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on 14 July 2010
I came to this book wanting to know what could be said on the other side of the question, having been fascinated and stimulated to think further by four books making cases for not believing in gods or religions: Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion", Ibn Warraq's "Why I am not a Muslim", Christopher Hitchens' "God is not Great" and Sam Harris's "Letter to a Christian Nation".

Unfortunately, while Mc Grath's book 'Dawkins God' is not a bad book nor badly written, it simply did not have the substance or new (to me) ideas that all the above books did, and seemed sometimes to be only nibbling at the edges of Dawkins' arguments.

Whether someone else will one day write a really good reasoned defence of faith, or whether "reasoned defence of faith" is an impossibility, you, dearest reader, must judge.

PS added August 2013: It is only fair to add that, while I personally remain a complete sceptic in religuon, since writing that last sentence, I have at last found something that could be considered a reasoned defence of faith. It appears in a book written partly as an answer to Dawkins and other atheists although more especially to address the threat to Christianity from resurgent Islam Christianity Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West by an American Catholic William Kilpatrick.
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I might as well come clean straight away - I'm an unashamed fan of Alister McGrath. He has helped me - a scientist - to become convinced of the rationale for faith and the intellectual integrity of the Bible . My debt to him, and to Francis Collins, Denis Alexander, John Lennox and the BioLogos community is immeasurable. All have greatly influenced my world-view and strengthened my faith, but it is perhaps with Alister that I can identify most closely because I've heard him speak on more than one occasion, and he has patiently and graciously answered my questions. So I didn't come to this book as an entirely "neutral" reader.

Nevertheless, I seriously believe that this book will challenge even the most committed "New Atheist", and clarify the thinking of Christians, too. One of McGrath's real strengths is his ability to speak to the academic in a style nonetheless accessible to the intelligent lay-reader, and in that regard this book is a real tour-de-force. I definitely recommend reading what Dawkins himself has to say in The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker first, however, since this book specifically addresses those. And it seems only fair to tackle The God Delusion, too. But for those who feel that is all a bit too much, there is the excellent full debate between Dawkins and McGrath available on Youtube to set the stage for understanding them both.
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on 7 September 2008
Reading many of the other reviews of this book, it's pretty clear that most had their minds made up before they ever opened it. I don't recognize in many of the hostile reviews the book that I read. This probably shows that both Dawkins and McGrath are inevitably preaching to the choir, to use a religious metaphor - that Dawkins (writing about religion) will persuade many zealous atheists, despite the (sometimes almost unbelievable!) superficiality of his analysis, and that McGrath will persuade many devout Christians, despite the circularity of some of his arguments.
So, having said all that, Dawkins' God is a lucidly written book, which homes in relentlessly on the weaknesses in Dawkins' treatment of religion - it's strength is that it covers a wide range of Dawkins' writings (rather than just book - a number of Amazon reviewers seem to have missed this, terming Dawkins' God a rebuttal of The God Delusion - read the footnotes!). Its weaknesses are threefold, I think.
First is that at times McGrath on Dawkins is guilty of the same sin as Dawkins on religion - he asserts without sufficient evidence. Yes, this is a short book, for general readers, but some more substantiation is needed of claims about the nature of faith. McGrath is doubtless right that many university-based theologians don't treat faith as simplistic, which is one of Dawkins' major arguments, and very annoying to the many Christians who do blend faith and reason. But there are also many religious people who DO have a very simple faith - and in fact many Christians, at any rate, are proud of that, and actively try to promote simple and simplistic faith, rejecting any use of reason or science. McGrath's characterization of the nature of Christian is not substantiated, in effect he says "It's so because I say it's so" - and thus he fails to acknowledge the complexity and nuances of the nature of religious faith is more complex. (Dawkins is, of course, exactly the same!)
The second weakness is that the writing, though lucid and attractive, is sometimes disorganised. The structure and transitions from one section to the next don't always make sense. This is not always the case and even when present it sometimes is only an irritation, but at times it's a serious weakness.
The chapter on the 'battle between science and religion' is an example - McGrath keeps asserting that in fact the idea that science and religion have always been in conflict is wrong - but he doesn't really substantiate that in his text (I'll come back to that in a minute) and just keeps repeating it, writing around and around in a circle. To be fair to McGrath, his notes cite a series of works on the history of the relationship between science and religion which do support his view - but he doesn't summarize their arguments very well, so that there is no evidence in the text - and there really needs to be, it can't all be left to reading a dozen monographs or articles.
Third, at times McGrath descends into petty points scoring. Again, it isn't frequent, but I think it happens more as the book advances, and while Dawkins is actually much nastier, personally, about people of faith than McGrath is about Dawkins, it still isn't to McGrath's credit. When the arguments become ad hominem, too, it is likely to make a reader doubt the argument.
Nevertheless, much of the book is a detailed and insightful dissection of Dawkins' writings, which superbly brings out that Dawkins is a superb writer with a gift for a brilliant turn of phrase, but that he completely loses his detachment when dealing with religion, in response to which tends to assemble a series of weak, even inane, arguments that have been around forever, and advances them as though they are somehow new, brilliant insights. However, the occasional circularity of some of McGrath's own arguments and a slight tendency to assume, rather than demonstrate, the accuracy of some of his assertions, mean that some of Dawkins' criticisms of religion are unanswered. This is insightful, and exposes the superficiality of much of Dawkins' writing on religion - but it is not the comprehensive critique of Dawkins that the book's publicity claims it to be.
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on 23 October 2006
Alistair McGrath wrote this before Richard Dawkins brought out "The God Delusion", and it will be interesting to see later revisions because Dawkins answers many of his points. However, The God Delusion is, for the most part, a more thorough articulation of points Dawkins has made in various other forums, so McGrath's book remains mostly relevant.

