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Oxford atheist ridiculed by Anglican theologian during debate

Crusading pro-evolution scientist Richard Dawkins has had his anti-religious claims ridiculed during an Oxford debate with a theologian who once was an atheist like the evolutionist, who is devout in his public denunciations of religion.

"Having been an atheist, I discovered religion was in fact an enormously powerful, transformative power for good," said Alister McGrath, Oxford University’s professor of Historical Theology.

"The claim that the scientific explanation ends everything, ignores fundamental realities. There’s a whole range of human experiences, often involving a longing for something beyond us which brings legitimacy to our core notions and philosophical ideas."

The 54-year-old Anglican priest was debating with Dawkins during Oxford’s Literary Festival in March. Dawkins’ post as professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford is funded by Hungarian-born Microsoft millionaire Charles Simonyi. His attacks on religion are frequent, and he set up a foundation in December to send atheist books and DVDs to schools in Britain and the United States.

"Far from being enriching, religion is stultifying, impoverishing and limiting," said Dawkins, whose book, The God Delusion, has sold a million copies since publication in 2006. "Science and religion both attempt to answer the same questions – the difference is that religion gets the answers wrong," the atheist campaigner asserted.

McGrath said, however, science was unable to provide a "guiding moral vision". He noted that non-believers such as the writer Iris Murdoch had agreed on the necessity of a transcendent basis for ethical decisions.

"Although I can’t prove Christianity, as I can prove the structure of DNA is a double helix, it is a hypothesis which makes perfect sense, and which gives direction and animation to life," said McGrath, who became a Christian after studying chemistry and molecular biophysics. McGrath recently published The Dawkins Delusion as a riposte to the scientist’s book.

"Belief in God creates an explanatory framework, which enables you to appreciate and value the sciences while also seeing beyond the beauty and glory of the world to something enriching and ennobling," contended McGrath.

Describing his book as a "consciousness-raising exercise", Dawkins belongs to the London-based National Secular Society, which has since the 19th century campaigned to make Britain atheist. In his speech Dawkins said he had "disposed one by one" of arguments for God’s existence, and believed it was "a form of child abuse" to assume children inherited their parents’ religion "without consent".

McGrath, however, rejected this, arguing Dawkins had ignored "the dialectic between proving and giving reasons for something," and had falsely assumed science eliminated "the conceptual space for God". "Religion has the capacity to go seriously wrong – it can be dogmatic, intolerant and aggressive, as can other worldviews," said McGrath.

"But it can also provide a moral stimulus and raise our imaginative capacities to new heights. For every grand tragedy involving religion, there’ve been ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good."