The Dawkins Delusion


The Dawkins DelusionThe Dawkins Delusion 
Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine

Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath 
ISBN 9780281059270 (0281059276) 
SPCK, 2007 
£7.99

Category: Science and Faith

As one of only two books shortlisted for both the CBC Book of the Year Awards and the UK Christian Book Awards, it almost goes without saying that this is a book that warrants attention — an assessment confirmed by the fact that, since this review was originally written, it went on to become the CBC Book of the Year Award winner.

In less than 100 pages the McGraths do a far more thorough job of dismantling Dawkins than Dawkins does of dismantling God in his 400 page bestseller, The God Delusion. In marked contrast to Dawkins’ vitriolic attacks on religious faith, however, the McGrath case against Dawkins is presented with good humour and repeated acknowledgment of Dawkins’ important contributions to science as well as to the wider public understanding of science. They find themselves wondering, however, how Dawkins can have lost the plot so thoroughly in his understanding — or, more accurately, lack of understanding — of the relationship between science and religion: Dawkins’ notion of an out and out war between science and religion is, putting it bluntly, “a hopelessly outmoded historical stereotype which scholarship has totally discredited. It lingers on only in the backwaters of intellectual life, where the light of scholarship has yet to penetrate.” (p.24).

The McGrath approach — as anyone who has read Alister McGrath before would expect — is far more systematic than Dawkins: whereas The God Delusion offers a somewhat rambling mish-mash of angry rhetoric (albeit eloquent at times), the McGraths work logically through Dawkins’ major points, exposing his inconsistencies and flawed logic. Rather than hammer away point by point through the entire book — a response that would, the McGraths say, “be catatonically boring” (Introduction, p.xii) — they set out to challenge Dawkins at a number of “representative points, and let readers draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of his evidence and judgement.” (Introduction, p.xii).

Four specific questions are addressed: 
1. Deluded about God? 
2. Has science disproved God? 
3. What are the origins of religion? 
4. Is religion evil?

In each case Dawkins’ analysis is examined and found wanting, shown to be based more on preconceived ideas about the issues rather than upon the issues themselves, with facts that tend to support any conclusions other than Dawkins’ own either conveniently ignored or dismissed out of hand.

The God Delusion‘s ultimate failure, however, is simply this: the God whom Dawkins’ deposes is not the God that the McGraths, I myself or any of my friends believe in. Responding to Dawkins’ description of God as “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser…” (Dawkins’ list goes on like this at some length and I see little point in repeating it all here; you’ll find it in The God Delusion, p.31 [p.52, pb]), the McGraths simply observe, “Come to think of it, I don’t believe in a God like that either. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does.” (p.46).

Nonetheless it has to be acknowledged that Dawkins has a point: the behaviour of many believers and the religious violence which has left — and still leaves — its scars on human history does, indeed, all too often portray the monster God whom Dawkins detests. The McGraths agree with Dawkins wholeheartedly here: “All of us need to work to rid the world of the baleful influence of religious violence.” (p.46). Whereas the McGraths regard violence in the name of God as an aberration, Dawkins, on the other hand, apparently regards such violence as normative: he seems unable to see any good whatsoever emerging from religious faith and — a bizarre blind spot — sees no evil emerging from atheism (p.48ff).

And it is this, Dawkins’ blind faith in his atheism and his own ideas, that finally undoes his efforts to undo God. Whereas a rigorous and evidence based analysis might, perhaps, carry some weight in Dawkins’ battle against God, Dawkins’ inability to muster such an analysis tips the balance the other way. The God whom Dawkins denies is indeed dead; as Dawkins rightly insists, has never existed. But the God who is — that’s another story. Thank God for that.

Phil Groom, February 2008

Phil Groom is this site’s Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He’s a regular contributor to Christian Marketplace magazine and is the manager of London School of Theology Books & Resources. Any opinions expressed here are personal and should not be taken as representing the views of London School of Theology or of any other group or organisation.

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48 thoughts on “The Dawkins Delusion

  1. I was somewhat puzzled that “The Dawkins Delusion” book review seemed to spend more time commenting on “The God Delusion” than “The Dawkins Delusion”.

    I’d like to know if you checked that McGrath’s quotation and paraphrase of “The God Delusion” were a fair representation of that book – that seems to be the minimum we should expect in a book that exists solely as a critique of another book, and proclaims that it will be fair and scholarly.

    1) “Thomas Aquinas … Dawkins misunderstands an a posteriori demonstration of the coherence of faith and observation to be an a priori proof of faith…” p. 26

    Reference 14 – God Delusion pp. 77-79

    Dawkins clearly writes “Thomas Aquinas’ five are a posteriori arguments, relying upon inspection of the world.” p. 80 – so how can McGrath honestly claim Dawkins misunderstood that very thing?

