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Delusion delusion #2

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We need to talk… about the charge of fundamentalism, explicit in McGrath’s subtitle.

Second in a series responding to Alister McGrath‘s The Dawkins delusion?: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine1

See also Delusion delusion #1 

Alister McGrath: The Dawkins delusion?

Alister McGrath: The Dawkins delusion?

McGrath repeats the accusation a number of times inside the book, eg:

The total dogmatic conviction of correctness which pervades some sections of Western atheism today – wonderfully illustrated in The God Delusion – immediately aligns it with a religious fundamentalism which refuses to allow its ideas to be examined or challenged… [My emphasis]

Can the Richard Dawkins of The God delusion2 be described as a fundamentalist?

My trusty Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines fundamentalism like this:

The strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs or doctrines; esp. belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and literal acceptance of the creeds as fundamentals of Protestant Christianity.3

In the same interview we quoted from last time, Dawkins responds to the ‘atheist fundamentalist’ charge in these words:

“Fundamentalist” usually means, “goes by the book.” And so, a religious fundamentalist goes back to the fundamentals of The Bible or The Koran and says, “nothing can change.” Of course, that’s not the case with any scientist, and certainly not with me. So, I’m not a fundamentalist in that sense.4

You could shrug this off with a ‘well he would say that wouldn’t he?’ But there does seem to be something fundamentally (sorry) inaccurate about the ascription which Dawkins’ response and the dictionary definition both point to. 

Richard Dawkins: The God delusion

Richard Dawkins: The God delusion

A fundamentalist takes something which has been stated – typically but not necessarily in writing – both as the literal truth, and also as something whose truth takes priority over any other approach to the truth. If apparent counter-evidence is found, the fundamentalist tests the evidence against the creed, rather than the other way round.

I doubt if I can expand on this any better than Dawkins himself does:

By contrast [with religious fundamentalism], what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence… Books about evolution are believed… because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn’t happen with holy books.

Philosophers, especially amateurs with a little philosophical learning, …may raise a tiresome red herring at this point: a scientist’s belief in evidence is itself a matter of fundamentalist faith. [But a]ll of us believe in evidence in our own lives, whatever we may profess with our amateur philosophical hats on…

…Maybe scientists are fundamentalist when it comes to defining in some abstract way what is meant by ‘truth’. But so is everybody else. I am no more fundamentalist when I say evolution is true than when I say it is true that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere. We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to dispute it. No real fundamentalist would ever say anything like that… [M]y belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming. [My emphasis]5 

Richard Dawkins: A devils chaplain

Richard Dawkins: A devil's chaplain

Dawkins makes similar points in the essay ‘What is true?’ (published in A devil’s chaplain). Here he defends confidence in evidence-based scientific truth against attacks from the perspective of cultural relativism, and against the argument that because science is intrinsically falsifiable, scientific knowledge can only consist of provisional hypotheses:

It is simply true that the Sun is hotter than the Earth, true that the desk on which I am writing is made of wood. These are not hypotheses awaiting falsification; not temporary approximations to an ever-elusive truth; not local truths that might be denied in another culture. …It is forever true that DNA is a double helix, true that if you and a chimpanzee (or an octopus or a kangaroo) trace your ancestors back far enough you will eventually hit a shared ancestor. …Strictly, the truth that there were no human beings in the Jurassic Period is still a conjecture, which could be refuted at any time by the discovery of a single fossil, authentically dated by a battery of radiometric methods… [But even] if they are nominally hypotheses on probation, these statements are true in exactly the same sense… as it is true that you have a head, and that my desk is wooden.6

But maybe counterarguments like these miss the point. McGrath is accusing Dawkins of being fundamentalist about atheism, not about science. What would be good is an explanation justifying the charge, because I am not yet sure McGrath provides one. As I work through the book I shall keep an eye out for a possible explanation, so I may not be able to settle the issue until I reach the end of this series.

Interestingly, in the Introduction at the beginning of the book we get something close to an acknowledgement that Dawkins is not a fundamentalist:

Dawkins and I… are both Oxford academics who love the natural sciences. Both of us believe passionately in evidence-based thinking, and are critical of those who hold passionate beliefs for inadequate reasons. We would both like to think that we would change our minds about God if the evidence demanded it. [My emphasis.]

