Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine
Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath
As one of only two books shortlisted for both the CBC Book of the Year Awards and the UK Christian Book Awards, it almost goes without saying that this is a book that warrants attention — an assessment confirmed by the fact that, since this review was originally written, it went on to become the CBC Book of the Year Award winner.
In less than 100 pages the McGraths do a far more thorough job of dismantling Dawkins than Dawkins does of dismantling God in his 400 page bestseller, The God Delusion. In marked contrast to Dawkins' vitriolic attacks on religious faith, however, the McGrath case against Dawkins is presented with good humour and repeated acknowledgment of Dawkins' important contributions to science as well as to the wider public understanding of science. They find themselves wondering, however, how Dawkins can have lost the plot so thoroughly in his understanding — or, more accurately, lack of understanding — of the relationship between science and religion: Dawkins' notion of an out and out war between science and religion is, putting it bluntly, "a hopelessly outmoded historical stereotype which scholarship has totally discredited. It lingers on only in the backwaters of intellectual life, where the light of scholarship has yet to penetrate." (p.24).
The McGrath approach — as anyone who has read Alister McGrath before would expect — is far more systematic than Dawkins: whereas The God Delusion offers a somewhat rambling mish-mash of angry rhetoric (albeit eloquent at times), the McGraths work logically through Dawkins' major points, exposing his inconsistencies and flawed logic. Rather than hammer away point by point through the entire book — a response that would, the McGraths say, "be catatonically boring" (Introduction, p.xii) — they set out to challenge Dawkins at a number of "representative points, and let readers draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of his evidence and judgement." (Introduction, p.xii).
Four specific questions are addressed:
In each case Dawkins' analysis is examined and found wanting, shown to be based more on preconceived ideas about the issues rather than upon the issues themselves, with facts that tend to support any conclusions other than Dawkins' own either conveniently ignored or dismissed out of hand.
The God Delusion's ultimate failure, however, is simply this: the God whom Dawkins' deposes is not the God that the McGraths, I myself or any of my friends believe in. Responding to Dawkins' description of God as "a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser..." (Dawkins' list goes on like this at some length and I see little point in repeating it all here; you'll find it in The God Delusion, p.31 [p.52, pb]), the McGraths simply observe, "Come to think of it, I don't believe in a God like that either. In fact, I don't know anyone who does." (p.46).
Nonetheless it has to be acknowledged that Dawkins has a point: the behaviour of many believers and the religious violence which has left — and still leaves — its scars on human history does, indeed, all too often portray the monster God whom Dawkins detests. The McGraths agree with Dawkins wholeheartedly here: "All of us need to work to rid the world of the baleful influence of religious violence." (p.46). Whereas the McGraths regard violence in the name of God as an aberration, Dawkins, on the other hand, apparently regards such violence as normative: he seems unable to see any good whatsoever emerging from religious faith and — a bizarre blind spot — sees no evil emerging from atheism (p.48ff).
And it is this, Dawkins' blind faith in his atheism and his own ideas, that finally undoes his efforts to undo God. Whereas a rigorous and evidence based analysis might, perhaps, carry some weight in Dawkins' battle against God, Dawkins' inability to muster such an analysis tips the balance the other way. The God whom Dawkins denies is indeed dead; as Dawkins rightly insists, has never existed. But the God who is — that's another story. Thank God for that.
Phil Groom, February 2008
Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.Comments? Feedback? | Order from www.christianbookshops.org