    2) ‘… Dawkins then weakens his argument by suggesting that all religious people try to stop scientists from exploring those gaps: “one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.”‘ pp. 29-30

    Reference 24 – God Delusion p. 126

    Dawkins clearly writes “In this respect, science finds itself in alliance with sophisticated theologians like Bonhoeffer, united against the common enemies of naive, populist theology and the gap theology of intelligent design.” p. 127 – so how can McGrath honestly claim Dawkins’ comment is about all religious people?

    3) “When Dyson commented that he was a Christian who wasn’t particularly interested in the doctrine of the Trinity, Dawkins insisted that this meant that Dyson wasn’t a Christian at all.” pp. 44-45

    Reference 19 – God Delusion p. 152

    McGrath snipped off a rather important part of Dyson’s comment. According to Dawkins, Dyson said: “I … do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels.” p. 152

    Dawkins would not be alone in being puzzled that someone who doesn’t care about the historical truth of the resurrection claims to be a Christian. (Why has McGrath hidden that fact from his readers?)

    4) “… the TV series The Root of All Evil? … Dawkins sought out religious extremists who advocated violence in the name of religion, or were aggressively antiscientific in their outlook. No representative figures were included or considered.” p. 51

    Alister McGrath himself was not only considered but filmed for that TV series!
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6474278760369344626

    Dawkins has previously stated that leading UK religious figures were invited to take part:

    “We did invite the Archbishop of Canterbury – and the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Westminster – to be interviewed. All declined, no doubt for good reasons.”
    “Diary – Richard Dawkins”, New Statesman, Published 30 January 2006
    http://www.newstatesman.com/200601300002

    best wishes, Isaac

    (Comments sent by email; posted on Isaac’s behalf by Phil Groom)

  2. Thank you for your comments, Isaac, and thank you for allowing me to post them here in the public domain.

    I have to say that I’m puzzled by your opening paragraph: re-reading my review I simply cannot see that it spends more time commenting on Dawkins’ book than on the McGraths’ — I am commenting on the McGraths’ treatment and assessment of Dawkins and that requires a significant degree of interaction with Dawkins. As you rightly point out, The Dawkins Delusion exists solely as a critique of The God Delusion: it would be impossible to do the former justice without referring to the latter.

    Your specific points notwithstanding, I do think that on balance McGrath gives a fair representation of Dawkins’ book in his critique — a much fairer representation than Dawkins gives of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

    Be that as it may, however, both books are readily available from bookshops around the country, so to suggest that the McGraths have “hidden” pertinent facts from their readers seems a little far-fetched: on the contrary, I imagine that the McGraths would fully expect anyone reading their book to do so with a copy of The God Delusion to hand. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that it would be irresponsible to read it otherwise: rather like reading any literary commentary without referring to the book it’s about.

    I could, of course, hammer away point by point through your comments but that would, I fear, as the McGraths say, “be catatonically boring” (Introduction, p.xii) — like them, I would prefer to “let readers draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of [your] evidence and judgement.”… but perhaps that’s just me being lazy? I do think that Dawkins’ downfall is the simple fact that the God he demolishes is “a straw man” — a deity that no one (at least, no one with more than two brain cells to rub together) believes in anyway. If at some point Dawkins would care to avail himself of a theological education and begin to interact with us at a more intelligent (and hopefully less belligerent) level then a sensible conversation might begin to emerge…

    Thanks again and best regards,

    Phil

  3. Nobody believes in the God of the Old Testament who orders people to be killed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath?

    Nobody believes in the Jesus of Revelation who appeared in a vision and dictated the following in a letter ‘I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.’

    What a vindictive, savage, petty god Christians worship and praise!

  4. I remember Eagelton’s review of Dawkins when he said that listening to somebody speak on biology when they have only read the British book of Birds is like listening to somebody speak on Christianity when they have only read the Bible.

  5. > I am commenting on the McGraths’ treatment and assessment of Dawkins …

    “The God Delusion’s ultimate failure, however, is simply this: the God whom Dawkins’ deposes is not the God that the McGraths, I myself or any of my friends believe in.”

    That isn’t about “The Dawkins Delusion” it’s your response to Dawkins.

    > … I imagine that the McGraths would fully expect anyone reading their book to do so with a copy of The God Delusion to hand.

