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Godehard Brüntrup SJ

Atheism Delusion instead of God Delusion


Book-review in Stimmen der Zeit, 2/2008, pp 130-134
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    GODEHARD BRÜNTRUP, professor of metaphysics, philosophy of language and the human mind at the Munich School of Philosophy, analyzes the work "The Atheism Delusion" by Alister and Joanna Collicutt McGrath with which the two react to Richard Dawkins' bestseller "The God Delusion".


The book "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins {1} was on the part of philosophers and theologians subjected to a complex scientific criticism. You may wonder whether this should be done at all. Dawkins' book is not scientific. He makes no efforts to study the sources or literature. He does not even pretend to consider critical arguments and counter-arguments. He does not want to present a scientific analysis of the phenomenon religion. He leaves no doubt that for him it is about winning converts for atheism. For this goal he is ready to throw the ideals of scientific care and fairness overboard. He takes a lot of pain to let religion appear in the worst light possible: stupid, violent and criminal.

Thus it cannot surprise that Dawkins has the presumption in sharp words to call on the state authority to regard religious education just as much as criminal offence as child abuse - a form of totalitarian atheism of which one believed that it had come to an end together with communism. In an "enlightened" society after Dawkins' taste many religious people would find themselves in prison. His refusal to recognize on the side of his opponents even a rest of rationality makes Dawkins an absolutist who is unable to dialogue and to whom the modern project of an ideologically pluralistic society basically remains alien. In a review in the magazine "New Blackfriars" the English theologian Nicholas Lash then also logically noticed the irony that Dawkins, the critic of religion had himself become the "high priests" of a religion unable to dialogue. Hardly anyone is more pleased about that than those representatives of religions who themselves reject the project of the modern age.

In a recently published letter the American Christian fundamentalist and creationist William Dembski says thank you; Dawkins was one of the greatest gifts of God to the movement of the creationists. An internationally known theoretician of Darwinism, Michael Ruse, stated in the United States the evolutionary theory ran the risk of "losing the struggle", and he attributed this development, inter alia, to Dawkins, who is one of the "best recruiters" of the fundamentalists. If Darwinism is incompatible with Christianity, then the fundamentalists, says Ruse, could argue that the constitutionally guaranteed religious neutrality of the state prohibited teaching Darwinism in schools. Indeed: Who wants vividly to "prove" that science and faith are incompatible, even more, that natural science despises and mocks the religious way of life must only reach for Dawkins' book.

Both, the representatives of religious fundamentalism and the representatives of the scientist fundamentalism want this fight. Their agenda is to provoke a kulturkampf between religion and science. Like all fanatics they are convinced of their ultimate victory. A modern, enlightened pluralistic society will only lose with it.



Hence a calm, deliberate response to Dawkins by thinkers of the religions is needed; one that does not polemically pay back with the same coin but a voice of reason. McGraths' book wants to do just that {2}.

Alister McGrath is professor of theology at Oxford University, his wife Joanna Collicutt McGrath teaches psychology of religion at Heythrop College of the University of London. In the following the singular "McGrath" is mostly used for the two authors. Alister McGrath is the main author of the book, Joanna McGrath Collicut was in charge particularly for the parts that deal with psychology and neuro-sciences. This is natural, for beside theology she has studied also clinical psychology and still works in a clinical practice. Alister McGrath too is natural scientists. He remarks that his personal career is hardly understandable in Dawkins' world view. McGrath was a convinced atheist. His goal was to devote his life to science. At Oxford he obtained a doctorate in molecular biophysics. His conversion to Christianity changed his plans of an academic career in natural science, and he began to study theology in Cambridge, was ordained in the Anglican church and later took a Doctorate in Divinity in Oxford. Today he there holds the chair of historical theology. Indeed, Dawkins can only explain such intellectual development as regression into childlike consciousness. He compared the belief in God with the belief in Santa Claus, which each child loses in the course of its maturation. McGrath counters that this analogy is obviously faulty: "How many people do you know who returned in mature years to the belief in Santa Claus?"