Probably just what Dawkins would also say, except of course ‘I would like to think I would change my mind’ is not quite the same as ‘I would change my mind’. Remember that Dawkins is not claiming to know of evidence that God (ie the supernatural God of the ‘God hypothesis’) does not exist, just that there is insufficient evidence to justify a claim that God does exist; that the ‘God hypothesis’ is not the explanation it is claimed to be; and that, on the basis of the evidence, ‘there almost certainly is no God’.7 

Jurassic Period

Jurassic Period

But perhaps we can use these statements which are ‘simply true’ as a test case to flesh out the charge of fundamentalism. Dawkins draws a parallel between evidence-based scientific knowledge (DNA is a double helix; humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor; no human beings in the Jurassic Period) and publically observable truths of experience (you have a head; my desk is made of wood). For the sake of argument we can assume that McGrath would agree with all five of these statements.

But Dawkins is also claiming that a further statement ‘there almost certainly is no (supernatural) God’ is not only true, but is true on the basis of the available evidence just like the other five statements. McGrath would presumably disagree with some or all of this.

It could be that Dawkins is right on both counts and McGrath is wrong to disagree. In that case the charge of fundamentalism would fail. (It is not fundamentalist to claim that DNA is a double helix or that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor – or at least McGrath would not say it is.)

Or it could be that Dawkins is right that the statement ‘there almost certainly is no (supernatural) God’ stands or falls on the basis of the available evidence, but he is wrong about the evidence or in his arguments from the evidence. In that case again Dawkins could only be fairly described as fundamentalist if every other scientist who happened to believe something which turned out to be false could also be described as fundamentalist.

In the context of this test case I think Dawkins can only be fairly described as fundamentalist if he is wrong in believing that the statement ‘there almost certainly is no (supernatural) God’ stands or falls on the basis of the available evidence, like any other scientific hypothesis. The fundamentalism would therefore be a kind of blindness, in that he would be failing to see that the statement is not that kind of statement – failing to see the true nature of the statement.

Although the dictionary definition quoted above makes no reference to it, we could possibly make a case that fundamentalism entails a kind of ‘blindness’. The religious fundamentalist is blind to the broader context; and/or the possibility that texts of any kind are open to multiple interpretations; and/or the fact that texts can be written, copied, translated and edited for all sorts of reasons and motives and against all sorts of standards; etc. (The ‘blindness’ could of course be completely deliberate. A proud and self-confessed religious fundamentalist could claim that the broader context and all the possible features of written texts are just irrelevant to the sacred truth of this one particular text.)

The charge could therefore be that Dawkins is fundamentalist in being blind to the possibility that a statement about the existence of a (supernatural) God is anything other than an evidence-based, falsifiable ‘scientific’ proposition. ‘Scientific’ here means scientific in a broad sense which would include historical statements and statements of everyday observation. For Dawkins to be ‘fundamentalist’ in this sense he would have to be both wrong in his classification of statements about God, and also stubbornly resistant (indeed blind) to any proof that he is wrong. 

Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould

McGrath gives us a telling comparison with Stephen Jay Gould. McGrath describes Gould as an atheist, but as one who

was absolutely clear that the natural sciences – including evolutionary theory – were consistent with both atheism and conventional religious belief.


Whereas Gould at least tries to weigh up the evidence, Dawkins simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking.

The clear implication is that Gould, unlike Dawkins, is innocent of ‘atheist fundamentalism’. This could be for two reasons. First: Gould thinks that science is consistent with both atheism and ‘conventional religious belief’. (For the purposes of this comparison we need to assume that ‘conventional religious belief’ equals, or at least includes, belief in a supernatural God, as that is Dawkins’ explicit scope). Second: Gould weighs up the evidence rather than indulging in hellfire preaching, turbocharged rhetoric, selective manipulation of facts and the like.

Now if Dawkins thinks science (or at least some science) is inconsistent with conventional religious belief (= belief in a supernatural God) and Gould does not, that in itself does not make Dawkins a fundamentalist. After all, Dawkins could be right and Gould could be wrong.

So, for now, the ‘atheist fundamentalist’ charge seems to come down to this. According to McGrath, Dawkins wrongly classifies statements about God, and he is also stubbornly resistant (blind) to any proof that he is wrong. And he behaves like a fundamentalist evangelist (hellfire preaching, turbocharged rhetoric, selective manipulation of facts).