    Back in February, as well as sending you my comments, I contacted a score who had blogged about “The Dawkins Delusion” and found that most had read “The Dawkins Delusion” /instead/ of Dawkins, and even the couple with both books hadn’t checked the accuracy of McGrath’s paraphrases – did you?

    > … but perhaps that’s just me being lazy?

    Evasive.

    > I do think that Dawkins’ downfall …

    As if for emphasis, your responding to Dawkins’ book not McGrath’s book.

  6. Thanks for coming back to me again, Isaac.

    For the record, I do have copies of both books, and I’ve read enough of both to satisfy myself that the McGraths are genuinely interacting with The God Delusion: they are certainly not misrepresenting it; but no, I haven’t gone through both books cross-referencing every citation and footnote. That would, indeed, be “catatonically boring”.

    My reiterated comment about Dawkins’ failure to address a concept of God that I recognise arises in response to both Dawkins and the McGraths who — as cited in my review — make precisely that point on p.46…

    I share your disappointment in those who have read The Dawkins Delusion instead of The God Delusion — as I’ve said already, not an approach I’d recommend.

  7. Thanks for taking time out from your own busy blogs to drop by here, Steven.

    Re. Eagleton, at a guess you’re referring to the opening sentence of his Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching in the LRB: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” … which doesn’t quite correspond to your version, amusing though that is…

    Re your previous comments, No. 4 above: for those who read the Bible as though it simply fell down from heaven, word for word given by God, as some Christians tend to, then yes it does get kinda messy — I’ve come across some very convoluted attempts to explain or justify this stuff. But that’s not how the Bible came into existence, is it? What the Bible offers us isn’t history but theological interpretation and commentary as various writers over thousands of years have retold Israel’s story — the story of a nation wrestling with God, of people struggling to make sense of their experiences of God at work in their lives… an evolving concept of God, from polytheism through henotheism towards monotheism… monotheism reinterpreted as trinitarianism…

    The Bible isn’t a Christian book, by the way — but I’m sure you know that?

    As for me: I’m with Uhtred of Bebbanburg: “I would rather burn till time itself burns out” (Sword Song, p.213) than share eternity with that “vindictive, savage, petty god” you rightly detest. Good job s/he doesn’t exist, isn’t it?

    I guess I should also add that your remark seems to imply a belief on your part that all Christians believe the same things: we don’t; but again, surely you know that? Some, sadly, do seem to believe in the monster deity that you and I both find objectionable. Please don’t make the mistake of lumping us all together: that would make as much sense as your biologist with a book of birds proclaiming that all birds are flightless like ostriches. Or that we all bury our heads in the sand…

    Discussion continues, albeit tangentially, on Steven Carr’s Blog:
    Christians defend their faith against the New Atheists

  8. > they are certainly not misrepresenting it; but no, I haven’t gone through both books cross-referencing every citation and footnote.

    Which implies you cross-referenced some without actually claiming so – did you check any of McGrath’s presentations of Dawkins’ words?

    Is seeking to dismantle “The God Delusion” in itself enough to recommend a book, or do we need to know if the author “throws normal scholarly conventions about scrupulous accuracy and fairness to the winds” after having made that very complaint about “The God Delusion”?

    I hope for some difference between book review and cheer-leading.

  9. > My reiterated comment about Dawkins’ failure to …

    Perhaps you already have reviewed Dawkins’ book and I simply failed to find that review, it certainly seems like you have things of your own to say specifically about “The God Delusion”.

    Incidentally:

    > Whereas the McGraths regard violence in the name of God as an aberration, Dawkins, on the other hand, apparently regards such violence as normative…

    On that topic, perhaps you should review: Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious Violence, Hector Avalos, 2005 – “Starting with the premise that most violence is the result of real or perceived scarce resources, Avalos persuasively argues that religion creates new scarcities on the basis of unverifiable or illusory criteria.”

  10. No, Isaac, I haven’t written a review of The God Delusion and I don’t have any particular inclination to do so.

    On the topic of religious violence, more recently published:
    Meic Pearse, The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? (IVP, 2007) — review here.

    Presumably you’ve published a comprehensive review comparing The God Delusion and The Dawkins Delusion somewhere? Would you like to give us a link to it please? Or if you haven’t, would you like to contribute one here as a guest post?

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  12. Well, at last a few moments to attempt the task of comparing notes…

    Isaac wrote:
    1) “Thomas Aquinas … Dawkins misunderstands an a posteriori demonstration of the coherence of faith and observation to be an a priori proof of faith…” p. 26

    Reference 14 – God Delusion pp. 77-79

    Dawkins clearly writes “Thomas Aquinas’ five are a posteriori arguments, relying upon inspection of the world.” p. 80 – so how can McGrath honestly claim Dawkins misunderstood that very thing?

