thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Delusion delusion #1

with 3 comments

When I first read Alister McGrath‘s The Dawkins delusion?1 several months ago I was underwhelmed. I have since re-read both The God delusion2 and The Dawkins delusion? and find my original reaction hard to replicate.

First in a series responding to Alister McGrath‘s The Dawkins delusion?: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine

Second time round I seem more sympathetic to McGrath’s criticisms – without, however, being any more convinced that Dawkins is wrong about the really important issues.

Alister McGrath: The Dawkins delusion?

Alister McGrath: The Dawkins delusion

Many of the criticisms cite areas of knowledge I am unfamiliar with, so I can only give McGrath the benefit of the doubt. What I would like to do here is respond to specific points in his book where they touch on issues I find interesting.

First a possible answer to one of McGrath’s early questions:

Like so many of my atheist friends, I simply cannot understand the astonishing hostility that [Dawkins] displays towards religion.

A quote from one of Dawkins’ earlier books, A devil’s chaplain,  could provide a clue:

My last vestige of ‘hands off religion’ respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th 2001, followed by the ‘National Day of Prayer’, when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonation and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place…3

This could however be just more of that ‘anecdotal’ material which McGrath complains The God delusion has too much of: aggregation of convenient factoids… Anecdote is substituted for evidence… etc.

Richard Dawkins: A devils chaplain

Richard Dawkins: A devil's chaplain

McGrath could be right that Dawkins has misinterpreted Martin Luther, Tertullian, and even Thomas Aquinas. But on the other hand McGrath offers no refutation or rebuttal of, say, Dawkins’ litany of statements by American right-wing fundamentalists, the reported cruelties under Islamic extremism, or the chilling study of attitudes among Israeli schoolchildren.4 I am not saying he should have done, or that it would have been feasible. But Dawkins seems to have been deliberately aiming at a very diffuse target, one for which an anecdotal approach may not be inappropriate.

I am reminded of Terry Eagleton‘s opening complaint, which McGrath also quotes:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.5

It does not seem quite accurate to describe The God delusion as ‘Richard Dawkins on theology’. His target is more the phenomenon of belief in God as he experiences it – or rather as he experiences its effects. What the great mass of believers think and believe does not map 100% to what theologians think and believe. Not only that, but ‘delusion’ itself refers to a very specific category of ‘god’:

…bear in mind that I am calling only supernatural gods delusional.

…My title… does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists… I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.

…I am not attacking the particular qualities of …any …specific god… Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.6

Richard Dawkins: The God delusion

Richard Dawkins: The God delusion

There are many modes of religious faith which do not require endorsement of this kind of supernatural entity, and which Dawkins very clearly excludes from his attack.

On the subject of Yahweh, McGrath rightly points out that Dawkins’ references to the Old Testament are ‘highly selective’. In an endnote he calculates:

Twelve of the 14 references Dawkins cites are taken from the Pentateuch or Torah. The remaining two are from Judges; none are cited from the remaining 36 books of the Old Testament.

McGrath may be right that we should

appreciate that these ancient texts arose within a people who were fighting to maintain their group or national identity in the face of onslaughts from all sides, who were making sense of their human situation in relation to a God about whose nature their thinking became more and more developed in the millennium over which the material that makes up these Scriptures was being produced, orally and in writing.

This is effectively saying that, for whatever reason, those earlier books misrepresented the true nature of God. My own recollection – again purely anecdotal of course – of Old Testament stories from school and Sunday School is that the early books were predominant. If I were to list off the top of my head all the Old Testament stories I could, the majority would be from Genesis and Exodus.

Rembrandt: Abraham and Isaac

Rembrandt: Abraham and Isaac

I tested this by Googling old testament bible stories for children and picked and at random. listed 64 stories, of which the first 32 finished with Joshua and the fall of Jericho. was more representative: 61 out of a total of 145 were stories up to and including the death of Joshua. But the story entitled ABRAHAM OFFERS ISAAC: GENESIS 22:1-18 contained no suggestion that the God who was testing Abraham to see if his obedience would trump his love of Isaac was in any way a primitive misrepresentation or an undeveloped conception. The equivalent linked through to which included:

God realized that Abraham was obedient, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his only son…

…Are we willing to offer our ‘Isaac’? Are we willing to give to God the one thing we cherish most?7

Remember these are resources designed for children, some at least of whom will see the story, not from God’s point of view or from Abraham’s, but from Isaac’s:

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son…8

Google results can all be dismissed as ‘selective Internet-trawling’ of course. But the point remains that the entire bible is regarded by many believers as not just important but as sacred ‘scripture’, even as in some way the ‘word of God’. The idea is quite a sophisticated one that the ‘word of God’ could include undeveloped conceptions or primitive sketches – and therefore inaccurate depictions – of the very God whose word it is. What age a child needs to be to appreciate such a subtlety is not the issue. The issue is that no attempt is made here to qualify or contextualise the God who is being portrayed. God is God is God – a God claiming authority over the child’s developing moral sense.