An example is the British philosopher Antony Flew, who for decades was regarded as one of the most influential atheist thinkers. In 2004 he gave the journal "Philosophia Christi" an interview in which he confessed his believe in the existence of God - a change of opinion that until today causes a major stir among the philosophers. For Dawkins this can only be explained by the fact that Flew has lost his mind.

McGrath devotes the first chapter to Dawkins' thesis that religion was an aberration of the mind. Dawkins substantiates this among other things with some brief thoughts about the impossibility to prove God's existence. The way in which he, for example, presents the "Five Ways" of Thomas Aquinas, makes clear that he moves far outside the area of his expertise. McGrath problematizes the concept of the proof of God's existence and interprets such proofs as the rational (self) ascertainment of faith, but not as the cause of faith, as Dawkins wants to understand them. Dawkins further argues that God's existence was extremely unlikely because there were fewer and fewer gaps in the scientific world view that allowed the recourse to God.

Dawkins' opponent is obviously William Paley's famous "Natural Theology" of 1801, which explicitly works with the concept of a stopgap god. Those who are just a little acquainted with the debate between science and faith in the past 200 years feel now inclined to yawn. Of course, McGrath has an easy job to prove that the Christian God is not a stopgap god who offers himself as the missing causal explanation in scientific chains of evidence.



Following Richard Swinburne's argument for the existence of God McGrath maintains that not the gaps in our scientific world view needed God as explanation, but the very fact that the universe could be understood and explained needed to be explained. The question of theology or philosophy of religion does not lie on the same level as the scientific, but on a meta-level.

The second chapter of the book deals with the question whether science had proven that God does not exist. McGrath's general strategy is to show that the empirical knowledge of the universe is neutral to a theistic or atheistic interpretation. Our world views are not sufficiently determinated by empirical data. The last questions about God, the good, the meaning of life cannot be decided by recourse to empirical facts. McGrath unsparingly discloses that Dawkins' naive scientific realism is uninfluenced by any knowledge of epistemology and philosophy of science since Kant. After the failure of the logical positivism Dawkins ought to develop a theoretical alternative to the Natural Sciences' exclusive claim to rationality. But he still owes us such a philosophical theory, and thus his thesis remains without any solid rational foundation. There is also no evidence that the scientific progress, as Dawkins supposes, has pushed religion to the margins of culture, where it is held alive only by a few blind fanatics. McGrath refers to empirical studies proving that even among scientists the percentage of believers in God remained almost stable in the 20th century.

The third chapter of the book is devoted to the question of the origin of religion. It is not surprising that Dawkins wants to understand the phenomenon of religion from a merely biological point of view. He postulates a "god centre" in the brain, the coining and development of which in turn depended on a "mysticism gene". Both were misguided, accidental by-products of an in itself useful skill. McGrath cannot resist remarking that according to Dawkins' understanding of Darwinism "misguided" developments were impossible, because the evolutionary development happened blindly and without any aim. With the help of what yardstick "accidental" from "essential" developments are here to be distinguished? It is also conspicuous that Dawkins takes hardly any pain to define the phenomenon religion that is to be explained. He again falls back on completely outdated literature: Sir James Frazer's "Golden Bough" of 1890. McGrath wonders why Dawkins refers back to this unsystematically aphoristic work of early anthropology that is nowadays discredited among experts. The reason is that Frazer reduces the phenomenon religion to a few general principles. The wealth of religious traditions, beliefs, practices and rituals interests Dawkins as little as the meanwhile widely differentiated scientific literature about it.

Dawkins reduces the phenomenon religion so much until it is a suitable candidate for the location in a brain region. Besides we find Feuerbach's well-known argument that religion was the projection of one's own desires. McGrath notes that - according to the view of today's psychology - the fundamental "mechanism" in the cognitive economy of man is not to think to be true what you hope for but to go on thinking to be true what you have long since been thinking to be true - a point immediately understandable for evolutionary biologists.



A creature that was always inclined to think to be true what it only wants would not long survive. But also the undisputed, evolutionarily meaningful cognitive conservatism cannot explain religion. The emergence of new religions was connected with a radical questioning of accepted truths.

