Friday, March 19, 2010

More on McGrath

I actually found another exchange between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins that is set up in debate format. This series, also on Youtube, is in seven parts, unlike the more conversational series I described in my last post about these two men, which is in 15 parts.

McGrath authored a book in response to Dawkins' book "God Delusion." But I'm not critiquing his book, just his arguments as he speaks to defend his faith against being declared a "delusion."

My first objection came in part 2, where McGrath said (emphasis his):

"In the brief time available, what I thought I would do is to try and engage with what seems to me to be the strongest argument in Professor Dawkins' book. And that is that there is in some way a link between religion, between belief in god, and violence. Because I think that is a very significant issue, and one that really does need to be addressed."

Note to theists: This is not only not the "strongest argument" to demonstrate belief in god is a delusion, it's not even an argument that is generally ever used to demonstrate belief in god is a delusion.

There are mainly two situations I observe where atheists appeal to the harm caused by religion:

1. "Why do you care?"
The first is when asked "Why do you care what other people believe?" And in that case, it's extremely relevant. The reason it is important to "care" what a religious person--let's say a Muslim extremist--believes, is as easy as 9-11. People act on what they believe. What I believe matters. What you believe matters. What other people believe matters. Not everything a person believes has consequences, but when something they believe can be demonstrated to have consequences for others, it's justifiably important to others.

Some beliefs seem to have a capacity to motivate people to do terrible things. Religion is in that category. Many religious people are good people. Some are dangerous people. The issue with religion is that it's often the case that the dangerous people explain their harmful actions by pointing directly and unambiguously to their religious beliefs. They aren't bad people who "just happen" to be religious.

I'm not talking about the guy who attends church every Sunday, but secretly molests his daughter. Yes, that guy "just happens" to be religious. Nothing within his religion justifies abusing his child. But the activities of Muslim extremists are absolutely driven, at least in part, by religious belief. That familiar shout of "Allahu Akbar!" says it all. They aren't a group of people doing bad things who "just happen" to be Muslims.

But none of this has anything to do with whether or not their belief in god is a delusion. God may exist and may be the cruel and abusive tyrant they prostrate themselves to regularly. I don't believe that's the case, but my doubt has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that extremists do horrible things. The best I can do in response to this single fact is to say that if their god exists, I don't like Him. I can't conclude from it that their god is probably not real. There is simply no way I am aware of to make a logical connection that someone doing horrible things, even for their god, means no god exists. And I'm sure Dawkins understands this. And I'm baffled McGrath doesn't understand that Dawkins quite probably understands this--which is what caught my attention.

2. Morality requires religion
The second reason I see atheists broach the fact that religious people can be driven to do horrible things because of (not in spite of) their religion, is as a portion of a defense to the spurious claim that religion is somehow a bastion, or even the only means, of morality. And this would generally be put forward along with examples of nonreligiously motivated acts of kindness.

So, that's really it. Those are the two reasons I most often see atheists appeal to religious harm. As a foundational argument for unbelief it's rarely used, and I'd spit milk through my nose if I ever heard Dawkins use it in that way. Certainly it cannot be among the "strongest arguments" for god as a delusion, for the simple reason it offers nothing whatsoever to undermine the claim "god exists."

Many atheists criticize religious harm. But there are very few who hang their unbelief in god on it. It is the rare atheist who says, "I just can't believe there could be a god who could allow such things in His name." That's a variation on an informal fallacy, the Argument from Incredulity. I do recall, though, in my religious indoctrination, being taught that this was a common atheist argument against the existence of god. But, based on some other statements McGrath makes, I don't suspect his use of this particular strawman is due to indoctrination. And I'll give my reasons for that later. For now I will just say I've never personally interacted with such an atheist--although I do recall at least once coming across something similar to that statement online posted by a self-labeled atheist. So, I don't doubt such atheists exist. I just doubt they are so numerous that this point about religiously motivated harm could be justifiably labeled the "strongest argument" in Dawkins'--or any atheist's--arsenal against belief in the existence of god. Not many atheists use it, and it's a glaring fallacy. It would seem reasonable that the "strongest argument" would have to be one that attacks the root--god's existence--not merely a branch--how believers behave.

If we believe gods can exist--but there are none to examine--we cannot logically rule out the possibility of apathetic or cruel gods. In fact, cruel or uncaring god models would subvert many atheist rebuttals, such as the Problem of Evil and Euthyphro. To assert "my preferred model of a kind god doesn't appear to exist, therefore no model of god can exist" is egocentric in the extreme--and logical garbage, to boot. There are a variety of decent reasons to support unbelief; however, "religious harm" is not among them.

