Alister McGrath, a fellow Oxford professor with Richard Dawkins, is joined by his wife, Johanna Collicut McGrath, in the writing of The Dawkins Delusion? (2007, InterVarsity Press), their answer to Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Alister McGrath, once an atheist himself, earned his doctorate in molecular biophysics. After become convinced of God, and converting to Christianity, McGrath went on to study theology. As a trained scientist, respected theologian, and Oxford fellow, McGrath is well-postioned to respond to Dawkins' bold claims.
It is the McGraths’ stated purpose not to refute every one of Dawkins’ contentions (hence the 97 page rebuttal of a 400+ page book). While they assert that all of Dawkins’ arguments are flawed “misrepresentations and overstatements” (page 13), they chose not to answer Dawkins on every point, but rather to respond selectively to a few of his points, namely these four:
1) Faith is not irrational nonsense, as Dawkins contends in many derisive statements. In this first chapter, the McGraths respond to Dawkins’ central arguments against the rationality of faith, his own rebuttals of the standard theistic arguments, and finally, his improbability argument. Here, the McGraths points out, correctly, that 1) complexity is not an argument for improbability and 2) improbability is not a valid argument for non-existence. The McGraths deftly turn Dawkins argument back upon himself (see page 28).
2) Science and faith are not incompatible, as Dawkins seems to think. Much of Dawkins’ book is devoted to discussions of evolution, with the underlying assumption that evolution makes God unnecessary and thus, passe. Stephen Jay Gould (America’s best known evolutionist who is also an atheist) disagrees, noting the great number of evolutionary biologist who believe in God. He puts it well in this excerpt from The Rock of Ages cited by the McGraths (page 34): “Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism.” The McGraths proceed to expand upon Gould’s well-known “NOMA” (nonoverlapping magesteria, Gould’s view that science and religion explore two very distinct disciplines without any overlap) with their own view of POMA (partially overlapping magesteria, suggesting that the two disciplines can inform and compliment each other)(pages 40-41), a concept that this reviewer has found useful.
3) Dawkins’ description of the evolutionary roots of religion are suspect. The arguments Dawkins uses to build his case that religious impulses have biological roots are largely psychological in nature, and the McGraths point out that questions of the origin of religion are unsettled in the field of psychology, a field in which Dawkins is not trained and has limited expertise. In this section, the McGrath’s also offer a reasoned critique Dawkins’ reliance upon his own concept of memes, those mysterious determinative units of self-propagating cultural traits which work, as Dawkins imagines them, in much the same way as genes.
4) Dawkins’ contention that religion is evil is simplistic, and his the evidence he uses is highly selective. And so the McGraths argues that an even stronger case can be made for the benefits of religion historically in the world.
Throughout the book, the McGraths view is that The God Delusion lacks analytical rigor, and instead relies heavily upon rhetoric. As such, they identify Dawkins’ book as an atheistic-fundamentalist polemic. And so Dawkins overblown arguments are welcomed by religionists such as anit-evolutionary William Dembski (who believes that Dawkins’ pomposity is turning people against belief in evolution) and decried by fellow atheists such as pro-evolutionary Michael Ruse (who laments Dawkins ignorance of Christianity and his polarizing rhetoric)(pages 50-51).
While not exhaustive (by design), the McGrath’s have offered us a well-reasoned critique of the atheistic arguments of Dawkins, and left us with a cogent description of the inherent weaknesses in The God Delusion. I recommend it to my friends on both sides of this debate.