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19 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An unsubstantiated screed against a caricature, September 3, 2007
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This review is from: Dawkins' GOD: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Paperback)
This book is a long screed against Richard Dawkins. It is couched in academic language and convoluted phrasing. However, Mr. McGrath has only a couple of points that he tries to make. I kept track of the pages on which he repeats the same assertions about Mr. Dawkins. The points are: Mr. Dawkins disbelieves in the wrong God (or faith); God can't be logically disproved; various authorities are invoked who disagree with Mr. Dawkins; and, amazingly, Mr. McGrath asserts that Mr. Dawkins does not base his arguments upon evidence. [I was persuaded to read this book -- bought it used -- by the comments of some believers in the Amazon discussions. Same with Lee Strobel's The Case For Christ. This may be the last attempt at reading an apologist.]

First and foremost, Mr. McGrath asserts that the God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is not the Real God, not the God of "thoughtful Christian theologians." Alternately, McGrath tries to make the case that the faith that Dawkins criticizes is not what Christians mean by faith. McGrath makes one of these two claims on, at least, pages: 10, 42, 52, 59, 60, 71(3-times), 73, 75, 76, 80, 83, 85, 86, 89, 92, 93, 96, 99, 101, 108, 117, 118, 140, 143, 146, 151, 156, 157, and 158. (29 pages of the 159 pages of the text.) I think one can safely say that this is one of McGrath's major assertions.

Mr. McGrath repeats that Mr. Dawkins disbelieves the wrong God or faith on at least 18% of the pages of the book. Emphasis through repetition I suppose. Strangely, Mr. McGrath never straightens us out with the Real definition of the God Christians believe in. The closest he comes, anywhere in the book, is in on page 93, where, after he trashes the "Divine Designer" God of William Paley, he states, "A theologian might respond by arguing that God created an environment within which incredibly complex entities could develop from quite simple beginnings by quite simple processes." This is the deistic God: the God who set up the natural laws and set the thing in motion [initiated the Big Bang perhaps?] This God is extremely difficult [seemingly impossible] to distinguish from nature. Mr. McGrath never describes the Christian God in the entire book. Why? Because the essential features of the Christian God are exactly the ones that Dawkins doesn't believe in, contrary to McGrath's repeated assertions.

And, not surprisingly, Dawkins specifically addresses the deistic God on page 147 of "A Devil's Chaplain:*" "If God is a synonym for the deepest principles of physics, what word is left for a hypothetical being who answers prayers, intervenes to save cancer patients or help evolution over difficult jumps; forgives sins or dies for them?" Why doesn't McGrath answer Dawkins' challenge, since he spends much this book attacking "A Devil's Chaplain" and "Unweaving the Rainbow?" Because he can't.
(* Not to mention his more recent, "The God Delusion.")

I was raised a Christian and the God I was taught about had at least these features: He created the earth, flooded it during Noah's time, specially created all of life, sent his "son" to be born from a young virgin Jew in Palestine, the "son" died to atone for everyone's sins, even sins not yet committed, this God was all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, this God answered prayers and "saves" people from natural disasters, etc. Which of these features does Mr. McGrath disavow? And how would that God fit with Christian theology? He never tells us.

Here is Mr. McGrath in print elsewhere (National Catholic Register online):

"The second point I'd want to make is that certainly I believe in the Nicene Creed, but I don't believe it because someone has rammed it down my throat. I believe it because I've looked at it very closely and I believe it to be right. I am very happy to be challenged about that because I believe in being open and accountable."

Continued, click on comments
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 18, 2007 7:57:58 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Apr 1, 2008 6:38:28 AM PDT
J. Blilie says:
The God of the Nicene Creed ISN'T the one Dawkins disbelieves in?

McGrath also claims that Dawkins description of religious faith is incorrect: Dawkins says faith, "means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence." McGrath ridicules Dawkins' definition of faith: "But why should anyone accept this ludicrous definition?" and "So what is the evidence that anyone -- let alone religious people - defines "faith" in this absurd way." And "The simple fact is that Dawkins offers no defense of this definition, which bears little relation to any religious (or any other) sense of the word." (all on page 85.) Here are the definitions from my desk dictionaries at work and at home: Webster's New World Dictionary, 1965: "Unquestioning belief." Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1986: "Firm belief in something for which there is no proof." It is not generally required that a person defend a definition of a word found in the dictionary. Dawkins definition also fits the beliefs of most religious people I have known.

