Richard Dawkins and Reverend Richard Coles debate ‘Outgrowing God’

We asked Britain's most famous vicar to review Richard Dawkins' new book on atheism. Now the author has written a response. Together they make a fascinating debate about religion and the nature of belief.

Richard Dawkins and Reverend Richard Coles
Reverend Richard Coles

'It is science - and Richard, of course, doesn't like this'

Richard Coles’ review of Outgrowing God [below] is as charmingly engaging as we have come to expect. I have long loved his winsome humour, and I was personally sorry when, at the last minute, he had to pull out of an ITV documentary in which he and I were to have served as joint models for a portrait-painting competition. His understudy was a nice woman priest, whose only fault was that she won the toss to see who should keep the victorious joint portrait. I had to make do with a replica.

Outgrowing God is not God Delusion lite, or God Delusion for the Young. It covers ground nowhere to be seen in the earlier book. It has much more to say about the Bible, including the many additional gospels besides the four canonical ones, notably the Infancy Gospel of Thomas with its bizarre accounts of the mischievous (not to say spiteful) boy Jesus. My new book goes beyond The God Delusion on the subject of morality, and the deeply wrong-headed but lamentably influential idea that the Bible is a good source of moral lessons.

Not only should we refrain from taking our morality from scripture. As a matter of fact we obviously don’t take it from scripture. It is true that occasional verses can be found to accord with decent modern morality, but you have to make an effort to sift them out from the more numerous nasty verses. And the criteria for the sifting of course have to be non-Biblical. Another difference from The God Delusion is – and Richard Coles graciously appreciates it  – the second half, which is all about science. Admittedly it is science – and Richard, of course, doesn’t like this –  in the service of demonstrating the superfluousness of gods.

'Religion is like a slippery bar of soap'

Richard’s main criticism is that the God I have outgrown is the God that he doesn’t believe in anyway.  The objection has become familiar to the point of tiresomeness, even when it doesn’t descend (as, of course, Richard doesn’t) to the “white-bearded old man in a cloud” straw cliché. My problem is that I have never been vouchsafed a clear picture of the kind of God such critics do believe in. “Apophatic” phrases like “the ground of all being” or “a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence” leave me cold because they are devoid of meaning, contemptuous of meaning. My quarrel with such religion is the same as my quarrel with a slippery bar of soap. You try and get hold of it and it slips out of your hands.

Here is the God I don’t believe in: a supernatural creator who has enough scientific and mathematical intelligence to design the cosmos, plus enough bandwidth left over to listen to the thoughts and prayers of all the beings in the world (even the universe?), who cares about their good deeds and their sins, and who rewards or punishes them posthumously. If that is not the God you believe in, I have no quarrel with you. But I’m then left wondering why you bother to go to church.

 - Richard Dawkins

'The God he rejects is nothing like the one I have accepted'

Richard Dawkins and I have much in common. We share a name, a fondness for dogs, and a birthday, March 26th, which I discovered in the Newsnight Green Room when he Googled me before we went on air to argue about religion.

I, of course, did not need to Google him. We are both public school-educated, and we both underwent the compulsory indoctrination inflicted on us in the chapel. Both, in our teens, protested by refusing to bow our heads in prayer when instructed to do so by those in authority, both adopted atheism. Typical Aries. 

Our paths have not always been in parallel. Richard went on to become a scientist, a brilliant science writer, and perhaps the most famous atheist in the world, described by friends as a heroic champion for light and truth, and by foes as anything from a crypto-fundamentalist to an agent of Satan. 

'Richard is a wonderful guide to the natural world, but in the supernatural world his path is not so sure’

I went on to become, quote “Britain’s most famous vicar”, which I hesitate to proclaim because that distinction has got me on Strictly Come Dancing rather than The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and makes me feel not so much David to his Goliath as Orville the Duck to his Malcolm Muggeridge.

But while I am an admirer of many of his books - reading The Selfish Gene at the end of the seventies was like reading Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, the elegance of the prose enabling understanding where only ignorance and dripping prevailed - I was not a fan of his best-selling book, The God DelusionRichard is a wonderful guide to the natural world, but in the supernatural world his path is not so sure - how could it be, if you think there is no path? And so the problem, for serious religious people reading Richard Dawkins the polemicist, is that the God and faith he rejects seem nothing like the ones you have accepted.  

Outgrowing God, A Beginner’s Guide is aimed at the younger reader, the emerging sceptic, like Richard and me in our teens. The dedicatee is “...William, and all young people when they’re old enough to decide for themselves”. The tone is instructional, and aims first to debunk as false religious accounts of the world, and second to provide a better alternative, that is to look at the world through the bright lens of science rather than the distorting glass of faith. 

I like part two best. In part one there’s nothing strikingly new, his arguments from The God Delusion retold, although there is evidence that he has been reading some of his critics. For example, he admits that the historicity of Jesus is not much disputed by scholars, which I wish had as much traction on the internet as the opposite argument, if you can call it an argument; but it feels grudging.

'There are some minor errors. But the real issue for me is tone’

There are some minor errors. He says Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313, but actually he made it an official religion of the Empire, a significant difference. His account of the formation of the canon of Scripture rushes to a conclusion of arbitrariness when there’s plenty of evidence to show it was a highly organised process.

These are details, to dispute them is quibbling, but the real issue for me is one of tone. He does not always keep his exasperation, and sometimes scorn, for those who persist in religious belief without any satisfactory evidence to support it - that is his idea of evidence - under control.

His comradely solidarity with those who are waking up to the gap between what religious authority teaches and what actually is the case, presupposes that wakefulness requires a rejection of religious faith. It does not, clearly. I don’t think I have ever read any criticism of Christianity in Richard’s work that I have not thought of independently or encountered elsewhere. His description of the processes of change in the natural world I find persuasive and often brilliant but nothing in it causes me to doubt the faith I profess. Because I too grew out of the religion he grew out of when we were teenagers; what the book does not address is the faith I, and many others, and perhaps William one day, grow into.

- Reverend Richard Coles

Who do you agree with? Have your say by tweeting @PenguinUKBooks using the hashtag #OutgrowingGod

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more