Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 04/06/2009 by James Anderson.
Not Recommended. A penetrating but problematic response to Dawkins’ case against God by a seasoned philosopher-theologian.
Civil war has broken out in the halls of Oxford University. What might be regarded as the opening salvo was launched in 2006 by Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, a life-long defender of Darwinism and an evangelist for atheism. Dawkins and his fellow Oxford don, Peter Atkins, had been sporadically lobbing anti-religion grenades for decades, but The God Delusion was the first book-length attack on theism from those ranks. The counterassault has been no less vigorous and well-targeted. An early response came in the form of The Dawkins Delusion?, a 96-page response authored by Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford’s Wycliffe Hall. A second was provided by Professor John Lennox, a Fellow of Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford, in his book God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God? Lennox argued at length that not only is the Christian faith compatible with science, but our present scientific knowledge gives far greater support to the existence of God than to Darwinian atheism.
Now a third counterattack has been launched, this time from Keith Ward, the former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. An ordained priest in the Church of England, Ward has had a distinguished career teaching philosophy and theology at various eminent universities. As such, he is more than qualified to critically evaluate Dawkins’ anti-theistic arguments in The God Delusion. As Ward explains, Dawkins’ arguments are philosophical in nature, not scientific; but whereas Dawkins has no philosophical credentials, Ward has them in buckets. The result – all too predictably – is a wipe-out.
The title of Ward’s 150-page rebuttal, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God, is a playful inversion of the provocative (and conspicuously dogmatic) heading given to chapter 4 of Dawkins’ book: ‘Why There Almost Certainly Is No God’. With admirable constraint, Ward restricts himself to addressing only chapters 2 to 4 of The God Delusion, since it is in these chapters Dawkins’ presents his main case against the “God hypothesis”.
The book consists of three parts. Part One responds to chapter 2 of The God Delusion, which concerns the nature of the debate over the existence of God. Ward explains why Dawkins is mistaken to think that the issue is a straightforwardly scientific one. Whether or not there is a God is a question of metaphysics, not mere physics. Dawkins has his own philosophical biases: he is committed to materialism, the view that everything that exists is ultimately material in nature. Ward points out that in the history of thought, materialism has been very much the minority viewpoint. The majority of great thinkers have held that mind, not matter, is the ultimate reality. What’s more, Dawkins is seemingly oblivious to the philosophical problems faced by materialism, such as the intractable difficulty of explaining consciousness in purely material terms. Ward argues that while science cannot settle the “God Debate”, it can be shown that theism (the view that the universe is the creation of a personal God) far better explains the existence and nature of our universe than Dawkins’ stunted materialism.
Part Two directly tackles Dawkins’ central argument against belief in God, namely, that one cannot posit God as the explanation for the complexity in the universe because God would have to be even more complex than the universe. The bottom line: Ward thoroughly dismantles Dawkins’ argument and lays bare the philosophical and theological confusions on which it trades. Not only does Dawkins fail to recognize that there can be other kinds of explanation than a scientific one, but he doesn’t really understand what kind of a being God is. He therefore fails to grasp that God doesn’t beg for an explanation in the way that our orderly physical universe does. With an entertaining turning-of-the-tables in response to Dawkins’ (somewhat desperate) appeal to “multiverse theories” – variations on the idea that there are innumerably many universes, thus making the existence of our particular universe unsurprising after all – Ward argues that if there really were a “multiverse” it would be far better explained by theism than materialism.
Part Three engages with Dawkins’ shoddy critique of arguments for the existence of God. Ward shows that Dawkins badly misunderstands and misrepresents Thomas Aquinas’s ‘Five Ways’ and argues that they can formulated in modern ways that avoid all of Dawkins’ criticisms. Ward thus contends that there are good philosophical reasons for believing in God after all, and, moreover, this conclusion can be bolstered by personal experience of God. In the final chapter, Ward summarizes his case against Dawkins thus:
I have argued for the key role of consciousness, value and purpose in any reasonably comprehensive view of the universe we live in. I have shown that the traditional arguments for God express a concern to find a final explanation for the universe with which many modern scientists, especially cosmologists, are in great sympathy. And I have shown that the arguments from personal experience, the ones that move most people to believe in God, are entirely reasonably and convincing.
In fact, taken overall, it seems to me the evidence, considered critically and rationally, makes it almost certain that there is a God.
Of the several book-length critiques of The God Delusion I’ve read, Ward’s is the most penetrating and philosophically sophisticated. Unfortunately, for all its merits, I have too many reservations about it to recommend it in good conscience as apologetic ammunition for most Christians or as an ‘antidote’ for non-Christian friends and colleagues. Ward’s overall argument (that theism offers a far superior explanation of the universe we live in than Dawkins’ materialism) is essentially sound and gets to the heart of the issue. He’s right that the “God Debate” is nothing less than a clash of entire worldviews that cannot be settled by science alone. Nevertheless, many of Ward’s claims would be considered problematic by evangelicals.
His defense of “the God of the Old Testament” amounts to a denial of the divine inspiration of Scripture. Since Ward is a theistic evolutionist, he concedes without challenge his opponent’s Darwinian explanation of biological complexity. In response to the problem of evil and the criticism that the concept of God is incoherent, Ward champions an essentially Open Theist understanding of God’s knowledge and power. And in his concluding chapter, Ward not only suggests that Dawkins is an “honest atheist” whom God wouldn’t punish for his “intellectual myopia” (a conclusion hard to reconcile with Romans 1:18-32) but also shows clear sympathies for universalism. The shame of it is that none of these unbiblical views is necessary to Ward’s main argument against Dawkins.
Potential readers should also be aware that the book will be hard-going for those who are not philosophically minded. Ward’s critique will be useful to Christians who enjoy philosophical apologetics and are sufficiently well-grounded in biblical theology to be able to discern those points at which it veers off the road. But for other believers, I would have to recommend alternative means of defusing Dawkins.
Discerning Reader recommends The Dawkins Letters by David Robertson for those not inclined to wade through Ward's philosophical arguments.