James Heiser | The New American
Dec 24, 2007
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
The Dawkins Delusion? by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath
"Religion causes harm, says poll," declared the headline of a September 2 article for the online edition of the Sunday Times of London. The Times' Richard Brooks declared, "Nearly half the British think that religion is harmful, according to a poll carried out by YouGov. Yet more than half also believe in God 'or something.'" The poll results--if accurate--report a sad deterioration at the heart of a once-Christian nation: "Only 16% of those polled called themselves atheists; 28% believed in God; 26% believed in 'something' but were not sure what; and 9% regarded themselves as agnostics.... In the survey 43% said they never prayed, 31% hardly prayed, and 10% prayed every night." Faith in God, and the prayer--which comes as the result of faith--are on the wane in England.
The perplexing religious conditions in England--and throughout the English-speaking world--are of direct relevance to the two books under consideration in this review. Both books were authored by professors at Oxford University who are widely respected within their academic disciplines, and who are personally acquainted with the appeal of atheism. But there the similarity ends. Richard Dawkins (a professor of "Public Understanding of Science") and Alister McGrath (a professor of historical theology) have long been sparring partners in debates between Christian theism and atheism, and their most recent books represent a significant extension of that ongoing debate.
Richard Dawkins has written extensively as a longtime apologist for atheism. But his most recent volume, The God Delusion, outrageously claims that it is delusional to believe in God, and purports that God's nonexistence is an established, irrefutable fact. In response, Alister McGrath, who was once himself an atheist, but is now a committed Christian and well-respected theologian, and his wife, Joanna Collicutt McGrath, have responded with The Dawkins Delusion?, shredding Dawkins' argumentation.
The atheist Dawkins' stated goal for his book is, ironically enough, quite religious, seeking to bring about a conversion in his readers: "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." And Dawkins is so sure that this conversion will take place in all but the most hopelessly indoctrinated and nonthinking religious readers that his own sense of personal infallibility seems the very soul of his book.
In the preface to his book, Dawkins dismisses those who aren't converted by his supposedly unassailable arguments as "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads [who] are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature." In other words, Dawkins asserts that all reasoning people will agree with him; anyone who disagrees has been "indoctrinated" Given his ad hominem dismissal of all criticism at the outset, one wonders how his attitude could leave any room for rational discussion with him concerning his inflammatory assertions--and this question looms larger with every page.
Dawkins makes great sport of the reliance which Christians (and other religious believers) place in sacred texts. The Bible, for example, he dismisses as a "weird volume that religious zealots hold up to us as the inerrant source of our morals and rules for living." But Dawkins' own book seems to be predicated on readers simply trusting Dawkins. This is particularly evident in his self-contradictory assertion that there is nothing beyond the realm of the scientifically discoverable. This proves to be one of the primary weaknesses of Dawkins' entire argument, for it is itself an unscientific assertion which is simply assumed to be true. Dawkins makes the assumption--and demands that his readers do the same--that the limit of knowledge is that which may be scientifically discovered. Such an assertion is itself unprovable by scientific means, and is therefore self-negating.
Although Dawkins cites a lengthy bibliography, often his specific assertions are simply set before the reader as Undeniable Fact, without allowing one to assess the merits of his "authorities" on a case-by-case basis. The astute reader is left with the impression that a major bulwark of Dawkins' argument is the reader's trust in the author; but is such trust justified? If the argument against God is to be set forth on "scientific" grounds, readers should be able to evaluate the provenance of the information and arguments set forth by the author.
Dawkins' book also relies quite heavily on philosophical and ethical arguments.
Much of Dawkins' book could have been written in the 19th century, spending significant time arguing with the "proofs" for the existence of God set forth by St. Thomas Aquinas and other theologians and philosophers. What Dawkins seems to have failed to understand is that typically the role of such arguments is not to "prove" the existence of God, but simply to eliminate certain philosophical arguments against the possibility of God's existence. In this respect, Dawkins is arguing against a "straw man," since St. Thomas (and others) were not trying to prove what he asserts they failed to prove: the philosophical necessity of belief in God.
Dawkins devotes roughly four chapters of his book to ethical arguments against the existence of God. Much of Dawkins' argument here is common to virtually any anti-Scriptural arguments of the last several centuries and could as easily have been found in the writings of the fanatics of the French Revolution or the anti-Christian ravings of Nietzsche or Marx. Among other things, Dawkins claims that the God set forth in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament is unworthy of being worshipped, denouncing "the tragi-farce of God's maniacal jealousy against alternative gods" and "the ethnic cleansing begun in the time of Moses." Although he concedes "Jesus is a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament," he rages against the doctrine of original sin, which he states is "almost as morally obnoxious as the story of Abraham setting out to barbecue Isaac.... What kind of ethical philosophy is it that condemns every child, even before it is born, to inherit the sin of a remote ancestor?" He attacks Christ's atonement for sin as "a new sadomasochism whose viciousness even the Old Testament barely exceeds." He even claims that "we (and that includes most religious people) as a matter of fact don't get our morals from scripture"--a statement which is remarkably at variance with the experience of millions of Christians.
