Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Book Review: The Dawkins Delusion

It feels like my life has been dominated by Richard Dawkins lately! I kind of wish some of the authors I’ve been reading had chosen more imaginative titles, because I get myself muddled when talking a lot about The God Delusion, Deluded by Dawkins and The Dawkins Delusion.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading this short book. Unlike Deluded by Dawkins, this book has fairly comprehensive biographies of Alister McGrath and his wife Joanna, and I was particularly impressed with Alister’s background as a molecular biophysicist. That, and Michael Ruse’s endorsement: “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why,” gave me high expectations of the book. Though the book was co-authored by Alister and his wife, I will refer to it as ‘Alister’s book’ for simplicity, and because it is acknowledged that Alister wrote most of it.

McGraths’ style is a lot more balanced and rational than Dawkins’, which admittedly isn’t very hard. Where Dawkins uses a lot of analogy and rhetoric to deliver his points, McGrath cites scientific evidence and appeal to reasoned argument. I liked how he points out a number of specific cases where Dawkins’ has used inadequate evidence and insufficient research, as opposed to simply tackling the larger trends in his thinking.

In terms of content, probably the most helpful thing would be to compare and contrast how The Dawkins Delusion, relates to Deluded by Dawkins. One of my greatest fears when turning to this book was that it would simply be repeating most things said by Andrew Wilson in his book. Fortunately, while having a number of similarities, there are many distinct differences making each book a worthwhile read in its own right.

Both books, understandably, devote a decent portion specially to giving reasons why faith in a deity is rational. They argue against what Andrew Wilson calls ‘anti-supernaturalism,’ a dominant theme in The God Delusion. In Wilson’s book this topic is given its own chapter. In The Dawkins Delusion it is an implicit theme running through most of the book, but comes through most clearly in the section ‘Has Science Disproved God?’ McGrath, who evidently mixes more in academic circles, backs his arguments with support from a wide range of contemporary scientists and philosophers (from both religious and atheistic camps). This causes his book to have a more credible feel than Deluded by Dawkins, where Wilson relies more on philosophical reasoning, while still giving evidence from a number of historical authors.

Deluded by Dawkins deals only with those arguments in The God Delusion that specifically aim to disprove God (or rather, show He is extremely improbable). The Dawkins Delusion, on the other hand, responds in greater depth to Dawkins’ supporting arguments. McGrath gives only a brief mention and rebuttal of Dawkins’ argument from improbability, where Andrew Wilson devotes an entire chapter to it. Conversely Deluded by Dawkins hardly touches the question of morality and religion, while The Dawkins Delusion dwells on the subject in some length. The same is true for the origins of religion. In each of these areas McGrath systematically addresses Dawkins’ claims, and articulately demonstrate how his “crude stereotypes, vastly oversimplified binary oppositions, straw men and hostility toward religion” do nothing for his cause. I appreciate how he presents his audience with a portrait of the views of the scientific community as a whole, observing that Dawkins’ book is as intellectually repulsive to reasonable atheists as it is to religious observers.

I did, however, found the structure of the book a little vague. It is comprised of four main chapters, titled ‘Deluded About God?’ ‘Has Science Disproved God?’ ‘What are the origins of Religion?’ and ‘Is religion Evil?’ however I sometimes wondered how the content related to the title. McGrath gives no systematic reason for writing to these topics, however that does little to detract from the content within them.

Another criticism I have of the book is that it makes a number of broad sweeping generalisations about Dawkins’ ideas. These are especially evident in the opening paragraphs of each chapter, where the author could be accused of over-simplifying the issues and hence attacking a straw man. This criticism soon falters in light of the body of each section, however, in that the quality of their response clearly reveals the depth of analysis that went into the book. Nevertheless, it seems disrespectful to Dawkins (who admittedly shows very little respect to theists) to present his basic argument in such condescending terms.

On the whole, however, The Dawkins Delusion is a great book, and does a very good job at rebutting most of Dawkins’ arguments. As noted above, there are a few key differences between this and Deluded by Dawkins, and I would recommend them to different people based on their specific questions about The God Delusion. In general, however, I found McGrath’s book to be a more comprehensive and well informed response than Andrew Wilson’s equivalent. It is a fitting answer to Dawkins from one who is absolutely qualified to do so. I said early on that I had high expectations of this book, thankfully I wasn’t let down, and found it refreshing to read something that so intelligently defended my beliefs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you were interested in Alister E. McGrath, his book The Unknown God is pretty cheap on TradeMe, for $5 or something.