Responses to The God Delusion

The first to state his case first seems right, until the other side examines him

– Proverbs 18:17

In keeping with possibly my favourite Bible verse, one of the few that could claim to be self-evidently true, my next project on completing The God Delusion was to read a response to it, to hear the case for the defence. I knew of Alister McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion, and intended to read that as he has a pretty good reputation, but it seemed so flimsy when I picked it up (the text stretches to just 65 pages, and falls short of 80 even with the addition of notes and further reading) that I decided to augment my selection with Deluded by Dawkins? by Andrew Wilson (a comparative shelf-strainer at 112 pages), for no more reason than that it was next to it on the shelf.

Even together, these books total less than half the length of The God Delusion, which surprises me. The authors are clearly confident that their brief critiques will serve to dismiss Dawkins’s arguments, and McGrath explicitly acknowledges that he picks certain points to challenge (he calls them “representative points”, without offering evidence to support this assertion) in the hope that victory on his chosen battleground will be extended to the rest of the book. Seeing that he seems to agree with much of what Dawkins says (including the obligatory insistence that he doesn’t believe in the God Dawkins rejects either), I’m unsure how this is meant to work.

The first thing I noticed about these books is that between them, they seem to manage a full house of the points Dawkins deals with in the preface to the paperback edition, although the “I’m an atheist, but…” views are naturally quoted with approval, rather than being the position of the authors. The second thing was that they both draw on a very similar (small) selection of authorities to disparage Dawkins. Stephen Jay Gould is no surprise, seeing that Dawkins criticises his idea of NOMA at length and is known to disagree with and even dislike him on several levels, but we also see Terry Eagleton, Francis Collins and Martin Rees added to the list. I find it hard to tell whether the similar sources should be put down to a few outstanding critiques, or a lack of alternatives.

Both writers also seem to think that Dawkins set out to write an academic thesis, rather than a popular polemic. At least, this is the only explanation I can come up with for a number of complaints, the most bizarre of which is McGrath’s suggestion that Dawkins relies on William Shakespeare as a source, because he quotes Romeo and Juliet to illustrate a point. A wish for accuracy is more than justified, and there are points where they rightly take him to task, but this sort of argument does McGrath no credit.

I found Wilson’s book, which I read first, the weaker of the two. This may reflect the fact that I don’t easily fit into his target audience – he’s a deacon of New Frontiers International’s church in Eastbourne which suggests a very conservative charismatic evangelical approach, and sure enough, many of his arguments draw so heavily on the Bible that they would be better suited to sermons. He makes some good points, but as often as not seems to miss the point Dawkins was making.

To give him credit, he does home in on some areas where Dawkins allows his rhetoric to run away with him a bit. He observes that omnipotence and omniscience aren’t necessarily as contradictory as a strict literal understanding would indicate (although his attempt to bolster this argument with a reference to Biblical inconsistencies left me baffled), and he’s justified in picking Dawkins up on the matter of textual copying. I feel Dawkins would have been on safer ground concentrating his fire on the long period before the NT texts were written down, rather than picking on the relatively minor alterations after that point.

Wilson clearly considers his trump card to be the resurrection, and for which he claims overwhelming evidence and a complete absence of plausible alternatives. To apply his own style of argument, this clearly displays his supernaturalist presuppositions. He returns to this theme throughout the book, finally addressing it in full towards the end, where he states “There are four main theories to explain how the tomb became empty”, dismisses three in perfunctory fashion, then proclaims that therefore, the resurrection happened.

You’ll have noticed the bait-and-switch between the identification of four main theories and the Holmesian conclusion following elimination of three of them. Like all such arguments, he also (while paying lip service to the idea of error) assumes that the gospel accounts are substantially accurate. Seeing that he appears to view evidence as nothing more than a numbers game (at one point, he acknowledges a historical source that disagrees with a gospel account and rules the result a score draw), I find his engagement with opposing viewpoints less than satisfying.

McGrath, on the other hand, never once mentions the resurrection, whether through considerations of tactical strangth or relevance, although he does mention Jesus quite a bit, not least when addressing the accusation of picking and choosing from the Bible. His identification of Jesus as an interpretive framework for troublesome OT texts succeeds in complicating the issue, but not in demonstrating a truly objective standard for interpretation. Despite the much shorter length of his book, he certainly appears to take a much more serious approach to what Dawkins actually wrote, even if there are points where he seems to be attacking a passage in isolation, rather than the book as a whole, something I previously identified as a possible mistake.

McGrath bases his argument on probability on Dawkins himself calling our existence very, very unlikely, and concludes that as we most obviously exist, probability says nothing about existence, so however improbable God may appear to be, he could still exist. This betrays a lack of understanding of conditional probability, and a lack of attention to Dawkins himself, who covered just this in his book. (In the same section on probability, McGrath also strangely attempts to equate a Grand Unifying Theory with God, as both may be considered a sort of ultimate explanation, hoping to skewer Dawkins with a charge of hypocrisy.)

McGrath also attacks Dawkins on the matter of religious violence and extremism, pointing out that the secular Tamil Tigers invented the suicide bomb. I made a note of this very point myself when reading the book, before Dawkins addressed my concerns in Chapter 8. I don’t blame McGrath for picking up on the apparent claims on religious violence in Chapter 1, nor for his disagreement with the later clarification, which still left me feeling that Dawkins was overreaching, but to refuse to even acknowledge this nuance is very poor, and suggests at best a lack of care with the text. This impression is strengthened when he hangs a whole argument on the use of the word “accidental”, whose use Dawkins explains and clarifies, in relation to genes and the origins of religion.

But despite these criticisms, McGrath does land some telling blows on Dawkins. His examination of Dawkins’s assertion that Jesus perpetuated “out-group hostility” with reference to the Good Samaritan is a welcome corrective, although it would have been much stronger had he engaged with texts like the healing of the Canaanite woman which appear to support Dawkins. He also makes good points on the claim of relentless moral and scientific progress, and most tellingly, he constructs a strong argument on the difficulty of defining a religion, and how it differs (or not) from a worldview.

I can’t finish without commenting on the curious fact that both of these books concluded by speculating that Dawkins may be revealing a lack of faith in his atheism, and that he could even still be searching for answers or open to conversion. I have no idea what to make of this, or how to respond to it. It would be just as valid to wonder if these authors feel the need to say such a thing to shore up their wavering faith in the face of a powerful assault. Unfortunately, it served to remind me that they share a very clear agenda. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it makes it very obvious that these aren’t disinterested responses.

I probably come across as fairly critical of these books, and I suppose I am, but that isn’t the whole story. They make some good points which are valuable in assessing The God Delusion, and even some important corrections, which I’m glad to have read. And while some of the arguments are overstated, the same could be said of Dawkins’s work, which I was quite positive about. I think what I find dissatisfying is that these books are specifically picking on certain points, and purporting to knock them (and by extension the whole book) down. When they don’t measure up to this claim on their chosen grounds, and when they introduce slippery arguments of their own, it’s hard to take them seriously as rebuttals.

I’m still on the lookout for a more substantial response.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

One response to “Responses to The God Delusion”

  1. Tafacory says :

    Great summary and commentary. I finished the God Delusion last summer and then read McGrath’s responses. I was a bit disappointed by both. As you pointed out, both have some solid arguments but I was not blown away by either. Regardless, it’s always good to see what the opposing sides have to say.

    All the best.

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