Note to theists: If you are responding to someone who is saying your belief in god is a delusion, and you think their "strongest argument" is that some religious people are horrible, you are either arguing with that one-in-a-million atheist mentioned above, or you don't really understand the point you're being presented with.

McGrath then goes on to say: "The point I'd like to try and make is this: Religious belief is ambivalent. It can be destructive. I think we need to be very, very clear about that...That is a significant danger in any religious belief system. And indeed one of the reasons why I, myself, was an atheist for some time was that it seemed to me logically inevitable that if there were no religion in Northern Ireland, there would be no conflict. Likewise, at the time I was studying the sciences, and it seemed to me obvious, again, that if the sciences were right, then there was no need for god at all. This could be safely disposed of with the greatest of ease." (Emphasis mine.)

Let's hold right there for a moment. I can grasp his second reason--the bit about science. You can legitimately cut out parts of models that aren't necessary--as we all learned from the old children's tale, "Stone Soup." However, how does that first reason figure? Let's say it's true that if you could eliminate religion from a region it would result in the end of conflict. How do you get from there to "I don't believe god exists"? There is no rational path between that statement and atheism.

McGrath actually says this is one of the reasons he was an atheist. To demonstrate the absurdity of what he just said, let me restate it almost verbatim and put in something else that can sometimes cause harm, besides belief in god. Let's see how it translates: "One of the reasons why I, myself, was an unbeliever in the sun for some time, was that it seemed to me logically inevitable that if we didn't have sunbathers, there would be a lot less skin cancer in the world."

To deny the existence of something because you dislike its effects is not rational. Someone asked in the other post about McGrath, why he had been an atheist. I'm wondering, if his reasons for unbelief really did include "religious harm," does he then assume other atheists are atheists because they are similarly impaired when it comes to understanding where the implications of religious harm are or are not logically employed? Could he be reasoning that because he held to an unreasonable connection between religious harm and the nonexistence of god, that's why the rest of us keep bring up religious harm in atheist-theist debates? If that's what is happening, then his own experience has put a bias in place that interferes with his ability to understand what the atheist is actually saying. Even Dawkins admits he could be wrong that god is a delusion; but if he is wrong, it won't be for reasons that stupid.

In my prior post, McGrath seemed to be thinking Dawkins didn't know you can draw conclusions without iron-clad evidence, even while the real question was: Why do you feel compelled to take that leap of unjustified faith at the end, when you could stay rational and stop where the evidence ends, with an honest statement that there is insufficient evidence to justify that last leap? In trying to analyze these exchanges, I see twice now where the problem is that McGrath is misunderstanding Dawkins' points in ways that presume points only an idiot would make. If theists generally think this way--and I certainly recall thinking this way--it's no wonder they see atheism as the irrational position. They have no idea, really, how the position is supported. I am beginning to see more clearly the dire need to get information out to the public to dispel misconceptions about atheism. Is this really how people think we reason? Even though I thought this way myself, as a fundamentalist Christian, I suppose it never dawned on me how powerful these misconceptions--these strawmen--can be.

He goes on to point out religion is powerful and transformative. Agreed. That is precisely why it's so dangerous when it goes bad. He says we need to be aware that religion going bad is a possibility, but there are other possibilities. Agreed. Not all religious people are oppressive or murderous. Did someone say they were? While I could imagine an atheist who might make such a wild accusation--that atheist wouldn't be Dawkins, or anyone at AETV, or any atheist who contacts us generally. So, who is McGrath talking to?

In support, he quotes Shermer saying that religion causes horrible atrocities, but that many believers do good things. Is he assuming atheists don't know this? The question from critical atheists is whether those people could be motivated to goodness without religion--which McGrath agrees comes with some powerfully harmful baggage. McGrath criticizes Dawkins for not giving credit to religion in "God Delusion" for the good associated with it; but Dawkins wasn't making a case for religion. He was explaining his reasons for being against it. Touting positive attributes--that religion, itself, shouts nonstop from every rooftop--would seem unnecessary and out of context. Is there anyone in this debate who isn't already well acquainted with Christian charitable efforts?