I recommend this book, it is, with momentary exceptions, an enjoyable read, and a good introduction to the wonderful world of modern liberal Protestant theology. The language is accessible except where McGrath is forced to descend into the obscurantist world of theo-babble. McGrath's arguments against Dawkins are about as sophisticated as they get. And therefore it is extremely interesting how totally unsatisfactory, in fact rather pathetic, they are.

McGrath starts with a precis of the mechanism of Darwinian evolution, and of Richard Dawkins' work that is correctly described by Dawkins himself as admirable. He has criticisms of Dawkins' sometimes confrontational approach that is, to some extent, justified. His criticism of Dawkins' idea of 'memes' is understandable. But you may already be seeing where the problem is; while his arguments are without doubt more sophisticated, the actual points being made are just the same as everyone trots out whenever they're criticising Dawkins: he is arrogant, his meme theory is flawed, he is claiming authority beyond his qualifications, and his characterisation of religion is a flimsy strawman. None of these really address the arguments made and are distinctly unsatisfying.

The claim of authority, for instance, presupposes that there is a qualification one must obtain before one can legitimately comment on religion. Dawkins' own response is probably best: "I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor's hammer. How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?" (Science&Theology News). Dawkins doesn't need to study astrology to know that the suggestion that the motion of heavenly bodies millions of miles away affects the details of our lives is absurd.

McGrath continually expresses annoyance at Dawkins' failure to find out what the current status of sophisticated theological belief is. He gets really worked up at Dawkins' clear characterisation of religious faith as 'belief without evidence'. He claims that theologians haven't had that view of faith in over a century, and proceeds to give a definition of faith so obscure and convoluted it is hard to believe that he was able to write it with a straight face. Basically, McGrath thinks that Dawkins should be waging a battle in the lofty halls of theological academia. But he isn't, of course. He is engaged against the beliefs of the average person, and the average person has beliefs that are clearly a world apart from those of McGrath and his colleagues. One is forced to wonder whether McGrath ever asked a typical christian whether they think you need evidence to have faith, before writing this book. It is perfectly obvious to anyone who spends time with real christians unlike, apparently, McGrath, that faith really is, as St Paul said, "the promise of things wished for, the hope of things unseen", and that strong assent to some religious proposition in the absence of evidence is indeed seen as a virtue, which is what Dawkins so objects to.