    The McGraths’ comments about Dawkins on Aquinas occur on pp.7-8 of the SPCK edition: presumably your reference to p.26 is to the IVP edition? Unfortunately I don’t have that available so can’t check, but perhaps you’d like to state which edition you’re referring to, please? Seems a big difference in pagination, though, so wondering what’s going on there: maybe an extended preface in the IVP edition?

    But that’s incidental: the fact is that Dawkins, despite his later acknowledgment that Aquinas’ arguments are a posteriori nonetheless proceeds to discuss and dismiss them as though they were a priori. The McGraths’ very next sentence notes widespread agreement that whilst arguments such as Aquinas’ “cast interesting light on the questions, they settle nothing.” (p.7), a point on which the McGraths and Dawkins evidently agree: as Dawkins comments, p.100 (Black Swan paperback edition, 9780552773317), Aquinas’ proofs “don’t prove anything.”

    The critical difference is that the McGraths understand the distinction between a priori and a posteriori whereas Dawkins merely talks about it afterwards. You ask “how can McGrath honestly claim Dawkins misunderstood that very thing?” — simple really, since that’s precisely what Dawkins’ handling of Aquinas demonstrates.

    Perhaps your other points will withstand scrutiny, but after that exercise — especially since we seem to be referring to different editions of the books — I’m not really inclined to delve.

    Anyone for tennis?

  13. > The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict?

    Thanks, I’ve requested it from the library.

    Bothering whether or not religion could be considered the /primary/ cause of violence is quite strange – as though we should ignore obesity related deaths because tobacco was the /primary/ cause.

    Hector Avalos’ point is that violence is not incidental to religion – the scarce resources religion creates are a cause of violence.

    > … would you like to contribute one here as a guest post?

    That would mean re-reading both “The God Delusion” and “The Dawkins Delusion” – what a dull prospect!

  14. > presumably your reference to p.26 is to the IVP edition?

    Yes.

    > … Dawkins … proceeds to discuss and dismiss them as though they were a priori.

    Can you substantiate that claim?

    “Some regresses do reach a natural terminator. … The smallest possible piece of gold is…” p78

    Dawkins is clearly talking about experience of the world.

    “Thanks to Darwin, it is no longer true to say that nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed.” p79

    Dawkins is clearly talking about experience of the world.

    (And when McGrath writes ‘At no point does Thomas speak of these as being “proofs” for God’s existence…’ and Thomas writes “I answer that, The existence of God can be proved in five ways.” we are left with “ways” which are said to prove but are not said to be “proofs”.)

  15. > … the McGraths understand the distinction between a priori and a posteriori …

    I imagine they do, which makes it all the more worrisome that they would write “Dawkins misunderstands an a posteriori demonstration of the coherence of faith and observation to be an a priori proof of faith…” when in fact Dawkins dismisses the a posteriori demonstrations, saying there are now other explanations for those observations.

    As if to say, although we may still have faith in Santa Claus; once we have seen our parents wrapping our presents, the a posteriori demonstration of the coherence of faith in Santa Claus and observation of our presents fails.

  16. Isaac wrote: (response No. 8 above)
    Is seeking to dismantle “The God Delusion” in itself enough to recommend a book, or do we need to know if the author “throws normal scholarly conventions about scrupulous accuracy and fairness to the winds” after having made that very complaint about “The God Delusion”?

    Apologies for not picking this up earlier: I wouldn’t describe the McGraths as seeking to dismantle The God Delusion — I’d say they’ve done it, quite successfully, and yes, they’ve done so without throwing “normal scholarly conventions about scrupulous accuracy and fairness to the winds”.

    And that said, I can’t say that I really have any inclination to defend their work for them: they’re more than capable of doing that for themselves. You say, “I hope for some difference between book review and cheer-leading.” Absolutely. Which is why I’ve written a book review; I’ll leave you to keep up Dawkins’ cheer-leading 😉

    Isaac wrote: (response No. 13 above)
    > … would you like to contribute one here as a guest post?

    That would mean re-reading both “The God Delusion” and “The Dawkins Delusion” – what a dull prospect!

    Indeed. Precisely my point in responses 2 & 6 above; I think the phrase you’re after is “catatonically boring”…

    Isaac wrote: (response No. 14 above)
    > … Dawkins … proceeds to discuss and dismiss them as though they were a priori.
    Can you substantiate that claim?

    Whatever for, when Dawkins does such a splendid job of it himself in his discussion of Aquinas (God Delusion, Chapter 3)? Sorry, not a discussion is it, just a dismissal. It’s a problem when a 20th Century scientist like Dawkins tries to get to grips with an ancient theologian but fails to grasp where the old theologian was coming from.

