When my copy of Alister and Joanna Collicut McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine recently arrived, I was struck by its short length. I immediately wondered if it was short because Richard Dawkins himself provided scant substance in his The God Delusion to which to respond. According to the McGraths, my suspicions were correct:
(Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicut McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, pg. 13 (InterVarsity Press, 2007).)
Getting Into the Gaps
One of the highlights of The Dawkins Delusion is the McGraths's refutation of Dawkins' favorite "Who designed the designer?" objection. Dawkins claims that God is "more improbable" than any other explanation for our existence because we can't account for His origin. The McGraths explain why Dawkins' conclusion is built upon faulty logic:
But let's pause for a moment. The one inescapable and highly improbable fact about the world is that we, as reflective human beings, are in fact here. Now it is virtually impossible to quantify how improbable the existence of humanity is. Dawkins himself is clear, especially in Climbing Mount Improbable, that it is very, very improbable. But we are here. The very fact that we are puzzling about how we came to be here is dependent on the fact that we are here and are thus able to reflect on the likelihood of this actuality. Perhaps we need to appreciate that there are many things that seem improbable--but improbability does not, and never has, entailed nonexistence. We may be highly improbable--yet we are here. The issue, then, is not whether God is probable but whether God is actual.
(Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicut McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, pgs. 28-29 (InterVarsity Press, 2007), emphases in original.)
The McGraths’s Wrong Turn on Intelligent Design
The Dawkins Delusion spends very little time discussing intelligent design so this is a very minor component of their argument overall. However, although I felt most of The Dawkins Delusion was well-reasoned and cogent, in my view the McGraths take a wrong turn when they claim that intelligent design is a "God-of-the-gaps" argument (pgs. 30-31). (As Oxford scholars, they also somewhat pejoratively state ID is "a movement, based primarily in North America" pg. 30.) Much like their fellow theistic evolutionist Francis Collins, the McGraths employ a double standard by inferring design from the intelligible complexity at the level of nature as a whole, but then refusing to apply such logical reasoning to investigate design at the level of biology.
Michael Behe addresses the charge that intelligent design is a "God-of-the-gaps" argument in his recent book, The Edge of Evolution:
(Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, pg. 146-147 (Free Press, 2007).)
Rather than inserting "God" into "gaps," intelligent design invokes intelligence to explain specifically ordered complexity, which in our experience comes only from intelligence. The McGraths apply similar reasoning to infer design at the level of the universe due to its "intelligibility." Michael Behe simply asks why such a form of reasoning might not be applied at the level of biochemistry.
To be sure, the arguments have differences, but both arguments share a key logical similarity: both arguments invoke the appropriate causes for the observed data. In short, they make an inference to the best explanation. As Stephen C. Meyer and Scott A. Minnich explain, we don't infer design based upon what we don't know (i.e., a "gap"), but rather we infer design based upon what we do know:
(Scott A. Minnich and Stephen C. Meyer, “Genetic analysis of coordinate flagellar and type III regulatory circuits in pathogenic bacteria,” Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes Greece, edited by M.W. Collins and C.A. Brebbia (WIT Press, 2004), ephasis added.)
Once the strong positive case for intelligent design is understood, it seems that the "God-of-the-gaps" charge against ID does not stick. Rather, the design inference is made using reasoning that is no less scientific than an inference to Darwinian evolution: both are made based upon an inference to the best explanation based upon, as the McGraths say, "weighing evidence and judging probability." I enjoyed the rest of this book so much that it's unfortunate that the McGraths dismiss this "North American movement" much too quickly.
You Can Run, But You Can't Hide from Darwin's Universal Acid
The McGraths issued stern warnings to ID proponents against relegating God to the "gaps" and instructed ID to take "an approach which commends and encourages scientific investigation, not seek[ing] to inhibit it" (pg. 31). But the McGraths leave themselves open to the same types of criticisms: Despite the McGraths's call to let Darwinian science have its way, they put up a strong and lengthy fight against Dawkins' view that "[n]atural explanations may be given of the origins of belief in God." (pg. 57) In fact, they devote pages to (quite lucid) critiques of Dawkins' Darwinian explanations of the origin of religion. Why do they do this?
The McGraths are fully aware of Dawkins's quest for a "universal Darwinism" (pg. 59) that can explain nearly everything. I believe that Dawkins' universal acid threatens their sacred gap of the origin of religious belief, so they fight back against such Darwinian explanations with a vengeance. In fact, they conclude their chapter on the origin of religion by explaining that Dawkins is wrong to say "the origins of religion are purely natural," (pg. 74) and at one point they suggest that "the ultimate cause of religious experience is God." (pg. 67) Will these conclusions stop evolutionary theorists from trying to explain the origin of religion in "purely natural" Darwinian terms? Of course not. The McGraths will be accused of inhibiting "scientific advance" (pg. 31) and inserting God into the gap of the origin of religion.
If the McGraths wanted to rebut such charges, they would have to recount the many flaws in "purely natural" accounts for the origin of religion. This would require them to offer positive arguments that the origin of religion is precisely the type of gap into which it is proper to insert (at least in an ultimate sense) God. They would now be arguing that, when it comes to explaining the origin of religion, they are merely making an inference to the best explanation.
While ID does not necessarily infer God (ID merely infers intelligence), the McGraths would now be reasoning very much like proponents of intelligent design. To reiterate the words of Meyer and Minnich, "we regard [ID] as an inference to the best explanation, given what we know about the powers of intelligent as opposed to strictly natural or material causes."
In the end, both ID proponents and the McGraths approve, justifiably, of making inferences to the best explanation. Perhaps the McGraths need to reconsider their opposition to intelligent design on the grounds that it is a "God-of-the-gaps" argument, because ID isn't a God-of-the-gaps argument and because the McGraths would seemingly approve of the actual reasoning used by ID-proponents.
As I noted above, intelligent design plays a minor role in the McGraths rebuttal to Dawkins. Thus, regardless of these disagreements over ID, The Dawkins Delusion is overall a well-written book that covers an impressive array data from many fields, ranging from history, biology, physics, philosophy, and sociology. It is a must-read for anyone interested in a serious, thoughtful, and well-argued assessment of the present debate over religion and what Wired Magazine called "the New Atheism movement."