The question is actually, "Does a motivated Baptist do more good than a motivated Humanist? Is belief in god required to motivate people to do good?" And the answer is, "Clearly not." Is it required to motivate people to do bad? Also, absolutely not. It motivates both good and bad in people. But without it, we could still motivate people to do good through Humanist endeavors that work toward the good of mankind and the planet--but don't demonstrably result in people blowing themselves up. Also without it, the threat of the "bad" it generates would be eliminated. Surely there would be other ideologies out there to motivate horrors, just as we have others to motivate goodness. But without religion, there would be one less to motivate horrors. And the positive force it represents--the motive to do good--could be shouldered just as well by secular outlets for humanity which would remain available.

Here, in clear terms, is what I mean: Let's say we find a treatment for all terminal varieties of cancer that permanently paralyzes 20% of the people who use it, but positively cures the other 80%. If we later discover a similar cure that paralyzes 10% of the patients, and cures 90%--would anyone argue we should continue using the first treatment for the "good" that it does, if it offered no added benefit over the new drug? Who could reasonably, in good conscience, suggest such a thing?

I may do more on McGrath. I'm not sure. I see a benefit to examining the communication divide: what atheists "say," versus what theists "hear." Understanding not only what sorts of misconceptions theists hold, but also why they hold them, could assist in moving dialogs along at a quicker pace. It would be, I suppose, "increased understanding," not to increase respect, but rather to increase communication efficiency.

That would be my goal. Whether or not I achieve it is another matter.


  1. "And this would generally be put forward along with examples of nonreligiously motivated acts of kindness."

    I may have misunderstood something, but didn't you mean "cruelty", not "kindness"?

  2. Wow! When you say more, you mean more! I'll read it as soon as I can.

  3. Thanks Aaberg:

    No, my point was that if I'm an atheist arguing religion is not the sole source of morality, I might present religiously motivated acts of cruelty and nonreligiously motivated acts of kindness. The point would be nonreligious people can be moral, and religious people can be immoral.

  4. Guillaume:

    I'm really disappointed, in that I thought I had cut this thing down pretty respectably. But the moment I posted it and then looked at it posted at the live blog, I realized how long it was. I'm hoping I at least deleted most of the unnecessary repetition.

  5. Tracie if you think that McGrath has a poor understanding of Dawkins points then here is an even worse example of the genre:

    I came across this via pharyngula under the heading "I was dumber after listening to that". Its a debate between Cardinal George Pell and Dan Baker.

    If you feel like dropping a few iq points and have an hour spare then you may find it interesting/annoying (delete where applicable).

  6. Raymond:

    The irony is that I selected McGrath in response to the question we often get (which is usually more of a criticism) that we abuse "regular" Christians and don't dialog with real educated, intelligent theologians.

    Russell hosted a local pastor on the show as a result, and we immediately got a response from a seminary student asking us why we didn't have an educated theologian on the program. The guy Russell had on was degreed, but not in philosophy or theology; and it seemed as though it mattered not at all that he was a professional pastor, and not of the wingnut right variety--but the more moderate variety we're also often accused of ignoring.

    McGrath is not only a degreed theologian, but holds a degree in the sciences and is a self-labeled ex-atheist. I would think this qualifies him as an good choice for the best arguments for faith in god. That's part of why I took the time to listen--to see what he offered that theists kept telling us we were missing.

    It turns out I'm still "missing" it; but I'm trying to at least demonstrate I'm not just "hearing"--but listening to the point of micro-analyzing everything I'm hearing. I'm scrutinizing his message in an attempt to really examine it for what might be there that I could possibly overlook.

    But I still can't find anything.

    Really, I know there are a lot of people in positions of religious authority who are really not very bright. The "Great Debate" with Hitchens about whether the "church is/is not a force for good" in the world demonstrated that. Audience reaction was really clear that the two Catholic leaders failed not only to convince anyone of their point, but lost a good number of supporters according to an audience poll at the end (compared to a poll at the start).

    But McGrath isn't just paid to preach or administrate a church. This man has the credentials I've been told should equal a good explanation of faith--something superior to what a "regular" Christian can offer. If that's the case--where is it? I'm posting his own words and explaining the problems I see. And if someone else can explain how what he is saying is valid in some way I'm overlooking, they're welcome to do so...?

  7. Just re-read it. I guess my reading comprehension is less than stellar when coming just out of bed.

  8. Tracie, i think McGrath understands the question but is too smart to answer, because he knows his position is intellectually vacuous. the same goes for his arguments against dawkins. he knows his livelyhood and esteemed social position rest on his ability to convince other believers that there is nothing to worry about. as long as his answers (or straw man objections) dont crumble at the first listen of a believer, he has succeeded.

    it may be that he is not knowingly dishonest and could be self deluded, but he is not interested in an honest discussion either way. as i see it the communication interference is deliberate. and if it isnt then all dialog with him is even more hopeless.

