64 of 99 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Read McGrath's two books to get the whole picture
I recommend The Dawkins Delusion but it needs to be read in conjunction with McGrath's earlier book: Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, just as The God Delusion needs to be read with the earlier works of Dawkins.
I have read both of McGrath's books (and Dawkins') and watched their video debates. While The Dawkins Delusion is too short and...
Published on 4 Jan. 2008 by Frank Fennelly
73 of 82 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good Rough Draft of Ideas - where's the rest of the book?
To Alistar McGrath's credit he got me thinking a bit about some counter-arguments to Richard Dawkin's book 'The God Delusion'. He is a very good intellectual writer and puts forth a few good ideas such as - some beliefs may not be proven but justifiable (especially considering that half the world believe in some God), the relevance of a world view, and how evolution is...
Published on 18 Nov. 2007 by B. Burnett
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73 of 82 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good Rough Draft of Ideas - where's the rest of the book?,
This review is from: The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Paperback)
To Alistar McGrath's credit he got me thinking a bit about some counter-arguments to Richard Dawkin's book 'The God Delusion'. He is a very good intellectual writer and puts forth a few good ideas such as - some beliefs may not be proven but justifiable (especially considering that half the world believe in some God), the relevance of a world view, and how evolution is not regarded as being incompatible with religious beliefs. He also tries to provide a balance to some of Dawkins very strong views about the role in which religion plays in our every day lives and how it impacts society. Unfortunately, he never follows through and hence leaves the reader wanting. He does make it clear up front that he did not want to write a detailed book that counters against every anti-religion point that Dawkins makes in TGD but that is precisely what I was hoping he would do (perhaps not with a 400 page book, but with something a bit more than a short high level essay). Like it or hate it, 'The God Delusion' puts forth some very powerful arguments against religion and the perceived irrational thinking that accompanies it. Dawkins does not don kid gloves and attacks religion very aggressively in his book - which was his intention. He was not looking to publish a politically correct book. Hence a strong rebuttal would have been appropriate and potentially very interesting - especially from somebody of McGrath's intellectual caliber. I am an atheist but continue on my quest for answers and I have a good appreciation for rational counter-argument. This was McGrath's opportunity to put forth some solid rebuttals but it doesn't happen. He stops well short of a full rebuttal to almost all of the issues raised by Dawkins so he lost his opportunity to persuade otherwise - which I assume was the reason for publishing the Dawkins Delusion in the first place. In short - had potential but fails to deliver.
127 of 144 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps Cathartic For The McGraths, But Disappointing For Me,
This review is from: The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Paperback)
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.
270 of 309 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Pretty Polarising: Atheist Or Believer, This Book Won't Change Your Stance,
This review is from: The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Paperback)
So, having really enjoyed the celebrated work to which this book is a counter, I thought I'd give Dawkins's nemesis's book a try. After all, it's easy to choose to listen to someone who's arguing from your side; the challenge is to hear the counter arguments respectfully.
I'll give the professor his due; he has a measured approach that makes him far more charming a narrator than is Dawkins. The latter tends to go for the jugular, and I can envision him red-faced, pounding his keyboard at times.
Professor McGrath wisely lets Dawkins hang himself at times; when Dawkins is silly enough to use absolutes ("all religion is evil"), attention is drawn to it.
Nonetheless, writing a rebuttal to this book should also prove easy. After all, whilst it's true that Dawkins deliberately extracted bad bits of the Bible, it's still the case that they are in it, irrespective of whether there heppen to be good bits too.
Likewise, one of the most striking pages of Dawkins's work describes the god that is mentioned in the Old Testament using very negative adjectives based on accounts contained therein. McGrath's answer to that is "I don't believe in a god like that." That may be the case, but it doesn't change the fact that the stories that Dawkins read to come up with such a description are there, and so the professor's rebuttal is not effective.
I don't know. It's hard not to automatically side with the person who espouses one's own opinion, of course, in which case I'd be with Dawkins. But when all is said and done, this is not a cut-and-dried debate, and there is much that is worthwhile in the riposte. I would say, though, that Dawkins didn't totally undermine the case for a god; he undermined the case for organised religion. In a similar vein, professor McGrath's book is more a defence for the religious that Dawkins attacked with such zeal, rather than a matter of making "God" much more a viable concept for me.
