Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Atheism, And Everything After

I am reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and, alongside it, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, by Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath.

I have a problem with Dawkins’ book. My problem is, it is presented in such a way that no-one can question it. If a theist questions it, their points are ‘self-evidently’ invalid, on account of their being a theist. If an atheist questions it, their points are less self-evidently invalid, and so it is just as well that Dawkins is at hand in the preface to the paperback edition to point out the error of their ways. If a theist who informs us that he used to be an atheist (such as Alister McGrath) questions it, then “That is one of the oldest tricks in the book, much favoured by religious apologists from C.S. Lewis to the present day. It serves to establish some sort of street cred up front, and it is amazing how often it works. Look out for it.” [p.13].

Dawkins is unquestionably to be respected as a serious scholar, but this is not the scholarly-but-accessible piece of work that its endorsers claim. Which is a shame, because there is substantive circumstantial evidence to suggest that atheism has intellectual integrity as a worldview, and I would suggest that atheist and theist alike would benefit from a scholarly-but-accessible atheist apologetic.

For what they are worth, here are some of my initial thoughts:

I suspect that one of the reasons why atheists tend to be less vocal about their atheism than ‘faith heads’ (Dawkins’ term) are about their faith is that ‘atheist’ is a negative description – a statement of what we do not believe – and who defines themselves in negative, rather than positive, terms? The current President of the United States of America is not a not-a-Democrat; he is a Republican. When presented with an ethnic monitoring form, I am expected to mark the box saying that I am white (though in truth I have never seen a white man in my life – and I grew up in Scotland, where you would find one if one was to be found), not a box indicating that I am not black (never seen a black man, either). Defining myself in terms of what I am not generally goes without saying.
Is ‘humanist’ the ‘positive’ alternative to the ‘negative’ label atheist?

I suspect that, while there are ‘pure’ polytheists, monotheists, agnostics, and atheists living in the UK today, there is a sizeable percentage of the population who hold a poly-mono-a-theist-agnostic worldview in paradoxical tension; with any given dimension taking front-of-stage at any given time or circumstance. And while such a view is likely to be highly unsatisfactory to both Dawkins and McGrath, it only lacks intellectual integrity if we consider paradox itself to do so. (Which leaves the light-is-both-a-particle-and-a-wave hypothesis in a spot of bother…)


1 comment:

  1. I have a problem with Dawkins’ book.

    Do you have a problem with McGrath's book?

    1) "Thomas Aquinas ... Dawkins misunderstands an a posteriori demonstration of the coherence of faith and observation to be an a priori proof of faith..." p. 26

    Reference 14 - God Delusion pp. 77-79

    Dawkins clearly writes "Thomas Aquinas' five are a posteriori arguments, relying upon inspection of the world." p. 80 - so how can McGrath honestly claim Dawkins misunderstood that very thing?

    2) '... Dawkins then weakens his argument by suggesting that all religious people try to stop scientists from exploring those gaps: "one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding."' pp. 29-30

    Reference 24 - God Delusion p. 126

    Dawkins clearly writes "In this respect, science finds itself in alliance with sophisticated theologians like Bonhoeffer, united against the common enemies of naive, populist theology and the gap theology of intelligent design." p. 127 - so how can McGrath honestly claim Dawkins' comment is about all religious people?

    3) "When Dyson commented that he was a Christian who wasn't particularly interested in the doctrine of the Trinity, Dawkins insisted that this meant that Dyson wasn't a Christian at all." pp. 44-45

    Reference 19 - God Delusion p. 152

    McGrath snipped off a rather important part of Dyson's comment. According to Dawkins, Dyson said: "I ... do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels." p. 152

    Dawkins would not be alone in being puzzled that someone who doesn't care about the historical truth of the resurrection claimed to be a Christian. (Why has McGrath hid that from his readers?)

    4) "... the TV series The Root of All Evil? ... Dawkins sought out religious extremists who advocated violence in the name of religion, or were aggressively antiscientific in their outlook. No representative figures were included or considered." p. 51

    Alister McGrath himself was not only considered but filmed for that TV series!

    Dawkins has previously stated that leading UK religious figures were invited to take part:

    "We did invite the Archbishop of Canterbury - and the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Westminster - to be interviewed. All declined, no doubt for good reasons."
    "Diary - Richard Dawkins", New Statesman, Published 30 January 2006