The Dawkins Delusion By Alister McGrath,
An Oxford theologian contends that the aggressive rhetoric of Richard Dawkins’ books masks a deep insecurity about the public credibility of atheism.
Alister McGrath, a biochemist and Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, may be Richard Dawkins’ most prominent critic. As the author of “Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life,” he was interviewed extensively for Dawkins’ recent documentary, “The Root of All Evil.” Not a frame of these interviews made it into the final edit.
Below is a slightly modified version of remarks delivered by McGrath in response to Dawkins’ latest book, “The God Delusion.” The God Delusion has established Dawkins as the world’s most high-profile atheist polemicist, who directs a withering criticism against every form of religion. He is out to convert his readers.
“If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” Not that he thinks that this is particularly likely; after all, he suggests, “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument.”
Along with Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Dawkins directs a ferocious trade of criticism against religion in general and Christianity in particular.
In this article, I propose to explore two major questions. First, why this sudden outburst of aggression? Second, how reliable are Dawkins’ criticisms of religion?
Let’s begin by looking at the first question. Every worldview, whether religious or not, has its point of vulnerability. There is a tension between theory and experience, raising questions over the coherence and trustworthiness of the worldview itself. In the case of Christianity, many locate that point of weakness in the existence of suffering within the world. In the case of atheism, it is the persistence of belief in God, when there is supposedly no God in which to believe.
Until recently, western atheism had waited patiently, believing that belief in God would simply die out. But now, a whiff of panic is evident. Far from dying out, belief in God has rebounded, and seems set to exercise still greater influence in both the public and private spheres.
The God Delusion expresses this deep anxiety, partly reflecting an intense distaste for religion. Yet there is something deeper here, often overlooked in the heat of debate. The anxiety is that the coherence of atheism itself is at stake. Might the unexpected resurgence of religion persuade many that atheism itself is fatally flawed as a worldview?
That’s what Dawkins is worried about. The shrill, aggressive rhetoric of his God Delusion masks a deep insecurity about the public credibility of atheism.
The God Delusion seems more designed to reassure atheists whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with religious believers, and others seeking for truth. (Might this be because the writer is himself an atheist whose faith is faltering?)
Religious believers will be dismayed by its ritual stereotyping of religion, and will find its manifest lack of fairness a significant disincentive to take its arguments and concerns seriously. Seekers after truth who would not consider themselves religious may also find themselves shocked by Dawkins’ aggressive rhetoric, his substitution of personal creedal statements for objective engagement with evidence, his hectoring and bullying tone towards “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads,” and his utter determination to find nothing but fault with religion of any kind.
It is this deep, unsettling anxiety about the future of atheism which explains the high degree of dogmatism and aggressive rhetorical style of this new secular fundamentalism. The dogmatism of the work has been the subject of intense criticism in the secular press, reflecting growing alarm within the secularist community about the damage that Dawkins is doing to their public reputation. Many of those who might be expected to support Dawkins are running for cover, trying to distance themselves from this embarrassment….