    Aquinas’ ‘proofs’ are not about proving the existence of God from “inspection of the world” (to use Dawkins’ phraseology), they’re “a demonstration of the inner coherence of belief in God… Belief in God is actually assumed; it is then shown that this belief makes sense of what may be observed within the world.” (McGrath). Probably a bit too subtle for Dawkins, which is presumably why his subsequent response to Anselm simply degenerates into mockery with his “Nur Nurny Nur Nur” attempt to sum up Anselm’s arguments… Kinda sad, isn’t it, when someone as capable as Dawkins resorts to such drivel?

    So coming down to your response No. 15… what’s worrisome, rather, is Dawkins’ abject failure to understand not only where his ancient ‘opponents’ are coming from but where they’re going. Dawkins himself tells us that if you proceed down the line of infinite regress you end up with something else: infinite regress isn’t possible… which is precisely Aquinas’ point. Yes indeed, it is goodbye to the fairy tale, goodbye to Santa Claus — because we’ve discovered reality, and that’s something far greater: now we know where our presents — and our presence — come from. Whether that something else is God, of course, is another question entirely…

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  18. > > … Dawkins … proceeds to discuss and dismiss them as though they were a priori.
    > > Can you substantiate that claim?

    > Whatever for, when Dawkins does such a splendid job of it himself in his discussion of Aquinas…

    Evasive, again.

    Take McGrath’s example – “The appearance of design can offer persuasion, not proof, concerning the role of divine creativity in the universe.”

    Please show the exact passages that you claim show Dawkins dismisses the argument from design as though it were a priori argument, as though it was derived from reason alone rather than from observation of the world.

  19. Evasive, Isaac? I’m sorry that’s how you read me. I guess we need to clarify some terms, don’t we?

    a priori: comes before, as in ‘prior’
    a posteriori: comes behind, as in ‘posterior’

    And to clarify further, I didn’t refer to Dawkins dismissing anything “as though it was derived from reason alone rather than from observation of the world” — that’s not what a priori and a posteriori arguments are about. What they are about, as the McGrath explanation makes perfectly clear (response No. 16 above), is our existing worldview: our presupposition pool.

    Aquinas’ arguments aren’t about proving the existence of God: they aren’t proofs in that sense.

    But I’m out of time: sorry, lunchbreak over; more later…

  20. On various other websites this sort of ‘claiming bias in quotation’ is very common and usually unsatisfactory as no one ever seems to back down from their accusation – even when shown wrong!

    At the risk of fanning the flames – a quick check of the way Dawkins quotes Einstein to try and prove him to be an atheist is very salutory. I hope that Dawkins selection of data for his science is more rigorous and not so driven by apriori conclusions

  21. OK, coffee break now…

    You want the exact passage? As above, I’m referring specifically to Dawkins’ treatment of Aquinas in God Delusion Chapter 3.

    And the problem is that Dawkins launches into his diatribe against Aquinas as if he were dealing with a priori arguments when Aquinas is offering a posteriori arguments. It’s a total clash of worldviews: Dawkins is standing outside looking in; Aquinas is standing inside looking out. Dawkins starts with the assumption that there is no God; Aquinas assumes that there is. From where Aquinas is standing, his arguments make perfect sense: God is; he looks around and sees God’s handiwork in the world. Dawkins denies the reality of God and simply sees… well, whatever it is that Dawkins sees, I guess… chaos? disorder?

    But hey — out of time again. Later, maybe.

  22. > that’s not what a priori and a posteriori arguments are about

    a priori – proceeding from causes to effects
    a posteriori – proceeding from effects to causes

    OED

    Dawkins’ paraphrase of the argument from design – “Nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Therefore there must have been a designer, …” – proceeds from effects to causes (a posteriori).

    You claim “… Dawkins … Aquinas’ arguments … proceeds to discuss and dismiss them as though they were a priori”.

    Dawkins /does not/ discuss the argument from design as starting with a cause God and proceeding to effects (a priori) – Dawkins discusses the argument from design starting with effects and proceeding to a cause (a posteriori).

    > You want the exact passage? I’m referring specifically to Dawkins’ treatment of Aquinas in God Delusion Chapter 3.

    Evasive, again.

    You claim “… Dawkins … Aquinas’ arguments … proceeds to discuss and dismiss them as though they were a priori” but don’t seem able to show which of Dawkins’ words “discuss and dismiss them as though they were a priori”.

