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The Dawkins Delusion?

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The Dawkins Delusion?  
Author Alister McGrath
Joanna Collicutt McGrath
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject(s) Religion
Genre(s) Science
Publisher Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK)
Publication date February 15, 2007
Pages 75
ISBN 978-0-281-05927-0
OCLC Number 76935684

The Dawkins Delusion?, subtitled Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine is a book by Christian theologian Alister McGrath and psychologist Joanna Collicutt McGrath, written as a critical response from a Christian perspective to Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion.


Alister McGrath, the primary author, studied chemistry and molecular biophysics at Oxford University, and moved on to study Christian theology, earning doctorates in both science and theology. He is also the author of Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. Joanna Collicutt McGrath is his spouse and a deacon at Oxford[1] with background in experimental psychology and Christian theology, specializing in biblical studies. Currently a lecturer in the psychology of religion at Heythrop College, University of London, she has made a particular contribution to the sections on biblical studies, and the relationship of religion with psychology and the neurosciences. Her book, Meeting Jesus: Human Responses to a Yearning God, co-written with Jeremy Duff, was published by SPCK in 2006.[2]

Publication information

The 96-page book was published in the UK in February 2007 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge[3] (SPCK) (ISBN 978-0-281-05927-0), and in the US in July 2007.



McGrath suggests that the fact that Dawkins has penned a 400-page book declaring that God is a delusion is itself highly significant and asks "Why is such a book still necessary? ... for more than a century, leading sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists have declared that their children would see the dawn of a new era in which the 'God delusion' would be left behind for good."[4]

McGrath says he has the same background as Dawkins, and has often wondered how they could draw such totally different conclusions on the basis of reflecting long and hard on substantially the same world.[5] He suggests that one possibility might be that he is deranged, deluded and hijacked by an infectious, malignant God-virus, but that the same notion could be repeated applying it to Dawkins. He commends Stephen Jay Gould, who, though an agnostic, "was absolutely clear that the natural sciences – including evolutionary theory – were consistent with both atheism and conventional religious belief,"[6] and compares Dawkins's "total dogmatic conviction of correctness" to "a religious fundamentalism which refuses to allow its ideas to be examined or challenged."(p12)

Deluded about God?

McGrath agrees that we should not base our lives on delusions and that we all need to examine our beliefs, but disagrees that faith is infantile, saying many thinkers came to believe in God as adults.[7] He argues that faith is not irrational, suggesting that Dawkins's presentation of the normal as if it were pathological is neither acceptable nor scientific and abandons even the pretence of rigorous evidence-based scholarship: "Anecdote is substituted for evidence; selective internet trawling for quotes displaces rigorous and comprehensive engagement with primary sources."[8]

He agrees with Dawkins on Paley's arguments from Design, but suggests that on other 'arguments' he is clearly out of his depth and superficial. He states that Aquinas never speaks of “proofs” for God's existence; rather they are demonstrations of the inner coherence of belief in God and that our beliefs may be shown to be justifiable, without thereby demonstrating that they are proven. He claims that Dawkins's "Argument from improbability" is a poorly structured expansion of the 'who made God then?' question, and that if these "brash and simplistic" arguments carried weight, the scientific quest for a Grand Unified Theory could be dismissed with "what explains the explainer"? He also suggests that a leap from complexity to improbability is highly problematic. Why is something complex improbable? A "theory of everything" may well be more complex than the lesser theories that it explains. He cites Richard Swinburne as one of many writers to argue that the capacity of science to explain itself requires explanation – and that the most economical and reliable account of this explanatory capacity lies in the notion of a creator God.[9]

Has science disproved God?

McGrath says Darwinism is equally compatible with religious beliefs and with atheism, quoting Gould and Rees in support (pp 30–31) and advocates a view of “partially overlapping magisteria” (POMA), stating that science and religion offer possibilities of crossfertilization on account of the interpenetration of their subjects and methods."(p 37) He quotes Denis Noble's reformulation of Dawkins' "lumbering robots" trope[10] to show that two statements that "see the world in completely different ways" can be empirically equivalent (p 33) and suggests that "scientific theories do not, and are not intended to, describe and explain "everything about the world" – such as its purpose."[11]

McGrath suggests that rather a lot of scientists do believe in God (including 40% of American scientists, though whether or not mathematicians or theoreticians are included is not mentioned).[12] He points out that Owen Gingerich, Francis Collins and Paul Davies had produced theistic books in the same year as The God Delusion (pp 39–40) and claims that "Dawkins clearly has no mandate whatsoever to speak for the scientific community at this point or on this topic. There is a massive observational discrepancy between the number of scientists that Dawkins believes should be atheists, and those who are so in practice....Dawkins is clearly entrenched in his own peculiar version of a fundamentalist dualism". McGrath also criticises what he terms Dawkins's suggestions of insincerity on the part of Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould, Michael Ruse and John Paul II.