Page after page, Dawkins' overheated rhetoric leaves one with the impression that he is not even attempting to understand biblical theology--let alone assess the validity of its claims to truth, or the coherence of its ethical system--but instead there is a virulent hostility to the text which contorts his entire argument. Such hostility to the text is combined with a scatter shot of anecdotes of evil deeds done by "religious" people. In fact, Dawkins' argument maintains that when religious people do good things, they do so despite their religion, not because of it.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Dawkins defends atheism and its adherents against any charge of their doctrine being a source of immorality. Dawkins seems at his most disingenuous in his attempt to rid atheism of the "problem" of Stalin and Hitler. How can one credibly leave readers with the impression of reducing religious faith to the horrors of the Inquisition, while ignoring the fact that the most infamous butchers in human history carded out their genocides in the cause of atheism?
In Dawkins' world it does not matter that Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge butchers, and countless others carded out some of the most unspeakable butchery for the express purpose of eliminating religious belief; nor does it matter that Hitler utilized evolutionary theory to justify his murderous racism. Dawkins simply absolves the pure faith of atheism of any responsibility for the actions of its adherents, while following precisely the opposite path where religious faith is concerned. But he cannot have it both ways. Dawkins might be a more credible author if he would simply admit that ideas have consequences, and that whereas Christians, in particular, have striven throughout history to conform their response to persecution by "turning the other cheek," when atheism reigns over a people, it does not hesitate to use the sword against those who oppose its dogmas.
Reviewing Dawkins' book leads one to agree with Alister McGrath's assessment in The Dawkins Delusion?: "Dawkins is resistant to the calibration of his own certainties, seeing them as being luminously true, requiring no defense. He is so convinced that his own views are right that he could not bring himself to believe that the evidence might legitimate any other options--above all, religious options."
Alister McGrath's journey is almost the complete opposite of Dawkins'. As he observes,
Although I was passionately and totally persuaded of the truth and relevance of atheism as a young man, I subsequently found myself persuaded that Christianity was a much more interesting and intellectually exciting worldview than atheism. I have always valued freethinking and being able to rebel against the orthodoxies of an age. Yet I never suspected where my freethinking would take me.
Although he is now a professor of historical theology, McGrath received his doctorate in molecular biophysics and has proven himself more than capable of meeting Dawkins' arguments on the basis of scientific reasoning--particularly given the philosophical and scientific weakness of Dawkins' The God Delusion.
It is precisely on this point--overturning Dawkins' false philosophical assumptions--that McGrath's response to Dawkins is most helpful. McGrath directly addresses Dawkins' attempt to lump all religions together:
Here, I must insist that we abandon the outmoded idea that all religions say more or less the same things. They clearly do not. I write as a Christian who holds that the face, will and character of God are fully disclosed in Jesus of Nazareth. And as Dawkins knows, Jesus of Nazareth did no violence to anyone. He was the object, not the agent, of violence. Instead of meeting violence with violence, rage with rage, Christians are asked to "turn the other cheek," and not let the sun go down on their anger. This is about the elimination of the roots of violence--no, more than that: it is about its transfiguration.... If the world was more like Jesus of Nazareth, violence might indeed be a thing of the past. But that does not appear to be an answer that Dawkins feels comfortable with.
Dawkins asserts the pacifism of atheism with the claim, "By contrast, why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?" But McGrath understands that the absence of a belief in God and His eternal laws paves the way for other, contradictory beliefs (nature abhors a vacuum), and that without a moral foundation those beliefs can and do lead to violence and rage.
Throughout The God Delusion, readers should be struck by the anger of its author--there is a reason why even many atheists are made uncomfortable by this book. Perhaps the reason for this apparent anger is that which McGrath sets forth at the end of The Dawkins Delusion?: Dawkins' own wavering faith. It was observed at the beginning of this review that atheism has made alarming inroads into general public opinion. But the good news is that this popular atheism, which is typified by Dawkins' The God Delusion, is so filled with contradictions and false assumptions and poor reasoning that it is easily refuted. As the McGraths observe:
The God Delusion seems more designed to reassure atheists whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with religious believers and others seeking truth. (One wonders if this is because the writer is himself an atheist whose faith is faltering.)
Although one may wish that McGrath's response to Dawkins had been a bit more extensive, it answers the fundamental arguments of Dawkins' book, and is more broadly applicable to the arguments of atheism, in general. Those readers who are interested in McGrath's more extended response to atheism may consult his 2004 book, The Twilight of Atheism.
Rev. James Heiser is the pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Malone, Texas.