The Dawkins Delusion?

19 August 2007

In their brief book The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, Alister and Joanna McGrath set out to respond to Richard Dawkins’ popular atheistic book The God Delusion. Dawkins’ book has widely been recognized as an unfair and myopic critique of religion and belief in God, as I conclude in my own review. The Dawkins Delusion? is very short, just addressing in relatively broad terms the various strategies taken by Dawkins in his critique of everything religious. Indeed, the McGraths give a good reason for such a strategy. On page 13 they write,

“It is, in fact, actually rather difficult to write a response to this book- but not because it is well-argued or because it marshals such overwhelming evidence in its favor. The book is often little more than an aggregation of convenient factoids suitably overstated to achieve maximum impact and loosely arranged to suggest that they constitute an argument. To rebut this highly selective appeal to evidence would be unspeakably tedious and would simply lead to a hopelessly dull book that seemed tetchy and reactive.”

Here I can certainly sympathize with the McGraths. Due to the book’s broad appeal and popularity, I originally wanted to write a full critique of The God Delusion. Like the authors, I eventually realized that such a task is nearly impossible, for much the same reason that they offer here.

The critique of Dawkins found in this book differs from mine in several ways. First of all, the McGraths don’t offer much as far as a positive apologetic for Christianity or belief in God are concerned. Most of their effort is centered around the idea that there are certain questions that science simply cannot answer, and therefore scientific evidence is compatible with a variety of worldviews, including Christian theism. Although this is true as far as it goes, I think that it does not do justice to the robust case that can be made for the existence of God that is at least partially based on the empirical findings of science. One example is the findings of astrophysics that many of the starting conditions and laws governing the operation of the universe are finely-tuned to allow for the existence of intelligent life. Here, science is not only compatible with a theistic interpretation, I think (with a bit of help from some sound philosophy) it is actually rather suggestive of it.

The McGraths seem to be concerned with the old God-of-the-Gaps charge- which I think is largely overblown, for reasons I offer in the linked article. Due to this concern, they seem to shy away from claiming that scientific evidence actually offers good reason to believe that God exists.

Another way their critique differs is that they offer a much more detailed response to Dawkins’ effort to explain the emergence and spread of religion. I do not consider myself nearly competent enough in the areas of sociology, psychology, and anthropology to be an effective critic in this arena, and so I mostly concede the case to Dawkins (a concession which I think is of little significance, because his arguments at best show how religion has spread, they do not address the truth value of religion. To jump from an explanation of the belief to denying the truth of the belief is to commit the genetic fallacy.) As a result of reading this book, I am now much less confident that Dawkins offers a fair analysis of this topic, and I am rightly reminded of the fact that Dawkins frequently makes assertions without providing any empirical data.

Although I don’t entirely agree with the approach the authors take, The Dawkins Delusion? offers some great food for thought and is certainly offers a welcome change of tone compared to Dawkins’ somewhat brash effort. Those who find themselves troubled by Dawkins’ general approach to religion may benefit from this short response.


  1. Kyle: I think you may have misread the God of the Gaps section, in which the McGraths dismiss the argument as a “foolish move…increasingly abandoned in the 20th century.” (p 29) Their conclusion on the topic introduces what they appear to believe is a more substantive argument made by Richard Swinburne: “It is not the gaps in our understaning of the world which point to God but rather the very comprehensibility of scientific and other forms of understanding that requires an explanation.” (p 31)

    Fiske Miles    Dec 29, 03:43 AM    #
  2. Science and religion are incompatible, depending on your definition of science.

    In science, you use evidence to prove results, and form a worldview based on that evidence and results. In religion, you use faith (belief despite no/contradictory evidence) to form a worldview.

    To be both a scientific and a religious thinker is an example of cognitive dissonance worthy of “1984”.

    — Blip    Jan 13, 10:15 AM    #
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