This is only a short book. I'm not sure that I'd recommend it, just because there's nothing to it. Anyone that reads Dawkins's work can see that he's aggressive. Reasonable people are well aware that there are fanatical atheists that are just as zealous as their believing equivalents; we don't need to buy a book to realise this.
I'm glad that I bought this book just because I like to practice what I preach, about listening to both sides of the argument. It didn't dissuade me from my own stance at all, but I'm sure for those who share the author's opinions and beliefs, it will come as a welcome defence to Dawkins's affront.
26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An exercise in avoiding the key question,
Appropriately, this book is good in parts. But not many parts. McGrath picks holes in some of Dawkins' arguments and factual statements, and criticises him for being selective with evidence. But by pursuing this ad hominem attack (and this is the second such offering from McGrath) he is himself indulging in selection. The atheist literature extends far beyond Dawkins, and includes several at least as effective polemicists such as Sam Harris.
Overall, what strikes me about the book is how the author misses the central point so comprehensively. The matter of evidence for the mystical claims of religion is largely ignored. The nearest he gets is with the 'five ways' of Thomas Aquinas, but claims that the saint wasn't really trying to prove that God exists.
This is a very thin book - only 78 pages including notes. This doesn't stack up well against Dawkins' weighty tome, and again looks like a collection of selected pot-shots at a barn door of a target. From such a comprehensive and detailed text as The God Delusion it can't be difficult to find passages that are not as well researched or referenced as others. No such criticisms invalidate Dawkins' central challenge, that faith without evidence can't be accepted.
Whether you are a believer or not, the book is just about worth reading. The faithful will enjoy the barbs against the mighty Dawkins (who largely ignores them), while sceptics will despair at the shallow thinking that gets published. You won't miss much if you skip it.
62 of 76 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Lamentable,
This book is far too short to give any serious treatment of the issues it attempts to discuss. It does highlight some ways that Dawkins is misleading or confused (as the Christianity that emerges from Dawkins' writing is rather idiosyncratic), but it altogether lacks depth. He even attempts to turn Dawkins' argument on its head by suggesting that it is Dawkins himself who is deluded. This is not very useful reasoning, and too corrosive (maybe we are all deluded over our beliefs...) It is sad I think that McGrath has got tangled in this debate. It comes accross as petty; and McGrath has for a long time been a very useful and respected theological educator. The book seems to have been written in a hurry. The most eloquent lines in the book are the bits where McGrath cites Dawkins' own work. For those concerned with these issues there are better places to go; Keith Ward springs to mind.
29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Patchy response to The God delusion,
This response to Richard Dawkins' "The God delusion" is by Alister McGrath and Joanna McGrath. For simplicity I will refer to just the first of the authors, using the initials AM.
The title of the book is unfortunate - why make a personal attack on Dawkins in this way? And the sub-title, "Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine" is also unfortunate. In "The God delusion" Dawkins presents his position as an atheist in an evidence-based way - to imply that his position is fundamentalist is absurd. The phrase "atheist fundamentalism" is needlessly repeated again and again throughout the book.
There is a strange section in the Introduction:
"Dawkins preaches to his god-hating choirs, who are clearly expected to relish his rhetorical salvoes, and raise their hands high in adulation. Those who think biological evolution can be reconciled with religion are dishonest! Amen! They belong to the `Neville Chamberlain school' of evolutionists! They are appeasers! Amen! Real scientists reject belief in God! Hallelujah! The God that Jews believed in back in Old Testament times is a psychotic child abuser! Amen! You tell them, brother!" (page x)
Why did AM write this? One possibility is that he may dislike the histrionics of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians and in these words he combines his dislike of them with his dislike of Dawkins and atheism into a single attack on both. But this is just speculation. Also, how does disbelief in God equate to god-hating?
Again from the Introduction:
"The book [The God delusion] is often little more than an aggregation of convenient factoids, suitably overstated to achieve maximum impact, and loosely arranged to suggest that they constitute an argument. To rebut this highly selective appeal to evidence would be unspeakably tedious, and would simply lead to a hopelessly dull book that seemed tetchy and reactive. Every one of Dawkins' misrepresentations and overstatements can be challenged and corrected. Yet a book that merely offered such a litany of corrections would be catatonically boring." (page xi)
Why would such a book be unspeakably tedious / hopelessly dull / catatonically boring? The God delusion, which I think is a very well structured, well argued book, currently scores around 70% on Amazon UK - a book that responded fully to each of the main points Dawkins makes could well achieve a similar score as well as usefully progressing the debate. I think this would have been a better response than the patchy response AM actually gives and which currently scores around 40%.
