Book Review: The Psychology of Atheism – By R.C. Sproul


Letter MMuch has been written trying to explain the psychology of theism. The foundational text in that field is probably Sigmund Freud‘s The Future of An Illusion, where Freud theorizes that religion came about as a sort of coping mechanism; it was comforting for early man to personalize the forces of nature and to turn their chiefs into legends, and eventually this evolved into the more institutional forms of religion.

Freud may have been the first, but he was far from the last. Feuerbach theorized that the gods were just man’s projections of himself onto the universal scale. Marx theorized that religion was just a way to keep the working class placated. Nietzche theorized that religion was rooted in fear of the nihil; Bertrand Russell followed a similar line of thinking. More recently, Richard Dawkins dismissed religion as a meme, a sort of ‘mind-parasite’.

In each case these writers are not asking “Is there a God?” Rather, they presuppose there is not a God, and then ask why there is religion. At the same time, they suppose – at the very least through implication – that they are explaining away or debunking religion. In each case these writers fail to realize that explaining what a man can or might do is not in the least determinate for what he actually did do. Or, as Sproul puts it:

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Book Review: The Dawkins Delusion – By Alister McGrath & Joanna Collicutt McGrath

McGrath The Dawkinks Delusion.pngLetter TThere are many individuals who act as poster-boys for certain religious and anti-religious movements. For the New Atheists, one of those individuals is Richard Dawkins; for evangelical Christianity, one of them is Alister McGrath. Both are doctoral graduates from Oxford with degrees in the sciences.

The Dawkins Delusion, as one could easily guess from the title, is the Alister and his wife Joanna‘s response to  Dawkins book The God DelusionThe self-stated goal of the text is to “assess the reliability of Dawkins’s critique of faith in God” by means of challenging Dawkins “at representative points and let readers draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of his evidence and judgement.”

Calling it a response might be abit of an overstatement, the book is actually much more like a extensive book review. It is not designed as a serious academic rebuttal – either in tone or in content – to Dawkins’ book, but is more of a survey of some of the key issues that the McGraths have with the book.

The book goes about assessing the shortcomings of Dawkins’ book by addressing four areas of Dawkins’ argument which McGrath takes to be key points (or at the very least, points which can be used as representative of Dawkins’ intellectual integrity). The four points addressed are Dawkins assertions that belief in God is fundamentally deluded, infantile, and irrational; that science has disproved God; that the origins of religion lie in wish fulfillment, mental viruses, or ‘memes’; and that religion is evil in and of itself.

Each of these areas offers a survey of what the McGraths take to be Dawkins’ arguments and offer cursory rebuttals to each: that religion is based upon mature rational belief; that science by definition cannot disprove God; that Dawkins’ assertions about the origin or religion are not scientific, ignore current anthropology, and are little more than ‘maybe it happened this way’ type statements; and that the goods produced by religion cannot be ignored (nor the evil produced by many atheists). Each point is made well enough, though in order to understand many of the reasons McGrath takes issue with Dawkins it would be necessary to look to the endnotes, as none of McGrath’s arguments are made in detail and many of them are asserted rather than argued.

As an academic rebuttal, the book isn’t very great. As a book review, it does well enough at addressing some of the issues. So while the book may have various shortcomings in terms of specific debate points, one way I think it stands out is in the grander picture that it presents. It is written in a more informal tone and offers alot of insight and draws many of its points from sources outside of The God Delusion (such as Dawkins other books, personal conversations, and other atheists). While this does make it worse as a direct critique of that book, it does give a nice perspective on the overall debate and of Dawkins view of the relation between science and religion – specifically that there can be no relation, that scientists (and even atheists) or say that there are limits to science or that there may be some compatibility must not be being honest, and that religious people who say the same (such as the Pope in regards to evolution) must be being equally dishonest.

But the overall message to be had from the book to expose the dogmaticism and lack of scientific or rational grounding for much of what the New Atheists argue. Reviewers on places like Amazon give McGrath grief for calling Dawkins’ views dogmatic and then presenting his own dogma, but a key difference is that Dawkins view completely crumbles if it is based on dogma, whereas the Christian view cannot. The entire basis of Dawkins’ position is that it is based upon and only upon scientific observation and reasoned logic, not dogma or emotion or unargued premises, and it is this point that make this book worthwhile – it points out where Dawkins is relying upon dogma, where he is diverging from science in order to fulfill his own agenda.

While the book is unlikely to convince anybody of anything, it is worth the very brief time it takes to read it (at less than 100 pages) at least in order to get a feel for the generalities of the debate.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The God Delusion seems more designed to reassure athiests whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with religious believers and others seeking truth.”-96

-“All ideals – divine, transcendent, human or invented – are capable of being abused.”-81

-“The book is often little more than an aggregation of convenient factoids suitably overstated to achieve maximum impact and loosly arranged to suggest that they constitute an argument.”-13

-“Yet the fact that Dawkins has penned a four-hundred-page book declaring that God is a delusion is itself highly significant. Why is such a book still necessary? Religion was meant to have disappeared years ago. For more than a century, leading sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists have declared that their children would see the dawn of a new era in which the “God delusion” would be left behind for good.”-8

Specific Criticisms

The tone of the book is probably its biggest problem, and the one that will likely keep it from being taken seriously by atheists. The McGraths’ come off as condescending and insulting at various points, often using sarcasm as a means of presenting their or their opponent’s position. It is not the tone of an academic text, but is much more along the lines of a Sunday school lesson aimed at condemning the rival position.

In that sense, this book is a good illustration of how not to interact with nonChristians; the tone undercuts whatever value the arguments have.