  9. Another great read Tracie, thanks for posting!

    Darin said: "he knows his livelyhood and esteemed social position rest on his ability to convince other believers that there is nothing to worry about. as long as his answers (or straw man objections) dont crumble at the first listen of a believer, he has succeeded."

    I think this is a point we too often miss, I forget who said it first, but the religious apologist is NOT generally trying to defeat an atheist's arguments and convince the ATHEIST, generally the apologist is trying to convince the already-religiously minded or undecided AUDIENCE of the superiority of the religious position. All he or she has to do is discredit or confuse the position being set forth by the atheist, prevent it from being stated clearly and logically, so countering with logical responses is less important than SOUNDING more intelligent, reasonable and affable and making the right sort of incredulous faces and exclamations at the right times. The apologist knows that the theatrics of it all, creating the right IMPRESSION, will do more to sway the audience than any logical argument put forward, he or she knows that most people don't judge a position or set of values or beliefs on their own merits but rather accept or reject them on the basis of subjective judgements made about the person offering them. As much as we might loathe the idea of stooping to that level and copying those tactics, we're never going to win because we're not playing the same game.

  10. Hey Tracieh, lovely post. Just one comment.

    "Let's say we find a treatment for all terminal varieties of cancer that permanently paralyzes 20% of the people who use it, but positively cures the other 80%. If we later discover a similar cure that paralyzes 10% of the patients, and cures 90%--would anyone argue we should continue using the first treatment for the "good" that it does, if it offered no added benefit over the new drug? Who could reasonably, in good conscience, suggest such a thing?"

    I think this isn't an acurate comparison. A cure is something that is only applied once, so when someone is presenting symptoms, a choice needs to be made: cure A or cure B. The choice always goes to the best cure.

    We are talking though of a more permanent situation. A computer and a printer are, for the sake of this comparison, always better than a type writer. Yet making people depart from what they already know means they will have to learn some new techniques. It is for that reason that it takes such a long time for new technology to be implemented.

    Even in medicine there are examples of that. There have been studies that demonstrated that a lot of the after care patients receive are superfluous. For instance keeping the temperature constant for them while they recover. It has no shown effect, just makes health care more expensive, yet is still used in every hospital.

    My point is that your comparison bypasses these problems. Ideally we would want cure B, naturally. So... how to improve it. Perhaps calling them treatments. There is treatment A and treatment B. Doctors will need to be schooled in order to use treatment B, so not everyone can receive it yet. But naturally, eventually we want treatment B to replace treatment A. No matter the effort, no matter the cost of transvering it, if treatment B is better, then our eventual goal should be to have that instead of A. Anyone arguing we should keep treatment A has a hidden agenda.

  11. I have serious doubts that he was an atheist at all. I think it's more likely he's lying for Jesus. He picked what he thinks is the reason a lot of atheists don't believe and claims the same is true of himself to try to convince nonbelievers to convert. Too common of a tactic.

  12. Thanks again for an excellent post, Tracy.

    I had one thing to add about McGrath, and you might find this useful if you do any more posts about him.

    McGrath has a debate with Christopher Hitchens (you can find the whole debate on, and I wouldn't be surprised if you've seen it, but I'll bring up this point anyway). During the Q&A session at the end, McGrath makes a BLINDINGLY stupid error - Hitchens talks about the imposition of hell on non-believers, and McGrath responds by saying that he doesn't understand why Hitchens has a problem with hell since he doesn't believe in it. Needless to say, the audience bursts out laughing. Listen to the clip yourself, the question starts on section 21 (Q3 Vicarious Sacrifice) at time 1:11:25. The debate is titled "Christopher Hitchens Debates Alistair McGrath Georgetown University" on

    I can't believe that McGrath is one of the more respected apologists. I hear him speak and his intellectual vacuousness is astounding. I can't believe this is the best the religious side has to offer.

  13. Hi Ben:

    My point was that we have a system that provides an outlet for the good nature in people, but also leads them to do some really horrific things. And we have other systems that allow for the goodness outlet, but don’t required the “faith” and dogma that lead to bad problems. If a Baptist switches over to a Humanist charitable outlet, and leaves the Baptist system behind, then we retain the goodness outlet, and set aside the bad (faith).