In actual favour of his own beliefs McGrath presents almost nothing. Basically, nothing Dawkins has said proves god doesn't exist (another mischaracterisation, since Dawkins never claims it does). Dawkins' own response would be to make the same argument about other superstitions, but this isn't the forum for debate. Suffice it to say, McGrath engagingly presents to us the entirety of the vapidity of christian apologetics: "God works in mysterious ways, way too mysterious for you to understand without decades of study so just shut up and take my word for it, ok? Everything is fine, nothing to see here." This is telling stuff and anyone who wants to have their religious beliefs justified should read this book to realise why there's no point.

My only real complaint about this book (in terms of the reading enjoyment) is that McGrath is a bit schizophrenic. Most of the time he is respectful of Dawkins' viewpoint and applauding him for kicking off a robust debate, but occasionally he'll just fly off the wall and start calling Dawkins names. It would appear that this corresponds with the weakest parts of his arguments. So he is positively foaming at the mouth over Dawkins' definition of religious faith; I think he is less upset at Dawkins' definition and more that the common believer really does have the unsophisticated beliefs that McGrath derides. If only they knew what I knew, he seems to be screaming, they would be immune to Dawkins' arguments! This invective is somewhat offputting.

Otherwise I recommend this book, particularly to Dawkins fans who want to see just why Dawkins' religious opinions are so solidly unanswerable.
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on 17 May 2006
This book it is a prolonged attack on Dawkins and, indirectly through him, on Darwin. Nothing new in that. What did surprise me, however, was the selective way McGarth, an Oxford academic, treated his quoted sources, frequently dropping parts of them which do not support his argument. Another ploy is to constantly reiterate throughout the book that atheism is a sort of childish delusion, an adolescent phase intelligent people like McGarth grow out of.

McGrath says that "Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and later writings must be seen as a nineteenth-century refutation of of an early eighteenth-century idea [Paley's] - an idea already rejected by leading Christian writers of the age. He offers no evidence why they 'must' be seen in this light; far from being simply `an early eighteenth-century idea', Paley's `Natural Theology' wasn't published until 1802. Darwin was a prodigious letter writer, over 13,700 have survived, but in only one letter (Cambridge reference No. 2,532), dated 15 November 1859, did Darwin mention Paley. Hardly the actions of a man obsessed with him. The reason why a few Christian theologians dropped Paley's approach was that Natural Theology was eventually seen as counter-productive in promoting Christian dogma, having nothing to say about Christ and his miracles. Paley's `watchmaker' argument logically led to theism, little better than atheism in the eyes of some 19th century theologians. McGarth fails to say that Newman, and every other theologian, in all other respects was in full agreement with Paley and with his `demonstration' that man and the universe had been created by God.

But there are further distortions and half-truths in this book. We are told that Augustine of Hippo "stressed the importance of respecting the conclusions of the sciences in relation to biblical exegesis", but not a word is said about Augustine's authoritative dictum regarding science that "Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since greater is that authority than all the powers of the human mind", a stern pronouncement which set scientific enquiry back by centuries.

McGrath says that, "On the rare occasion when [Dawkins] cites classic theologians, he tends to do so at second hand, often with alarming results. ... Dawkins [he continues] singles out the early Christian writer Tertullian for particular acerbic comment, on account of two quotations from his writings: 'it is certain because it is impossible' and 'it is by all means to be believed because it is absurd'. McGrath tells us that Tertullian never wrote the words. It is, he tells us, a misattribution and from this concludes "So at least we can reasonably assume that Dawkins has not read Tertullian himself, but has taken this citation from an unreliable secondary source". Quite, this is a translation. The `unreliable secondary source' used by Dawkins is the Oehler text, the standard Victorian critical edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, a highly respected work of Christian theology still in print.