The sort of biblical literary criticism McGrath is urging on Dawkins requires both a capacity and an appetite for flexibility, doubt, and the ambiguities inherent in self-reference. Not the kinds of things you would immediately associate with the believers Dawkins is referring to here (in an interview following the publication of The God delusion):

…Why not just say, “Oh, well, if people want to believe that, that’s fine.” Of course, nobody’s stopping people believing whatever they like. The problem is that there’s not that much tolerance coming the other way. Things like the opposition to stem-cell research, to abortion, to contraception – these are all religiously inspired prohibitions on what would otherwise be freedom of action, whether of scientists or individual human beings.

There are religious people who are not content to say, “Oh, well, my religion doesn’t allow me to use contraceptives, but I’m quite happy for anybody else to.” Instead, we have religiously-inspired prohibitions on aid programs abroad, including in areas where HIV AIDS is rife, prohibiting aid going in any form that might be used to help contraception. That is religion over-stepping the bounds and interfering in other people’s freedom….

…The other thing is that, as a scientist and an educator, it is impossible to overlook the fact that, especially in America, there is a vigorous and virulent campaign to suppress the teaching of scientific biology. In state after state, there are court battles being fought. Scientists have to go out of the laboratory and waste their time responding to these know-nothings who are trying to stop the teaching of evolution or give equal time to creationism or intelligent design, or whatever they like to call it. They actually are trying to interfere with the freedom of children to learn science and the freedom of science teachers to teach their science properly.

[I wrote The God Delusion] because I felt that the world actually is drifting, parts of it anyway, towards theocracy in very dangerous ways. Education in my own field of Evolutionary Biology was under threat. There are all sorts of reasons why one might worry about the looming rise of religious influence, especially in the United States of America and in the Islamic world.9

If the books of the Old Testament were generated by people whose understanding of God was developing – and therefore changing – at what point can we say that that understanding was fully developed? How do we know whether the development was all in the right direction? What criterion do we have to assert that any particular section of text anywhere in the bible or in any religious work is now a fully accurate representation of God?

It is not that this kind of thinking invalidates religious faith or religious texts. But it calls into question the right to deduce any public policy decision – or even any support for any public policy decision – from articles of faith or sacred writings. This is particularly so where the decisions affect people with different beliefs.

Next time we talk about fundamentalism.


1 Alister McGrath (with Joanna Collicutt McGrath), The Dawkins delusion?: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, SPCK, London, 2007.

2 Richard DawkinsThe God delusion, Bantam, 2006.

3 Richard Dawkins, ‘Time to stand up’, in: A devil’s chaplain: Selected essays, Phoenix, 2004.

4 John Hartung, ‘Love thy neighbor: The evolution of in-group morality’, Skeptic, 3(4):86-98, 1995. []

5 Terry Eagleton‘Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching’, London Review of Books, Vol. 28 No. 20, 19 October 2006.

6 Richard Dawkins, 2006: See 2 above.

7, retrieved 20 April 2009.

8 Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, OUP, 1989: Genesis 22, 9-10.

9 Richard Dawkins, quoted by: Terrence McNally, ‘Atheist Richard Dawkins on The God Delusion‘, AlterNet, January 18, 2007,, retrieved 19 April 2009.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


3 Responses

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  1. Thank you, Chris. I will look for the reference. I myself do not believe in a God who intervenes in human affairs in general or in my life in particular in any traditional sense. But that still leaves a lot of room for “God” – for want of a better term.

    Terry Sissons

    2 July 2009 at 10:39 pm

  2. Certainly Terry. It’s page 20 of my copy of The God Delusion, Chapter 1 (‘A Deeply Religious Non-believer’), beginning of the section titled ‘Undeserved Respect’.

    It may be hard to be 100% conclusive as to whether Einstein believed in any kind of God at all. But if he did, then it seems his God was not a personal one, not one that intervened in human affairs in general or in Einstein’s life in particular.

    Chris Lawrence

    2 July 2009 at 9:40 am

  3. Chris – Could you direct me to the source where I could find out what kind of “God” Dawkins is talking about when he says “…My title… does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists…” I would like to know how Einstein’s God differs from the supernatural, superhuman intelligence most people today understand as the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
    Thank you for whatever directions you might suggest on this. Terry

    Terry Sissons

    30 June 2009 at 11:33 pm

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