The Dawkins Delusion – Introduction

May 2, 2008 at 8:00 pm (Atheism, Blasphemy, Dawkins, Religion) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Alister and Joanna Collicut McGrath wrote The Dawkins Delusion in 2007 and I’ve just borrowed a copy from my library. Here’s a couple of snippets from the introduction:

Although I was passionately and totally persuaded of the truth and relevance of atheism as a young man, I subsequently found myself persuaded that Christianity was a much more interesting and intellectually exciting world view than atheism.

Yes, it may well be a more interesting worldview than atheism – but does that make it truer or more relevant? A worldview that held the Earth to be populated by unicorns, spirits and goblins or even a worldview that held that “man is a spiritual being whose existence spans more than one life and who is endowed with abilities well beyond those which he normally considers he possesses” might also be considered more interesting or more intellectually exciting than atheism – but what does the capacity for an idea to excite have to do with its truth and relevance? McGrath seems to have given up on truth and relevance and swapped them for excitement.

I get excited by all kinds of fiction and ideas – but I don’t start to consider them truthful or relevant just because I find them interesting. McGrath choosing to believe in God seems to me as much a case of wishful thinking as anything. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a God who looked down on us benevolently from the heavens? Yes, probably. It would also be nice if crystal healing could cure all cancers – but it can’t. It would be nice if we all had spirit guides who were forever with us during our time on this planet – but I don’t seem to have ever heard from mine and I’m not sure that anyone who claims they have heard from their spirit guide is correct in their belief. Untruthful or deluded would be two options that sprang to mind before I thought “yes, spirit guides – that sounds a plausible idea”.

I have always valued free thinking and being able to rebel against the orthodoxies of an age. Yet I never suspected where my free thinking would take me. […] Both of us [i.e., McGrath and Dawkins] believe passionately in evidence-based thinking, and are critical of those who hold passionate beliefs for inadequate reasons.

Oh good – he’s alternative. An open-minded free thinker.
He claims to believe passionately in evidence-based thinking and is critical of those who hold passionate beliefs for inadequate reasons. But he has faith in God – belief without evidence. So, er, no contradiction there at all.

There are some other quotes later on in the book where McGrath talks about atheism as a faith and claims atheism might be a delusion about God. No, atheism is simply a lack of belief in God. Atheism isn’t faith in anything or anyone – it is a lack of faith in God.

Another quote near the end of the book relates to “material in the pentateuch […] dealing with forgiveness and compassion”. This material relates to forgiveness and compassion according to McGrath and it “sets limits on acts of revenge” and “forbids infant sacrifice”. How compassionate – we let the children live. And how forgiving – we limit revenge. That isn’t forgiving – it’s taking revenge. I don’t consider the two to be the same and I’m a little surprised that McGrath seems to.

The book also contains quotes about the evil done by man in the name of atheism. Let’s see – “Lenin regarded the elimination of religion as central to the socialist revolution”. So it was a socialist revolution rather than an atheist revolution. Removing religion seemed to Lenin to be important for his socialist revolution.

Atheism was not the ethos that drove the revolution – socialism was. There is another historical figure who is often called upon when atheism is being bashed in defence of religion. McGrath doesn’t mention him. Possibly for fear of some idiot shouting “Godwin’s Law!” at him. Earlier on in the book, Nietzsche was referred to as stating “God is dead”. Nietzsche, of course, repudiated liberal values as well as religious ones – as did Hitler. Both men are claimed to have been atheists and Hitler was supposedly inspired by Nietzsche.

I just wanted to make the point that it seems to be repudiation of liberal ideas rather than repudiation of religious* ideas that leads to despotism and Hitler and Lenin happen to illustrate this quite nicely in my view. Some people, of course, maintain that Hitler wasn’t an atheist anyway (something Dawkins mentioned in the God Delusion) – or that he approved of Nietzsche.

* For some reason I originally wrote ‘liberal’ rather than ‘religious’ here. Thanks to TimW for spotting.

16 Comments

  1. PJ said,

    I’ve [a href=”http://pyjamasinbananas.blogspot.com/2007/03/alister-mcgrath.html”]toyed with the idea[/a] of reading that but McGrath’s [a href=”http://pyjamasinbananas.blogspot.com/2007/09/alister-mcgrath-ii.html”]obviously lightweight views[/a] have always disuaded me.

  2. PJ said,

    Oops, bloody badscience forum tags.

    I’ve toyed with the idea of reading that but McGrath’s obviously lightweight views have always disuaded me.

  3. Ubiquitous Che said,

    Nice review.

    I’d like to throw out there that if anyone can read Thus Spake Zarathustra or On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense – two of Nietzsche’s finest works – and then say that that the Nazis were basing their ideas on Nietzschean philosophy, they’re either an idiot or attempting to mislead you.

