Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett debate the future of atheism at Greer-Heard

March 1, 2007

By Gary D. Myers

NEW ORLEANS -- Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett both advocate freedom of conscience. However, the two take very different paths with this freedom – McGrath embraces Christianity and Dennett embraces atheistic Darwinian naturalism.

McGrath, Oxford professor and prolific Christian author, and Dennett, philosopher and professor at Tufts University, spoke on “The Future of Atheism” at the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Feb. 23-24. The forum, now in its third year, is designed to help students and ministers learn to think critically about issues in secular society.

“Truth is objective and real, anyone who is searching for truth we believe will ultimately end up at the feet of Jesus Christ,” NOBTS President Chuck Kelley said about the event. “[The forum] shows us how to engage non-Christian worldviews and how to be seekers after truth.”

During the two-hour dialogue, McGrath and Dennett interacted with each other with kindness and respect despite their divergent views. In the end, the two men came to a very different conclusion about atheism’s future.

“I’ve always valued freethinking, I have to say to you I never suspected where my freethinking would lead,” McGrath said. It led him to embrace the Christianity he had opposed earlier in life.

Growing up in war-torn Northern Ireland, McGrath witnessed first hand the bitter conflict between Catholics and Protestants. What he saw turned him against religion.  When McGrath enrolled in Oxford University in 1971 he was an atheist, a Marxist and a Darwinist. His view was simple – get rid of religion and the conflict goes with it.

“I went on to study the sciences but I also discovered Christianity and it turned out to be more intellectually resilient and stimulating than anything I could ever hope to describe,” McGrath said. “My science was reinforced by my religion … these things seemed to belong together giving fresh energy and impetus to each other.”

McGrath said that intellectuals in the 1960s taught that new secular age would one day dawn. That religion would be replaced by secular humanism.

“We were told, I think quite forcefully, that God was a delusion whose time was passed,” he said. “Certainly, I was very much aware of this and also thought it was a rather good thing. I can remember looking forward to this prophesied demise of religion with a certain grim pleasure.”

According to McGrath, this demise never came. Just as McGrath went on to embrace Christianity, many others continue to believe in God. This trend, he said, has even been noticed by key secularists.

McGrath cited the book How We Believe by Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society and publisher of Skeptic magazine. In the book, Shermer wrote that a larger percentage of Americans believe in God now than at any other time in the nation’s history.

Dennett, however, disagrees that religion is on the rise. He believes that the number of atheists is actually outpacing growth in religions.

“According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, the only religion that is growing world wide is Islam,” Dennett said. “And secularists and non-religionists are growing even faster.”

Dennett pointed out the number of adherents of the world’s major belief systems. The non-religious category represents 16 percent of the world’s population. Thirty-three percent are Christians, 18 percent follow Islam and 16 percent are Hindus.

“Southern Baptists are now baptizing about 300,000 a year according to the figures I was able to get,” Dennett said. “That’s about the same as you were doing in the 1950s. You are not growing faster now than you were then, but the population has doubled.”

Dennett said he offered these figures because the media often claims that religions are growing in the United States and in the world. These claims, he said, are not true.

“Religions are making a lot of noise, they are getting a lot of attention, but if you go and look for the facts, you find out that some of those are very misleading,” he said. “It is simply not the case that religion is booming and that atheism is on the wane.”

As a naturalist, Dennett believes that religions have an evolutionary history. He said that religions started out wild and beliefs were first shaped by natural selection. The fittest belief survived while others failed. Gradually, religions were domesticated, Dennett claimed. At that point, humans began to shape and change religion through the years.

“Religions are brilliantly designed systems. They’re robust, efficient, powerful, long-lived institutions,” Dennett said. “This we can study with the tools of science.”

Dennett said he does not hate religion, and claims that his book Breaking the Spell is not an attack on religion. He does believe that religion is best explained as natural phenomena and should be studied with scientific methods.

According to McGrath, Dennett speculates the existence of a “mystical gene” that is responsible for religious belief. This gene, Dennett believes, could be favored by natural selection.

“I wonder where the science is,” McGrath said. “Where’s the rigorous evidence for this. There’s a huge way between ‘might’ and ‘did.’ There is no real creditable evidence for this.”

McGrath also offered a stern critique of Dennett’s reliance on the “meme” hypothesis. Richard Dawkins pioneered the idea that culture items have an evolutionary history in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins called these culture items or themes “memes.” According to Dennett, memes are much like genes or viruses.

Dennett said viruses are “strings of DNA with attitude.” Their shapes allow them to utilize the “replicating machinery” of a cell.

“Dawkins’ brilliant idea is that ideas can do that too,” he said. “They can go inside the mind and get that mind to make a copy and another copy and another copy. They send that copy out into the world where it make more copies.”

McGrath is not convinced that memes are supported by science.

“I think there are some very serious problems with [memes],” McGrath said. “The issue has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with whether scientifically there is such a thing. I say there is no evidence for this idea that is satisfactory.”

McGrath criticized the fact that arguments for the meme are often based on analogy. He also pointed out that the idea of memes work as well against atheism as religion. In a sense, McGrath said, all ideas would simply be memes. He also criticized proponents of the meme for circular reasoning and the lack of a testable model which science holds so dear.

In his conclusion, McGrath spoke of the limitations of science. Issues such as the meaning of life, he said, remain outside the scope of science.

Dennett, however, criticized those who appeal to faith. He said that often, those who believe “play the faith card” when scientists raise questions they cannot answer. Dennett encouraged religious people to “join the conversation” and get reasons for their belief. He said that those who agree not to “play the faith card” can utilize all the wisdom in their religion and spread those beliefs to others.

Dennett encouraged the teaching of world religions in pubic and private schools. He believes such teaching should be required to guard against toxic forms of religion.

In the end, neither McGrath nor Dennett were pursued by the other man’s arguments.

“I thought the evening went very well,” said Robert Stewart, associate professor of philosophy and theology occupying the Greer-Heard Chair of Faith and Culture and director of the Greer-Heard Forum. “I thought both listened to each other. So often these things wind up with people talking at each other rather than talking to each other.”

The forum continued Feb. 24 with presentations by William Lane Craig, research professor at Talbot School of Theology; Ken Parsons, professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, Clear Lake; Evan Fales, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa; and Hugh McCann, professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. Each presentation was followed by responses from McGrath and Dennett.

Next year’s topic for the Greer-Heard Forum, set for April 4-5, 2007, will be the reliability of the New Testament. Daniel B. Wallace, professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of Reinventing Jesus, will dialogue with Bart Erhman, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.

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Audio recordings of the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum are available at www.greer-heard.com.

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