What are the origins of religion?

McGrath objects to Dawkins' use of Bertrand Russell's teapot analogy.[13] McGrath says this is a flawed analogy since nobody actually believes such nonsense and that it's another example of Dawkins systematically mocking, misrepresenting, and demonising competing worldviews. He argues that "there is a much deeper question here, What is the difference between a world view and a religion?". Despite Dawkins devoting Chapter 5 to "The roots of religion" in which he proposes that religion is an evolutionary by-product, McGrath argues that he does not offer a definition of "religion" and criticises his references to Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough – "a highly impressionistic early work of anthropology, first published in 1890". McGrath asks whether we are psychologically primed for religion. McGrath considers this an important question, which clearly requires a psychological answer, and says, "It soon becomes clear that Dawkins is not qualified to give one."

McGrath suggests that the virus of the mind idea simply implodes, falling victim to his own subjective judgement of what is rational and true. It's not an idea that is taken seriously within the scientific community, and can safely be disregarded (p 68). He considers the meme idea much more interesting but argues that there is no clear operational definition of a meme, no testable model for how memes influence culture and why standard selection models are not adequate, a general tendency to ignore the sophisticated social science models of information transfer already in place, and a high degree of circularity in the explanation of the power of memes[14] He also criticises Dawkins's “accidental by-product” theory for "the lack of serious evidence offered on its behalf."(p 53).

Is religion evil?

McGrath quotes Dawkins's description of God as "a petty, unjust...capriciously malevolent bully."[15] and states "I don't believe in a God like that...I don't know anybody who does". He asks is religious violence a necessary feature of religion? ...Jesus...was the object, not the agent, of violence."(p 76) McGrath suggests that far from endorsing "out-group hostility", Jesus commanded an ethic of "out-group affirmation" and Christians may certainly be accused of failing to live up to this command. But it is there, right at the heart of the Christian ethic. (pp 86–87) He believes that Dawkins is right when he argues that it is necessary to critique religion; but that Dawkins appears unaware that it possesses internal means of reform and renewal. This is especially evident in the ministry of Jesus (p 57).

McGrath criticises Dawkins for a "superficial engagement with the Bible's core themes and ideas...When Dawkins tells us that St Paul wrote the Letter To the Hebrews, you realize just how bad things are."[16] (p. 57) and says "Dawkins rightly demands that there should be an external criterion for dealing with the interpretation of these texts. Yet he seems unaware of the Christian insistence that there indeed exists such a criterion – the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth." (p 58)

On Religion and wellbeing the McGraths cite "evidence ... that religious belief and commitment may have a generally positive influence on human wellbeing and longevity.[17]..truth is determined, not by what Dawkins finds difficult to believe, but by what the scientific, empirical evidence indicates ...Where in The God Delusion is ... discussion ... of scientific literature on the relationship of harmful and healthy aspects of religion.[18] They quote Shermer's view that "Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil."[19] and Eagleton's comments: “Such is Dawkins's unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false.”[20] and suggest that "Atheism must indeed be in a sorry state if its leading contemporary defender has to depend so heavily – and so obviously – on the improbable and the false to bolster his case."[21]

The Dawkins Delusion? concludes with the suggestion that belief in God has "rebounded", and that The God Delusion denotes "panic" on the part of non-believers, criticising Dawkins' book as "a work of theatre, rather than scholarship" and suggests atheism is itself a delusion about God. (pp 108–115)

Dawkins' response

In a letter to the The Times, Dawkins said that McGrath "has now published two books with my name in the title" and wondered whether the professor was building a career by riding on his back. Responding to the charge that he is "dogmatic", Dawkins wrote that whereas scientists, trying to answer deep problems such as how the universe began,

"...are humble enough to say we don't know, what of theologians like McGrath? He knows. He's signed up to the Nicene Creed. The universe was created by a very particular supernatural intelligence who is actually three in one. Not four, not two, but three. Christian doctrine is remarkably specific: not only with cut-and-dried answers to the deep problems of the universe and life, but about the divinity of Jesus, about sin and redemption, heaven and hell, prayer and absolute morality. And yet McGrath has the almighty gall to accuse me of a 'glossy', 'quick fix', naive faith that science has all the answers."[22]


Bryan Appleyard in the New Scientist says "Whatever else .. The God Delusion may have achieved, it has inspired very grand refutations. Impressive essays by ...Marilynne Robinson...Terry Eagleton and... H. Allen Orr set out to tell Dawkins how wrong he is. Now enter Alister McGrath [whose] extended essay covers some similar ground to the others, notably in analysing the extent of Dawkins's ignorance of theology. Of course, the point about that attack, from Dawkins' perspective at any rate, is that it is no attack at all. For him, theology is a non-subject about nothing. Why, then, should he trouble himself with investigating further delusions rather than, as he does, concentrating on the central delusion of the existence of God?" Appleyard goes on to commend the book as "a fine, dense, yet very clear account, from [McGrath's] particular Christian perspective, of the full case against Dawkins."[23]