"Assuming that Dawkins has equal confidence in all parts of his book, I shall simply challenge him at representative points, and let readers draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of his evidence and judgement." (page xii)
This sounds like: "I can't actually respond to many of Dawkins' points so I'll just respond where I can and hope that's enough."
From chapter 1, "Deluded about God?":
"After [a] lecture, I was confronted by a very angry young man. The lecture had not been particularly remarkable. I had simply demonstrated, by rigorous use of scientific, historical and philosophical arguments, that Dawkins' intellectual case against God didn't stand up to critical examination. But this man was angry - in fact, I would say he was furious. Why? Because, he told me, wagging his finger agitatedly at me, I had `destroyed his faith'. His atheism rested on the authority of Richard Dawkins, and I had totally undermined his faith. He would have to go away and rethink everything. How dare I do such a thing!" (page 1)
Here we have AM's account of how he effortlessly defeated Dawkins and "destroyed the faith" of an atheist. But I think we are entitled to wonder whether this encounter unfolded quite as he describes. Would an atheist really talk in terms of his faith having been destroyed? AM tends to assign to Dawkins and atheists words and terms usually associated with religion, and it looks like that is what's happening here. But one notable thing does stand out: AM's atheist friend was at least prepared to rethink things in response to his having encountered new evidence. This is very different from the typical response of Christians in an equivalent situation. When a Christian is presented with compelling evidence against what he believes he will often take a position of "I really don't care what you tell me. I've been a Christian for x years and I'll be a Christian on the day I die. Nothing you or anyone else can say will ever change what I believe".
Another curious sentence:
"We all need to examine our beliefs - especially if we are naive enough to think that we don't have any in the first place" (page 2)
Surely all people are aware that they hold beliefs?
Chapter 2 is titled "Has science disproved God?" which has something of a straw man quality to it. In The God delusion Dawkins has already said:
"That you cannot prove God's non-existence is accepted....What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn't) but whether his existence is probable"
In the third chapter, "What are the origins of religion?", there is an interesting discussion on conservative thinking:
"The way that human beings perceive the world is indeed coloured by our agendas and expectations. `Cognitive bias' is a fundamental characteristic of human psychology. Yet in general this unconscious bias is manifested not so much in our believing what we would like to be true, as in maintaining the status quo of our beliefs. The driving force is not wishful thinking, but conservative thinking - that is, thinking that conserves an existing world view....
We thus have a built-in resistance to change our position - a resistance which is underpinned by `cognitive biases' which predispose us to fail to notice or to discount data that are inconsistent with our view. On the whole we do this because it is efficient - it is effortful and upsetting to have to change one's mind....
Do cognitive biases play a part in religious belief? The evidence is that they are as important here as in any other area of life." (page 34)
I agree with this description - it helps us understand why Christians (as noted above) and religious people in general tend to make their beliefs immune to any evidence that is contrary to those beliefs. As the theologian Don Cupitt noted 30 years ago:
"The victory of faith is not its confirmation by the facts but its triumph over them."
The final chapter, "Is religion evil?", contains several valid points including these two:
"Dawkins insists that there is `not the smallest evidence' that atheism systematically influences people to do bad things....The facts are otherwise. In their efforts to enforce their atheist ideology, the Soviet authorities systematically destroyed and eliminated the vast majority of churches and priests during the period 1918-41....This violence and repression was undertaken in pursuit of an atheist agenda - the elimination of religion." (page 48)
"As Robert Pape showed in his definitive account of the motivations of such attacks [suicide bombings], based on surveys of every suicide bombing since 1980, religious belief of any kind is neither necessary nor sufficient to create suicide bombers....Pape's evidence is that the fundamental motivation is political: the desire to force the withdrawal of foreign forces occupying land believed to belong to an oppressed people, who have seriously limited military resources at their disposal." (page 50)
In conclusion: the book starts badly but does eventually improve. Overall however it doesn't achieve its goal of being a successful response to The God delusion.
31 of 40 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Practice what you preach,
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This short book is several times longer than its content justifies.
In 'The God Delusion' (TGD) Richard Dawkins (RD) clearly states 'That you cannot disprove the existence of God is accepted and trivial.'
