Tuesday, February 05, 2008

You have no excuse ...

... for believing that “The God Delusion” (TGD) is the knockout blow in the supposed “faith versus reason” debate. Three books have now been published in response – one scholarly (“The Dawkins Delusion?” Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath), one playful (“Darwin's Angel”, John Cornwell) and this one. Each treats Dawkins with respect – all three authors are positive about much of his earlier writing; each draws on a much wider range of sources than Dawkins does; each dismantles Dawkins' analysis of the Bible, history and social phenomena; each rebuts Dawkins' argument that God is improbable, which undermines the premise upon which the rest of the book is based. Incidentally, the fact that this premise was invalid was the reason why in my review of TGD on Amazon, I said that there wasn't much point in reading the rest of the book. I stand by this criticism.

None of the books is long – Robertson's is just 140 pages. The fundamental reason for this is that Dawkins' arguments are insubstantial – they simply don't take much refuting. This is startling, given that many of the million-odd copies of TGD that have been sold were presumably bought by people who swallowed it whole (though a near-atheist friend of mine commented, “Pile of s***e, wasn't it? And I love RD”).

The story of how David Robertson's book came about is fairly well known. Robertson is a pastor, and having read Dawkins' book, wrote a letter in response and posted it on his church website. This found its way onto Dawkins' own website, and generated a huge response – which led to Robertson writing further letters. These form the basis of his book.

Of these three books published in response to TGD, “The Dawkins Letters” is probably the one I preferred. I think this is because Robertson is most similar to me philosophically; I find that he articulates most clearly the thoughts that I struggled to get into order whilst I read Dawkins' book. Also, unlike Dawkins, Cornwell and McGrath, Robertson is not writing from the shelter of an academic ivory tower – his beliefs are being put to test in a real world of real people. It is clearly a Christian book – even an “apologetic” one. Dawkins refuses to engage with people who disagree with him. This is one of the most significant weaknesses of TGD, and indeed of Dawkins' more recent work in general, as the effect is that it is like reading a rant, rather than dialectic. Robertson points out that the traits that Dawkins describes as being present in fundamentalists are present and writ large in his own work – mocking stereotype versions of opponents' arguments, refusing to engage with the “unenlightened”, even the crusade meetings, where the triumphs of the movement are lauded by the faithful.

Robertson's book is full of quotable passages. One section that interested me in particular was what he wrote about Hitler. Atheists, including Dawkins, pick up quotations which suggest that Hitler claimed what he was doing was a Christian crusade, rather than the outworking of atheist philosophy. Conveniently, Robertson studied Hitler “extensively”, and is able to explain the context in which such quotations came, and also from Hitler's private conversations, to explain what Hitler really thought about Christianity - “The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity.”

“The Dawkins Letters” is a readable and considered response to TGD. It will encourage and help any Christians who don't know what to say, and for non-Christians who are at least prepared to wonder if things aren't quite as Dawkins has made out, it makes a good case for at least one alternative worldview. Again, the charge of “opportunistic publishing” will be levelled – but if no response was forthcoming, then the assumption would be that Dawkins was irrefutable.
Review of "The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths" by David Robertson, posted on Amazon.