  23. Nice try, Isaac, though I’ve no idea how reference to a specific passage in Dawkins can be construed as ‘evasive’ — is it page numbers you’re after? I can give you page numbers in my Black Swan pb edition, pp.100-103 (ISBN cited above) if that helps, but since the pagination differs across the various editions I think reference to a specific section of chapter 3 is more useful. Maybe we should ask the publishers to introduce ‘verse numbering’ like the Bible — I’m sure that would appeal to Dawkins’ sense of humour, the ultimate ironic accolade 😀

    Anyway, the section is subtitled “Thomas Aquinas’ ‘Proofs'” and it runs for 4 pages… and the very fact that Dawkins himself puts the word ‘Proofs’ in inverted commas speaks for itself, surely? Yet in each and every case Dawkins pats himself on the back and proceeds to knock Aquinas’ arguments as if they were some sort of absolute or mathematical proof. His response to No. 4, The Argument from Degree is particularly amusing… dare I say ‘fatuous’?

    It makes me think of a conversation between a football fan and someone to whom ‘the beautiful game’ is nothing but a bunch of thugs having a punch-up over a stuffed pig’s bladder… only in this case the football fan can’t argue back because he’s dead and buried and his assailant is merrily digging over his grave… and if he had his way would turn Wembley Stadium into a cemetery. Sad really.

    Now, whilst we’re being sad: sadly, OED definitions, handy though they are, are hardly definitive 😉 … what we’re discussing here is philosophy: we need to turn to a dictionary of philosophy. Thankfully the kind people in the Philosophy Department at UNC Charlotte have put some excerpts from the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy online for us:

    a priori/a posteriori A contrast first between propositions. A proposition is knowable a priori [Lat., “from before” or “prior to”] if it can be known without experience of the specific course of events in the actual world. . . . Something is knowable only a posteriori [Lat., “from after”] if it cannot be known a priori. . . .

    So — putting it bluntly now — Dawkins’ dismissals of Aquinas’ would work splendidly if Aquinas’ arguments were a priori. But they’re not. So they don’t.

    Trouble is with all this, I have no particular interest in defending Aquinas: his arguments, as the McGraths put it, “cast interesting light on the questions” — but that’s all.

    But I guess what it comes down to is your original challenge: are the McGraths offering their readers “a fair representation” of Dawkins? My answer to that is yes: so not OED but QED.

    Thanks again for asking: I’ve enjoyed evading the conversation 😉

  24. > A proposition is knowable a priori … if it can be known without experience of the specific course of events in the actual world.

    Earlier #19 you wrote “… to clarify further, I didn’t refer to Dawkins dismissing anything “as though it was derived from reason alone rather than from observation of the world” — that’s not what a priori and a posteriori arguments are about.”

    The definition you have chosen seems to contradict your claim “that’s not what a priori and a posteriori arguments are about.”

  25. > is it page numbers you’re after?

    You don’t seem able to show which of Dawkins’ words “discuss and dismiss them [sic Aquinas’ arguments] as though they were a priori”.

    Provide direct quotation of Dawkins’ words showing that Dawkins discusses the argument from design as though it were something “known without experience of the specific course of events in the actual world.”

  26. I’m curious about why you want to narrow the discussion down specifically to the argument from design?

    Aquinas’ world is the world of faith; Dawkins’ world is the world of non-faith: that’s the difference we’re dealing with… but we’ve already been over that.

    As for quoting lengthy passages: no thanks. I’d much rather people read the books for themselves; after all, that’s what book reviews are for 😉

    You seem convinced that the McGraths misrepresent Dawkins; I don’t find your arguments persuasive; you don’t find my responses satisfying. Seems that we’re at a bit of an impasse: shall we let the McGraths and Dawkins fight it out between themselves?

    And if you think that’s evasive, c’est la vie…

  27. > I’m curious about why you want to narrow the discussion down specifically to the argument from design?

    I hoped you might be able to say which of Dawkins’ words “discuss and dismiss them [sic Aquinas’ arguments] as though they were a priori”, if you only had to consider two thirds of a page – apparently you are not able to find anything in Dawkins words which does so.

    > that’s the difference we’re dealing with…

    The difference we’re dealing with is the difference, one the one hand, between McGrath’s claim that

    “… Dawkins misunderstands an a posteriori demonstration of the coherence of faith and observation to be an a priori proof of faith …”

    the difference between your claim that

    “… Dawkins … Aquinas’ arguments … proceeds to discuss and dismiss them as though they were a priori”

    and, on the other hand, the failure by McGrath or yourself to show Dawkins’ words are about what “can be known /without/ experience of the specific course of events in the world”.

