Book Review: The Dawkins Delusion, by Alister McGrath
I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins when it was released last year. I enjoyed it immensely, it is a wonderfully comprehensive critique of religion from a great intellect. The most prevailing thought I had while reading it and particularly as I finished it was, ‘I’d love to see a Christian apologist try to write a response to this’. Well, my wish was granted earlier this year when Alister McGrath released his critique of The God Delusion, creatively named The Dawkins Delusion.
McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and used to be an atheist, achieving a PhD in molecular biophysics before turning to Christian studies. With this in mind, I was genuinely looking forward to a real challenge to Dawkins’ analysis. I was left disappointed. The Dawkins Delusion is a light-weight collection of recycled apologist fallacies, which fails to even remotely impose on the carefully constructed arguments presented by Dawkins, despite the target he sets at the beginning.
It [The Dawkins Delusion] sets out to do one thing, and one thing only – assess the reliability of Dawkins’ critique of faith in God. (Introduction, xiii)
McGrath structures his response within four chapters, the first of which is entitled “Deluded about God?”, where he tries to refute Dawkins’ arguments against the existence of God. The book is littered with straw man arguments and this chapter is no exception. He repeats his ritual misunderstanding of the Santa Claus analogy (about which I have previously written), before discussing, among other things, Dawkins’ critique of Thomas Aquinas’ thirteenth century arguments for God’s existence. Instead of trying to defend them, however, he retreats with a claim that they were never intended to prove anything anyway.
The general consensus among philosophers of religion is that, while such arguments cast interesting light on the questions, they settle nothing. Although traditionally referred to as ‘arguments for God’s existence’, this is not an accurate description. All they do is show the inner consistency of belief in God . . . (p7)
Leaving aside the ridiculous claim to “inner consistency”, this doesn’t really say anything at all. Far from claiming that the Aquinas proofs are still heavily defended, Dawkins states in the God Delusion “the argument from design is the only one still in regular use today” (The God Delusion, p79). So, what point exactly is McGrath arguing against here, if not one that was never actually made? The chapter in The God Delusion this is taken from is called “Arguments for God’s existence”. No such chapter would be complete without referring and responding to Aquinas famous proofs, and its omission would have provoked criticism from many, including, I’m sure, McGrath.
If ‘delusion’ is the major theme of The God Delusion, ‘illusion’ is the major them of The Dawkins Delusion. One such example, is that McGrath constantly tries to give the impression that religious beliefs are founded upon the same principles as science, as if they were contemporaries. He compares religious belief systems to scientific theories, as if they were tentatively held beliefs.
…most of us are aware that we hold many beliefs that we cannot prove to be true, but are nonetheless perfectly reasonable to entertain . . . Philosophers of science have long made the point that there are many scientific theories that are presently believed to be true – but may have to be discarded in the future, as additional evidence emerges or new theoretical interpretations develop. (p8)
This implies that any belief that can’t be proven true is equal in its probability of being correct to any other belief that can’t be conclusively proven. Scientific theories are upgraded and replaced, but it is always on the basis of evidence, as McGrath recognises. This does not apply to religious beliefs though. As Dawkins demonstrates throughout The God Delusion, religious beliefs are often formed through tradition, authority and revelation. Far from engaging with Dawkins’ arguments, McGrath is skirting around them and making rash, unsupported assertions. Comparing a religious belief, such as the divinity of Christ to a scientific theory like evolution, with a wealth of data to support it, is a weak argument, to say the least.
The second chapter, “has science disproved God” is a straw man fallacy in itself. It responds to a claim that Dawkins never makes. It is interesting that McGrath introduces this chapter, not with a quote, but his own distorted interpretation, “underlying the agenda of The God Delusion is a pervasive belief that science has disproved God.” (p13). You would think that if Dawkins had said anything like that, McGrath would have quoted it. But Dawkins didn’t say it and didn’t claim it, which is why McGrath is left with nothing to quote and another straw man of his own creation to refute. McGrath wrote in an article recently about his beliefs when he was an atheist.
