The Big Bad Dawkins Quote

It occurred to me that I could spin off small sections from the book I’m writing into blog posts. Giving people 6,000 words to read at once is kind of a burden, so it’s really in my interest to break things down into more digestible pieces. Also, in this particular case, taken from chapter 2, I want to be able to say “the BBQ” in future posts and have people know what I mean. Excerpt is below the fold:

In The God Delusion, Dawkins mentions a standard line used against atheists: “The God you don’t believe in is a God I don’t believe in either.” In response, Dawkins explains that this criticism is inaccurate because he is “attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” [4] I’ve heard the “God I don’t believe in either” line, and variations on it, quite a few times since Dawkins’ book was published, including in theologian Alistair McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion?, a direct response to The God Delusion.

The context for McGrath’s use of the line is a quote from The God Delusion that seems to have upset Dawkins’ critics more than any other single thing in the book. I call it the Big Bad Quote, or the BBQ for short:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully [5].

Dawkins says this as a way of introducing the point that he will not only be attacking this God. On the very same page, he says, “It is unfair to attack such an easy target. The God Hypothesis should not stand or fall with its most unlovely instantiation.” McGrath ignores this, and falsely reports Dawkins’ words by writing, “The God that Dawkins does not believe in is petty, unjust…” and then going on to quote the whole BBQ, minus the part explain it was referring to the God of the Old Testament. Then McGrath writes, “Come to think of it, I don’t believe in a God like that either. In fact, I don’t know anybody who does.” [6]

I’m impressed by how many of Dawkins’ words McGrath managed to ignore in those two sentences. He first had to change “The God of the Old Testament” to “The God that Dawkins does not believe in,” then ignore the fact that the point of the BBQ was to explain that Dawkins was not just attacking the God of the Old Testament, and finally ignore Dawkins’ explanation of what’s wrong with the “God I don’t believe in either line.”

I should emphasize that, in order to find this truly awful rebuttal to Dawkins, I did not have to seek out an unknown crank. Alister McGrath is a professor of theology at Kings College London. The Dawkins Delusion boasts endorsements from Michael Ruse (a philosopher who played an important role in defending evolution in two high-profile court cases), Rowan Williams (head of the Anglican church), and Francis Collins (former director of the Human Genome Project and current director of the National Institutes of Health. You’d think that such a book would have presented the strongest criticisms of Dawkins out there, but… well actually, that thought comes worrisomely close to being right.

  •!/TabbyLavalamp Tabby Lavalamp

    Now now, McGrath. The god of the New Testament is every bit the monster that he was in the prequel. He just started smiling.

    • kagekiri


      Thought and speech crime being equivalent to physical actions, encouragement of self-mutilation and self-punishment, glorification of martyrdom and opening yourself up to violence, stupid parables that pretty pointedly show God is an irresponsible asshole; Jesus really doesn’t impress me with his morals now that I’m not high on self-delusional religious guilt.

  • hyperdeath

    Alister McGrath’s book is essentially a confidence trick perpetrated against gullible Christians. It’s religious prolefeed, written with a far greater degree of contempt for its intended audience, than has ever been shown by Dawkins.

    Alister McGrath relies upon his audience having not read The God Delusion, and freely lies about its content. On every page, the Dawkins puppet embarrasses himself with his ignorance and stupidity, while the nice Mr. McGrath gently puts him right. The audience come away with their faith affirmed, which is exactly what McGrath wanted.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I think it’s more than that. Look at the endorsements I list in the last paragraph. These are not “proles,” they’re reasonably smart people who’ve elsewhere claimed to have read Dawkins’ book. The problem is that they find atheism unfamiliar and scary, and therefore will cheer on any anti-atheist nonsense because it helps them feel better about those big scary atheists.

      • hyperdeath

        It’s possible. It’s also possible that Williams and Collins are endorsing the book in much the same way that a reviewer of children’s books might endorse a picture book aimed at five year olds.

        Ruse is one of those washed up old atheists, who failed to gain any real influence, and now bitterly resents the success of the new atheists. He’s not cheering on anti-atheist nonsense; he’s cheering on anti-Dawkins nonsense.

  • Ophelia Benson

    It’s harder to get away with that kind of blatant misrepresentation now, though, because of how easy it is to do what we’re all doing right here on this thread. The Internet is very hard on sloppy lazy dishonest journalists and pundits and…theologians.

  • Dan Linford

    For a better rebuttal of Dawkins, there is a quite excellent series of talks given by philosophers Marianne Talbot and Stephen Law. I especially liked Law’s contribution, and found some of Talbot’s arguments to be, well, pretty poor. At any rate, the series starts here:

    And for segments 2-4, you can access those from the sidebar.

    It’s also instructive to watch Dawkins confront McGrath (which isn’t quite as hostile as one might think):

  • hyperdeath

    The Internet is very hard on sloppy lazy dishonest journalists and pundits and…theologians.

    That’s true when the objective is truth. However the sort of person who takes McGrath seriously isn’t the sort of person who would ever think of checking facts.

  • mnb0

    Ah yes, I liked this section of your chapter a lot more than the stuff before, which was a bit incoherent. I can’t remember if I remarked it already and am too lazy to look it up, so sorry if I repeat myself.

    You can summarize this part like this.

