On the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Understanding of Richard Dawkins

Richard Skinner in Ekklesia:

Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, a noted theologian and philosopher in his own right, gave a lecture at Swansea University entitled ‘How to Misunderstand Religion’. He was responding in particular to the writings of Richard Dawkins, arguing that in applying evolutionary thinking to religion Dawkins is making two mistakes: first, in doing so he is reducing religion to the status of a “survival strategy”, and second, in opposing a scientific theory to religion he is reducing religion to a pre-scientific explanatory system now superseded by real science.

I have no quarrel with Dr Williams’ second point, but I wish to take issue with his view that the application of evolutionary theory reduces religion to a form of “survival strategy”, since I find the understanding of evolutionary thinking implicit in this argument too simplistic. It is important to clarify the matter, because many people, myself included, have criticised Richard Dawkins for having a misguided, indeed crass, understanding of what religion is about. We have claimed that he sets up a ‘straw god’ in order to knock it down, that he misquotes and misunderstands religious texts and arguments, that philosophically he is stuck in the nineteenth century, that he fails to bring to his scrutiny of religion the same scrupulous scholarship that he brings to his scientific work, and so forth. Given that Professor Dawkins’ critics launch into him thus, it is only fair, as well as being crucial in the interests of reasoned debate, that in criticising the application (or the attempted application) of Darwinian theory to religion we do not fall into the same trap by misrepresenting the former. But I think that in his use of the term “survival strategy” Rowan Williams does just that.