    You’ve claimed Dawkins misunderstood something. You’ve repeatedly failed to show anything to support your claim. In contrast, I’ve shown direct quotation of Dawkins words which contradict your claim.

    > As for quoting lengthy passages: no thanks.

    Quote a short passage! Provide something that lifts your claim against Dawkins above name-calling.

  28. Just in case you are wondering about specifics as regards my previous comment. In The God Delusion Dawkins cites Max Jammer’s ‘Einstein and Religion’ in order to prove the point that Einstein was an Atheist – yet ignores Jammer saying ‘Einstein always protested against being regarded as an Atheist. In conversation with Prince Humbertus of Lowenstain, for example, he declared , “what really makes me angry is that they [people who say there is no God] quote me in support of their views.”‘ (Einstein and Religion p150). Jammer also quotes Einstein saying ‘I’m not an Atheist or a Pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrngement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvellously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.’ (Einstein and Religion p48 )

    The reason I write the whole quote is that it is clear from this that although Einstein was a Theist, he did not believe in a personal God. That is not my viewpoint but it would be unfair of me to select from the above the sections that make Einstein appear to support my personal theist position.

    Dawkins, however, ignores much of the evidence presented in the book and only cites Jammer where it suits him – and comes up with an unrepresentative view of Einstein’s thought to defend his own position.

    If that is the way that Dawkins practices his science – selecting only evidence that suits him – then he is no scientist, just a polemicist.

  29. Thanks for that, mlearnedfriend. One can, indeed, only hope that Dawkins shows more integrity in his approach to science than in his approach to religion…

    Isaac: I have no intention whatsoever of quoting a few words out of context when I am referring to an entire section of the book. I will, however, explain one more time:

    Aquinas’ arguments are a posteriori: he is approaching things from a post-faith perspective. He assumes the reality of God and, looking at the world, sees his faith confirmed by what he observes.

    Dawkins approaches Aquinas’ arguments from an a priori pre-faith perspective: he assumes the non-reality of God and, looking at the world, sees other explanations which he believes do not require God.

    If you wish to dismiss that difference as ‘name-calling’, so be it.

  30. I am not saying that this is deliberate by Isaac but this argument style is fairly typical of what you get on ‘RichardDawkins.net’ – being obtuse to the point of frustration and then indulging in ad hominem arguments when the line of thought is muddied.

    I wouldn’t advise going on websites such as that unless you are really clued up – the standard of my knowledge was insufficient for the discussions that take place at first but having now read more widely I can see where they have got most of their ideas from.

    Of particular help to me was ‘The Jesus Legend’ by Greg Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy. There are some problems with the book but overall it provides a brilliant filleting of the works of ‘Atheist theologians’ such as those involved in The Jesus Seminar

  31. > Aquinas’ arguments are a posteriori: he is approaching things from a post-faith perspective. … Dawkins approaches Aquinas’ arguments from an a priori pre-faith perspective

    None of the definitions you have provided of a priori or a posteriori say anything about “pre-faith” or “post-faith”.

    Let’s look again at the last definition you provided – “A proposition is knowable a priori … if it can be known without experience of the specific course of events in the actual world.”

    Aquinas’ arguments are a posteriori because he looks at “events in the actual world” and proceeds to a cause God; and that’s how Dawkins paraphrases the argument from design.

    Dawkins’ arguments are a posteriori because he looks at “events in the actual world” and proceeds to a cause Evolution.

    (Aquinas does assume the reality of God, but that is not the basis of the arguments he sets forth. If it was, if Aquinas’ arguments proceeded from God to “events in the actual world”, then Aquinas’s arguments would indeed be a priori.)

  32. I’m sorry, Isaac: you really don’t get it, do you? As I said above, that last was my final explanation, so no further explanations now.

    I guess the best I can recommend now is that you go back and re-read my earlier postings then re-read McGrath: Chapter 1 ‘Deluded about God?’, section headed ‘Arguments for God’s existence’ — in the SPCK paperback edition (ISBN 9780281059270) it’s pp.6-8, which presumably corresponds to p.26 or thereabouts in your edition.

    Read the whole section alongside the section of Dawkins I’ve referred to. If you still can’t see it then… well, thanks again for a stimulating conversation: I wish you well wherever you go from here.

  33. > that last was my final explanation

    Your final explanation shows that the form of argument is the same in both cases, is a posteriori in both cases:

    “… looking at the world, sees his faith confirmed by what he observes.”

    “…looking at the world, sees other explanations …”

    Both a posteriori, neither a priori – contrary to your claim, no sign that Dawkins misunderstood that distinction.