He even has a chapter 'Why there is almost cerainly no God.' He also clearly states that religion is not 'the root of all evil'.
Alister McGrath (AM) devotes over half of 'The Dawkins Delusion' (TDD) to arguing that (1) you cannot disprove the existence of God and (2) religion is not the root of all evil, and then has the chutzpah to claim this as a triumphant refutation.
He seems deeply confused over the nature of atheism. He makes a great deal of his conversion from atheism to Christianity - 'I was an atheist in the late 1960's' and 'the truth and relevance of atheism as a young man.' AM was born in 1953 - in the late 1960's he was in his early to mid teens - certainly a schoolboy, barely a youth, and certainly not a 'young man'. His ideas of atheism seem locked in at this level of maturity - how else could he commit such a howler as RD 'preaching to choirs of God-hating atheists.'? How can you hate something which does not exist? He continually refers to faith and fundamentalism as applying to atheism - but these relate to a belief system - and atheism is hardly a belief system - unless you call asking 'where's the evidence?' one.
When AM admonishes RD for doubting the sincerity of Freeman Dyson becuase 'he was a Christian who wasn't particularly interested in the doctrine of the Trinity', he is being economical with the truth. FD actually stated 'I am content to be one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels' and 'I do not make a clear distinction between mind and God.'
There will be many who doubt that FD is a 'true believer', - but what interesting ommisions by AM.
AM also degrades both himself and FD by endorsing - by repeating - FD's statement that 'Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were avowed atheists.'
AM and FD sem to equate anti-Christian with atheism.
It is easy to find quotations from Hitler showing him to be (1) a committed Christian and (2) a dedicated anti-Christian, - but his belief in providence and/or destiny never seems to have wavered - concepts which imply a guiding higher power - hardly atheistic.
Stalin was almost certainly an atheist, but his atrocities were directed at a competing authority system, not simply because he was an atheist. Even today, you are much more likely to be killed because of your beliefs by a believer of another faith than by an atheist.
AM is also selective when he quotes RD.
'The God I know and love is described by Dawkins as insipid, summed up in the 'mawkishly nauseating' idea of Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. While some readers will take offence at this description, this is probably the mildest criticism of religion in the book.'
RD actually wrote 'To be fair, this milksop persona owes more to his Victorian followers than to Jesus himself. Could anything be more mawkishly nauseating than Mrs C F Alexanders 'Christian children all must be/ mild, obedient, good as he'?
RD also wrote 'Indeed Jesus, if he existed (or whoever wrote his script if he didn't) was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history .' and 'Perhaps because I don't live in America, most of my hate mail is not quite in the same league, but nor does it display to advantage the charity for which the founder of Christianity was notable.'
When RD gives his now-famous description of the God of the O.T. - every word of which can be easily justified, AM writes that this is not the God that he, or anyone he knows, knows. Maybe not, but 44% of Americans (Gallup 2008) believe thatb God created human beings pretty much in their present form at some time within the last 10,000 years. Some high-level evangelists attributed hurricane Katrina to divine judgement on the lifestyles in New Orleans. AM classes these as a lunatic fringe. Lunatic maybe.
AM also accuses RD of being selective in his treatment of the O.T. If so, it is as nothing to AM's transgressions. He claims that the Pentateuch shows forgiveness and compassion, setting limits on acts of revenge (whatever happened to 'an eye for an eye') and prohibiting slavery - Leviticus 25.
Leviticus 25,39-42 does prohibit slavery, but only for fellow Jews. Leviticus 25,44-46 instructs (not merely permits) the aquisition of slaves from 'the nations that are round about you' and 'the children of the strangers that sojourn among you' and emphasises that these are possesions, to be passed on as an inheritance.
AM also shows an apparent lack of biblical knowledge when he mocks RD and memes. 'Yet has anyone actually seen these things, whether leaping from brain to brain or just hanging out?' The only implication - if you cannot see it - it doesn't exist. John 1,18 'No man has seen God, at any time' Own-goal McGrath scores again!
AM claims that Jesus did not display an in-group mentality - Matthew 15,24 comparing a Caananite woman, and all her tribe aa dogs.
He also claims that Jesus never hurt anyone - but he cursed to sterility a fig tree which had no figs - though it was not the season for figs Mark 11,13-14 and 20-21. What sort of person would cut down an apple tree because it bore no fruit in mid-winter?
