An interview with Rupert Shortt, author of Outgrowing Dawkins, or God For Grown-Ups
Richard Dawkins’s new book Outgrowing God is fake news in the eyes of Rupert Shortt, religion editor of The Times Literary Supplement and a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. In response he has written Outgrowing Dawkins: God for Grown-ups, to be published by SPCK later this month. In 100 pages, it aims to expose the main flaws in Dawkins’s arguments and to commend a positive spiritual vision that can embrace science rather than feeling threatened by it. Demystifying theology for a general readership has long been part of Shortt’s brief. His books include biographies of Rowan Williams and Benedict XVI. He is also the author of Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack, God Is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, and Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good?
How did this new book come about?
It’s unusual for me to have two books out in one year: Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good? appeared in March. SPCK asked me to produce a rapid response when they saw that Richard Dawkins’ new polemic was in the pipeline. I took a holiday to write it, finding to my relief that the arguments flowed fairly readily.
What’s your view on this new Dawkins volume?
I’m sorry to say that it’s a remarkably bad book. I wish I could be more positive—it would have been far better in many ways to have a worthier opponent. The argument is so crude that it can be summed up in a single sentence. ‘Evolution by natural selection is true; therefore belief in God is redundant.’ The first half of Outgrowing God describes examples of primitive or toxic religion down the ages, starting with ancient polytheism; the second half is essentially an introduction to biology. Dawkins has a strong line in rhetoric, which is why his ideas are so seductive to many. Scratch the surface of his thesis, though, and it looks a good deal less credible.
Can you give an example of this?
Perhaps the most obvious point to be clear on is that the deity in whom he disbelieves is a blown-up creature, not the God of classical monotheism. If you start from the assumption that religion involves an abusive relationship with a Zeus-like figure who creates us with our flaws—and then tortures us for them unless we adore him—then you’re plainly missing something pretty fundamental. Caricatures abound throughout Outgrowing God. The massive flaw in his argument is clear more or less from the first pages, where all religion—from ancient polytheism to the major global traditions that survive and thrive today—is jumbled up. It’s a bit like saying that all left-wing thought is inherently destructive, because some left-wingers are communists. Of course, some religious believers are superstitious or cruel. Faith is like fire: it warms, but it can also burn. The same applies to all forms of kinship bond, including patriotism and family life. But it should also go without saying that religion doesn’t have to be primitive by definition. Anyone with any knowledge of the history of spirituality will know that a qualitative leap is evident in the move from belief in many gods to a conviction that the one source of reality is not a thing among other things. God belongs to no category: you can’t add God and the universe together and make two!
Considering how Christianity has been so formative in society, how much is he attacking civilisation itself?
Dawkins is certainly giving a one-dimensional account of civilization, for the simple reason that the modern world was partly created by scientific geniuses who were also people of deep religious conviction. Copernicus, Kepler, Liebniz, Newton, Galileo and Descartes weren’t just knee-jerk believers going through the motions. They all had strong theological interests side-by-side with their commitment to science. Before this, in the Middle Ages, science was very often a collaborative enterprise involving Muslims and Jews as well as Christians. So the Dawkins narrative that religion and science are perpetually at war is terribly old hat. And then of course there are further questions about the role of Christianity, especially, in promoting goods including democracy and human rights. Dawkins ignores all this—or rather he is typical of a certain kind of ill-informed commentator who supposes that everything we cherish in contemporary society is available to neutral reason, and religion played no part at all other than as an obstacle to positive change.
How far does Dawkins engage with avowed Christians who are renowned scientists?
Sadly very little. His presentation is one-eyed. He quotes people who agree with him and turns his back on counter-evidence. In writing about science in my book, I have not found it particularly difficult to identify professional biologists who made significant contributions to their discipline in the modern period, and did so coming from a theistic perspective. In the scientific body as a whole they form a minority, but an intelligent and significant minority. In Dawkins’s output, by contrast, another picture of science is given—that it is essentially atheistic. So one of my core questions runs as follows. Is Dawkins’s picture a fair representation, an admissible estimate, or is it unbalanced and therefore misleading? The evidence suggests that people of faith have contributed sufficiently well to mainstream biology to make the picture painted by Dawkins unbalanced. He has therefore misled his readers, both in The God Delusion and Outgrowing God. But on the religious side there is also much unbalanced and misleading material coming from various sources at the conservative end of the spectrum. So a good number of people of varying outlooks need to put their houses in order. The main point is simply that the theory of evolution is not a dangerous idea, as Dawkins and others would like us to believe. It is unthreatening and, indeed, welcome to theism as long as we step back and consider deeply what it does and does not imply.
How should we respond in more detail to Dawkins as believers?
