I am not a fan of Richard Dawkins. Personally, I find him condescendingly, intellectually arrogant and a bit shrill. As far as atheism goes, I think he is the worst representative of its ideas. Still, he deserves some credit for the role he has played in bringing atheism into the mainstream consciousness and giving it some talking points. Still, I am not a fan, nor have I read any of his books. My only contact with Dawkins really is through Twitter (where I unfollowed him), my brother, a documentary about Intelligent Design and his documentary, “The Root of All Evil?” which I reviewed here some time ago.
I honestly wasn’t expecting much from the book The Dawkins Delusion? and I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get much. It is a response to Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and falls along pretty predictable lines. It is easily more intelligent than some religious responses to atheism, but Dawkins doesn’t give it much to respond to. Its arguments can be summarized thus:
- It’s a polemic, not a serious sientific text.
- It is full of assumptions.
- Dawkins has a superficial understanding of Christianity.
- He does not acknowledge any of the good religion does and is therefore unfair to religion.
- He doesn’t acknowledge that atheists and secularism do bad, too.
These are very basic points and they are not all encompassing, but they are those most likely to be remembered. Co-authors Alister McGrath and Joanna McGrath have written an effective response from the religious viewpoint. Any Christian reading this book will be convinced and I was quite impressed as well, but…
Religion v. Power Systems
One of the critiques the McGraths put to Dawkins is his denial of the evil of atheism. This is part of their reasoning:
As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, I know only too well about religious violence. There is no doubt that religion can generate violence. But it’s not alone in this. The history of the twentieth century has given us a frightening awareness of how political extremism can equally cause violence. …
The rise of the Soviet Union was of particular significance. Lenin regarded the elimination of religion as central to the socialist revolution, and he put in place measures designed to eradicate religious beliefs through the “protracted use of violence.” One of the greatest tragedies of this dark era in human history was that those who sought to eliminate religious belief through violence and oppression believed they were justified in doing so. They were accountable to no higher authority than the state.
The McGraths (in the very next paragraph) use the example of the Soviet Union to counteract Dawkins’ assertion that atheism doesn’t do evil like religion does. They write that the Soviets “in their efforts to enforce their atheist agenda” committed acts of violence and destroyed churches and the like “in pursuit of an atheist agenda – the elimination of religion.”
Sadly, the conflation of socialism and atheism is less than accurate. Socialism, by definition, is a power system. Only by complete adherence to the systems o socialism can it keep power and operate effectively according to its designs. Part of the eradication of religion from the socialist perspective was to prevent a different power system from challenging it. This was a clash of systems with different values – political v. religious – not a clash of atheism v. theism.
To call the socialist violence against religion “atheist” is to make a mistake common in the United States today. Christian conservatives are fond of accusing their political opponents of being socialists and secularists. This is not accurate at all. Socialism does not mean atheism and vice-versa.
Using this argument against Dawkins is an ill-advised move. Not only does it show the McGraths’ superficial understanding of history and politics (a superficiality they have accused Dawkins of having regarding Christianity), but it is alarmist and far too simplistic to be effective. Their mistake is not identifying the key point of conflict between two systems of power.
In fact, the McGraths fail to recognize religion (particularly Christianity, which is their focus) as a power system at all. Religion is nothing more than a system designed to give certain people power, using as its fulcrum the ideals of divinity and morality in order to control the people who ultimately give it power. Unlike government, it uses prayer and the divine to control people. That does not give it more legitimacy than political systems. It merely makes it more universal.
Social Division and the Eradication of Religion
Dawkins, for his part, has argued that eradicating religion would bring peace to the world. In his documentary The Root of All Evil? and in The God Delusion, he has made this argument, putting the creation of much of the world’s ills onto the back of religious influence. The McGraths accurately argue that this is silly, but they fail to acknowledge that he is at least partially right, if inaccurately argued.
This clearly points to religion, at least in theory, as a potential catalyst for rage and violence in some contexts. In concurring, Dawkins makes a significant concession in recognizing the sociological origins of division and exclusion. ‘Religion is a label of in-group/out-group enmity and vendetta, not necessarily worse than other labels such as skin colour, language, or preferred football team, but often available when other labels are not.’ Yet even here, his antireligious animus leads him to some problematic judgments. To give one very obvious example: vendettas rarely have their origins in religious concerns.
That last sentence stood out most to me on the first reading. This book was published in 2007, the post-911 era. The authors should have known better than to make such a statement. Religiously motivated vendettas are prevalent everywhere, not just in the much-stereotyped Islam, but in Christianity as well. Their assertion is patently ridiculous.
More importantly, their argument points out that other sociological factors will replace religion as “decisive” divisions. True. But that does not mean anything. What argument is this? Better the devil you know?
That is hardly a sound argument. Both Dawkins and the McGraths are ridiculous in their assertions of social division. Both eradicating and keeping religion as social division is problematic and the fact that they both argue on this point is instructive. No one cares about the ultimate good of people who suffer from these divisions; they just want their side to win.
Running Out of Room…
I’m running out of room and time to analyse this book more thoroughly. I’ve looked at just two of my main objections and that will have to suffice.
So what was my ultimate take-home message from this book? It was one I already agreed with: Dawkins is not as smart as he thinks he is. But on top of that, I was convinced that the McGraths were also not as smart as they think they are. No one wins out of this argument and, frankly, I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time on it.