AM describes 'Dawkins method : ridicule, distort, belittle and demonize. Still, at least it will give Christian readers an idea of the lack of scholarly objectivity or basic human sense of fairness which now pervades atheistic fundamentalism'
Distort Dawkins view of Jesus
Demonize Hitler and Stalin as atheists
Belittle RD's biblical knowledge (almost as bad as AM's)
Scholarly objectivity and fairness systematic, selective partial quotations.
Again and again AM levels accusations at RD which are not only false, but easily shown to be so. The ones listed above are only a representative sample - try comparing the two books regarding Einstein, Swinburne and Rees.
These accusations include ' substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective facts for careful evidence-based thinking.....let readers draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of his evidence and judgement.'
AM is dscribed as a prolific author. Perhaps if he wrote less and read more - I suggest he starts with The God Delusion
and the Bible - he would shoot himself in the foot less often. As it is, he hasn't a leg to stand on.
656 of 842 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Shallow, bland and hopelessly confused,
Richard Dawkins' recently published and controversial book "The God Delusion" marks a significant departure from his popular scientific writing on evolutionary biology. It is a sustained and sometimes hostile attack on religious institutions and religious belief. Given the combative tone of the book, it is not surprising professional theologians like Alistair McGrath feel the need to respond. The blurb tells us that "McGrath subjects Dawkins' critique of faith to rigorous scrutiny" and that his response to Dawkins is "exhilarating and meticulously argued." A reviewer says McGrath "Addresses the conclusions of The God Delusion with the devastating insights of a molecular biologist turned theologian".
Unfortunately, McGrath falls well short of the comprehensive refutation of Dawkins we are led to expect. Whereas "The God Delusion" is a muscular, bare knuckle kind of a book, McGrath's response is little more than a list of counter-assertions based on poor analogies and bad logic.
For example, in Chapter 1 (p.3), McGrath attacks Dawkins' view that faith in God is infantile and little better than believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. According to Dawkins, such childish beliefs are abandoned as soon as we are capable of evidence-based thinking. McGrath thinks Dawkins is not entitled to the analogy. He says "How many people do you know who began to believe in Santa Claus in adulthood? Or who found belief in the Tooth Fairy consoling in old age?"(p.3). He goes on to say, "Those who use this infantile argument have to explain why so many people discover God in later life..."
McGrath's argument here is unconvincing. For the child, a belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy is not irrational, because the available evidence supports that belief. The mince pie was eaten, the sherry glass was empty, there was sixpence under the pillow and the parents told the child it was true. What would be irrational would be to go on believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, when the child knows who really ate the mince pie, drank the sherry and put the sixpence under the pillow. Indeed, the essence of a delusion is that it is "a belief held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and that is resistant to all reason". And this is precisely why Dawkins thinks his analogy is appropriate. For him, belief in God is no different from a belief in Tooth Fairies or Santa Claus and those who continue to hold such beliefs are - by definition - deluded. The straightforward reason not to believe in these things is that there is no evidence for them. As to why some people convert to a belief in God in later life, surely the explanation is blindingly obvious; they are nearing the exit.
Later (p.9) McGrath addresses the problem of the "infinite regress". According to Dawkins, the problem for theologians is that in order to explain the presence of specified complexity in the world around us, they postulate an even more complex being - God - who they claim created the world. Dawkins thinks this is a futile strategy, because you then have the problem of explaining how such a complicated being could arise, or to use a slightly different metaphor, who designed the Designer? Darwinian theory, on the other hand, has no need of a Designer. Its great strength lies in the fact that it explains how mind-boggling complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity. McGrath takes issue with this argument, because he says that in reality science faces the same infinite regress as religion. To illustrate, he says "...the holy grail of natural sciences is the quest for the `grand unified theory' - the `theory of everything'. This theory would "...explain everything, without itself requiring or demanding an explanation". But if Dawkins' argument was credible, "this great scientific enterprise could be dismissed with a seemingly profound, yet in fact trivial question: What explains the explainer?" In other words, McGrath is arguing that science is no better off than religion, because even if there were such a thing as a "theory of everything" (TOE), science would then have to explain what gave rise to that theory.