  34. mlearnedfriend@June 5
    > Dawkins, however, ignores much of the evidence presented in the book and only cites Jammer where it suits him …

    Did this evidence not suit you?

    “Einstein’s concept of God, … In common parlance this may be described as ‘pantheistic’ (Spinoza). …” (Einstein and Religion p75)

    Dawkins sees a distinction without a difference between pantheism and atheism; Einstein saw a world of difference between his Spinoza and “fanatical atheists”.
    (When Dawkins writes “atheist” the meaning is broad; when Einstein writes “atheist” the meaning is narrow.)

    > … it is clear from this that although Einstein was a Theist …

    Did this evidence not suit you?

    “Einstein’s cosmic religion is, of course, incompatible with the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and all other theistic religions.” (Einstein and Religion p149)

    Incompatible with /all/ other theistic religions.

  35. mlearnedfriend@June 5
    > … it is clear from this that although Einstein was a Theist …

    “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.”

    (Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, p389)

  36. I’m entering this comment thread a bit late, but I did find the exchanges between Isaac and Phil entertaining! Like Phil, I think it would be a travesty if Christians, by-and-large, are reading only McGrath. I would assume that most serious beleivers would read Dawkins first, then McGrath, as I did. In fact, on my blog, I state that Dawkins should be required reading for all believers, and McGrath should be required reading by all atheists.

    As for excerpting quotes (perhaps out of context) for the purposes of the present writer … aren’t all writers guilty of this to some degree at times? A brief perusal of the many blatant examples from Dawkin’s own material makes those McGrath excerptions which annoy Isaac seem quite benign.

  37. “Dawkins should be required reading for all believers, and McGrath should be required reading by all atheists.”

    I like that approach, Cliff: well said! I stopped by your blog earlier today, appreciated your reviews of both The God Delusion and The Dawkins Delusion. I was in the process of leaving a comment when Blogger kicked me out with some sort of error… not sure whether it was a bug from the way it was created or due to the way it’s evolved since… 😉

  38. Cliff Martin@June 19
    > … makes those McGrath excerptions which annoy Isaac seem quite benign.

    Misrepresentation is okay as long as it supports the cause?

  39. No, I was not trying to justify literary abuses. My point was that both authors (and most writers in general) tend to pull up quotations that fit their purposes, sometimes without supplying the reader with a full explanation of the context, etc. The “misrepresentation” in such cases is often debatable, and seldom is the case black and white. That is, there are degrees of apparent misrepresentation, some which border upon outright deception, others that do not rise to that level. My point was that some of Dawkin’s misrepresentations appear to me to be more deceptive than those McGrath examples you cite. This judgment, of course, may just reveal my bias.

  40. Cliff Martin@June 21
    > My point was that some of Dawkin’s misrepresentations appear to me to be more deceptive than those McGrath examples you cite. This judgment, of course, may just reveal my bias.

    Left at that level of generality, without any apparent engagement with the provided examples, why should we give any weight to such a “judgement”?

  41. Isaac,

    My admission of bias, then, is your open door to assign weightlessness to my judgment if you so choose.

    I was not (and am not) interested in a tit-for-tat comparison of misquotations. Dawkin’s are well documented elsewhere. And as for “engagement with the provided examples”, I was satisfied with Phil’s responses above … though apparently you were not.

  42. I was more interested in your reasoning than your possible bias.

    Previously you were interested enough to compare some unspecified “Dawkins’ misrepresentations” against those McGrath examples, and pass judgement.

    It seems that Phil searched around the web, looking for a helpful response, back in February, before he decided to post my comment – it doesn’t seem like he found one.

  43. For the record, Isaac, it wasn’t until after your comment #5 above — when you said you’d been in touch with a score of other Dawkins Delusion bloggers — that I decided to search around to see what responses had been offered. Another bit of a priori / a posteriori confusion, methinks 😉

    The delay in posting your opening comment was due to the legacy system under which my original review was posted, which didn’t allow comments to be posted. Maybe one day I’ll move all the old reviews over to WordPress, but it all takes time…

  44. > it wasn’t until

    Mea culpa, I noted “February 19, 2008 1:07 PM” directly by “Pilgrim”, rather than “June 1, 2008 11:02 AM” below.

  45. For anyone else reading, the reference is to this conversation. Blogger’s page layout there isn’t very helpful, is it? I live in hope that one day someone will combine the best of Blogger and WordPress to give us the perfect all-singing, all-dancing blog platform. I fear it’s not going to evolve by itself, though! 😉

    (Don’t worry, I’m not attempting to bring in the argument from design by the backdoor: just a paltry attempt at humour… )

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