He then tries to justify Tertullian's absurd reasoning by telling us it was all probably meant as a joke. We are told, in terms, that the joke was not detected for several hundred years until it was happily discovered by James Moffat in 1916. But Moffat says only that "The odd thing is, however, that consciously or unconsciously he [Tertullian] was following in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle." From this, McGrath draws the conclusion that "it was probably meant as a rhetorical joke, for those who knew their Aristotle". But nowhere does Moffatt even tentatively suggest it was a joke. McGrath should know that the very last thing Tertullian, or any of the early Church Fathers, would do is crack jokes while discussing the mystical body of Christ. McGrath concludes his discussion on Tertullian with "Dawkins' views on the nature of faith are best regarded as an embarrassment to anyone concerned with scholarly accuracy". Scholarly accuracy? McGrath gives the source of the quotation as "Tertullian, de paenitentia (sic, for `poenitentia', a repeated McGrath misspelling), v, 4"; but do not waste time looking for it there - it is in another work and place, Tertullian, de carne Christi, v, 25. An astonishing misattribution, especially when berating another academic for faulty scholarship.

McGrath may hold a PhD in molecular biology, but his grasp of physics is startlingly limited. He seems to believe, for he repeats it several times, that the discovery that light did not consist purely of waves was made in the 1920s. He also implies that the wave theory of light was then dropped. Neither of these assertions is true. Light is still defined as electromagnetic waves in the visible spectrum. McGraw also seems to think that 'big bang' cosmology dates back to 1920 - even the expression wasn't used before 1950. Again and again McGrath hammers away at the notion that scientific theories are not to be trusted. He says " History simply makes fools of those who argue that every aspect of the current theoretical situation is true for all time." But no scientist has ever claimed this, Dawkins certainly hasn't.

As for God, we are given a long lecture on what McGrath claims is the illogicality of Dawkins' position and attributes to Dawkins the mistake of believing that 'since A hasn't been proven, A is false'. There is no proof that either the god Mars nor the goddess Venus exists or ever existed, although there is ample proof that for over 2,000 years to around 500 AD they had many sincere believers. As the Roman poet Horace said 'Caelo tonantem credidimus Jovem regnare' (The sound of thunder is evidence for our belief that Jove reigns in Heaven), a belief which made sense before the true cause of thunderstorms was known, but according to McGrath we should simply suspend our judgement on Jove's existence, since we cannot disprove nor prove it.

