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Delusion delusion #3

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Suffer little children

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

See also Delusion delusion #1 & #2

Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath

In Chapter 1 (Deluded about God?) McGrath attacks Dawkins’ argument that ‘faith is infantile’:

In earlier works [Dawkins] emphasized that belief in God is just like believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. These are childish beliefs that are abandoned as soon as we are capable of evidence-based thinking…

…Yet the analogy is obviously flawed. How many people do you know who began to believe in Santa Claus in adulthood? …Those who use this infantile argument have to explain why so many people discover God in later life, and certainly do not this as representing any kind of regression, perversion or degeneration…

I do not see why the analogy is ‘obviously flawed’. The fact that there are people who start believing in God in later life is neither here nor there. There are also people who believe in God as children and abandon their faith in adolescence, never to return. The point of the analogy is that God, the Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus can all be seen as culturally-communicated, fictional characters. People learn about them because in the culture they grow up in they hear them being talked about as if they really existed, and are exposed to explanations of certain phenomena in terms of their activities and powers.

An analogy is not an identity. Of course belief in God is different in some respects from belief in the Tooth Fairy. Belief in the Tooth Fairy is different in some respects from belief in Santa Claus. The Tooth Fairy doesn’t come once a year pulled by a team of reindeer. Santa Claus doesn’t swap presents for baby teeth.

A Tooth Fairy

A Tooth Fairy

The differences between God and both the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are certainly more significant. The phenomena which are explained to the child as the actions of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are all actions performed by the child’s parent. There comes a time when the parent comes clean, typically after the child discovers the truth for him or herself. The God explanation is not an alternative for something parents do. It is more likely to be an explanation for things for which parents, teachers or priests have no other explanation for. Entire institutions have been set up to prolong and support belief in God.

These are major differences, but far from destroying the analogy, they are what give the analogy its power. The parent who fills the stocking on Christmas Eve and who exchanges the tooth for a coin is directly manipulating the child’s reality and also manipulating the child’s understanding of that reality. The parent is not being truthful: the parent knows the truth and can conceal it or reveal it at will. Parents, teachers or priests who tell children that God created the world, that Granddad went to God when he died, and that God hears every child’s prayer, is manipulating the children’s understanding of reality, and therefore indirectly manipulating the children’s reality. They are not being truthful: in this case they do not know the truth but they let the children think they do.

This is the point of the analogy. From the child’s perspective being told about God is like being told about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Parents, teachers or priests should see telling children about God as analogous to telling children about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy – but with the added caveat that they do not actually know the truth.

I can understand that McGrath rejects the analogy. He rejects it because he does not see God as a fictional character, and because he, like Antony Flew (see Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest), moved from atheism to belief, not the other way round. But this does not mean the analogy is ‘obviously flawed’. Dawkins maps the domain over which the analogy is particularly relevant:

If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents. If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination. Mutatis mutandis if you were born in Afghanistan.2

Change, if you like, ‘victim’ to ‘product’ and ‘indoctrination’ to ‘education’. But the overall point stays the same. The statement seems so obviously true of the world as barely to need saying, and it defines the domain over which the analogy is both relevant and powerful. It is the domain within which it is considered perfectly acceptable to refer to a ‘Christian child’ or a ‘Muslim child’ rather than a ‘child of Christian parents’ or a ‘child of Muslim parents’. (Dawkins gives the example of a newspaper photograph from a school nativity play where the Three Wise Men are all played by four-year-olds, described in the caption as a Sikh, a Muslim, and a Christian.3)

McGrath acknowledges that Dawkins is

surely right to express concern about the indoctrination of children by their parents.

But this ‘reasonable point’

gets lost in the noise of the hyped-up rhetoric, and a general failure to consider its implications.

McGrath’s next moves get a bit close to hyped-up rhetoric themselves:

Having read the ludicrous misrepresentations of religion [in] The God Delusion, I very much fear that secularists would merely force their own dogmas down the throats of the same gullible children… [T]his whole approach sounds uncomfortably like the anti-religious programmes built into the education of Soviet children during the 1950s, based on mantras such as ‘Science has disproved religion!’, ‘Religion is superstition!’ and the like.

There is indeed a need for a society to reflect on how it educates its children. Yet no case can be made for them to be force-fed Dawkins’ favoured dogmas and distortions…

Of course there are believers who will see descriptions of religious belief in The God delusion which are ludicrous misrepresentations of what they themselves believe. Alister McGrath is probably one of them. But that does not mean those descriptions are ludicrous misrepresentations of what every believer believes. (See for example Touched by an angel #8 for results of a 1991 international survey. In that year 34% of those interviewed in the United States agreed with the statement: The Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word.)

Dawkins has actually given us a very clear description of how he thinks children should be introduced to religious belief (‘A prayer for my daughter: Good and bad reasons for believing’4). I would urge McGrath to read or re-read this and then ask himself if his own talk of force-feeding dogmas and distortions may not itself be a ludicrous misrepresentation.

McGrath talks of

…the need for high-quality religious education in the public arena, countering the crude caricatures, prejudicial stereotypes and blatant misrepresentations now being aggressively peddled by atheist fundamentalism.

For many years, I gave a series of lectures at Oxford University entitled ‘An introduction to Christian theology’. I cannot help but feel that these might have been some use to Dawkins in writing his book.

This is where he repeats Terry Eagleton’s swipe about the Book of British Birds (see Delusion delusion #1).

First comment is that if McGrath’s lectures were given at Oxford University they were unlikely to be aimed at children, which is the context of this section.

More importantly I would like to repeat the point (see Delusion delusion #1) that Dawkins’ target in The God Delusion is not theology per se but the phenomenon of belief in a supernatural god. This point often seems to be missed, perhaps because Dawkins is so critical of theology as an academic discipline.5 6 But these are two separate issues which should not be conflated.

Some theologians believe in a supernatural god, some do not. Some theologians may well see in The God Delusion nothing but a travesty of what they themselves believe. If so they may be guilty of falsely assuming that their god is the same as the god of other believers. The god of The God Delusion is the god of the ‘God Hypothesis’, ie that

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.7

How many or how few theologians share this conception of god is not particularly relevant, considering the relatively small proportion of believers who could be described as theologians.

Read on…


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

2 Richard Dawkins, The God delusion, Bantam, 2006, p3.

3 Richard Dawkins, 2006 (see 2 above), p337.

4 Richard Dawkins, ‘A prayer for my daughter: Good and bad reasons for believing’, in: A devil’s chaplain: Selected essays, Phoenix, 2004.

5 Richard Dawkins, ‘The Emptiness of Theology’ in: Free Inquiry, Spring 1998 v18 n2 p6(1): []

6 Richard Dawkins, Letters: ‘Theology has no place in a university’, 1 October 2007:  [,1698,Letters-Theology-has-no-place-in-a-university,Richard-Dawkins]

7 Richard Dawkins, 2006: see 2 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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