Finding myself with time to get back to the books recently, I picked up a second hand copy of Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion.
I had wrongly assumed that McGrath’s scientific perspective on matters of philosophy and religion would be the usual pseudo-theological ranting of a Christian convert on a personal crusade to justify their change of heart.
I was interested to discover, though, that McGrath’s writings on religion, atheism and Christianity are actually studied to some extent as part of degree level philosophy, and are generally received positively in philosophical circles. Although he sells himself as a Christian scientist (to somehow lend weight to his faith position by pointing out his professional relationship with logic and reason perhaps?), McGrath is a very well qualified academic theologian and respected Christian spokesperson, supported by the approach and tone of his book The Dawkins Delusion.
Having read Dawkins’ The God Delusion with great interest some years ago, my predominant sense was one of enjoyment that the God Question was finally being discussed at a wider level. I consider the ultimate questions (as they are known; life after death, how we exist, why we exist, etc) so fundamental to the human experience that I am constantly surprised by our ability as individuals and communities to sweep them under the carpet. The very public ‘outing’ of an atheist perspective through Richard Dawkins, and The God Delusion in particular, made questions around atheism and religion acceptable topics for discussion for the everyday thinker. This book helped the non-religious find identity in the atheist camp, and forced religious readers to engage in the debates and be made to defend their beliefs in the frustrated face of questioning agnostics and atheists.
Of course, there are as many problems with The God Delusion as there are benefits. Sadly Dawkins does clearly mix a handful of valid philosophical and theological arguments with sweeping stereotypical views of “religion” (whatever that may be) and attempts to use his own scientific-biological view to engage in matters of the supernatural. In doing so much of his argument is lost in the poor theological understanding, awkward bitterness and red mist.
As a fan, generally, of Dawkins and his cause, and as a convert from Christianity to (passive – not evangelical or aggressive) atheism, I was keen to read McGraths Christian perspective critique of The God Delusion to see what he took issue with in particular. For friends who share my interest in the a/theist debate, I am summarising points below that I felt were the most interesting or significant from those which McGrath raises in The Dawkins Delusion:
1. Crude Theology
Dawkins’ engagement in discussions about god and religion are very simplistic. McGrath highlights the obvious fact that Dawkins clearly has no theological or philosophical background to his writings. As a result, Dawkins’ arguments are aimed at outdated and, to some extent, irrelevant versions of a stereotypical idea of the Judeo-Christian god and ‘religion’. He is unable to really critique the existence of god arguments on any deep level, having little or no grasp of what Christians and believers really believe what they do, nor of philosophy of religion at an academic level.
One example is Dawkins’ assumption that Christians all believe in a Paley’s watchmaker/design argument. In reality of course a teleological argument may be just a small part of a modern believers’ faith, and is a theological position generally confined to RE textbooks and the dusty debates of the past. Dawkins presents no real argument against the design argument since he doesn’t appear to really understand it, neither is it really an argument worth going after to attempt to derail a modern concept of Christianity or belief in god.
I sympathise with McGrath’s point. While I can see why Dawkins might want to tackle some of the famous defences of belief in god, like the teleological argument, his dealings with them is a little too much like someone in the room simply saying “well that’s madness!” – not hugely useful as an academic engagement with the philosophical debate.
2. Hiding Behind “Science
McGrath raises the point that Dawkins may be demonstrating ‘scientism’ in is approach; believing there is no limit to what science can explain. The opposite view is to ask how questions of the supernatural and philosophical meaning and purpose can be answered by science at all. While it might be able to address questions about existence and how we came to be, the ‘there is no god or philosophical purpose to human life’ suggestion of atheism and Dawkins is not actually evidenced by science as such. McGrath points out that Dawkins makes assumptions about the necessity for scientists to be atheist, which are unfounded and indeed disputed by many Christian scientists.
Going further McGrath reminds us that atheist scientist will often be atheist not because of their science, but for some other reason outside their work. To be a scientist might suggest an automatically more logical and reasoned approach to life and the ultimate questions, but even with this assumed predisposition, atheism is often a subject outside the arena of a scientist’s work.