For several years Dawkins also holds that religion was a kind of mental virus that could infect otherwise healthy brains. But he leaves us without a scientific distinction between "healthy" beliefs and practices and those that are regarded as result of mental viruses. McGrath states flatly: Pathological, viral beliefs are simply those that Dawkins does not like. Instead of "viruses" Dawkins also speaks of "Memes" - a more serious and less polemical idea that he in 1976 introduced in his bestseller "The Selfish Gene". Just as in biology heredity is regulated by genes, the cultural handing down must be regulated by a replicator, the Meme. But up to now the existence and nature of Memes could neither be proved nor cleared up. McGrath comments: The existence of the historical Jesus is safer than that of Memes. Thus he repeats again the point that Dawkins bases his theses on bad science.

The fourth and final chapter discusses the thesis that religion was morally evil. Dawkins calls God a "vengeful, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist murderer of children and peoples, who killed his own son, a pestilential, megalomaniac, sadomasochistic, unpredictable malicious tyrant." The problem for Dawkins' theory is that probably no one believes in such a god. If his criticism of religion is directed at those who believe in that God, then it is directed to no one. At least he recognises that there is also the over-sentimental repulsive idea of the "loving Jesus".

For the members of the pacifist Amish, a North American Christian sect, he has only ridicule. In 2006 a man came into a school of the Amish and killed five children in a cruel manner before he killed himself. The Amish immediately reacted to the family of the perpetrator with the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. For Dawkins that too is probably only "disgusting maudlin." He is not able to see that religion - beside the undoubted potential of violence - also holds a potential for violence prevention. He stresses, however, that there is not even "the slightest clue" that atheism tempts people to do evil deeds. No atheist would ever pull down "Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame". McGrath objects that Dawkins probably had overlooked what under Lenin, Stalin, or Pol Pot those experienced who believed in God. The pulling down of churches and monasteries was there still the slightest crime. Reality is far too complex to fit in Dawkins' crude black-and-white world view. The conflict in Northern Ireland is for him a purely religious one, and the attack on the World Trade Center must also be attributed to religion. That it is in both cases also or even primarily about a political struggle in which religion is politically instrumentalized does not come into view. With the help of empirical studies McGrath, however, works out just this diversity of motivations. You cannot but perceive that McGrath is scientifically interested in the diversity of the phenomena whereas Dawkins is only able to see the world through ideological glasses.



Something else escapes Dawkins: For him there is no religious criticism of religion. One of the major themes of the Old and the New Testament is just the criticism of religion. A phenomenon that, as is well known, theologically has lead to the thesis that Christianity was not allowed to see itself as religion and should criticize any inner tendency to become a religion.

When you have read Dawkins' book and afterwards the criticism of the two McGrath, you remain with some perplexity. In 2005 Dawkins was chosen by the British magazine "Prospect" one of the three most important intellectuals living. In 2006 the same magazine published a devastating critique of the "God Delusion". "Who would have thought that he could write so badly", it says here, "without any thirst for knowledge, dogmatically, incoherently and inconsistently." There is nothing to be added to that.

What happened? What about the brilliant author of earlier days? A mental virus? We do not know. Before him others have better argued for atheism, and in the future others too will do that. There were so many open targets for the McGraths that they actually had too easy a job. Is their book nevertheless necessary? Yes, because of the mere fact that this important discussion must be led on a higher level but that on which Dawkins seems to feel comfortable. The "World Power Religion" can certainly do with critically and sceptically being accompanied. The critical discourse is the elixir of life of a free, democratic society. The McGraths have - as deputies of many Christians - reached their hands for discussion.


{1} Dawkins, Richard: Der Gotteswahn. Berlin: Ullstein 2007. 560 P. bound 22,90.

{2} McGrath, Alister - McGrath, Joanna Collicutt: Der Atheismus-Wahn. eine Antwort auf Richard Dawkins und den atheistischen Fundamentalismus. Asslar: Gerth Medien 2007. 160 p. bound 9,95.


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