I am starting to regret the day I decided to order, pay money for, and read Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion. I call this a preliminary report. It may be the only one, since the book irritates me so much that I find it hard to stick with it for more than a few minutes running. I remembered, as I was reading it a moment ago, that in his book, The Twilight of Atheism, McGrath addresses himself to the problem of evil, and, in particular to a paper written by William Alston. Here are my notes to McGrath’s use of that paper (between « and »):
«The next point is very troubling. He takes William Alston’s paper, “The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition” (Alston, Philosophical Perspectives, 1991, 29-67), and takes one thing from the first paragraph which completely misrepresents Alston’s argument. Here is what McGrath says:
As philosopher William Alston has pointed out, any logical argument which attempts to show that evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God ‘is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides’ to be completely bankrupt. So if human reason cannot finally settle the matter, then it will have to be sorted out in other ways. And so attention has shifted away from reason to the human imagination. (McGrath 2004, 185)
This is a misrepresentation of Alston’s point, and comes from the first paragraph alone. This is not substantive or fair use. What Alston says is this (the entire first paragraph of his article):
The recent outpouring of literature on the problem of evil has materially advanced the subject in several ways. In particular, a clear distinction has been made between the ‘logical’ argument against the existence of God (‘atheological argument’) from evil, which attempts to show that evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God, and the ‘inductive’ (‘empirical’, ‘probabalistic’) argument, which contents itself with the claim that evil constitutes (sufficient) empirical evidence against the existence of God. It is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides that the logical argument is bankrupt, but the inductive argument is still very much alive and kicking. (Alston 1991, 29)
So, Alston does not suggest in any way that a turn must now be made to the imagination. Indeed, the word ‘imagination’ does not occur in the article. He is still discussing something which clearly comes within the purview of reason, namely empirical or inductive evidence, even though the issue over the logical coherence of the concept of god (insofar as the existence of evil is concerned) is said to be widely taken to be settled – not, notice, completely bankrupt — for it is only on almost all sides agreed to be bankrupt. And nothing, nothing whatever about a turn to imagination.
Alston intends to discuss in some detail the inductive argument from evil. The conclusions to which he comes are not immediately relevant to the point about McGrath’s palpable misrepresentation. It also has to be said that Altson’s paper ends as it begins with the claim that “our powers, access to data, and so on are radically insufficient to provide sufficient warrant for accepting” the claim that there are some evils that God could have prevented without thereby losing a greater good or causing a greater evil (Alston 1991, 30), and while this is the claim of his paper, it is not obvious that that is by any means the last word. I do not think it is, and the problem of evil is still very much alive and kicking.
In fact, this kind of argument about the gratuitousness or otherwise of some evil needs, I think, to be run by someone in a situation of intense suffering. To suppose that this is an academic argument that can be settled on the basis of words on paper seems to me nothing short of offensive. In addition, I think it is important to look at the end of Alston’s paper, where, after providing his argument against the “inductive” argument from evil, he claims, rather too confidently, that if he is right (as clearly he takes himself to be), “the inductive argument from evil is in no better shape tha[n] its late lamented deductive cousin.” (Alston 1991, 61) If this is too high a claim, perhaps the opening quip about the logical argument against the existence of god is exaggerated as well, as I suspect it is.»
I mention this palpable misreading of the evidence because McGrath does it again in his little book on Dawkins. In discussing Chapter 5, “The Roots of Religion”, of The God Delusion, in his Chapter 3, “What Are the Origins of Religion?”, after mentioning that the definition of religion is central to the scientific study of any phenomomen, he says:
Dawkins deals with this problem by evading it, choosing not to engage with the issues that have famously destroyed previous attempts to generalise about the roots of religion. His analysis rests on the “general principles” of religion13 he finds in James Frazer’s Golden Bough – a highly impressionistic early work of anthropology first published in 1890. It is a highly puzzling strategy.
However, when we look to the page referred to by note 13 — p. 188 — there is nothing there to indicate that Dawkins’ analysis of religion rests on the general principles that he finds in the Golden Bough. Indeed, all he says about Frazer’s book is that it “impresses us with the diversity of irrational human beliefs,” and that “Frazer discerns certain general principles, for example, ‘homeopathic magic’, whereby spells and incantations borrow some symbolic aspect of the real-world object they are intended to influence.” Dawkins concludes from this that “the nonsense that infects vulnerable brains is not entirely random, arbitrary nonsense.” But there is simply no sign that he is using Frazer in order to reduce “religion to some single universal trait,” (60) as McGrath suggests. He had already suggested this at the outset, and there is no sign that is derived from Frazer.
After discussing briefly some features of evolution, such as, for example, that the persistence of some mutations does not necessarily depend on selection, since there is the phenomenon of genetic drift, whereby a feature may be neither beneficial nor harmful to an organism, and may by means of drift become pervasive in a population, Dawkins does go on to remark that languages may evolve at least partly by means of “the cultural equivalent of random genetic drift.” (TGD 189). None of this mentions Frazer and is not dependent on it, though random drift may explain the diversity of irrational beliefs that Frazer noticed. As Dawkins says:
I surmise that religions, like languages, evolve with sufficient randomness, from beginnings that are sufficiently arbitrary, to generate the bewildering — and sometimes dangerous — richness of diversity that we observe. (TGD, 189-90)
My point is that Dawkins does not, a matter that McGrath takes a considerable amount of space in a short book puzzling over, base his analysis of religion on general principles derived from Frazer’s Golden Bough.
The reason that McGrath wants to stick Dawkins with Frazer seems to be so that he can dismiss Dawkins’ ideas as based on “discarded nineteenth-century assumptions.” (60) But it is not clear how what Dawkins says about Frazer is related to what he says on page 166, to which McGrath refers us, where Dawkins, speaking about “the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion”, which differ in their details across the world, claims that such “[u]niversal features of a species demand a Darwinian explanation.” This has nothing to do with Dawkins’ reference to Frazer. Indeed, his reference to time-consuming and wealth-consuming activities is directly related to contemporary analyses of religion, including Boyer (Religion Explained) and Atran (In Gods We Trust). Now, these theories may be wrong, but McGrath cannot hang them from Frazer’s golden bough, and then dismiss them because he hung them there.
This, of course, addresses none of McGrath substantive arguments, such as they are, so, for my sins, doubtless I will come back to them. But this misuse of sources rankled with me and needed to be expressed.