We will need to bear this proposed explanation in mind as we work through the book, to assess for ourselves whether the charge stands. But first some baby steps…


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 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Fifth edition, OUP, 2002.

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

5 Richard Dawkins, 2006 (see 2 above), p282.

6 Richard Dawkins, ‘What is true?’, in: A devil’s chaplain: Selected essays, Phoenix, 2004.

7 Richard Dawkins, 2006 (see 2 above), p111.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


6 Responses

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  1. […] er et citat fra Richard Dawkins vist meget passende: …Maybe scientists are fundamentalist when it comes […]

  2. Well, you’ve made me decide to read McGrath. I’ll have to nab it at the library next time I’m there.

    I’m enjoying this blog, by the way. Thanks for the efforts.

    — Steve


    9 November 2009 at 1:34 am

  3. Thanks again Jesse. But I’m afraid I’m not quite with you.

    Why does atheism even need to be a philosophical perspective? Isn’t atheism by definition a position which defines itself in relation to religion? If there were no religion there would be no believers in gods. An a-theist is one who does without a god. One atheist may claim 100% that no god exists; another may claim there is no reason to think a god exists; another may be just happy to live on the assumption that no god exists: these positions will vary from atheist to atheist. Plus some atheists may have a philosophical perspective and others may not. I can’t see any reason why atheists who do have a philosophical perspective should have the same one. They could be Marxists or empiricists or pragmatists, and perhaps be atheists for different reasons.

    As far as ‘cultural by-product of ressentiment leveled against religion’ is concerned I would agree it’s hardly surprising that atheism has (re-)emerged as a dollar-earning cultural phenomenon in the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration, and the rise of both Islamic & Christian fundamentalism. But I’m afraid your point about “science” and “logic” being monolithic and thoroughly non-existent totalities rather lost me.

    I cannot remember challenging an atheist to ‘articulate a coherent, comprehensive philosophical view without utilizing any reference to “God,” “religion,” religious texts, and so on’ so cannot challenge your own experience. But I have never considered Dawkins’ worldview a particularly difficult one to understand or express. Surely it is a version of scientific realism where things like organisms, cells, chromosomes & genes have reality because there are criteria for their existence? It’s a worldview which underpins all his more scientific work, and is assumed by The God Delusion. I don’t know if it counts as a fully ‘coherent, comprehensive philosophical view’ – it’s possible you might say not – but if not, why not, and what would be an example of a philosophical view that was fully coherent & comprehensive?

    Your opening remark could suggest that Dawkins, as a biologist, is not as qualified as a philosopher would be to argue against belief in a supernatural god. I don’t see why not – particularly considering the extensive overlap between ‘things biological’ and ‘things religious’ in the overall collection of cultural phenomena which would be recognised as having a religious dimension. (For example: the advent of life; the nature and uniqueness of life; reproduction; conception; ethical behaviour/behavioural ethics; projection of human faculties like will, intelligence, love etc onto deities; physical suffering; criteria of demarcation between humans & the ‘lower animals’; …)

    I actually think Dawkins is arguing at a much simpler level than your critique suggests. I can understand some believers getting irritated with his characterisation of religious belief, because it does not fit their own. Of course it does not fit every shade of belief. But this does not mean it does not fit any. I have never met two believers who believed precisely the same things. But in the UK, New Zealand and South Africa I have heard believers explicitly state that morality derives from their god, and that religious texts contain divine imperatives. Does that make religious texts literally prescriptive? Yes and no. Dawkins’ point is probably best expressed in crude proportional terms. He’s effectively saying that a relatively high proportion of believers would say that their chosen religious texts are prescriptive, because they represent the will of god. But when push comes to shove, the actual ethical choices of that set of believers only correspond some of the time to what those religious texts actually say – because of inconsistencies, because the believers don’t know the full content of the texts off by heart, because life is more complicated, etc etc. You may think this claim is false. I can’t say whether it is or not, but it certainly accords with my own experience. But his point stands or falls on how accurate an observation he is making. I don’t see how we can accuse Dawkins of ‘hypostatiz[ing] belief and action, pretending that religious belief/scripture is mechanically prescriptive and completely indistinct from personal action’. I see no evidence that he is conflating belief and action. On the contrary, he claims that believers as a matter of fact do not act in accordance with what they say their beliefs are as much as they think they do.