While I loved studying the sciences at school, they were important for another reason: science disproved God.
Well, this may have been what McGrath believed, but he was in a minority, and perhaps was always better suited to theism. He constantly accuses Dawkins of stereotyping theists, and yet tries to impose the beliefs he once held as an atheist on to all atheists, including Dawkins, who, when discussing the seven point spectrum of belief, places himself on number six.
Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’ (The God Delusion, p50-51)
Does that sound like someone who thinks God has been disproved? Having set up his straw man, McGrath simply displays a lack of understanding of science. He tries to question the value of science using a reference to Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (please forgive me quoting at length, but it is necessary for the context to maintain).
To explore this question, let’s consider a statement made by Dawkins in his first work, The Selfish Gene.
[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.
We see here a powerful and influential interpretation of a basic scientific concept. But are these strongly interpretive statements themselves actually scientific?
To appreciate the issue, consider the following rewriting of this paragraph by the celebrated Oxford physiologist and systems biologist Denis Noble. What is proven empirical fact is retained; what is interpretative has been changed, this time offering a somewhat different interpretation.
[Genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy that we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.
Dawkins and Noble see things in completely different ways. (I recommend reading both statements slowly and carefully to appreciate the difference.) They cannot both be right. (p15-16)
No, they can’t. Quoting each paragraph in isolation, McGrath tries to argue that science is a flip of a coin, vague and open to interpretation. The minor point he overlooks, is that The Selfish Gene was an entire, 200 page book that Dawkins wrote giving evidence that his interpretation was the correct one! And that’s how science works. This chapter is, again, McGrath not engaging with Dawkins but avoiding him, and mustering an illusion that religion is scientific and science is religious. Notably absent is a response to comments Dawkins makes in The God Delusion about McGrath’s work Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Origin of life.
. . . it seems to be the only point in rebuttal that he has to offer: the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God. On page after page as I read McGrath, I found myself scribbling ‘teapot’ in the margin. (The God Delusion, p54)
Which brings us nicely onto chapter three, “What are the origins of religion?”, which opens with yet another recycled misunderstanding of the Santa Claus analogy (I’ve seriously lost count), this time applied to Russell’s orbiting teapot.
For Dawkins, this [belief in God] is an utterly irrational belief – like believing in a teapot orbiting the sun. Sure, this is a flawed analogy. Nobody that I know believes such nonsense. But that’s what Dawkins wants his readers to think – that believing in God is on the same level as cosmic teapots. (p28)
I almost wonder if McGrath read the entire book. He can’t have been paying much attention when he read this.
We would not waste time saying so [that the celestial teapot doesn’t exist] because nobody, so far as I know, worships teapots; but, if pressed, we would not hesitate to declare our strong belief that there is positively no orbiting teapot. (The God Delusion, p52).
Russell’s celestial teapot is about the burden of proof, which is always on the claimant. I find it hard to believe that McGrath does not understand this, that Dawkins is comparing God to a celestial teapot only insofar as no evidence has been offered for either by the claimants.
McGrath continues to obfuscate throughout the chapter, culminating in a rather uncomfortable critique of memes, including the usual, long answered complaints.
Yet has anyone actually seen these things, whether leaping from brain to brain, or just hanging out? (p43)
It’s almost embarrassing to have to point out that no-one has ever claimed that memes have physical matter, but are abstract. His real misunderstanding shows here though.
The meme is essentially a biological notion, arising from Dawkins’ core belief in ‘universal Darwinism’, which leads him to discount economic, cultural or learning-theory accounts of religion. (p43)
Firstly, the meme theory is a ‘cultural’ account of religion. Secondly, it is not a ‘biological notion’. Consider this extract from Dawkins’ essay Chinese junk and Chinese whispers from his collection of essays, A Devil’s Chaplain.
[Referring to The Selfish Gene] There was a risk that my readers would misunderstand the message as being necessarily about genes in the sense of DNA molecules. On the contrary, DNA was incidental. The real unit was any kind of replicator . . . Could it be that a new kind of Darwinian replicator was even now staring us in the face? This was where the meme came in. (A Devil’s Chaplain, p149)
So, the very reason that Dawkins introduced the meme theory was specifically to illustrate that natural selection is not a biological concept, but a universal one. Could McGrath possibly have got it more wrong?!