Anthony Kenny in the Times Literary Supplement gives an assessment of the debate between Dawkins and McGrath, and comments that Dawkins is often more accurate than McGrath on historical theology, while arguing that both men fail to make the crucial distinction between belief in God and faith. He writes,

Faith is something more than the mere belief that there is a God: it is an assent to a purported revelation of God, communicated through a sacred text or a religious community. It is faith in a creed, not mere belief in God, that is Dawkins's real target in The God Delusion.
McGrath holds that religious faith is not as blind as Dawkins had argued, but is rather based on rational arguments and evidence, but Kenny comments:
The idea that faith is an irrevocable commitment, which goes far beyond any evidence that could be offered in its support, is explicitly stated by Christian thinkers as different from each other as Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Newman.
While Kenny partly agrees with Dawkins' view of faith and its dangers, he disagrees that all those who believe in God are unreasonable in so doing. He also disagrees that religious belief is incompatible with science.

He finds it hard to disagree with McGrath's conclusion that The God Delusion is more harmful to science than to religion because "most people have a greater intellectual and emotional investment in religion than in science." If forced to choose between them, as Dawkins insists they must, "it will be science that they will renounce".[24]

The review in Publishers Weekly suggested that "The McGraths expeditiously plow into the flank of Dawkins's fundamentalist atheism ... and run him from the battlefield. The book works partly because they are so much more gracious to Dawkins than Dawkins is to believers"[25]

Notes and references

  1. Meet the new deacons for the Oxford diocese
  2. From preface to The Dawkins Delusion?
  3. SPCK publication information
  4. The Dawkins Delusion? p3–4
  5. ibid p 5
  6. ibid. p 5–6
  7. p 20, he cites himself and Antony Flew
  8. citing "Dawkins' inept engagement with Luther" in TGD p190 an example, The Dawkins Delusion p20
  9. quotes from op. cit. pp 21–26
  10. In Noble's The Music of Life – see his article for details
  11. p 34, Citing M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003 and the Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar's The Limits of Science
  12. pp 39–40. He says this is the same as in 1916 and contrary to the predictions made then that the proportion would dwindle. He also suggests that this under-states the true figure since, on the definition used in the surveys ("a God who actively communicates with humanity, and to whom one may pray “in expectation of receiving an answer.”") Deists are counted as not believing in God
  13. The God Delusion pp 51–54, cited in The Dawkins Delusion? p 50
  14. (p 71) citing Prof Simon Conway Morris's “Memes are trivial, to be banished by simple mental exercises. In any wider context, they are hopelessly, if not hilariously, simplistic.”Simon Conway Morris Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 324. and Prof Maurice Bloch “A Well-Disposed Social Anthropologist's Problem with Memes.” In Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, edited by Robert Aunger, 189–203. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  15. The God Delusion p 31
  16. McGrath suggests that "The litany of errors and misunderstandings could go on for pages – such as his bald statement that "original sin" lies at the heart of New Testament theology (TGD p 251) (Jesus did not mention it; the idea began to emerge in its modern form in the writings of Augustine of Hippo); or his complete failure to understand the genre of symbolism of the book of Revelation, which derives from Second Temple Judaism (TGDp 258)
  17. citing, eg, David Myers, “The Funds, Friends and Faith of Happy People.” American Psychologist 55 (2000): 56–67; Harold G. Koenig and Harvey J. Cohen, The link between religion and health: psychoneuroimmunology and the faith factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002; Marc Galanter, Spirituality and the healthy mind: science, therapy, and the need for personal meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  18. Citing as examples Kenneth I. Pargament, The psychology of religion and coping: theory, research, practice. New York: Guilford Press, 1997; K. I. Pargament, B. W. Smith, H. G. Koenig, and I. Perez. “Patterns of positive and negative religious coping with major life stressors.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998): 710–24
  19. Shermer, How we believe, 71
  20. Eagleton, "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.” They commend Terry Eagleton's Holy Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005
  21. and suggest "For an exploration of the challenges facing contemporary atheism, see Alister E. McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism. London: Rider, 2004
  22. Dawkins, Richard (2007-02-12). "My critics are wrong to call me dogmatic, says Dawkins". The Times. Retrieved 2007-02-18. 
  23. Appleyard, Bryan (03 March 2007 [subscription required]). "Review: The Dawkins Delusion, by Alister McGrath, with Joanna Collicutt McGrath". NewScientist. Retrieved 2007-03-02. 
  24. Kenny, Anthony (2007-10-27). "The irrevocability of faith". Times Literary Supplement (Times Newspapers Ltd.). Retrieved 2008-04-21. 
  25. Publishers Weekly 14-May-2007 here, search for Dawkins

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