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Outgrowing God, by Richard Dawkins

31 January 2020

John Saxbee reviews recent books about theism and humanism

IN OUTGROWING GOD, Richard Dawkins has attempted to rewrite The God Delusion for young people who, like him in his early teens, might be inclined towards belief in God without really thinking it through.

However, Dawkins is no Jostein Gaarder (Sophie’s World) or Ernst Gombrich (A Little History of the World). It is difficult to keep track of exactly who the young people are whom he has in mind. So, one minute he is mounting his argument with a degree of sophistication to which only the brighter sort of sixth-former can aspire, and the next he is in Year 6-assembly mode.

It also has to be said that, in this age of computer games and graphic novels, the closely set text does not serve him well.

That said, in Part Two of the book, he reprises his earlier expositions of evolutionary science with characteristic clarity, wit, and lightly worn erudition. Key to his argument is that evolution has to proceed from relative simplicity to increasing complexity; so it cannot have as its first cause and executive designer a phenomenon as complex as God would have to be.

The fallacy here is, of course, that it envisages God as another contingent item in a chain of contingent items, when not being contingent is essential to defining the Godness of God.

As Rupert Shortt puts it in his pithy riposte Outgrowing Dawkins: God for grown-ups, Dawkins’s position can be summed up as resting on a “dodgy syllogism”:

Major premise: Evolution by natural selection is incompatible with belief in a creator God. Minor premise: Evolution by natural selection is true. Conclusion: Belief in a creator God is false.

Shortt charitably, but decisively, challenges what is no more than a caricature of theism in general, and Christianity in particular. The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a god that the vast majority of theists don’t believe in either.

As long ago as 1992, Archbishop John Habgood — scientist and theologian — when debating theistic belief with Dawkins demonstrated how science was about explanation while religion centred on interpretation. Ten years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks urged: “But there is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live.” And Shortt adds: “This is not a criticism of science. It is a description of what science is . . . studying those aspects of reality in which purpose, feeling, value and so on are not part of the story.”

Indeed, as Shortt ably demonstrates, there really isn’t one argument in Dawkins’s armoury which theism has not faced, probably long ago, and effectively countered. This stubborn refusal to engage seriously with numerous critiques of his forays into theology is especially bewildering in a thinker committed to the explanatory power and ubiquity of evolution: clearly one thing that cannot be allowed to evolve is his own point of view.

In a chapter headed “God for Grown-ups”, Shortt patiently corrects the numerous errors of fact and interpretation which bedevil Outgrowing God. In his Part One, Dawkins has things to say about polytheism, monotheism, mythology, religious texts, and morality which cry out for correction. While Shortt is right to focus on Dawkins’s dogmatic scorning of religious belief in principle, it is good to see him supply just such a corrective to gratuitous misrepresentations.

Shortt’s final chapter is a plea to “live and let live” when it comes to the relationship between science and religion. There are simply too many scientists who are theists to sustain any argument for mutual exclusivity — especially arguments promoted by Dawkins.

Many of Shortt’s arguments marshalled against Dawkins are also to be found in Alister McGrath’s Richard Dawkins, C. S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life. But it is the setting up of an imagined dialogue between Lewis and Dawkins which gives this little book added value. After all, like McGrath himself, Lewis made a journey from atheism to faith, while Dawkins recounts a journey from teenage faith to grown-up atheism.

It is fascinating to see how those respective journeys provoke identical questions about God, human nature, faith, science, and meaning.

But the way in which we respond and the answers that we embrace depend very much on our direction of travel. Dawkins’s scientific orientation demands evidence that beliefs are justified, like those of the natural sciences. Lewis’s turn towards faith requires that we do not limit ourselves to what natural sciences can disclose. This confirms Shortt’s conclusion that, when it comes to the relationship between science and religion, there is no need to postulate a binary choice. Each can enrich the other in our search for the meaning of God, the universe, and everything.

Dawkins’s counter-Christian confirmation course requires to be complemented by the Shortt/McGrath/Lewis masterclasses in accessible apologetics.

Of course, another alternative to a binary choice between God and science is to jettison both/and or either/or in favour of neither — especially when it comes to our understanding of what it means to be human. This is the option pursued by Raymond Tallis in Seeing Ourselves.

It is not only God who falls foul of those for whom physical and material phenomena provide all that is necessary to explain how everything came into being, and to be as it is. Humankind is likewise reduced to materialist categories, and claims made for the uniqueness of the human self in the overall scheme of things are roundly condemned.

This is even more of a challenge to Humanists than it is for theists. Consequently, Raymond Tallis (a patron of Humanists UK) applies his extraordinary erudition, as philosopher and neuroscientist, to defending humanity against the predations of those he describes as “neuromaniacs” (who reduce the human self to its brain) and sufferers from “Darwinitis” (who reduce the human self to a stage in natural evolution).

The key contrast that he draws is between the “is” of nature and the “am” of human nature. He concedes up front that this is a “multi-faceted mystery”, but nevertheless demonstrates in a sequence of accessible but closely argued chapters that it is a mystery founded on clear principles informing human identity.

First up is our nature as embodied subjects rather than mere organisms; next, our mode of being in and out of time; third, personal selfhood and identity, and, finally, human agency.

Having performed half the task indicated by the subtitle, and reclaimed humanity from scientific reductionism, thus establishing the unique nature of human consciousness, he applies himself to reclaiming for humanity “the transcendence that has been assigned to the gods”.

He cheerfully acknowledges that this is probably the least successful part of the overall enterprise. Besides describing ways in which humanism might compensate for the loss of enchantment, reassurance, hope, meaning, and purpose associated with religion, he, above all, affirms the value of simply celebrating the unique dignity of being human.

Tallis argues for the human self as a mystery transcending materialist nostrums, and not transcended by any antecedent or superior being, e.g. God. The mystery of the human self is, for him, the ultimate mystery that humanism must affirm and celebrate. But, having opened the door to non-materialist mystery, why need it be ultimate? Why not penultimate, with divine mystery expressed through theistic beliefs arguably more philosophically plausible than mysteriously transcendental humanity?

Tallis offers a rich menu of possibilities for dialogue between humanism and religion, but more needs to be made of faith, as distinct from religion, and uncertainty as epistemological currency common to the infidel (as Tallis describes himself) and faithful alike. It is also likely that religious experience will feature more prominently in such a dialogue than it does in Tallis’s generally humane and eirenic quest for meaning and purpose wherever it might be found.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Outgrowing God: A beginner’s guide to atheism
Richard Dawkins
Bantam Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

Outgrowing Dawkins: God for grown-ups
Rupert Shortt
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

Richard Dawkins, C. S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life
Alister McGrath
SPCK £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

Seeing Ourselves: Reclaiming humanity from God and science
Raymond Tallis
Agenda Publishing £30

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