic objections to theism, including the problem of evil, before rounding things off with a robust rejoinder in Part Three on behalf of the Five Ways of Aquinas and the argument from personal experience.

These final sections do rather tumble over each other in their haste to get to the conclusion: why there is a God. But Ward has done his work so effectively in the open­ing chapters that we gladly bowl along with him, as we sense that Dawkins has proved to be rather too easy a target for such a profound philosophical mind — or should that be Mind?

Dr Saxbee is the Bishop of Lincoln.

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