Williams questions Dawkins' critical thinking about religion

By staff writers
October 16, 2007

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has said that Richard Dawkins and other apostles of anti-religious sentiment are oversimplifying complex issues and often missing the point. His comments came in a weekend lecture on ‘misunderstanding religion’ at the University of Swansea.

Dr Williams, who comes from the city and is himself a former Archbishop of Wales, was in part examining the claims of prominent and outspoken atheists like Professor Dawkins, author of recent best-seller The God Delusion and journalist Christopher Hitchens, who has written God Is Not Great.

Though some media, religious and secularist outlets have described the archbishop’s comments as “hitting out”, “an assault” and “a fierce attack” on Dawkins, an observer told Ekklesia that “his remarks were actually delivered in a friendly and humorous way – though with his usual incisive logic and courteous intelligence.”

Dr Williams stressed that his intention was not to defend religion but to uphold the principles of serious intellectual discussion. The archbishop said that proper thought about religion, as in any field of enquiry, was marked by self-criticism.

When asked by a member of the audience “whose fault is Dawkins?”, Dr Williams replied that religious believers themselves were partly to blame, adding that in the past the understanding of God had often been reduced “to the kind of target Dawkins and others too easily fire at”.

The lecture, entitled ‘How To Misunderstand Religion’, opened a series of theological addresses at Swansea organised by the university chaplain, the Rev Nigel John. It was Dr Williams’ first visit there since he became the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dr Williams said that while Richard Dawkins was undoubtedly a “lively and attractive writer” his actual arguments in The God Delusion failed to engage with where a lot of religious people actually were and with the deepest intellectual accounts of the relationship between faith and reason.

He added that many Christians would not recognise their religion as it was described by some critics. “When believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, we may feel as we turn the pages: ‘This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it's not actually what I believe in’.”

Dr Williams urged atheist writers to better understand religion, which he said cannot be reduced to forensic categories, because it conceives of God as eternal and unconditioned - not as a 'hypothesis' in competition with scientific ones.

"The religious believer says that moral integrity, self-introspection, honesty and trust are styles of living that connect with the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency most religions call God. Agree or disagree, but I would say to critics, at least grasp that that is being talked about. Often the atheist seems to be talking about something else," said the Archbishop

He also rejected Professor Dawkins's claim that cultural ideas are conveyed in a similar way to genetic transmission through “memes”, confessing: “I find this philosophically crass and undeveloped at best, simply contradictory and empty at worst.”

Dr Williams said that to see religion as nothing more than an evolutionary survival strategy was mistakenly to impose arguments about biological formation into another sphere.

"Our culture is one that deeply praises science, so we assume because someone is a good scientist, they must be a good philosopher," he commented, adding wryly that in the case of Dawkins "my inner jury is out on that."

Professor Dawkins has also been strongly criticised by scholars who are sceptics or non-believers themsleves, including literary theorist Professor Terry Eagleton, and philosopher of science Professor Michael Ruse.

Dawkins and his fellow protagonists met recently in a conference organised by Atheist Alliance International, demanding that religion must be “destroyed” by science, claiming that any form of religious belief was irrational, and suggesting that moderate or liberal religion was only a watered down version of extremism.

Last year Professor Ruse, who has been active in seeking to combat the growth of fundamentalist-backed creationism in schools, said that Dawkins and his allies were “a disaster” for the struggle against ID and creationism and sometimes made him “embarrassed to be an atheist”.

In a February 2006 letter to Professor Daniel C. Dennett, Ruse declared: “[N]either of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas… it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard claims…”

Professor Dawkins has defended his lack of theological understanding by asserting that there is nothing worth considering in theology - which critics point out is, ironically, an argument from presumption rather than evidence.

Speaking before the Swansea lecture, a Lambeth Palace spokesperson said: “Religion is in the news a lot these days and plenty of people are making quite a business of attacking it. But do they understand what religion really is? The Archbishop is looking at some of the most common mistakes made by contemporary critics.”

See also - Why Christians should take Richard Dawkins Seriously (Richard Skinner); Oxford theology professor punctures Dawkins' blind certainty; Dawkins anti-religion school crusade is met with scepticism; Less heat and more light needed on religion and extremism; We need a more intelligent religion debate (Theo Hobson); Secularist leader accuses religious liberals of aiding fanatics; and from Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow: Resisting the polarising mindset, Why we need to rid ourselves of the 'god of the slots', Three ways to make sense of one God ; and two Ekklesia reports: Facing up to fundamentalism and What difference does God make today?

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.