For me, the one good thing about this book is that it might lead curious and fair-minded readers to Richard Dawkins' work.
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on 9 February 2005
McGrath sets the scene with a lengthy potted history of evolutionary theory.
The first theme is the relationship between scientific knowledge and theology. McGrath argues, uncontroversially, that neither Dawkins, nor Darwinism can prove or disprove the existence of God; that science is mute on theology. Parenthetically, McGrath says that it is pointless to use Darwinism to counter creationism because creationism is a long-discredited theological blind alley anyway. (Let him go and say that in the USA.)
The second argument is about Dawkins' criticisms of religion. McGrath starts to get more aggressive at this stage. Dawkins' arguments are not rigorous because theologians accept scientific explanations (as manifestations of God's mystery) and because he does not understand what faith is.
In passing, McGrath takes in several other arguments, but does not support them very convincingly. He tries to undermine Dawkins' credibility by pouring cold water on the meme as a rigorous scientific theory. Who said it was anyway? Perhaps he is frightened of the way the concept illuminates how potty ideas can be promulgated.
For Dawkins, it seems to me, the politics of religion rather than theology is the issue of passion. Dawkins' fiercest criticisms are of the perversion of religion to control and coerce. McGrath does not disagree, but contrasts with the military misuse of science and atrocities of atheist political regimes: people are capable of corrupting anything. He does not address the propensity built into the nature of belief systems that makes them so open to perversion. (You know how it goes: I tell you the only truth. To disagree is blasphemy. Blasphemy is a mortal sin. Death to blasphemers. Disagreement is heresy.) Evidently, McGrath does not particularly want to debate religious politics, while he admits that Dawkins does not have much to say on theology.
Another secondary argument is that because scientific theory is subject to change in the face of evidence, that is a weakness of any presently accepted scientific argument. Of course the body of scientific understanding actually develops a greater cohesion and robustness, unlike religious explanations which seem to be increasingly squeezed into the gaps.
There are several obvious omissions. McGrath claims, but does not go into, the existence of reasoned theological arguments not just for God, but for the Holy Trinity of the Christian tradition. He claims that faith is not 'blind' or irrational, but only supporting the claim by giving a couple of references and a tautological quotation. He singularly fails to explain how 'faith' does not mean 'belief in something unverifiable'. He tells us when he came to his own belief, but not how. He does not explain his own reasons for belief.
McGrath does not properly address the problems Dawkins reiterates, of religious diversity, of contradictory beliefs of different faiths, and of the hereditary tendency of belief systems. On the other hand, he repeatedly asserts a convergence between Darwinism & theism that is apparently so well known as not to need any supporting evidence.
I really do not think McGrath has the open mind he protests, though I am sure he likes a good argument anyway.
Careful reading reveals this book's slight substance. I hoped that a 'world-renowned theologian' could put up a more interesting counter-attack.
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on 27 September 2006
The trouble with dealing with issues of evolutionary theory versus theistic accounts of creation is that the arguments for and against either stance have been repeated ad nauseum and in voluminous proportions. A. McGrath's focus is much narrower and mostly successful. He argues that Dawkins' evolutionary inspired atheism is based on a very simplistic view of Christian theology, one that doesn't take into account a great deal of modern and historical work.

As such, the book is not written to debate the issue of whether life on Earth was specialy created or not but simply to demonstrate that Dawkins' apparent certainty in his atheism cannot reliably rest on evolutionary arguments. With this remit McGrath succeeds, mostly.

There is an unfortunate irony that emerges as the reader progresses, however. McGrath quite rightly notes that any scientific theory is subject to change and/or total rejection and that Dawkins' certainty in Darwinian evolution is an impressive act of faith. But Dawkins knows this and accepts it. McGrath's worldview however appears impervious to contradictory evidence and he spends a lot of time describing how scientific advances in knowledge have been "accomodated" by Christian theologans and that this is a sign that theology is in good health. McGrath takes great pains to tell us that when the Bible says "A" and scientific enquiry says "B" then a good theological approach is to re-interpret the Bible in light of this new evidence. Surely this highlights the total meaningless of the whole theological enterprise? It becomes a game with no rules (intellectual tennis without a net?)

McGrath finally makes an appeal to find common ground between science and religion and claims both fields can offer insights to the other. He neglects to mention even one religious "insight" that has furthered human knowledge and I am struggling to think of one too.

Despite these flirts with danger the book is enjoyable, interesting and sincere. Dawkins' atheistic arguments are simplistic and McGrath shows us how - but not really why. That would require a much bigger book.
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on 11 September 2006
Dawkins God has a great first act. It generously sets out Dawkins' case, even if a bit distorted, and sets up the possibility of an exciting dialogue -- McGrath states this to be his intention -- between belief in a Supreme Being, and those who object to, or have no need to put up with, the very concept of one.

Unfortunately, the second act is an utter letdown. Not only does McGrath fail to answer Dawkins, what objection he does give, on the level of "Oh-yes-there-is a-God-and-you-can't-prove-there-isn't", falls into heard-it-all-before assertions of those for whom an "oceanic feeling" is accessible. This "oceanic feeling" (cf. Civilization and its Discontents) sometimes confused with "awe", undoubtedly exists. For some people. But McGrath never really explains why those who get along perfectly well without such a feeling, like Dawkins, are wrong, or mistaken, or missing out.

