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.

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