Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Reading "The Dawkins Delusion" Introduction

In July, I read through Richard Dawkins The God Delusion. I did an initial post after the first three chapters and meant to continue to do more posts about it, but as usual, life had its own ideas.

There was actually quite a bit I had to say about the book, but it was hard to know where to start. There was just so much wrong with it that I couldn't find the right jumping off point. At the time that I received the book from the library, I put myself on the waiting list for The Dawkins Delusion, by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicut McGrath. I knew it was a refutation of Dawkins' book, but the library wouldn't have it for months. I was curious to see what it would have to say.

I must say that when I read Dawkins, he quoted McGrath and a few other theologians in his book and I wasn't impressed. "Wow, if this is the response from the religious community, they are really daft, " I thought. I should have realized at the time that Dawkins would have portrayed them in the same way he portrayed many of his arguments; out of context, with great liberty of interpretation and not much scholarship.

So much of his writing seems so logical, but if you peel back even the tiniest layer, the cracks begin to appear. For instance, in part of the book Dawkins goes into a lengthy explanation of memes, the ideas or groups of ideas or information that are culturally passed from one generation to the next. He examines this theory in great detail, postulating that memes reproduce in the same way that genes in natural selection work. It sounds very intriguing and plausible in some ways. To back up his arguments about this he quotes several people who have advanced this theory of memes and written books about it.

I found it all a little confusing because he deals with this theory of memes with such certainty. Here was an entire field that I had hardly heard of and all of these people who spent a great deal of time analyzing it. Where had I been, scientifically speaking?

It wasn't until I decided to learn more about what memes were and the "science" behind this theory that I discovered the very concept of memes had been originated by Dawkins himself many years before; a fact that he conveniently does not mention in The God Delusion.

Why does it matter?

It matters because if you are going to quote people who happen to be favorable to a view that you, yourself, have created, it is hardly objective opinion and evidence. It's one thing to say, "I have this idea and here are others who agree with me," and quite another to imply that there is a strong theory that happens to confirm your conclusions and is independent of yourself. I think it's all a little hinky.

I received The Dawkins Delusion today. It is a slim book. I wasn't sure what I would find in its pages because of the unfavorable view I had of McGrath from the few references to him in Dawkins' work. I haven't read anything other than the introduction so far, but I already have found myself saying "Yes!...Exactly!...that is SO true!"

My favorite quote as of this moment:

"...Dawkins simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence based thinking. Curiously there is surprisingly little scientific analysis in The God Delusion. There's a lot of pseudoscientific speculation, linked with wider cultural criticisms of religion, mostly borrowed from older atheist writings." (page 11--The Dawkins Delusion)

I hope the rest of the book follows suit in laying out the ways in which Dawkins' work falls short.
I obviously misjudged McGrath.

More Later.

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