Thursday, September 06, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

There is an interesting review by the British philosopher Anthony Kenny in the August 17, 2007 issue of TLS: "Reason to believe". It is a review of a book by atheist turned Christian Alister McGrath and his wife Joanna Collicutt McGrath. The book is "The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine." This a very small book, only 98 pages.

The McGraths take exception to Dawkins's recent book "The God Delusion." Kenny points out, as have others, that Dawkins's book "has a strident and aggressive tone." Dawkins also thinks "that religion is the root of all evil." This is an idealist position which ignores the role of social and historical circumstances in the development of religions and confuses secondary causative factors with primary.

The McGraths don't understand why Dawkins is so hostile to religion, so Kenny gives them two reasons to consider. First the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the US "which endangers" the teaching of science. Kenny could have added it also endangers any progressive transformation of modern industrial society with its war mongering ultra patriotic jingoism and its manipulation by the ultra right neoFascist forces associated with the military-industrial-congressinal complex which dominates political power in the US.

Second is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism "which has spawned extremist groups willing to murder thousands of innocent people...." The McGraths, however, think this is besides the point. They decry fundamentalism, but think Dawkins too is a fundamentalist-- an atheist one.

But it seems to me ridiculous to compare Dawkins's militant atheism to the kind of beliefs that lead people to blow up medical clinics providing abortions or to suicide bombers. They claim, according to Kenny, that "atheism as well as religion has given rise to massacres, and true religion, as exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth, is hostile to violence. Kenny thinks "These points are fairly taken."

Lets not give away the store here! " True religion" is no better exemplified by "Jesus of Nazareth" than by any other religious leader. Nor was Jesus hostile to violence. Just read John 2:13-17 where he makes himself a scourge (whip) and drives perfectly law abiding merchants and business people out of the Temple-- overturning tables, seizing other people's money and dumping it on the floor, etc. This is not the action of someone hostile to violence. And don't forget Matthew 11:34ff, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." His so called followers have certainly spent a great deal of their time wielding the sword.

Interestingly enough, Kenny thinks Dawkins to be stronger in just the area the McGraths find him weakest. This is in the McGraths, or at least Mr. McGraths's own area of specialization-- i.e., historical theology. Kenny says Dawkins is often more accurate in his interpretations than is McGrath. He gives some examples which indicate that Dawkins's view of Christianity is more in accord with historical orthodoxy than McGrath's. McGrath seems to have a liberal academic version of the faith that would be unrecognizable to the vast majority of Christians.

McGrath claims, according to Kenny, that Dawkins fails to distinguish between religion and belief in God. Buddhists are religious but don't believe in God, Evangelicals believe in God but their behavior is not religious (!). It appears that crazy fanatical behavior is not religious by definition.

Kenny says that the real distinction should be between belief in God and faith (accepting a particular revelation.) Dawkins's real target, according to Kenny, is people who accept a creed. Kenny quotes Dawkins as follows:

What is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue
Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.
... Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they are
taught in their religious schools: that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and
that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise.

McGrath objects to this definition of faith, but it is a feeble objection. Kenny again thinks Dawkins is closer to the real historical workings of faith than McGrath's views. As far as God is concerned, Kenny agrees with the McGraths's rejection of the principal argument Dawkins gives against the existence of God.

I think it does appear to be dumb argument. It goes like this. Humans are exceedingly complex and it was very improbable that they would develop. God is even more complex so it is even more improbable that It should exist. The question, however, the McGraths say, isn't if God is probable or not, but is he actual.

Since there is no proof either way, the theist and the atheist are in the same boat, according to Kenny, and so the appropriate stance is that of agnosticism. Kenny also agrees with the McGraths that Dawkins has done more harm to science than religion. He justifies this by saying:

Most people have a greater intellectual and emotional investment in religion
than in science, and if they are once convinced that they have to choose
between religion and science and cannot have both, it will be science that
they will renounce.

Marxists don't think people should be put in the position of having to make such a choice. Since they believe that it is an alienated social reality that gives sustenance to religious beliefs, they maintain that if the social question is answered religion as we know it, the great creedal (and warring) faiths, will die out much as the paganism of ancient Greece and Rome has died out in Protestant countries.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at


FSJL said...

Tom, there's a marked difference in meaning behind 'descry' and 'decry'.

Thomas Riggins said...

You are correct-- I must decry my use of descry! Which has been edited out!