Once again, McGrath's is unpersuasive. Firstly, if he is referring to an infinite temporal regress, then for the scientist this need not be a problem. According to Big Bang cosmology, the Universe came into existence about 15 billion years ago and at the same moment space and time came into existence. There is no logic in asking what came before Big Bang, because given that time did not exist prior to this event, such questions are meaningless. Hence, for the scientist the problem of the infinite regress does not actually arise.
Secondly, the majority of scientists working in this field - even if they believe a TOE is possible - do not claim that it would be the final answer to how the Universe began. Instead, they think of it in the much more modest sense of a theory that can explain the properties of all the fundamental particles and the forces by which they interact and influence one another. Such a theory would provide a complete account of the physical world as we understand it, but would by no means explain how that world, or the laws which govern it, came into existence in the first place. Indeed, many scientists would say that this is not even a scientific question, since it does not come within the purview of scientific methodology. Actually McGrath concedes this point, when later in the book (p.18) he quotes with approval Sir Peter Medawar's view that there are limits to science and that no conceivable advance in science would empower it to answer such questions as How did everything begin? So on the one hand McGrath accuses scientists of seeking a "holy grail" theory which they claim would explain everything - including itself - yet later in the book he maintains that it is a characteristic feature of good science that it does not make such claims. I think he is hopelessly confused about this.
But the key issue is clear. The difference between the scientific and the religious world view, can be summarized in a single word: doubt. Science is an endless series of conjectures and refutations, based on empirical observation. Accordingly there is no certainty in science - there are only temporary, probabilistic statements. As the great theoretical physicist Richard Feynman said, "I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything".
If doubt is the defining feature of science, religion, on the other hand, has no doubts. It does not evaluate competing theories because it does not admit of any competing theories. Its central hypothesis - that God exists - is certain. A perfect example of this occurs in the "Dawkins Delusion" when McGrath states that he "...writes as a Christian, who holds that the face, will and character of God are fully disclosed in Jesus of Nazareth" (p.46). Now it is precisely this kind of utterance Dawkins insists is delusional: he would want to know on what possible evidence McGrath could base such a claim? Yet McGrath makes no attempt to justify it, which suggests that he is more interested in affirming his prior religious convictions than engaging in a genuine debate about the rational basis for religious certainities.
The "evidential gap" which separates the religious and scientific worldview is what ultimately lies at the heart of the debate between atheists and believers. Yet it is precisely this which "The Dawkins Delusion", for all its lofty ambitions, fails to address. Put simply, McGrath is always sharpening the tools, but never doing any cutting.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Cashing in on success.,
A rather cynical cashing in on Dawkins' fame and success, hastily written, it would seem. He attacks a strawman of Dawkins, repeatedly characterising him as aggressive, or fundamentalist, yet does not quote from Dawkins to back up this view of him. As a scientist, he is presumably aware of this failing, but hopes to sell the book anyway. It is notable that to be called fundamentalist or aggressive, a theist actually has to kill people or picket funerals, whereas an atheist as polite and reasonable as Dawkins is labelled as this merely for daring to peacefully and passionately disagree with religion.
Whilst he makes several good points, he is unable to refute any of Dawkins'. To those who've read both books, the fact that even McGrath is unable to refute the God Delusion strengthens its position greatly. The challenge still stands. Is there anyone who can refute Dawkins?
51 of 67 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars God as a receding fog,
I was recommended this book as a supposed high quality and intelligent antidote to Richard Dawkin's book 'The God Delusion'. I found it nothing of the sort. It seems to consist of little more than:
- complaint about Dawkins' rudeness towards religious belief,
- forever saying that the God described by Richard Dawkins is not the God of the faithful, but never adequately explaining why not. (Seems Richard Dawkins was pretty spot on to me),
- never actually gets around to firmly describing who or what the 'real' God of the faithful actually is.
Instead, this 'real God of the faithful' seems to become a sort of will-o'-the-wisp, receding ever further out of the grasp of proper scrutiny.
I bought this book expecting it to be some high falutin' and intellectually rigorous religious riposte to Dawkins. Disappointingly, the riposte can be summarised as:
- how dare you be so rude about my precious God (and you've hurt my feelings a bit too),
- it's intellectually respectable to believe in God, but I'm not telling you why,
- and anyhow, my God isn't the God you describe, but I'm not telling you what he really is either.
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The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine by Joanna Collicutt McGrath (Paperback - 16 Feb. 2007)