I quote the Catholic Dictionary (online - Google it): "Let us now take some concrete act of faith, e.g. `I believe in the Most Holy Trinity.' This mystery is the material or individual object upon which we are now exercising our faith, the formal object is its character as being a Divine truth, and this truth is clearly inevident as far as we are concerned; it in no way appeals to our intellect, on the contrary it rather repels it. And yet we assent to it by faith, consequently upon evidence which is extrinsic and not intrinsic to the truth we are accepting. But there can be no evidence commensurate with such a mystery save the Divine testimony itself, and this constitutes the motive for our assent to the mystery, and is, in scholastic language, the objectum formale quo of our assent. If then, we are asked why we believe with Divine faith any Divine truth, the only adequate answer must be because God has revealed it." This is the official doctrine of one of the largest Christian denominations.

And: "Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed," John 20:29 (not seen: no evidence.)

The nearest that McGrath comes to giving his definition of the REAL faith is on page 86, where he appeals to the authority of W.H. Griffiths-Thomas who was (wait for it) a theologian: "[Faith] affects the whole of man's nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct." The statement is a good example of theological words games and double-speak. McGrath emphasizes the phrase, "based on adequate evidence," repeatedly in the text. Too bad he didn't define that evidence or what the criterion "adequate" means in this case. Believers generally consider The Bible to be "adequate evidence." A skeptic does not.

One of the other points Mr. McGrath repeats over and over is that the non-existence of God cannot be proved by logic. (Nor can God's existence.) He makes the statement that God can't be disproved by logic on, at least, pages: 11, 12, 52, 53, 55, 56, 57, 58, 60, 92, 95, 111, 113, 129, 138, and 159. No person that has looked at the logical arguments would claim that non-existence of God can be proved by logic. Certainly Mr. Dawkins never claims this. Mr. McGrath does not provide a quotation where Mr. Dawkins claims otherwise. Naturally, since no such quote exists. So, the entire point of this repeated assertion is ... rather pointless.

Mr. McGrath devotes an entire chapter on a discussion of evidence: pages 82 - 118 (36 pages, 22% of the book.) I would think that Mr. McGrath would have taken this opportunity to introduce his adequate evidence. He does not. He simply asserts, without any evidence, that Mr. Dawkins does not base his work on evidence. A peculiar and circular argument. All McGrath is left with is casting aspersions against Mr. Dawkins.

One assertion he makes is rather comical: "a large number of people come to believe in God later in life," and [Dawkins believes in the false idea] "that belief in God is something forced upon children by tyrannical adults." (page 87) McGrath offers no evidence (consistently throughout the book). The data show that the vast majority of people are of the same religion as their parents.

Mr. McGrath appeals to authority on, at least, pages: 9, 16, 52, 53, 55, 59, 68, 69, 70, 73, 77, 79, 80, 83, 95, 101, 141, 144, 147, 149, 150, 152, 153, 154, 155, and 158. This is an appeal to authority on 26 pages of the total text of 159 pages or 16% of the pages of the book. I think we can safely say that Mr. McGrath relies heavily on appeals to authority. Too bad he didn't give evidence for God on those pages.

McGrath states that Dawkins writing is, "the world of a schoolboy debating society, relying on rather heated, enthusiastic overstatements, spiced up with some striking oversimplifications and more than an occasional misrepresentation (accidental I can only assume) to make some superficially plausible points ..." (page 9.) I've read all of Dawkins' books. I've never detected this quality in them. Strange. And it reminds me of a story about a pot and kettle ... McGrath: "[Dawkins'] plodding rhetoric and tired old clichés" [page 10, I suppose that why the books sell so well!] "intellectually deficient and half-baked ideas," (page 83) "A schoolboy argument has found its way into a grown-up discussion." (page 87) "Dawkins' views on the nature of faith are best regarded as an embarrassment to anyone concerned with scholarly accuracy. It does nothing for his credibility, especially his occasionally preachy statements like: `As a lover of truth, I am suspicious of strongly held beliefs that are unsupported by evidence.*' So let's just draw a line under this nonsense and pass on to something more interesting." (page 102) This last quote well exemplifies the scholarly accuracy of McGrath's screed and its patronizing, sneering tone. Interesting considering how horrifying he finds Dawkins' prose, "I am troubled by the ferocity with which he asserts his atheism." (page 95) [*This statement is just good sense.]