    Yes Dawkins is against religion. Some of his arguments are good, some not so good. Very specifically I cannot remember seeing any explicit statement by him claiming the necessity you speak of: ie that religion is inherently bad; and that religious people therefore do evil; and that they do evil by necessity. He seems instead to be claiming that belief in a supernatural god is unjustified, unwise and dangerous. The reason it is dangerous is that it can lead people to do evil things, by giving them overriding reasons for behaving in a particular way. He offers some empirical observations in support of these claims. A particular believer could perform evil because of experiencing a particular religious imperative (or a particular interpretation of a religious imperative) as necessarily binding (ie binding by necessity). But this is completely different from claiming that religious belief necessarily impels believers to do evil. I haven’t come across that claim in any of Dawkins’ works – if you have, could you please tell me where?

    Thanks again,

    Chris Lawrence

    9 May 2009 at 4:35 pm

  4. What gives Dawkins out is that he is a biologist, not a philosopher. Among other “new” Atheist authors, for me he’s a pretty good reason to believe that Atheism has ceased to even be a philosophical perspective apart from just a cultural by-product of ressentiment leveled against religion, and frequently even just a surrogate form of populist counter-fundamentalism that hides under the avatars of “science” or “logic” or other monolithic (and thoroughly non-existent) totalities. A good test is asking any self-described “Atheist” to articulate a coherent, comprehensive philosophical view without utilizing any reference to “God,” “religion,” religious texts, and so on. The fact that so few will even consent to do so, instead of just beating on religious straw men, kinda tells you that they are in some way just part of the same whole, the same society of absolutes and technological hyper-realism.

    The “necessity” issue is the core of the “new” Atheist arguments about religion; it is also its primary failing. Blaming religion is a perfectly normal jerk reaction to (supposedly) religiously motivated acts of violence, but the only justification for the argument is being able to say that religion cannot do otherwise. (That’s what necessity entails, and that’s also why its so useful to understand the all-encompassing potency of necessary statements.) As such, Dawkins et al have set out to prove that religion is inherently evil; that either directly or by implication, religion and religious people cannot do otherwise. So they apply a reductive logic to the whole situation; also to make empirical arguments about religion somehow binding (rates of immorality by religious folks, and such like). However, even if parts of those arguments are contemporary (gene/meme arguments), they do not support the broader logic of scapegoating religion when religion is just a small part of very large spectrum of factors in behavior. I find it startling that an otherwise good scientist like Dawkins would assert that something as empirically indescribable and incoherent as religion can be applied as some static variable, at least not without realizing that doing so only foregrounds our biases and preconceptions.

    But I get the feeling that even Dawkins must have realized just how overly simplistic and outwardly bigoted the resulting argument ends up being, especially right around your chapter seven. Inevitably, for these sort of reductive arguments to work, they have to take an incredibly complex thing like religion and turn it into some occult myth; ignoring, of course, that the same arguments can be leveled against what Dawkins is doing. Likewise, they have to hypostatize belief and action, pretending that religious belief/scripture is mechanically prescriptive and completely indistinct from personal action. The idea that we don’t get our morals directly from scripture is an excellent example of this hyper-reductive mentality of reifying your opponent’s positions in order to make your own look better. I’m not religious and I could very quickly make the argument that scripture is not literally prescriptive. Of course it’s not; it is only one component, one voice amongst a community of fluid interactions involving a religious individual’s family, peers, traditions, spiritual authorities, etc. Say, if a car doesn’t run, you don’t look at just the starter or some other part—you inspect the engine as a whole. But if Dawkins idea of literary interpretation is that of some direct causeway between actions, I’ll gladly tow my car to the next mechanic.

    So if Ch. 7 truly says that, it is absolutely leaning toward a necessary argument in order to assert its strength, then subsequently running from the burden of proof of the “cannot be/do otherwise” clause. It’s a recurrent pattern with these authors. Overall, I think it is incredibly negative because they forgo the inconsistency of their positions in order to unilaterally assert an argument belittling a specific group. It’s an ironically anti-existential act of bad faith on behalf of a bunch of dudes who seem to have skipped the whole era of philosophers like Sartre, Camus, or Merleau-Ponty.

    So are there still adequate reasons for being an Atheist or exploring Atheism? Absolutely. But anymore it seems to run in precisely the opposite direction of this public “new” Atheism. Necessity and hypostatisation: bad juju, as an Army instructor of mine used to say.


