Dr Rowan Williams responded to critics of religion by arguing that atheists had missed the point and failed to understand what Christians really believe in.
In a fierce attack on the Oxford professor and other leading atheists, he said: “There are specific areas of mismatch between what Richard Dawkins may write about and what religious people think they are doing.”
He added: “There are few things more annoying than people saying ‘I know what you mean’.” Dr Williams described Prof Dawkins as a “lively and attractive writer” but said his arguments were not fully engaging with religion.
He suggested that Prof Dawkins, the author of the best-selling The God Delusion and a leading Darwinist, was a good scientist but a poor philosopher.
“Our culture is one that deeply praises science, so we assume because someone is a good scientist, they must be a good philosopher,” he said in a lecture at Swansea University.
In a message to the critics, he said: “Don’t distract us from the real arguments by assuming that religion is an eccentric survival strategy or irrational form of explanation.”
When asked by an audience member “whose fault is Dawkins?”, Dr Williams replied that religious believers themselves were partly to blame, adding that in the past God had often been reduced “to the kind of target Dawkins and others too easily fire at”.
Dr Williams said many fellow Christians would not recognise their religion as it was described by critics.
He said: “When believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, we may feel as we turn the pages: ‘This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it’s not actually what I believe in’.”
He told the audience he wasn’t simply interested in defending his beliefs, but also in upholding the principle of intellectual debate.
The first argument against religion he looked at was that of it being explained as an evolutionary survival strategy, passed on through generations. Dr Williams said that Darwinian theory had wrongly been used as a way to interpret culture, not just biology, by Prof Dawkins.
He rejected Prof Dawkins’s theory which assumes culture is transmitted in a similar way to biology, through “memes” as opposed to genes, and added: “I find this philosophically crass and undeveloped at best, simply contradictory and empty at worst.”
Dr Williams added that to see religion as a survival strategy was to misunderstand it.
More than 1,000 people heard the lecture, both inside the auditorium and in overflow rooms nearby.
Prof Dawkins has been scathing in his assessment of Christian theology, which he has described as vacuous. In a Channel 4 programme, The Enemies of Reason, in August he said: “There are two ways of looking at the world — through faith and superstition, or through the rigours of logic, observation and evidence, through reason.
“Yet today reason has a battle on its hands. Reason and a respect for evidence are the source of our progress, our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth. We live in dangerous times when superstition is gaining ground and rational science is under attack.”