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Book Review – The Dawkins Delusion?

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Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion is a mega-seller, having been a long-time fixture on the New York Times list of bestsellers. Easily the world’s most prominent atheist at this time, Dawkins is becoming still more popular and gaining a wider and wider voice. Just recently he has introduced his “OUT” campaign which seeks to convince atheists to come out with their beliefs and to stop hiding in shame. He is leading the charge for society to regard atheism as a valid and respectable worldview.

Alister McGrath is no Richard Dawkins, but he certainly could have been. In his new book McGrath says, “Dawkins and I have traveled in totally different directions but for substantially the same reasons. We are both Oxford academics who love the natural sciences. Both of us believe passionately in evidence-based thinking and are critical of those who hold passionate beliefs for inadequate reasons. We would both like to think that we would change our minds about God if the evidence demanded it. Yet, on the basis of our experience and analysis of the same world, we have reached radically different conclusions about God.” Though they came from similar backgrounds and received similar education, Dawkins and McGrath have gone in completely different directions when it comes to the question of God’s existence.

In The Dawkins Delusion? McGrath seeks to respond to the most notable charges Dawkins raises in The God Delusion [Do note that the book is attributed to both McGrath and his wife but that the majority does come from the pen of Alister]. Rather than writing what would be a dry, exhaustive and exhausting point-by-point rebuttal, McGrath replies simply by challenging him “at representative points” and then allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of Dawkins’s evidence and judgment. After all, “Religion to Dawkins is like a red flag to a bull–evoking not merely an aggressive response but one that throws normal scholarly conventions about scrupulous accuracy and fairness to the winds.” If Dawkins really does engage in such poor argumentation, McGrath should have an easy task. He says also, “Dawkins simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking. Curiously, there is surprisingly little scientific analysis in The God Delusion. There’s a lot of pseudoscientific speculation, linked with wider cultural criticisms of religion, mostly borrowed from older atheist writings. Dawkins preaches to his god-hating choirs, who are clearly expected to relish his rhetorical salvoes and raise their hands high in adulation.” And so McGrath sets out to do just one thing: to assess the reliability of Dawkins’s critique of faith in God.

He launches a four-pronged attack and the chapter titles tell the story: Deluded About God?; Has Science Disproved God?; What are the Origins of Religion?; Is Religion Evil?. Those who have read The God Delusion will recognize in these headings core components of Dawkins’s argument against religion and against God. Because the book contains so many short arguments, I thought it might be most helpful to simply provide the headings for the various sections as this should show which of Dawkins’s arguments McGrath chooses to interact with.

  • Deluded About God
    • God is a psychotic delinquent
    • Faith in infantile
    • Faith is irrational
    • Arguments for God’s existence?
    • The extreme improbability of God
    • The God of the gaps
  • Has Science Disproved God?
    • The limits of science?
    • NOMAs and POMAs
    • The warfare of science and religion?
    • A clash of fundamentals
  • What are the Origins of Religion?
    • Defining Religion
    • Belief in God and religion
    • The virus of the mind
  • Is Religion Evil?
    • Religion leads to violence
    • The human abuse of ideals
    • Jesus and loving one’s neighbor
    • Christianity and the critique of religion
    • On reading the Old Testament
    • Religion and well-being

It will come as no surprise to hear that I feel McGrath does an exceptional job in assessing the reliability of Dawkins’s evidence and judgment. He shows how, time and again, Dawkins provides half-truths and even outright lies in order to bolster his argument. Ultimately he shows that Dawkins has become a kind of fundamentalist–a scientific fundamentalist who is willing to embrace only that which supports what he believes and is willing to discard everything else. “One of the most melancholy aspects of The God Delusion is how its author appears to have made the transition from a scientist with a passionate concern for truth to a crude antireligious propagandist who shows a disregard for evidence.” Those are fighting words, to be sure, but McGrath shows them to be true.

If you have read or are planning to read The God Delusion, The Dawkin’s Delusion? provides a fascinating and stimulating counterpoint. It is amazing to see how a person can get swept up in Dawkins’s arguments, but just as interesting to see how those arguments can be quickly demolished by a mind as lucid, as capable, as McGrath’s. I was delighted to see an endorsement for this book coming from none other than Michael Ruse, a prominent atheist in his own right. He writes this: “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.” I suspect this book will do the same for many atheists. I think McGrath wins this battle.

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