The Dawkins Debate continues to rage. Apart from the contributions of numerous bloggers (google the Professor's name and be amazed) there have been three books responding directly to Dawkins. From Alister McGrath, a theologian with a scientific background, we got The Dawkins Delusion; and last month John Cornwell, a theologian who is also an historian, gave us Darwin's Angel. Both these books make telling points against Dawkins, but neither offer a thorough analysis and critique of the argument of The God Delusion. This is exactly what Thomas Crean, a theologian who is also a philosopher, does in this superb little book.
The strength of Fr Thomas' work is that it situates the debate where it belongs: in the realm of philosophy. Both McGrath and Cornwell tend to give the impression that the Dawkins Debate is between Science and Religion, but this of course plays right into his hands. From the first page of the book, Crean cuts through Dawkins' attempt to revive this bit of Victorian intellectual history by focusing on his argument. He shows that it has nothing whatever to do with 'science' but is a clumsy and ill-informed re-statement of that philosophical position called 'materialism'. And by taking Dawkins seriously as a philosopher, he exposes the lack of seriousness in Dawkins' reasoning.
Fr Thomas' own philosophy is Thomist. One of the features of St Thomas Aquinas' philosophy is the determination to put the objections to an argument as strongly as possible, an approach which is particularly noticeable in the case of his arguments for the existence of God. And Fr Thomas follows just the same line as his saintly namesake when dealing with Professor Dawkins' objections to these arguments. He always gives the strongest possible interpretation of Dawkins' criticisms of St Thomas.
Possibly for that reason, the second chapter is not the easiest to read. But it is short and clearly written. The reader should be encouraged to persevere because she will find there the best illustration of the Argument from Motion I have come across (it involves potato peelers) and an illuminating discussion of what traditional theists have meant when saying that the universe is designed. If you think this refers to a watch's need of a maker (blind, as Dawkins says, or otherwise, as in the opinion of Archdeacon Paley) read Crean.
Having done this hard head work the reader can relax and enjoy the rest of the book as Fr Thomas breezes through Dawkins on miracles, the gospels and the origins of morality and the Bible, marshalling all the necessary evidence to expose the Professor's prejudices and errors. This is Christian apologetic at its best in which robustness of argument and lucidity of exposition are combined in way that reminded me of C.S. Lewis. Reminiscent of Lewis too is his emphasis on what the latter called 'the Tao' and which is defined by Fr Thomas as 'the reality and binding force of natural law, inscribed by God in the heart of every human being'.
The last chapter makes plain what the debate which bears his name is really about — and that is emphatically not Science and Religion. Rather the issue is, as he puts it, between two "philosophies of life" contrasted in these pages: secular atheism and Catholicism. At a recent conference I attended, Bishop Broadhurst and Fr Jeremy Sheehy were agreed that a lack of interest in philosophy was seriously handicapping our Christian witness in this country. Fr Thomas' book is a brilliant demonstration of the importance of Christian philosophy in the current intellectual climate and deserves the widest possible Anglican readership.
Version: 10th April 2009