The fourth and final chapter, “Is religion evil?”, again fails to meet McGrath’s objective of engaging with Dawkins’ arguments. Among other weak, non-responses, he reacts to Dawkins’ highlighting of the atrocities in the Old Testament by tamely drawing attention to the nice bits.
The passages that Dawkins finds so shocking appear alongside other material in the Pentateuch which he ignores, dealing with forgiveness and compassion . . . (p58)
Yet another straw man argument. Dawkins doesn’t claim that the Old Testament has atrocities in every verse. He simply demonstrates that the morality we have today is not drawn from the Old Testament. And McGrath’s point does not alter the fact that the atrocities that are committed in the Old Testament are not consistent with a benevolent deity.
In his conclusion to the chapter, and the book, McGrath tries to turn the tables.
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 the truth. (One wonders if this is because the writer is himself an atheist whose faith is faltering.) (p63)
This is another fantasy interpretation of Dawkins’ work, and includes two aspects of The Dawkins Delusion that are present on every page, in fact, nearly every paragraph of the book.
Firstly, an infuriatingly patronising, condescending tone towards Dawkins, especially for one who joins in the same criticism of Dawkins himself. No opportunity for a snide, unnecessary dig is passed up, as in the quote above. This simply creates a mood of pomposity and pretentiousness.
Secondly, McGrath uses the following words and phrases at every single point in which he thinks he can conceivable wedge them in: atheist fundamentalist, faith (of Dawkins and atheism), core beliefs (of Dawkins and atheists), dogma (of atheism), indoctrination (of atheism). All of these terms are used incorrectly, for the simple reason that they all apply to beliefs that are not based on evidence. Atheism, when reached through rational processes, can not, by definition, be any of the things that McGrath describes it as.
Both of these techniques are used to try to bias the reader against Dawkins. And this is where my point about the illusion comes in. The illusion is that McGrath has serious, intellectual objections to The God Delusion, when in fact he doesn’t present any at all. He simply bluffs his way through, talking as if he’s right, as if he knows better, and constantly throwing mud, in the form of terminology, in the hope that some of it may stick. Whether you agree with The God Delusion or not, whether you think Dawkins is right or not, The Dawkins Delusion does not refute anything Dawkins has said.
McGrath had often boasted that Dawkins would not debate with him publicly. Recently, they did have a public debate. What amazed me, was that after reading The Dawkins Delusion, I was expecting a harsh offensive from McGrath. After the tone of his criticism, I had imagined he would really try to grill Dawkins. On the contrary, he was tame, timid even. He didn’t make the same accusations he makes in his book, and didn’t really try to tackle Dawkins on any of the topics. It was as if he was just trying to get through the debate without too much damage. To me, this reinforced my idea of the illusion he tries to create in his book. If he really believed it, why not make more of an effort when he got the chance he had apparently craved for so long?
My only concern is that some liberal theists may skip The God Delusion and go straight to the considerably slimmer volume, The Dawkins Delusion. The only way I could see McGrath’s illusion working is if his readers have not read The God Delusion, and continue not to read it afterwards. I urge anyone who has not read either book, not to bypass Dawkins and go straight to McGrath. And, if you have bypassed Dawkins for McGrath, please go and read The God Delusion. Of course, if you have read The God Delusion but not The Dawkins Delusion, read McGrath’s work, by all means. Personally, I did not find it compelling and cannot offer my recommendation. Not that any atheist has anything to fear from it, I simply think there are better things to do with your time and money.
On a final note: I have had to be very selective in choosing which of McGrath’s arguments to discuss (and I have still run to greater length than I planned!). I want to be clear about this, McGrath does not score one, single, valid point against The God Delusion. Any readers who have read The Dawkins Delusion and suspect that I may have omitted a section because it can’t be debunked, please raise it in the comments or email me, and I will be happy to discuss it.