I see no reason why people of faith can’t say: ‘We have a deep respect for science. We just don’t think that this way of investigating the world exhausts all reality.’ There’s a fair bit about science in Outgrowing Dawkins, as it happens. I’ve done my best to keep the tone as accessible as possible. But if I had to sum things up in a sentence, I’d draw on a comment of Timothy McDermott, who was both a profound if unsung Christian thinker and a professor of computer science: ‘The aim of God’s creation is that creation should help make itself.’ That is precisely why Aubrey Moore, an Anglican priest in the Victorian era, could say that Darwin came in the guise of a foe, but in the event did the work of a friend.
Another big question naturally centres on the Bible. McDermott also described the scriptures as ‘humanly written and developed history riddled with ambiguities and dead-ends and fresh starts.’ Nevertheless, he added, ‘they are powerfully challenging calls to humanity to grow and reform and criticise itself.’ This prompts an obvious question. Are those who take the first chapters of Genesis literally—atheists, as well as creationists—reading the Bible correctly? Countless mainstream voices would say no. The essential message of Genesis is that God has invited the world into being, but that from the start things have gone seriously wrong with humanity. Despite this, however, God has not given up on us. We will only contrast ‘good’ modern science with the ‘bad’ kind found in scripture if we make the category mistake of reading Genesis as a biological textbook.
You stand in a long tradition of Christian apologists, people who explain and stand up for the faith—how do you see your work in that light?
I’d describe myself as a reporter and analyst, rather than an apologist. At the same time I very much hope Outgrowing Dawkins will be of some service to the Churches and help get a positive message across. I know I stand on the shoulders of great minds—not least some of my former teachers. It was hugely flattering to have a review of God Is No Thing compare my work to that of C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton; I would be the first to say I am just a speck compared to these towering figures. As indicated, for some time I have tried to straddle the worlds of academia and journalism—the two can work together well. I feel there is a gap for something muscular and robust but also accessible and that’s what I have striven to do with my latest project. We were going to have ‘The case against dogmatic atheism’ as a subtitle to Outgrowing Dawkins. I’m pleased that eventually we settled instead on ‘God for grown-ups’: it’s pithier and gets closer to the heart of what I’m trying to say. One of the clergy at my church told me the other day how a loyal member of the congregation had approached him recently and said: ‘Of course, Richard Dawkins has disproved the existence of God, hasn’t he?’—so when people say things like that you know you’ve got your work cut out.
Ultimately, what is going to save us?
I would take a classical view of conscience and see it as the exercise of reasoned judgement. From a Christian standpoint it is certainly possible for a non-believer to lead a good life and ultimately to be saved. Does that mean I see religion as the icing on the cake? No, because among other reasons there is a difference between the cardinal virtues and the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. The secular liberal believes ultimately in justice; the Christian—and I must be careful how I phrase this—believes in justice, yes, but sets even more store by forgiveness.
How else is the Dawkins’s brand of atheism missing out?
Let me expand on what I’ve just said. Although Christianity has been in retreat across Europe for over a century, religion is on the rise in the world as a whole. So it needs to be accommodated. Utmost efforts should be made to promote good religion, and to drive out the bad variety. This should not be seen as a matter of pragmatism alone. Secular libertarian blueprints for the good life often appear thin. There is little to say beyond talk of the freedom to do what we like and buy what we can afford. Religion is perhaps especially well placed to confront the problems associated with material advance and moral decay. The economic and social changes that promised human emancipation have also created the conditions for its debasement into empty commodity culture and narcissism. Can secularism frame a sufficiently robust counter-narrative through its own resources alone? Many who doubt it could be forgiven their scepticism.
No surprise, then, that acute voices see abiding force in older, largely faith-based traditions speaking of solidarity, justice, compassion and the non-negotiable dignity of human life. Jonathan Sacks puts the matter with typical aplomb in this book The Dignity of Difference: ‘The sheer tenacity of the great faiths—so much longer-lived than political systems and ideologies—suggest that they speak to something enduring in human character. Above all, it was religion that first taught human beings to look beyond the city-state, the tribe and the nation to humanity as a whole. The world faiths are global phenomena whose reach is broader and in some respects deeper than the nation-state.’
Outgrowing Dawkins isn’t a specifically Christian book, but I do see the keynotes in the Judeo-Christian repertoire cited above as especially life-enhancing.
Rupert, thank you. I wish you the best of luck with your new book.
Rupert Shortt is an author, a Von Hügel Institute Research Associate at the University of Cambridge and religion editor of The Times Literary Supplement. His new book, Outgrowing Dawkins, or God For Grown-Ups, is to be published on 21 November 2019 by SPCK Publishing. He was interviewed by Fr Simon Walsh.