Thursday, 5 April 2007

mate against mate?

In the last six months, Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion has been near the top of the non-fiction best seller lists. I haven't read it, but you can read Richard's summary of his ideas here.

Dawkins' strong anti-God views have generated much comment. The atheists love it and the theists criticise it, as you might expect - Wikipedia has a summary of comments. I won't quote the obvious for and against responses, but there are a few interesting ones - believers who give Dawkins some credit or non-believers who find his views simplistic and erroneous. Here is a sample:

  • "[if discussions about disagreements between science and religion] are to be worthwhile, they will have to take place at a far higher level of sophistication than Richard Dawkins seems either willing or able to muster." H. Allen Orr, Professor of Biology, University of Rochester.
  • "11/2 cheers for Richard Dawkins. There's so much to applaud in Richard Dawkins. Such as his rage against bad religion. But he's out of his depth in his new book, The God Delusion, when he attacks all forms of faith." Stephen Tomkins, Ship of Fools website.
  • "The more they [card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins] detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be." Terry Eagleton, Marxist and Professor of English Literature at Manchester University in "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching".

Now Dawkins' fellow Oxford academic and long time critic, Alister McGrath, has co-authored a response to "The God Delusion", a book titled (you guessed it!) "The Dawkins Delusion". McGrath has previously published "Dawkins' God", which critiques Dawkins' views on religion (read a summary of his views here) and "The Twilight of Atheism" which charts what McGrath sees as the rise and decline of atheism over the past 200 years from a historical perspective. Predictably, his new book has been greeted with scorn by atheists and approval by believers.

The critics say that McGrath does not offer any argument to support his belief in God, but this appears to miss the point. McGrath has already attempted that elsewhere. In this book, rather than discussing reasons to believe in God, McGrath appears to be analysing Dawkins' thought, and discussing whether religion is really the source of so much evil and whether its elimination would make the world a better place - read McGrath's own summary here.

While Dawkins seems to me to be more comfortable as a writer than as a debater, McGrath seems to be the type who would relish a full-on debate. I'm only aware of one occasion when the two have discussed their very different views, during the TV program "The Root of All Evil?", but unfortunately the discussion was not included in the final program.

In recent times, it seems that atheism has become much more militant, and the belief-unbelief debate seems to have become much more polarised. Both believers and unbelievers can read about science and religion from experts writing from their own perspective and which don't necessarily represent their opponents' views fairly. Each side can have firmly held views on the falsity of the opposing view, when in fact they lack any real understanding of it. Writers are viewed as authoritative, not because of their learning, but because their views are known in advance to be "acceptable". It seems to me to be a pity.

So, granted the criticism of Dawkins' lack of understanding and scholarship even by those who otherwise agree with him, I can't help feeling it would be a pity if people who read Dawkins uncritically don't read McGrath as well.

Read more on the track records of religion and unbelief, or on the reasons why people believe and disbelieve.


  1. Hmm, very very interesting... I'd heard of Dawkins' book before, of course, but haven't read it; I have, however, now read both his summary and McGrath's rebuttal.
    The first thing that struck me (after the quite unnecessary rudeness, slanted arguments, and scathing language used by so many of the atheists, including Dawkins, in a mild way, but mainly the supporters posting comments afterward) (and yeah, ok, a couple of Christians too ;)) was how often Dawkins seems to do exactly what he scorns, when theists do it - namely, beg the question. He quite rightly singles out some theistic arguments and shows the holes in them, but then goes on to do the very same thing himself, naming a starting point that is highly questionable, or at least biased, but then preceding from there as if the starting point is proven fact - hardly scientific.
    Just one example: McGrath's rejection of Dawkins' ridiculous definition of 'faith'; anything of worth Dawkins has to say on the subject - and obviously he has a great deal; he's an intelligent and very learned man - is completely undermined by its shaky foundation.

    I also found it highly ironic that he spends a GREAT deal of time showing how very improbable life as we know it is - and yet here it is, and isn't it great (the anthropic principle) - and then finishes his article by saying how very improbable the existence of God is! If one very improbable thing is still so, why not another? it's not proof, by any means, but neither is it grounds for absolute rejection, as Dawkins rushes to claim.

    All in all, what came through loud and clear was Richard Dawkins' faith in Richard Dawkins...

  2. gak! just noticed my 'preceding' spelling error - sorry, put it down as a typo; I DO know the difference ;)

    while I'm here, I may as well post a comment by McGrath that I particularly liked:
    'One of the greatest ironies of the twentieth century is that many of the most deplorable acts of murder, intolerance and repression of the twentieth century were carried out by those who thought that religion was murderous, intolerant and repressive - and thus sought to remove it from the face of the planet as a humanitarian act.'


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