McGrath's generous treatment of Dawkins (whose Achilles' heel is his "meme" theory --best ignored) never even hints at "shrill" (the word most used by critics of Dawkins), but this only increases the disappointment on seeing a Professor Of Historical Theology At Oxford University fall into the time-worn trap of pointing at the "secular" regimes of, say, Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Kim-il-Sung as examples of "atheist" or secular atrocities balancing any inhumanity the religious world had or has to offer.

In other words, some of us are good and some us (most of us, according to Thales) are bad. Sometimes we're worse. Nazism, Communism, and the Terror were all religions, and behaved as such. Their followers showed the same idolatry, the same fanatical intolerance of disbelievers and heretics, and the same kind of pomp and regalia as anything Rome, the Orange Order, or Islam could put on display.

The fact that God was forbidden by these "secular" regimes only proves they were anything but "atheist"; that "Dear Leader" or " Der Fuehrer" was simply another word for Lord Of The Universe.

Missing, too, is how regimes of the ancient world got along perfectly well -- and perfectly badly -- without monotheism, and how Buddhism manages without the concept of a Deity.

The greatest disappointment of the book is in McGrath's avoidance of Dawkins' real argument: not that organised religion does more harm than good, or that God doesn't exist, but that the concept itself is utterly unnecessary.

McGrath keeps telling us that Dawkins' attack on religion is naive and outdated, which would be an interesting point if he showed what the sophisticated and current religious position is, which he does not. It still falls to the late Joseph Campbell to remind us that religion cannot be more -- or less -- than a metaphor, a springboard into that which can't be articulated.

John ("Chinese Room") Searle is Mills Professor Of the Philosophy Of Mind And Language at Berkeley. In response to a South African Nobel Laureate in Neurology arguing that, because there was no physical evidence of God or Love in the brain, that these concepts existing outside mere biology was "a miracle." In reply, Searle went through a detailed description of what happens when the human eye sees an apple. After listing the possibilities for eating, cooking growing, painting and writing about the apple once it had reached Broca's Area, Searle asked the Nobel Laureate, "Isn't that miracle enough for you?"

The last word to Dawkins, who, at the conclusion of a largely excoriated two-part TV program in the UK, showed a Blue Planet-type series of scenes of the earth: seascapes, underwater marvels, mountains, etc., at the end of which he asked the viewer, "What more do you want?"
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on 19 January 2006
I don't agree with McGrath at every point, but what really matters is that he is fair to Dawkins. There's none of the misrepresentation or "shooting past" people that you find in so many books of this kind. Dawkins himself is clear about this, in an article last year in the "Times Higher Education Supplement", where he describes McGrath's book as doing "a fair and sophisticated job of summarising my position". I'm not totally persuaded by McGrath (hence the four stars). But this book sets new standards of honesty and integrity in this debate. Well worth reading.
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on 27 March 2008
The book starts with a 48-page overly polite introduction to Dawkins- the literary equivalent of the much deprecated "with all due respect..." of Radio 4 political interviews. In an attempt to convey intellectual rigour there is also an additional 40 pages of reference, bibliography and index. That leaves 110 pages out of 202 for poor argument.

The flaws in the arguments are too numerous to mention but typical is McGrath's berating of Dawkins for saying in answers after a debate: "The fact that religion may console you doesn't of course make it true. It's a moot point whether one wishes to be consoled by a falsehood." but then defending Tertullian for writing "He was buried, and rose again: it is certain, because it is impossible". The defence of Tertullian is that the context of the writing makes it immediately obvious that he is not discussing the evidential basis of Christianity.

Particularly disappointing is the dismissal of memes. Susan Blackmore's outstanding work, "The Meme Machine" is referenced just once against "Dawkins' work [on memes] has generated considerable popular discussion", although McGrath does deign to mention the work in fleeting terms another twice.

The cover of the book declares, "Alister McGrath ... disarms the master". Not so by any measure.
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