Dawkins is presenting “science” as the polar opposite of “religion”, and in doing so is ignoring the fact that most open minded people- scientists included - will often place themselves on a moving scale of agnosticism. The polarising approach also alienates science from religious communities by presenting it as aggressively atheist, which really helps no one’s cause.
3. Not Defining “Religion”
Here McGrath highlights the fact that Dawkins is clearly very angry about “religion”, whilst also not being clear about what he means by this. He seems to be offended the most by the three biggest organised religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – but not to explain how these “religions” are any different from other ‘worldviews’, atheism for example, nor does he address how non-theistic religions (like, the increasingly popular, Buddhism) fit into his picture. Again this reflects a kind of theological ignorance and a confused approach.
In addressing Dawkins’ rather clever (I thought) concept of ‘memes’ (which of course is now understood on the internet as something quite different from the original idea), McGrath suggests that this is Dawkins’ attempt to create a biological explanation for our human tendencies towards belief in the supernatural and organised religion. In short, Dawkins suggests that religion itself is a ‘meme’, a cultural trend which passes through generations and has a kind of Darwinian existence - in that our ability to replicate memes (be they fashion, memory, ideas, etc) presents us as one of the ‘fittest’ who will therefore go on to mate and our genes to survive. Questions arise when this theory is looked at from a scientific perspective. McGrath tells us that if this were a real biological explanation and not just a nice idea, we would of course find physical evidence to support it. We would also find anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists running to support and thank Dawkins for his incredible discovery.
As it is, the rather fluffy idea of ‘memes’ as a biological concept is not supported by the social-anthropological or psychological scientific communities. Dawkins’ meme idea does not go very far in explaining away the human tend towards the supernatural. Moreover, the idea of religion as a meme doesn’t actually address the non/existence of God…
4. Selective View of Religious Evils
McGrath makes the point that the god Dawkins describes (of rage, horrors and torment) is a god no one believes in! While Dawkins’ account of this Old Testament god is an accurate one in terms of its recalling what the scriptures say, this is of course only one part of the complex nature of god – one that theologians have been debating for centuries and that modern ‘lay’ believers will all have different views on and experiences of. You could also suggest that there’s a huge Buddhist elephant in the room… Dawkins attack here seems to be directed predominantly at the Judeo-Christian god.
Taking it further still, and writing in the light of 9/11, Dawkins goes on to suggest atheists would never perform such atrocities as suicide bombing, etc. McGrath counters this by pointing out the atheist violent actions of Lenin during the rise of the Soviet Union, who believed the elimination of religion was central to the socialist revolution. He also tells us that research shows suicide bombers are motivated chiefly by political reasons, not religious.
Naturally Dawkins does not give credit to the positive elements of religion, including the millions of charitable organisations born from religious perspectives on peace and equality. McGrath also points out that Dawkins’ idea of a perfect world without religion is obviously unrealistic. If religion ceased, other social factors would arise as divisive in its place. He accuses Dawkins of using religious stereotypes, which seems a fair accusation – supported more recently by the sweeping accusations and attacks Dawkins levels at religious people via his Twitter account.
In all, the points raised by McGrath seem obvious. I was pleased to see that his critique was not overly ‘Christian’, nor was he as academically obtrusive as I think he arguably has a right to be.
Has McGrath changed my view on god and religion? Not really. Has he forced me to rethink some of the criticisms of religion raised by Dawkins? I think so.
Interestingly Dawkins has been fairly quiet in responding to The Dawkins Delusion. His main comments were, firstly, that McGrath was trying to make fame and career off Dawkins’ back. And secondly, pointing out the irony or hypocritical nature of McGrath’s criticisms in accusing Dawkins of not relying on evidence, when McGrath believes in a god who clearly cannot be evidenced.
I suspect that, should a formal response ever be written and the dialogue between the two continued, it would likely just repeat existing points and turn messy. Perhaps in their own debate, between the theologian and the scientist, they add weight to Dawkins’ idea of a polarised ‘logic and reason verses the supernatural’ stance after all.