Thursday, October 11, 2007
Is Dawkins deluded with his denial?
By DAN BARNETT
Robert Bellah presented a public lecture at Chico State University in September, sponsored in part by the school's religious studies department.
He is the lead author of "Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life" ($18.95 in paper in a just-published third edition from University of California Press) and a sociologist who has focused on the place of religion in public life.
During his talk, Bellah, an Episcopalian, acknowledged that there are those, like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who believe religious discourse has no place in the "public sphere." Bellah, with a twinkle in his eye, characterized Dawkins and his kin (such as Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) as "Enlightenment fundamentalists."
In effect Bellah was saying that if religious fundamentalists can sometimes be intemperate and irrational, so can, well, atheists.
Dawkins' best-seller is "The God Delusion" ($27 in hardcover from Houghton Mifflin). Though I read parts of the book, I was put off by Dawkins' claim that if folks could just get their consciousness raised they'd drop the whole God business forthwith.
But that amounts to little more than saying "if more people saw things the way I see them, more people would be atheists." Well, duh!
Alister McGrath, who did research in molecular biophysics before becoming professor of historical theology at Oxford University, has more patience. Together with his wife, psychologist Joanna Collicutt McGrath, the two have written "The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine" ($16 in hardcover from IVP Books).
In their brief treatment, the McGraths conclude that "the total dogmatic conviction of correctness which pervades some sections of Western atheism today — wonderfully illustrated in 'The God Delusion' — immediately aligns it with a religious fundamentalism that refuses to allow its ideas to be examined or challenged."
The McGraths agree with Dawkins that the world has seen too much violence in the name of religion. But they note his refusal to consider counter-evidence to his claim that, as Alister McGrath writes, "the God Dawkins does not believe in is 'a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.' Come to think of it, I don't believe in a God like that either. In fact, I don't know anybody who does."
The McGraths discuss four questions: Is someone who believes in God deluded? Has science disproved God? What are the origins of religion? Is religion evil?
Their answers are a nuanced corrective to Dawkins' excesses and offer reasons to think that Bellah knew exactly what he was talking about.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.