March 10, 2009

A personal reaction to McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion

Posted in Books tagged , , , , , at 10:08 am by myrlinn

I’ve always found it easier to believe in God than to be a member of a religious group. Mostly because I have always been uncomfortable with how religious teachings tend to emphasise divisiveness, particularly those religions which believe in just one God.

Many religious groups promote a black-and-white view of the world; where the world is divided into the saved and unsaved, the faithful and the infidels, the believers and the non-believers, the people of God and the people under the influence of Satan. For example, I was introduced to someone at a church gathering recently, and the first question she asked me was: are you a Christian? It’s as if she needs to put everyone she meets in a neat box.

Also, look at history, and you’ll find plenty of evidence of religion being used to argue for wars, invasions, colonisation, and more recently, terrorism; and persuade the faithful to fight and die for the cause.

Thus, I was intrigued by Alister McGrath’s argument in The Dawkins Delusion?. In his discussion of the relationship between religion and violence, he cites a survey by Roger Pape (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism) which indicated that “religious belief is neither necessary nor sufficient to create suicide bombers”. McGrath argues that when religion is taken out the equation, people tend to use ideals such as liberty and equality to play out human conflicts. He gives the example of the French Revolution.

Another point he makes which caught my attention: that divisions are social constructs. He brings up the discussion of ‘binary oppositions’ (male-female, white-black, Christian-Muslim, Protestant-Catholic, etc.) in shaping perceptions of identity. Do binary oppositions determine and shape human thought, or are the outcome of human thought? (citing Kathy Mills, ‘Deconstruction binary oppositions in literacy discourse and pedagogy’, Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, vol. 28 (2005): 67-82). It makes sense that they do both.

His arguments certainly gave me a different perspective on my long-held beliefs. I’m still convinced that religion remains a very powerful means of influencing and motivating people towards exclusionary attitudes and behaviour (for example, looking in contempt on non-believers), which results, in extreme cases, in violence; but his argument has made me more comfortable with the idea of identifying myself with specific religious groups. I can take the view now, that yes, exclusionary behaviour does still go on, but I can see it now as something that arises because of fundamental human social behaviour, rather than something that arises out of faith. Although I don’t think I’m ready yet to align myself with any particular religious group (such as a specific church), this has removed a considerable mental barrier for me.

You may be asking: so I read Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion? What do I think of it? Is it a worthwhile read? I think so. It’s a short volume which makes for interesting reading for those like me who are unfamiliar with theological arguments. I suspect though that it is coloured by the writer’s own view of Christianity which his writing leads me to believe is liberal (which doesn’t quite gel with my own actual experiences of church which have a tendency to emphasise that to be Christian is to be different from others, to be better and better off than others). So, just keep an open mind when reading it.

I should also point out that the book is a rebuttal of Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion. I haven’t actually read Dawkin’s book, so I can’t comment on how good a job McGrath does in his rebuttal. I found it interesting though that he labels Dawkins an “atheist fundamentalist”. I hadn’t thought of there being atheist versions of fundamentalists before, but I guess that it stands to reason that every viewpoint has its own extremist proponents.