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Book review: 'Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life'

By Bill Muehlenberg - posted Friday, 11 February 2005

If T.H. Huxley was "Darwin's bulldog" just over a century ago, surely Richard Dawkins would be Darwin's pit bull terrier today. A leading proponent of neo-Darwinism, Dawkins is just as famous for his aggressive, almost obsessive, promotion of atheism. His many well-written books and articles have made him a formidable proponent of both Darwinian theory and secular humanism.

Yet to date no book-length critique of Dawkins has appeared from a Christian point of view. Until now that is. The just-released Dawkins' God is an important assessment and critique of Dawkins and his crusade against religion. While Alistair McGrath respects and admires Dawkins when he sticks to the realm of science, it is when Dawkins wanders out of the domain of science, attacking religion in the name of science, that McGrath shows Dawkins’ very real shortcomings.

And McGrath is well-suited to the task. He is a professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and has a PhD in molecular biophysics. Indeed, McGrath has written on issues of science nearly as much as on issues of theology and philosophy.


This book is not so much a critique of Darwinism as a critique of philosophy and ideology masquerading as science. Dawkins should know as well as anyone that science has limits, and questions of God's existence do not fall within those limits. Yet the works of Dawkins are permeated with emotive and irrational attacks on faith and religion. This misuse and abuse of science by Dawkins in this regard is a major theme of this volume.

McGrath begins by analysing Dawkins' work on genes. For Dawkins, genes are everything, or at least they can account for everything. Thus Dawkins takes neo-Darwinism as an explanation of observable natural phenomena, and elevates it to a worldview, an all-embracing metanarrative. Again, he takes science where it was never meant to go.

McGrath analyses this further in the false disjunction Dawkins time and again sets up: one either lives by blind faith or the facts and evidence of science. Take your pick, it is one or the other. Of course he misrepresents both. No reputable Christian thinker has ever identified religious belief as mere blind faith. Faith is grounded on evidence, and Christianity offers a fair amount of evidence for its truth claims.

And science is far from the neutral, totally objective scenario that Dawkins paints. It deals with evidence and observations, yes, but also deals in probabilities as much as in certainties. The constant revision and overturning of scientific theories means that scientists should remain humble, not arrogant. So too of course should Christians, who need to continually refine and clarify their theological convictions. Both involve elements of faith and reason. Both should be approached with care and humility.

The replicators of ideas and beliefs - what Dawkins calls memes - the cultural equivalent of genes, are also critiqued by McGrath. The truth is they are not the fruit of scientific discovery but philosophical postulation. Dawkins says people believe in God, not because he exists, but because of God memes. The idea of God, says Dawkins, like a virus, is passed along and replicated in culture, just as physical traits (in the form of DNA) are passed along by means of genes.

But as McGrath rightly points out, is this belief in a God meme just another meme, another virus, another false belief being passed along? And if there is a God meme, could there not be an atheist meme as well?


The fact is, Dawkins has a philosophical precommitment to atheism, and he tries to smuggle this belief system in while piggy-backing on Darwinism. But as McGrath establishes, Darwinism does not necessarily entail atheism. Nor does it necessarily entail theism for that matter.

Science in general and evolutionary biology in particular can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. Such questions lie outside of the purview of science. But Dawkins' hatred of religion leads him to blur the boundaries between science and other disciplines (theology, philosophy).

What one makes of Darwinism is a matter of scientific debate. The evidence can be weighed and considered. But it is simply inappropriate for scientists to wade into debates about God's existence or non-existence by means of the scientific method. It is inadequate for such a debate. And it is disingenuous for those who have a beef against religion to seek to use the scientific method to do their dirty work.

Those wanting an attack on Darwinism will not find it here. The work of the Intelligent Design movement, for example, is not even mentioned in this volume. Yet ID has landed some telling blows on an already shaky evolutionary edifice.

But this volume does do a good job of demonstrating the proper limits of genuine science, and the very poor intellectual armaments Dawkins brings to bear against faith and religion. It will not be the end of the debate, but it is a much needed contribution to some crucial issues we all must grapple with.

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About the Author

Bill Muehlenberg is Secretary of the Family Council of Victoria, and lectures in ethics and philosophy at various Melbourne theological colleges.

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