Book Review: The God Derision

March 01, 2007

Book Review: The God Derision

Topping the non-fiction lists at present is Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Dawkins is up front about the purpose of his book: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down”. The marketing team should have considered a warning label!

More than anything, The God Delusion is concerned with the psychological damage that religious belief can cause. It presents as a self-help book for those who wish to escape their religious upbringing and enter into the ‘freedom’ of unbelief. Dawkins is serious about developing a ‘church’ for atheists; he provides an appendix of organizations around the world to which apostates can turn for support.

Dawkins provides a checklist of reasons for being an atheist, devoting a chapter to each, thus: none of the traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence seem to work; Darwin’s theory of evolution really does explain the entire universe; religions are simply cultural clusters of information (‘memes’) that evolve in the same way as genes; morality has no basis in theism, and the Bible in fact leads to great immorality, oppression and unhappiness.

There are, to my mind and others, convincing rebuttals to all of Dawkins’s claims against theism. Some of these are explored in my CASE lecture (available as an mp3 on the CASE website in the ‘audio’ section). He tends to make emotionally bloated, philosophically under-developed and theologically naïve appeals on atheism’s behalf, all the while failing to respond to some of the best arguments for theism (although, admittedly, he does a good job of pointing out some weaknesses in the Intelligent Design movement).

Furthermore, he is not a neutral observer of religious arguments. He has a worldview that he wants to promote — he even constructs his own Ten Commandments (pp.263-4). Dawkins’s ‘religion’ can be assessed and accepted or rejected by readers on its own terms.

In responding to Dawkins, I have four suggestions for Christian thinkers:

  1. Don’t respond in kind. This book is so belligerent and self-assured in tone that it will shoot itself in the foot with many readers. Christians must respond with graciousness, humility and honesty. Avoid the obvious “Dawkins is a dork” style of response. There are real intellectual concerns behind the anger and sarcasm.
  2. Acknowledge where Dawkins is correct about religion and distinguish Christianity from such religion. Religion, in the light of the gospel, is a failed human response to the world; Christianity is the news of God’s righting of the wrongs of the world, in which we can share. The difference is profound.
  3. Acknowledge that there is a wide range of Christian belief and practice, and not all of it is defensibly Christian. I won’t waste any time defending the ‘Christian’ who called Dawkins a “Satan worshipping scum”. Nor can I defend some of the premillennial nuttiness that Dawkins ridicules.
  4. As with The Da Vinci Code, this is a wonderful opportunity to clarify in the public square what it is that makes someone a Christian. Grab hold of some part of the Dawkins discussion—something you know a bit about, whether it is evolution, or Christian behaviour, or arguments about God’s existence—and get talking.

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