A review of The Dawkins Delusion? By Alister McGrath.

SPCK, 2007.

The God Delusion by veteran theophobe Richard Dawkins has caused no small stir since being released late last year. It was a wild slugfest by the Oxford atheist and biologist, taking on most types of religion and belief in God. Many reviewers, even fellow secularists, found the book both embarrassing and sophomoric in its intolerant attack on religion and all who dared to disagree with him.

In this book, the first of two full-length critiques of the work to appear (the other is Deluded by Dawkins, by Andrew Wilson), a fellow Oxford professor weighs into the fray. McGrath has PhDs in both theology and molecular biophysics. Thus he is more than qualified to discuss Dawkins. In fact he may be more qualified than Dawkins to speak on the subject matter of this particular book. When Dawkins sticks to his strong suit, evolutionary biology, he can claim expertise. But when he wades into philosophy and theology, he quickly demonstrates that he is way out of his depth.

And because theology and philosophy made up the bulk of his 400-page polemic, McGrath finds it to be an intellectually lightweight affair. Instead of a well-reasoned, sustained and coherent argument for his case, the book is just a collection of cheap pot shots, rehashed and tired atheist arguments, and overheated polemics.

There exists much more competent atheist argumentation. The late atheist Stephen Jay Gould at least tried to stick to the evidence in his discussions, but Dawkins “simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking”.

Because The God Delusion is such a disjointed, rambling affair, lacking a clear line of argument, or proper use of evidence, it is hard to properly review it. As McGrath notes, to simply reply point by point to his many errors, misrepresentations and distortions would make for a long and dry read.

Thus McGrath singles out a few key areas, and devotes this brief (75 page) book to them. For example, Dawkins’ mistaken understanding of faith is discussed in the opening chapter. Contrary to Dawkins’ caricature, biblical faith is informed faith, faith based on reason and an honest examination of the evidence.

Consider the false dilemma Dawkins seeks to create: you either believe in facts, reason, and science, or you are superstitious, faith-based, and deluded. Of course very few scientists believe in such a simplistic and unnecessary dichotomy. They are aware of the limits of science, and recognise that other areas (philosophy, theology, and so on) can have a vital role to play in the big questions of life. Even an atheist like Gould would dismiss the claim that science must lead to atheism.

Indeed, Gould developed the idea of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) in which he suggests that both religion and science have primary roles to play, although they remain as separate spheres. Dawkins says there is only one magisterium: science. McGrath suggests that both Dawkins and Gould are wrong on this point: he instead posits POMA (partially-overlapping magisteria), in which both intersect and feed off each other.

He uses as but one example, Francis Collins, a man of deep Christian faith, but also a highly qualified scientist (head of the Human Genome Project). Science and religion can and do co-exist, contrary to Dawkins’ claims.

McGrath also critiques Dawkins on his understanding of the origins of religion. Dawkins of course just recycles the old naturalistic projection theories as developed by Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud. Dawkins, following Dennett, also speaks of religion as an “accidental by-product” or a “misfiring of something useful”.

But as McGrath rightly notes, in a Darwinian (or Dawkinsian) universe, there is no such thing as accident, because there is no such thing as purpose. “How can Dawkins speak of religion as something ‘accidental’, when his understanding of the evolutionary process precludes any theoretical framework that allows him to suggest that some outcomes are ‘intentional’ and others ‘accidental’? … For Darwinism, everything is accidental.”

McGrath also critiques Dawkins’ notions of belief in God as a “virus of the mind,” and the “meme”. These points are more fully explored in his earlier, and perhaps more important book, Dawkins’ God (2005). Here he reiterates his case.

Dawkins claims that belief in God is a kind of virus that infects the mind. But while biological viruses can be observed and identified, this virus is just a construct of Dawkins’ philosophical naturalism. And if religious ideas are viruses of the mind, perhaps all ideas are viruses. Maybe the idea of atheism is also a virus of the mind.

Dawkins’ theory of memes is also problematic. According to Dawkins, just as biological evolution involves genetic replicators, so culture has memic replicators. Thus a God-meme has evolved and is passed along in culture, “leaping from brain to brain” as Dawkins puts it. Yet as McGrath rightly asks, “has anyone actually seen these things, whether leaping from brain to brain, or just hanging out?”

We have no strong scientific evidence for memes; it is really only a mental construct designed to make a case for militant atheism. Thus Dawkins in large part makes his case against religion “dependent on a hypothetical, unobserved entity”. But it is Dawkins who describes God in just such terms. Says McGrath, “since the evidence for memes is so tenuous, do we have to propose a meme for believing in memes in the first place?”

McGrath finishes his book with a chapter on religious violence. As someone who has grown up in Northern Ireland, he knows all about this issue. He agrees with Dawkins that religious violence is repugnant. But Dawkins is just plain foolish, and wrong, to suggest that if we get rid of religion, we get rid of violence and everything becomes sweetness and light.

Violence comes from human nature, whether religious or secular. All people are capable of it, and atheists have been responsible for their fair share of it. Indeed, a good case can be made that atheism has been responsible for more than its fair share.

McGrath is not simply being critical here in this book. He has praise for some of Dawkins’ earlier work, even though not in complete agreement with it. But it is clear that Dawkins, the more or less dispassionate scientist of several decades ago, has become an embittered, angry, and nasty piece of work, flailing out at anything smacking of religion, resorting to the same doctrinaire, intolerant and bigoted fundamentalism and rhetoric that he accuses religious folk of being guilty of.

Why this change from a serious scientist to a secular holy warrior? We can only speculate, but as McGrath suggests, perhaps Dawkins, like other militant atheists, is feeling threatened. Threatened that he might in fact be wrong. Maybe even deluded.

Until recently, atheists had high hopes that religion would simply fade out. However, it seems to be stronger than ever, and this has got them in panic mode. Perhaps the panic has to do with the fact that the very coherence of atheism is under threat.

As McGrath concludes, the fact that “Dawkins relies so excessively on rhetoric, rather than the evidence that would otherwise be his natural stock in trade, clearly indicates that something is wrong with his case. . . . Might atheism be a delusion about God?”

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