    While we would still have bad systems in the world to get people to do bad things, at least religion wouldn’t be feeding into that any longer. So, we’d have one less “bad” influence, without losing the goodness outlet it provides to people. People who still want an outlet to do good could have that outlet, I don’t see what “retraining” would be required. A person building houses for Habitat for Humanity, for example, could just as easily work carpentry for a secular group doing the same thing. The only difference is that it wouldn’t require their willingness to follow with blind faith and unquestioning obedience to the dictates of a god (relayed conveniently to them from some other person)—which are the base stock for “bad” soup.

  14. liminalD:

    Thanks for your thoughts. If this is their plan, good for our side. I can't tell you how many times I've had a theist lurker poke a head in to say, "I'm following this exchange, and my fellow theist looks like an idiot--what you guys are saying makes a lot of sense."

    I have seen this statement in many different forms and forums. And the more the apologist argues to choir, the more those "in between" people will fall to reason. The apologist with a captive audience and a solo voice may sound reasonable to someone unschooled. But get him in a room with a bright person who can reason and ask questions and pose problems, and suddenly the bloom is off the rose very quickly.

  15. Tracieh:

    About the need to 'retrain' people. I had a similar discussion about making government employees use Linux instead of Windows. No matter how similar you make them, or how similar they already are, people who know nothing about computers will panic the moment you even mention the possibility of changing the OS. Especially if you consider that actually about 60% of the population can't attach files to e-mails, or change printer settings without help.

    People trust religion. They have grown up in it, and they are comfortable not asking questions. Anyone who wishes to change their religion (or remove it), has many things to do. Even if they do not rethink their position in life (Gee, if god didn't create us, then what did? Perhaps I should look into that evolution stufff), even if they do not change their Sunday plans (cause they didn't go to church in the first place), they'd still have to take at least a single mental step. People tend to be lazy in matters that don't concern them.

    So you have basically two categories. There are the people who are actively religious, who think about their views on the world. They usually have reasons they believe in a deity, and they need to be taught how to answer those questions without the need of god. That's the 'training'. The other category is people who really don't care about this at all. They just label themselves Christian, though it does not affect their daily live. They need to be motivated to think about their views. That's the 'training' for them.

    At the very least I wanted to remark that your comparison dealt with a choice after the fact, while the thing you're describing is already in effect.

    Even when describing the individual. It is not like they have a choice between cure A or cure B. They have been using cure A all of their life. Or rather, like I argued earlier, they have been receiving treatment A all of their life. They need to change their habits and way of thinking to get to treatment B.

    I mean, if a religious person who thinks the truth can be discovered by reading a book, they can become just as destructive as an atheist as they can as a theist. All they need is to read a book which tells them atheists should kill all believers because they're incredibly foolish.

  16. Finally read it. Again, I have no doubt now that McGrath was an atheist for poor, frivolous reasons, if indeed he did not believe in God just because religious people in North Ireland were fanatics.

  17. Traicih:

    You've probably already guessed this, but theists watching the show will always complain that their side wasn't represented well. If you somehow got Lee Strobel on the show it still wouldn't matter, you and Matt would eat him alive. (No offense Russell.) The only thing that will ever get them to agree that their side was well represented is if their side wins. That's the problem, that's what they're looking for, they want their side to win. They want to be reassured that the beliefs that they hold can somehow be rationally defended. Until that day finally happens (And I'm not holding my breath.) their ready made excuse will always be "Well that just wasn't a good representative, it they'd argued with a real believer it would have been different." I was at home applauding last show when Matt told them that if they weren't satisfied with the people who were calling in, then they should get off their ass and call. Put up, or shut up. Sadly I doubt it will get much of a response. These people would much rather sit at home and complain about the poor arguments presented on the show then admit to themselves that they don't have anything better.

    P.S. Good luck Russel and Matt! I have a reasonable expectation, based on prior experience and evidence that you'll do the secular community proud. I wish it was being held somewhere near LA, I would have loved to see it in person.

  18. I recently read a post by a theist in a discussion about Dawkins. The theist claimed that he had become more sympathetic toward Dawkins, not because he agreed with his arguments, but because he was annoyed that most of Dawkins' detractors resorted to ad hominem attacks.
    The only one, he went on, who made any arguments that actually adressed Dawkins' points was apparently Allister McGrath.
    I suppose I have to agree that strawman attacks are at least not as glaringly obvious as ad hominem fallacies. I just wonder were the disconnect was there. Clearly, this was an intelligent person, yet he still didn't appear to see the obvious flaws in McGrath's argumentation.


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