A Pair Of Delusions

I just finished reading two related books – Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Alistair McGrath’s reply The Dawkins Delusion. I figured it would be more valuable to put together a joint review. Both books were interesting reads and obviously related.

The God Delusion is the second Dawkins book I’ve read, and I’m going to go back to the start and read The Selfish Gene next. The title fairly clearly suggests the nature of the book. It’s a fairly strong polemic against religion, and one that Dawkins states rather clearly has the intent of having someone who believes in gods reading it be convinced to abandon that belief by the end. To that end the book includes contact information for a variety of groups and organizations who can support those who are escaping religion. He shares some stories which resonate well as to why this might be necessary for someone raised in a strongly religious family, social group, etc.

The God Delusion differs from the other Dawkins book I’ve read so far – The Greatest Show On Earth, which is a work on the scientific case for evolution. Dawkins does take some strong shots at fundamentalist ideas and creationism, particularly at “intelligent design”, the laughably inept effort to make creationism look like science, but in all Greatest Show is mostly focused on fact. The God Delusion is much more broadly polemic and while it does work in some science it seems mainly aimed at taking strong jabs at religion.

The book is well organized, explaining the case for God, the case against, and then delving into the justifications for religion, particularly in the sphere of moral values. The argument is fairly strongly that you don’t need gods to be good, that humans have morality without religion, and that this can be observed in other species to varying degrees.

This then is used to propose what a world without gods might be like, using the favoured argument among many atheists that so much violence in the world traces its root to religious clashes or is organized in religious terms. Consider, for example, Northern Ireland. Religious differences underpin the violence there and Dawkins argues that if children were raised without religion the label that creates sides in the argument would disappear within a generation. Is that correct? To an extent, I would think so – given that religious identity links people to their “side”. There aren’t many Catholic loyalists nor many Protestant nationalists I don’t think. However, to suggest that nationalist or loyalist ideas will disappear when religion is removed might be a bridge too far.

One of the more interesting albeit brief discussions Dawkins creates is about the place of the Bible in literature and education. Some might be surprised to know that Dawkins doesn’t argue that the Bible should be removed from education because it underpins so much literature. He seems to take the view I do that the Bible is largely a fictional story plagarized extensively, and should be rejected as a basis for beliefs or as history, but that it can’t simply be excluded from study because it’s figured into much literature. One should learn about it just in the context of what it is, though – a book. A curious book indeed – but a book.

His last chapter deals primarily with indoctrination of children into religion, something he and many other atheists consider to be one of the main dangers of religion. Dawkins attributes his own atheist persuasion to being taught by his parents how to think rather than what to think. His argument is that children must be given the ability to explore whatever views of the world they might choose to and when they are able to decide on beliefs then that’s fine. He couples this view with the view that this would be a good tonic against religion because he believes no critical thinker could ever conclude religion to be reasonable. This is what McGrath argues well, but we’ll get to that later.

The big problem I see with this book – and it’s the same as McGrath sees, is that Dawkins basically moves away from science into a broad-based attack on religion in general, and while I cheered at much of it I began to realize that he wasn’t really making the most solid of arguments. His effort in exploring the Bible as a moral guide is good, generally, but I found that Christopher Hitchens was much more effective at doing so in his “God Is Not Great”.

Some of the more interesting stories in the book concern things like the origins of “cargo cults” in the South Pacific with which I wasn’t previously familiar, as a means of explaining origins of religions. They are rather fascinating. Dawkins tries to get into sociological and psychological arguments but admits they aren’t his domain before doing much in depth with them, but nevertheless presents some studies on moral and ethical dilemmas to show religion isn’t the source of our willingness to be good. He defers to many other authors on the subject though, recommending many books.

McGrath’s challenge to Dawkins in his book, The Dawkins Delusion? is built around showing that the black and white distinctions Dawkins relies on are not realistic, and I share this assertion. There is a great difference between the average person who has some religious belief and the fundamentalist nutcases that Dawkins really wants to attack. Dawkins doesn’t really comment on the difference in his book save to suggest in some cases that those in the middle claim their beliefs for social expediency. At least that’s how I interpreted what he said. He presented the case of Freeman Dyson winning the Templeton Prize as an example of this. McGrath recounts being appalled at the way Dawkins described Dyson.

McGrath’s book makes the case that Dawkins’ claim that scientists are overwhelmingly athesits is absurb and incorrect and delves into the NOMA argument first. That’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria, a concept proposed by Steven Jay Gould which states that science and religion shouldn’t be seen as being in conflict because in fact the are two separate domains of teaching to begin with. Google Non-Overlapping Magisteria and you’ll be able to find Gould’s 1997 paper on the subject, it’s an interesting read.

Dawkins considers NOMA absurb, and to an extent I do too. The absurdity comes from the idea that religion cannot keep from overlapping because they make claims about existence, and thus origins, and that means overlapping science whether they like it or not. On this I agree though McGrath fleshes out an idea of “partially-overlapping magisteria” which suggests that religious exploration of science is not a threat to science.

McGrath’s main tack on the book is to attack many of Darwin’s claims as being superficial, or misrepresenting arguments for god as proofs (in particular Thomas Aquinas’ proofs that he argues were never claimed as absolute proofs.) He presents a case that Dawkins is actually undermining science by writing the book and presenting it as he did, claiming that it mischaracterizes theological arguments and is thus inaccurate.

McGrath, however, is quite tolerable because he sides with Dawkins on many issues, not least that the ideas of creationism are ludicrous and that their use of logical fallacies undermines them. He points to Gould a lot and how Catholicism sees no inherent conflict between evolution for example and their religion and has sought to reconcile some points – this is his POMA idea. Dawkins dismisses the idea as laughable though, something I’ll explore in another post perhaps as I have some ideas on the subject.

He also takes issue with Dawkins’ characterization of God based the recap of both the God of the Old Testament and New. Dawkins excoriates the Bible rather thoroughly in demonstrating how much it is not a moral guidebook, and I agree. McGrath tries to put some of the arguments into a cultural context about how cultural ideas have shifted, but I can’t help but wonder how he makes the case that this supports religion. Dawkins makes a good point that moral ideas presented in the Bible are absurb and brutal and totally unacceptable by modern standards and McGrath essentially claims no one believes in “that” God. I think that’s what most atheists see as the most convincing proof of the uselessness of religion, that it’s based on beliefs totally created to adjusted to make them more palatable to modern society with no real basis to do so.

Finally I’ll cover one interesting term raised in both books, the idea of fundamentalism. Dawkins points to fundamentalism as dangerous and particularly deluded. He highlights that it allows people to reject conflicting evidence out of hand as they do when it comes to evolution. He argues scientists are different, that if evidence appears to challenge the science of evolution for example, it would have to be accepted and would potentially undermine the theory. This is quite true and it’s why creationism goes nowhere. They have failed to produce any evidence to support their ideas. If they did, science would consider it.

McGrath makes the claim that Dawkins is unwilling to consider this and that his book proves it, and refers to him as a fundamentalist atheist. He claims that religion welcomes introspection as science does, which might be true, but Dawkins argues that it isn’t among many religions.

Overall I found both books worth reading. Dawkins is obviously most concerned with targetting those being lured into fundamentalist nonsense, but does so perhaps at the expense of pushing away moderates. McGrath doesn’t so much refute Dawkins as give some more depth to the conversation. There is apparently video available of them debating and also an interview that wound up on the cutting room floor that was done for Dawkins’ series The Root Of All Evil. Both I plan to seek out.

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