…a significant and highly successful attack on the eighteenth-century concept of God as “watchmaker”. (p.60)
The title of Dawkins’ book is aimed at William Paley, whose Natural Theology of 1802 set out his famous analogy comparing the complexity of nature with that of a watch, and arguing that therefore nature requires a creator just a surely as a watch requires a watchmaker.
Paley’s book “had a profound influence on popular English religious thought in the first half of the nineteenth century”, writes McGrath (p.63), and it is known that Charles Darwin had read Paley’s work. Ironically, Dawkins (whom McGrath describes as “eloquent and generous” in his treatment of Paley) probably has a more positive view of Paley than McGrath, who states that:
The analogy, like most of Paley’s work, was borrowed, and the scholarship decidedly second rate.
Dawkins argues that natural selection can account for biological complexity without the need to invoke a “watchmaker”, and that the impression of design is in fact an illusion: the “only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics” (cited on p.66).
McGrath’s disagreement is not with Dawkins’ demolition of Paley’s arguments, but with Dawkins’ belief that Paley’s theory represented the universal view of Christians throughout the ages, so that to demolish Paley is to demolish the Christian doctrine of creation. As McGrath argues:
What Dawkins actually demonstrates is that a very specific understanding of the doctrine of creation, which came into being in response to the historical circumstances of eighteenth century England, is completely undermined by a Darwinian account of evolution.
However, Paley’s views had already come under considerable criticism on theological grounds, some time before Darwin published The Origin of Species. In 1852, John Henry Newman attacked Paley’s arguments in a series of lectures at Dublin University, describing “physical theology” (i.e. “natural theology”) as “a false gospel”:
Physical Theology cannot, from the nature of the case, tell us one word about Christianity proper; it cannot be Christian, in any true sense, at all … Nay, more than this; I do not hesitate to say that, taking men as they are, this so-called science tends, if it occupies the mind, to dispose it against Christianity. (cited on p.68)
Newman’s words could be applied with equal force today to counter some of the wilder claims made for the Intelligent Design movement – which, whatever the scientific validity of its claims, is just as likely to lead into a revival of Deism or belief in a Shavian “life force”, as it is to encourage belief in a Christian account of creation.
In short, continues McGrath:
Paley must be seen in his historical context … Darwin’s Origin of Species must be seen as a nineteenth-century refutation of an eighteenth-century idea – an idea already rejected by leading Christian writers of the age. But it cannot be regarded as a refutation of Christianity itself – merely of a wrong turn that the English national church took.
As for Dawkins, his mistake is to assume that Paley’s approach is “typical or normative for Christianity”, and that “the intellectual case for Christianity rests largely, if not totally, upon an ‘argument for design'” (p.71). As neither of these is in fact the case, McGrath concludes that:
Dawkins makes a superb case for abandoning Paley. Sadly, he seems to think this also entails abandoning God.