The Dawkins Delusion?, by A. McGrath & J. C. McGrath

The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, by Alister McGrath & Joanna Collicutt McGrath

IVP Books, 2007. 118 pages.

Richard Dawkins, one of the three most popularly recognizable of the “New Atheists,” has allowed his career to devolve from the popularization of natural science to the excoriation of religious belief and religious believers. I’m all for spirited debate and hard criticism, even of the things I hold dear, but the professor has strayed from his training in the sciences to the waters of philosophy, and find himself out of his depth. Of course, as a “dyed-in-the-wool faith-head” who is “immune to argument” and who worships “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” what would I know?

The McGraths’ book is really more of an extended book review than a full-fledged critique. They write of The God Delusion and the scope of their own work,

To rebut this highly selective appeal to evidence would be unspeakably tedious and would simply lead to a hopelessly dull bok that seemed tetchy and reactive. . . . [A] book that merely offered. . . a litany of corrections would be catatonically boring. (13)

Their review is broken into four short chapters answering the questions: (1) Can faith in God truly be called categorically delusional?; (2) Has science disproved God?; (3) What are the origins of religion?; (4) Is religion evil?

By trade Dawkins is a popularizer of the natural sciences, and reportedly does a good job of it. The charges the McGraths’ book counters fall outside of Dawkins’ expertise, dwelling rather in the realms of philosophy, psychology, and anthropology of religion, and indeed the Dawkins portrayed in these pages is found bumbling about with high confidence and low comprehension.

He attributes the spread of religion to such commonly rejected scientific fringe theories as a “virus of the mind,” memes, or the presence of a “mystical gene.” He cobbles together various assumptions and generalizations of religion, constructing a tremendous straw man at which to tilt. Among those assumptions, according to the McGraths, stand: All religions are more or less the same; Violence perpetrated by religionists may be attributed to religion, whereas violence perpetrated by atheists cannot be attributed to atheism; Jesus was a supporter of in-group/out-group morality, til Paul came along and changed things around.

Other errors are scattered about, such as Dawkins’ assumption that religion and belief in God are coterminous, or that the destruction of religion would finally give us that utopia we’ve all been waiting for.

As a review, The Dawkins Delusion? fails in some places. The authors use far too much ink on snark and polemic instead of careful criticism. After quoting an atheist’s criticism of Dawkins’ methods, for instance, the McGraths attempt a “gotcha” moment, writing, “Aha! Now we understand why Dawkins has cast Ruse into outer darkness. Don’t worry, Michael–you’re in good company.” Or consider apparently disingenuous “Dawkins made me say it” instances: “Dawkins does, I have to say with regret, tend to portray anyone raising questions about the scope of the sciences as a science-hating idiot,” or “Yet, I regret to say, it is representative of Dawkins’s method: ridicule, distort, belittle and demonize.”

The McGraths’ criticisms in these passages and others may even be accurate, but end up hampered by unnecessary verbal baggage. They perform their task much better when they allow Dawkins to speak for himself, as when they display the following quotation (albeit from an earlier work by Dawkins) as an example of the pro-materialist bias in the professor’s work:

[Genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.

There is, unfortunately, little of that sort of thing in this book. It costs the McGraths, as when early on they are so quick to criticize they miss a fundamental point of an analogy used by Dawkins, criticizing unjustly. Dawkins suggested mankind will shed religion as a child sheds his belief in the Tooth Fairy; the McGraths take this to mean individual men will become atheists as they become older. It is a sloppy error, which hurts their credibility. I believe they make up for it later, but it is the wrong foot to start on.

Finally, the McGraths, in my opinion, miss the boat on one crucial point. Dawkins implies the historical move from polytheism to monotheism is a simplification, and “playfully remarks, [atheism] just involves believing in one less god than before.” The McGraths comment, “the history of religion obliges us to speak about the diversification, not the progression, of religion,” and move on to a new issue. They make no mention of the fact that the movement from polytheism to monotheism is not a simplification, a lazy blending of the pantheon into a single figurehead, but a realization of profound complexity.

We say that God is simple, but in His simplicity we find mystery without depth. Because of His simplicity, for example, we can utter nearly-tautologous statements such as “God is good,” but the manifestations of His goodness are of untold diversity. This is to say nothing of the person of God Himself. At the coming of Jesus polytheism had already become stale, uninteresting even to its adherents. The Jews were steadfast in defense of the One True God, but He was isolated. The world was introduced to God in an entirely new way; He was shown as at once One, Trinitarian, Incarnational, and Spiritual.

Dawkins refuses to address any alleged paradox as anything but a contradiction, and subsequently throws the paradox out. He will not, in other words, even attempt to encounter mystery on its own terms. I can accept that. It is lazy, perhaps, but I can accept it. But if he will not approach religion, and especially religion as complex as Christianity (for as they say, Western atheists are really all Christian atheists), he’d do better to leave the book-writing someone else.

The McGraths have written an interesting, accessible, and often valuable companion to Dawkins’ The God Delusion. You should not, however, allow it to replace a careful reading of Dawkins’ work. Nor should you allow it to replace your intellectual engagement with the Christian faith. Of course, I don’t think they ever meant you to.

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