    1 May 2009 at 6:23 am

  5. Thanks Jesse for taking the time to comment at length.

    It is possible though that you might have read something into my post which I didn’t intend. As I said in the previous post, the first time I read McGrath’s book I was unimpressed. The second time I read it I was less unimpressed. So I’m working my way through it, working out which of his arguments I accept & which ones I don’t.

    The charge of ‘atheist fundamentalism’ is often levelled at Dawkins, so since McGrath also levelled it I thought I ought to see what it could refer to – or whether it just boils down to the fact that Dawkins seems to come across like a fundamentalist to some in the opposite camp. I think I can see why he irritates some people, particularly perhaps believers, but he does not irritate me. I’ve read all his books except The Ancestor’s Tale, and enjoyed every one. The God Delusion could be his most abrasive in style, but in content & argument it’s pretty consistent with his other books.

    I’m not sure I agree that he claims religion necessarily causes individuals to do malicious things or that if you’re religious, you are inherently a bad person. (In this context ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ have to be restricted to belief in a supernatural god, because that is very specifically and explicitly his scope. It is quite possible to be ‘religious’ and not believe in a supernatural god, but Dawkins would not consider such a person to be suffering from the ‘God delusion’. Doesn’t this resolve your issue about ‘conflating religious belief and action’?) He quotes with approval Steven Weinberg: Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. And Pascal: Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. But neither of these means that religion necessarily causes people to do evil. They mean that religion can make people do evil while thinking it is the right thing to do.

    In his Chapter 7 he argues not just that we shouldn’t get our morals from scripture but that we (and that includes most religious people) as a matter of fact don’t get our morals from scripture. He may be right or wrong, but this doesn’t sound like (nor is it consistent with) a claim that religion necessarily makes people evil.

    I found your last paragraph particularly interesting, and I would like to understand your arguments more clearly. I have to say I find the latest evolutionary synthesis of Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, Hauser, Matt Ridley etc quite compelling, so I’m always on the lookout for reasons to stop getting too carried away. But why ‘arrogates immunity from criticism’ and ‘free license’? Surely he submits his views to public debate just like any other thinker? And why ‘democratically-corrosive’? I’d really like to see that one unpacked!

    Thanks again. This sort of thing makes blogging worthwhile.

    Chris Lawrence

    30 April 2009 at 8:54 pm

  6. Great essay, but you’ve only summed the major errors of “Atheism” (which has, at this point, been completely hijacked in any cultural context by “new” Atheism, which differs very much from Atheism as a philosophical point).

    Notice how Dawkins’ critics definition of fundamentalism is a broad one: a dogmatic belief in something for which you do not have evidence, or, the assertion of claims which are not warranted by evidence. However, when Dawkins responds he overtly changes the understood connotation of “fundamentalism” to a narrow, religiously-conceived definition of “fundamentalism.”

    Dawkins entire argument is very simple (it also happens to be intellectually irrelevant, and purely a product of sensationalism and religious demagoguery):

    Religion necessarily causes individuals to do malicious things, because religion is itself malicious.

    Not only does this argument appeal to a false, and in itself malicious definition of what religion is, it also chooses to conceal the fact by conflating religious belief and action (hypostatisation). In other words, Dawkins, in true absolutist fashion, reduces actions and belief to the same, monolithic thing. If you’re religious, you are inherently a bad person and you will do bad things; you could not do otherwise. My problem with Dawkins is the same as my problem with Southern-American racists of the early 20th century: not that they are racist, but that they hide the rationalism by which they obtain a free pass for being outwardly judgmental in a categorical fashion.

    Dawkins is really just another example of an ex-fundamentalist idealist who, in the mythical totalities of “science” and “logic,” merely found a surrogate for his smug, fundamentalist attitude toward society. From some non-existent intellectual high ground he, and most of these “new” Atheists, arrogates immunity from criticism. An unbiased observer ought to look at them and ask where they get the free license to formulate such overtly judgmental and democratically-corrosive arguments? Where do they get this hyper-realist depiction of scientific reduction? The harshest criticism leveled against these guys doesn’t come from the “theists” conceived by their own religious delusions, it’s coming from other scientists and (actual) philosophers.


    29 April 2009 at 11:54 pm

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