Monday, February 02, 2009

Dawkins Delusion

If I'd realised I only had three more pages to go, I'd have finished the Dawkins Delusion ages ago, but having read most of it in what, November(?) I'd put it down and failed to desire to pick it up again. However, I finally finished it a couple of weeks ago.

In the end, I'm not really sure what the point of this book was. Perhaps it was rushed out following the release of Dawkins' book. The blurb on the back tells me "it's a reliable assessment of the God Delusion", which suggests to me that it's marketed to people who don't actually want to read the God Delusion, but want to know what it said through a "safe" lense. Now I'm quite happy for people to choose not to read books that they know will bore or piss them off, but I think it's a bit wussy to hide behind someone else's skirts. Just say you can't be arsed with reading it and have done. But anywayyyy...

There are few petty points: the McGraths criticise Dawkins for his use of the word delusion, complaining that "although Dawkins does not offer a rigorous definition, he clearly means a belief that is not grounded in evidence"(p.1 Dawkins Delusion). This seems a redundant criticism, given that in his preface, Dawkins explicitly states his use of the dictionary definition "false belief, or impression"(p.27 God Delusion), rather than a technical or medical one. There's no need for them to intuit what Dawkins means by delusion, he'd already explained exactly what he meant. They go on to describe Steven Jay Gould as an atheist, when he identified himself as an agnostic.

The McGraths also criticise Dawkins for only having raving nut-jobs on the tv series he presented, Root of All Evil, and asks why there were no moderates.

chopped liver/Bishop Harries. Who can tell which is which?

It's inaccurate of the McGraths to say that "no representative figures were included or considered"(p.27 DD), when this normal-seeming fella appeared. Actually if you click on the link above, the full interview between Harries and Dawkins is eminently sensible and chilled. So how many liberal moderates like Bishop Harries would they want Dawkins to interview? Or is a CofE bishop unrepresentative of Christianity?

The McGraths also react to the God Delusion's points with a kind of "that's not my sort of Christianity" or "it's religion, Jim, but not as we know it", therefore it must not exist; or therefore it's an unfair accusation or strawman sort of Christianity which Dawkins argues against. But since they complain about the extremists getting all the air-time apparently, they must be aware that these people exist?

Dawkins is undoubtedly using a blunderbuss rather than a scalpel sometimes, but Christianity as a term covers a wide range of sects and some are fairly whacky. Whether individual or groups of other Christians would agree with them is not really the point, it's a big umbrella. To criticise something that big, some groups are going to be able to say, "hey that bit doesn't apply to us, therefore you are wrong about everything else"; but while the first part of that sentence may be true, the latter doesn't follow.

They also criticise Dawkins' lack of knowledge of theology. I don't think Dawkins spent a huge amount of time on the Bible in any event, but yeah, probably a fair point. But then Dawkins makes no claims about being an expert in theology.

By the by, it always puzzles me why a book that is supposedly the word of god requires so much explanation. I mean it gives people something to do, I suppose, a whole industry in apologia, contextualisation and head-rubbing. And often enough the resulting explanations seem relatively plausible. As in the bit in Kings where Elisha gets called baldie by children, and he curses them so two she-bears chow down on 42 of them. Obviously that's not the relatively plausible explanation, but rather, according to some commentaries, children was mistranslated - they were youths, and their taunts were mocking Elisha, his mentor Elijah and his god all at once. The yoofs came from a nasty town of calf-worshippers and were probably bad uns anyway. Not to mention they were possibly only mauled a bit, rather than splattered far and wide. It was early teen gang culture, served a bear-asbo from god. (Although if the Bible is god-breathed and inviolate, how do mistranslations occur?)

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, it's that it puzzles me that holy books require so much study, why they are not self-explanatory if they're really about a deity trying to show itself. What's with all the hoops?

Oops, I've wandered away from my book review, so bear with me while we reset course...

Alister goes on to tell an anecdote about a young man who was apparently very cross with him after a seminar about his book Dawkins' God, where he says that this fellow approached him complaining that McGrath had "destroyed his faith" in atheism or Richard Dawkins or both. This rather sets up the expectation of some splendidly smack-down responses to the questions raised in the God Delusion. But McGrath doesn't bring out these big guns in this book, so we'll have to take his word for it. Or perhaps we're supposed to go buy his other book.

The McGraths seem understandably miffed about some of Dawkins' language regarding theists, such as faith-heads: and yes, the tone of the God Delusion is strident at times. But it is a polemic. It's meant to be in-your-face-and-wrestle-you-to-the-floor sort of stuff, not kiss-you-on-the-lips-and-call-you-spanky.

I strongly suspect there are better replies to Dawkins' book out there than this one, but in its favour, it is mercifully brief.

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