Dawkins strongly defends and publicly explains evolution by natural selection (EBNS): Darwinism. It's been a significant part of his life's work since the 1976 publishing of "The Selfish Gene." Therefore, McGrath attempts to discredit EBNS, comically. McGrath implies that there is something is wrong with EBNS because it may be overturned if better data are found in the future. He devotes a section to this idea with a phrase (I must assume of his own coinage): "The Problem of Radical Theory Change in Science." Because scientists are open to new data, that somehow makes their explanations suspect? EBNS has stood the test of time for almost 150 years now, during a period of the most detailed investigation of the natural world using the best instruments ever invented. All the data have simply increased confidence in the theory. McGrath also tries to imply (and again devotes an entire section to) that Charles Darwin was a Christian believer, mainly by selective quotation. No credible source asserts that Darwin was a believer at the end of his life, in spite of several hoaxes at the time.

The only positive things I can really say about this book are: obviously McGrath is an intelligent man and he does write in a finely flowing and polished way. Otherwise, there is no way I could have gotten through this book.

I recently listened to a 90+ minute interview between Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath. McGrath is said to be a great modern Christian apologist and former atheist, often cited by believers. Mr. Dawkins was very polite and calm (as was Mr. McGrath) but persistent in pursuing his questions. Here's what happens when McGrath must confront the real Richard Dawkins, not the caricature he presents in this book:

Here I summarize McGrath's arguments in favor of his religion:
1. Religion is comforting
2. Christianity provides a viewpoint in which to make sense of the world
3. I believe in Christianity because it seems right to me
4. God normally doesn't act in the world, so we have to learn to live with that. But sometimes he does, when he chooses. He doesn't act directly, usually, but through other actors. He doesn't want evil; but that's just the way he made the world. He can act, but he doesn't sometimes save everyone from a disaster, only some few -- but these he does actually save, it's not luck. [sic -- the entire item and "logic". And how, I would ask, does he distinguish between this "God's action" and blind luck? There's no evidence for it being God's action. He's playing word games, defining things to suit his desires.]
5. Faith can be used to promote evil acts -- but so can atheism so it's just as bad as religion.
6. Atheism is fading away because of rising "interest in spirituality." [What spirituality? Crystal power?]
7. Therefore, religion is good and Christianity is the correct religion.

To say that Mr. McGrath was unconvincing is to put it very mildly.

Please listen yourself: Google: Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins interview uncut video

All in all, McGrath doesn't get a glove on Dawkins. Interesting that McGrath feels the need to put Mr. Dawkins' name in the TITLES of two of his recent books. Coattails come to mind ...

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2007 9:13:07 AM PST
Thanks for your time taken to write your comment - quite good one.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 27, 2008 3:26:43 PM PST
SoggyCrouton says:
That interview between McGrath and Dawkins is great. They get right to the whole misunderstanding of faith thing very quickly, and essentially Dawkins dispels it: "yes, I understand that's not how some theologians define faith. But why on earth not?" Same with a "simple God": that's very nice that theologians think God is "simple". The fact that this is meaningless, however, seems important.

Posted on Mar 22, 2008 4:19:04 AM PDT
Peter says:
Thank you for a very thorough review. I read the book, too, and wrote up my own review, and agree with you on just about everything. The one thing I disagree on is that "McGrath is an intelligent man". He is certainly well educated, but assuming he's not being deceptive, he strikes me as rather unintelligent. As you point out, he never says what this God is that Dawkins doesn't believe in, even though it's the title of the book. How could he make such an omission? When McGrath came to my town, I had a chance to ask him about this, and he gave a lame answer saying that there's a specific God that he, McGrath, believes in. (Listen to the "Open Forum" mp3 under Alister McGrath's Wikipedia entry.) Another example that comes to mind is McGrath's criticisms of the meme concept. I think of the meme concept as being analogous to a type of notation, like Feynman diagrams, that helps people to discuss something (the spread of ideas) in a way that economizes on vocabulary. If it's helpful, that's great. If not, it doesn't matter; it's not that there's anything incorrect about it. Hearing McGrath describe it and then dismiss it is like hearing someone describe and then dismiss some form of notation that some scientist or mathematician has devised for his particular work. There's just something unseemly and anti-creative about it.
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