    Dawkins: The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.
    McGrath: Come to think of it, I don’t believe in a God like that either.
    Chris Hallquist: What kind of a god do you believe in then?
    McGrath: God is Love (or something similar – MNb).
    The Black Sceptic (iirc, you’ll have to check it – MNb): Know what? I don’t believe in that motherfucker either.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Glad you liked this part. I was worried that a lot of the stuff in this chapter would be boring but I’m surprised and confused by your saying it’s incoherent. Do you think I contradict myself? Are there just parts where you don’t understand what I’m saying? Where?

    • mnb0

      Sorry for the confusion. Blame it on me being Dutch. What I mean is that I am not always sure what all paragraphs in each chapter have to do with each other. I feel – this time specifically feel, because I find it hard to give concrete examples – that you try to make several arguments which are not necessarily connected to each other.
      In the next chapter: explaining when debating politics/religion is appropriate, what exactly does that have to do with your counterattack on Plantinga?
      No, I don’t mean you are contradicting yourself. Yes, I think I understand what you want to say.

      Another example:
      Why should you remark that westerners are too positive on Eastern religions and even explain this if you are not going to discuss them anyway? I completely agree btw, but if anything they deserve a chapter on their own. Else omit it. Christianity is the dominant religion in the USA, so you are going to focus on this. The rest is superfluous (well, a big part of it).

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  • Luke Breuer

    On the very same page, he says, “It is unfair to attack such an easy target. The God Hypothesis should not stand or fall with its most unlovely instantiation.” McGrath ignores this

    Recently, it was pointed out that I made this mistake as well. I found this curious, given the strength of the residual impression in my mind. So I went back to the text, and was reminded that Dawkins also presents Jesus as:

    [Yahweh's] insipidly opposite christian face, ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild’. (To be fair, this milksop persona owes more to his Victorian followers than to Jesus himself” (52)

    A bit down the page, Dawkins says:

    Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion; and, as later chapters will show, a pernicious delusion. (52)

    There’s that word, ‘pernicious’. Hmmm, both Yahweh and Jesus, as Dawkins describes them, are pernicious. Maybe that’s what caused me to make the connection, to remember those two Bible-specific versions of an omni-ish deity and not that Dawkins was attacking all omni-ish deities. What I wonder here, is whether Dawkins was intentionally relying on this feature of the typical human brain, to make this association with the word ‘pernicious’. What think you?

    One thing I know is that in his A Manual for Creating Atheists, Boghossian’s definitions are pernicious. But Dawkins’? A few pages later, he says:

    Unless otherwise stated, I shall have Christianity mostly in mind, but only because it is the version with which I happen to be most familiar. (58)

    This gives me more reason to see why I and McGrath and others mistakenly thought that Dawkins was targeting his conceptions of Yahweh and Jesus. I must say, it seems a bit iffy for Dawkins to rely on a very careful, technical reading of his book, given that it was written for popular consumption. If I were ever to review his book, I’d have to read it technically, which is surely not how the lay populace read it. If the technical reading is different from the informal reading, that makes me very suspicious. It smells of rhetoric, perhaps of Harry Frankfurt’s bullshit.

    Here’s another thing in TGD, the quotation which begins the chapter, “Monotheism”:

    The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal – God is the omnipotent Father – hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates.
                 — Gore Vidal

    At an engagement party I attended several months ago, I ran into someone who was probably an atheist, who was studying women’s rights in the Middle East. She told me that when Islam was founded, it had higher standards for the treatment of women than the contemporary culture. She told me that there exist now, Muslim women who are campaigning for a recognition of this, and a reinstatement of the spirit that existed in the Qu’ran. I randomly found this website, which corroborates this idea. I recognize that one could accuse the authors of cherry-picking, but Gore Vidal’s “loathing women” seems flatly contradicted by “Noble Quran 4:19″.

    So it seems like Dawins is flagrantly misrepresenting Islam, via his implicit endorsement of Gore Vidal’s statement. There is no nuance to TGD; it is a polemic. I suppose I ought to know this, but is Dawkins not purporting to show what it is like to be a rational person who respects the evidence?

    One more:

    The God Hypothesis suggests that the reality we inhabit also contains a supernatural agent who designed the universe and—at least in many versions of the hypothesis—maintains it and even intervenes in it with miracles, which are temporary violations of his own otherwise grandly imutable laws. (81-82)

    Good grief, this is as old as Hume, and a ridiculous caricature. If you want a scholarly view of the laws of nature, see The Computational Theory of the Laws of Nature. If you want a view of miracles which predates Hume and makes his criticism ridiculous, see A Leibnizian Theory of Miracles. (Leibniz lived 1646 – 1716; Hume lived 1711 – 1776)

    Dawkins is clearly biasing his readers against Christianity (or [mono]theism; he oscillates) via caricature. I’m not sure I can blame McGrath for screwing up that one time. Dawkins’ modus operandi is to offer trifling versions of Christianity. I’m not sure it even matters whether he predicates his arguments on these trifling versions; they have the effect of emotionally manipulating his readers and he ought to be held responsible for that. Or do folks disagree?

  • Luke Breuer

    It’s not as if Jesus was saying that thoughts do lead to actions if you dwell on the thoughts enough… fun TED talk.

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