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3.6 out of 5
ISBN/ASIN : 1405125381
Manufacturer : Blackwell Publishing|
Release data : 18 October, 2004
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A COGENT RIPOSTE AT LAST
I have waited nearly two decades for someone to counter Dawkins' views on religion. The wait is over. I found the Selfish Gene an interesting concept and Dawkins' literary style refreshing. However, I object to anyone telling me what I should think and that if I disagree with them then I'm stupid or somehow mentally unbalanced. This is exactly the supremely arrogant position Dawkins adopts when talking about religion. McGrath systematically (if somewhat repetitively) dismantles Dawkins position.
It is difficult to see how Dawkins could respond to McGrath's critique; his position on religion and the techniques he uses to put it over have been comprehensively debunked.
Not a 'devastating' 'tour de force'
McGrath sets the scene with a lengthy potted history of evolutionary theory.
The first theme is the relationship between scientific knowledge and theology. McGrath argues, uncontroversially, that neither Dawkins, nor Darwinism can prove or disprove the existence of God; that science is mute on theology. Parenthetically, McGrath says that it is pointless to use Darwinism to counter creationism because creationism is a long-discredited theological blind alley anyway. (Let him go and say that in the USA.)
The second argument is about Dawkins' criticisms of religion. McGrath starts to get more aggressive at this stage. Dawkins' arguments are not rigorous because theologians accept scientific explanations (as manifestations of God's mystery) and because he does not understand what faith is.
In passing, McGrath takes in several other arguments, but does not support them very convincingly. He tries to undermine Dawkins' credibility by pouring cold water on the meme as a rigorous scientific theory. Who said it was anyway? Perhaps he is frightened of the way the concept illuminates how potty ideas can be promulgated.
For Dawkins, it seems to me, the politics of religion rather than theology is the issue of passion. Dawkins' fiercest criticisms are of the perversion of religion to control and coerce. McGrath does not disagree, but contrasts with the military misuse of science and atrocities of atheist political regimes: people are capable of corrupting anything. He does not address the propensity built into the nature of belief systems that makes them so open to perversion. (You know how it goes: I tell you the only truth. To disagree is blasphemy. Blasphemy is a mortal sin. Death to blasphemers. Disagreement is heresy.) Evidently, McGrath does not particularly want to debate religious politics, while he admits that Dawkins does not have much to say on theology.
Another secondary argument is that because scientific theory is subject to change in the face of evidence, that is a weakness of any presently accepted scientific argument. Of course the body of scientific understanding actually develops a greater cohesion and robustness, unlike religious explanations which seem to be increasingly squeezed into the gaps.
There are several obvious omissions. McGrath claims, but does not go into, the existence of reasoned theological arguments not just for God, but for the Holy Trinity of the Christian tradition. He claims that faith is not 'blind' or irrational, but only supporting the claim by giving a couple of references and a tautological quotation. He singularly fails to explain how 'faith' does not mean 'belief in something unverifiable'. He tells us when he came to his own belief, but not how. He does not explain his own reasons for belief.
McGrath does not properly address the problems Dawkins reiterates, of religious diversity, of contradictory beliefs of different faiths, and of the hereditary tendency of belief systems. On the other hand, he repeatedly asserts a convergence between Darwinism & theism that is apparently so well known as not to need any supporting evidence.
I really do not think McGrath has the open mind he protests, though I am sure he likes a good argument anyway.
Careful reading reveals this book's slight substance. I hoped that a 'world-renowned theologian' could put up a more interesting counter-attack.
Well written and provocative
Polite and lucid throughout, and marvellously well-written. McGrath clearly declares his bias as a Christian believer, but this is not assumed for the points made in the book to be valid. Not an argument for Creationism or an attack on Darwinism, this book points out places where Dawkins has overextended his arguments, and clearly seems to wish to continue a debate.
McGrath insists on the need for evidence based argument, and is dismissive of weak Christian arguments in a number of places. Not a book for the polemic ranters on either side of the debate, but wonderful for anyone interested in genuinely thinking about the issues raised by "The Selfish Gene".