    Nietzsche didn’t give a jot about race. He was utterl opposed to nationalism and socialism, and he was all about people asserting their own health, virtue and power without guilt or shame. Race didn’t come into it.

    The Nazis, on the other hand, were all about race – and in the process, they deviated greatly from what Nietzsche was actually on about by becoming both nationalstic and socialistic.

    The Nazis basically vandalized Nietzsche by producing ‘officially approved interpretations’ that completely misrepresented his work. Linking the two was ridiculous, misleading and evil.

  4. godkillzyou said,

    Yeah, any time someone bases their belief system on a logical fallacy, you have to question what their real motives are, or whether they have a firm grasp on reality.

    …Christianity was a much more interesting and intellectually exciting world view than atheism.

    It’s called the “argument from final consequences.” Some idea makes me feel good, therefore, it’s true. Christianity is interesting, therefore, it’s true. Exactly like you said…

    …I don’t start to consider them truthful or relevant just because I find them interesting.

    I find the moon being made out of cheese “interesting.”

  5. TimW said,

    Well done, I don’t think I’d have been able to make it past the introduction myself.

    You lost me in the penultimate sentence though – “repudiation of liberal ideas rather than repudiation of liberal ideas”, you mean religious?

  6. vitaminbook said,

    Ah, there’s another book to go on my pile!

  7. evedyahu said,

    You say: “But he has faith in God – belief without evidence.”

    Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God;
    but only he who sees takes off his shoes, the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    Bon appetite! :)

    For some ‘evidence’ – you also may want to look at this lecture by Tom Keller at U Penn:
    http://www.wts.edu/flash/media_popup/media_player.php?paramType=video&id=116

  8. evedyahu said,

    P.S. Having said that – I was also a bit disappointed by McGrath’s book.
    I expected better. Check out Tim Keller for what I expect/hope to be much better: The Reason for God.

  9. jerry st peter said,

    I subscribe to the fact that noone has all knowledge. Einstien, Dawkins, noone. So there is a lot of knowledge that is unknown and we enter that realm by faith. Take a simple example. When we
    ride an elevator it is not necessary to understand how the mechanism for an elevator works. We have the faith that it will work and we go to the next floor. The same with God we dont have
    to understand everything there is to know, that is impossible, we
    accept it by faith. Also just because all kinds of evil things are done
    in the name of God does not mean he sanctions them. Anymore than what my children do are sanctioned by me. So the point is
    if everyone would just agree on loving thier neighbor. What a more
    wonderful world it would be.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. thewordofme said,

    Hitler was a Catholic. The Catholic Church in Germany had long held the belief that the Jews killed Jesus

  11. Jonah said,

    >> ” … atheism is simply a lack of belief in God.”

    For some, atheism is a strong belief that there is no God or divine, which is rather different, unproven, and unprovable.

  12. PJ said,

    Unproven, unprovable, but highly probable based on the evidence – just as I can’t definitely prove that people are not all robots, I have a strong belief that they are in fact not all robots.

  13. Jonah said,

    But you can examine a person and conclusively determine if it is a robot or not. You can’t examine a universe and conclusively determine whether it contains divinity or not.

  14. Ubiquitous Che said,

    Jonah: Just because something can’t be conclusively proven doesn’t mean that we can’t discover overwhelming evidence to support it. That was PJ’s point. In cases where something can’t be proven due to the finicky nature of epistemology, overwhelming support due to evidence for-or-against is the best indicator we’ve got.

    So we can’t examine the universe and conclusively dentermine there’s no divinity – but we can (and have) collected overwhelming evidence that the universe could function perfectly well without divinity, and we’ve found no evidence whatsoever that there is divinity. So it seems a little bit naieve to say that divinity exists in spite of this.

    For example, I can show you a desk that seems to be empty of physical items and be very certain that there are no apples on it. Similarly, we can look around and see a universe that seems to be empty of the supernatural and be very certain that there is no divinity in it.

  15. jdc325 said,

    Some cracking comments from Che and GodKillzYou, an important correction from TimW and some lovely links from PJ to a couple of pieces she has written on McGrath.

    Thank you everyone for your comments.

  16. jdc325 said,

    ” … atheism is simply a lack of belief in God.”

    For some, atheism is a strong belief that there is no God or divine, which is rather different, unproven, and unprovable.

    Fair enough – the literal meaning of ‘atheism’ is simply ‘godless’, but an atheist can be someone who believes in a doctrine that there is no God. I believe, though, that the literal translation of the original term simply means “lack of belief in God” rather than “a strong belief there is no God or divine”. I think Che and PJ have demonstrated why fairly strong statements on the lack of existence of God may be made on the basis of probability anyway.

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