First of all, i'm an atheist, so whilst reading this book I was constantly aware that I might fall into the cognitive bias trap - I hope I didn't and hope the below doesn't give the impression that I was deluding myself into thinking that I was neutral. Having said that my main focus is on what I thought was wrong with the book.
I've often heard that Alister McGrath is an exceptionally bright guy - and I'm sure he is - but after reading this short book I'm hoping it isn't anywhere near his best work as it really isn't that good. I agree with numerous other reviewers that McGrath seems to rant less and I didn't get the impression that he was almost shouting at me (as is sometimes the case with Dawkins) but more often than not I put that down to individual styles of writing as opposed to effectively being off-balance and irrational when putting an argument across. Below are a few of the observations which disappointed and, in some cases, annoyed me;
- McGrath seems to consistently confuse atheism with anti-theism. For example, he talks of the terrible things that occurred in the former Soviet Union because of, and often in the name of, atheism. For my money this could not be further from the truth. To persecute and kill people because they believe in a God is surely 'anti-theism'. I'm an atheist and all that it means for me is that I don't accept that God exists and I'm disinterested in practicing any form of religion, worship etc. If I was then to attack somebody because of their religious believe or burn a church (say) then I'd most likely consider myself an anti-theist. I'm indifferent to God, or an 'Atheist' and not an 'anti-theist' just as a natural disaster is 'Amoral' and not 'immoral'. Following McGrath's line of reasoning a natural disaster would be considered immoral.
Following on from the above, McGrath talks about 'atheist fundamentalism'. I'll concede that I'm not the brightest spark you're likely to meet, and perhaps I'm missing something, but this doesn't make any sense at all in my mind. If atheism is simply the rejection of theistic beliefs - and generally wanting nothing to do with them, like me - then how would I go about being a fundamentalist about it? How is it possible to have varying degrees of disbelief in a deity? (a 'moderate atheist' as opposed to a 'fundamentalist atheist' for instance). Would a 'moderate' believe only particular aspects about God, worship him only once a year, or not be quite so sure about God's existence (but then, that's agnosticism). Perhaps it boils down to McGrath's misleading use of the word 'atheist', or maybe he simply means 'aggressive atheist'.
- He occasionally misses the point of Dawkin's argument. Example; Dawkins compares belief in God to believing in Santa Claus (and other fictional beings). McGrath's rebuttal is "how many people do you know who began to believe in Santa Claus in adulthood?'. The answer is, of course, probably none, but this misses the point. Dawkins' point is that there is exactly the same amount of evidence for a God as there is for Santa Claus - it's nothing to do with the age of the believer/non-believer. Dawkins could equally have used the Celestial Teapot.
- McGrath claims that a society without God as a moral authority tends to lead to authorities who are 'quasi divine' and can basically do as they please. Countries in northern Europe seem to be pretty much Godless and they're amongst the leaders of the World's countries in terms of quality of life, human rights, standards of health and standards of education. A Dawkinsian could easily retort that crime is rife in places such as much of Afica and Latin America where God does play a big part in people's lives. A naive point by McGrath, in my opinion, that he thinks we only behave because of the belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful deity.
- The 'Straw Man' defence. This term seems to be increasingly trite from what I can see....and I'm not sure how much of a good defence it actually is when applied consistently. Dawkins and many other atheists are bright people who once believed in a God. Dawkins should therefore know a little bit about what it is like to believe in and worship him, yet when he alters his beliefs he is accused of not grasping the 'essence' of what God is, or is about, and attacking a cheapened, diluted easy target - in short, attacking a 'Straw Man'. Maybe Dawkins is guilty of this, but it rarely seems the case that a theist is accused of worshipping a Straw Man. It's as if theists/believers have the monopoly on what it is to know God or the 'essence' of God. If somebody as bright, well read and with a religious upbringing such as Dawkins is constantly accused of attacking the wrong type of God, then what hope have the billions of lesser educated people worldwide got of worshipping the correct God/'essence' of God? And who's to say that McGrath doesn't worship a Straw Man God himself?
- Equating dieting to fasting. Dawkins claims that traditions such as fasting are either pointless or harmful. McGrath rightly states that self-deprivation is a common feature of human life, but then goes on to compare cutting down on sugars, processed foods, alcohol, saturated fats etc with fasting. Dieting is done (or at least should usually be done) for reasons concerning health and prolonging life. Fasting is effectively starving oneself of food and water from dawn until dusk for an entire month for the sake of satisfying a religious dogma. Dieting is about making somebody who is not so healthy, healthier. Fasting is carried out by adults who might already be in very good health and, as you can imagine, causes them to lose weight, strength and often the optimal functioning of their mental faculties (I've first hand experience of this from Saudi Arabia). It might still make the person fasting feel good (McGrath seems to claim that both dieting and fasting make a person feel good, and are therefore pretty much equal in many respects), but then if the dogma was that during the same period the religious person should double his/her calorie intake, then that would also make them feel good because the 'feel good' part surely comes from the carrying out of God's will and self-discipline and nothing else.
- Closing words; "Might atheism be a delusion about God?". Well, it might be but until somebody comes up with a compelling argument for God's existence I see no reason why I should think a God exists, and until that day arrives I've little interest in the notion of a biblical deity (apart from reading books such as this, of course). I could equally ask "might afairyism be a delusion about fairies?". Again, it could be but the burden of proof and persuasion should lie firmly in the hands of the believers and people making the assertions.
All in all I think the book revealed a few more chinks in The God Delusion's armour which I didn't notice when I read Dawkins' book, but I think most of Dawkins' central points remain pretty much intact and I wouldn't expect this book to convert many people from atheism to religion or God. In spite of the above paragraghs I did agree with McGrath on quite a number of points - particularly on the point where religion is considered basically evil. I even think that, like McGrath and unlike Dawkins, mankind might be better off with religion due to it's ability to console, give meaning to life and encourage people to do good things, but those notions have little to do with the truth of the existence of a God and this book has done next to nothing to change my original stance - that of being an atheist.