McGrath has written a short rebuttal of Dawkins , The Dawkins Delusion: atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine (Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath, SPCK). Here we shall examine his important 4th chapter which deals with the charge that religion is evil.
Does religion lead to violence? There are certainly a lot of people who seem to be motivated to do terrible things by their religion and in history religions do seem to have sometimes encouraged intolerance and war. McGrath thinks this point has some validity. The evidence of religiously motivated violence is undeniable as McGrath knows only too well from his experience of growing up in Northern Ireland. However, he does not believe violence is a necessary aspect of religion (for instance Jesus showed no violence) and it is quite apparent from history that many non-religious political ideologies have caused violence such as Pol Pot in Cambodia. Dawkins ‘ belief that atheists could not do such terrible things as religious people is demonstrably false.
Dawkins argues that acts such as suicide bombings could only be motivated by religious ideas, but there are examples in history against this. Under Stalin most Orthodox priests were killed just for being priests, along with clergy of other religions not to mention hundreds of thousands of Baptists. There seems to be a link between Stalin’s atheistic ideology and who he chose to have killed. With regards to suicide bombers it is worth remembering that the Marxist guerrillas in Sri Lanka invented the suicide vest. In other words religion is not the only ideology capable of such violence. Political ideology can do it too.
Moreover, McGrath argues, it is hard to imagine that all divisions among humanity would vanish if religion were to go. Race, culture, language, class, political diversity will still exist. Is all diversity to go? That seems somewhat reminiscent of the totalitarian extremes humanity would rather abandon.
Another interesting point which McGrath notes briefly is that Dawkins seems unable to distinguish between belief in God and religion, and yet there is a great deal of evidence that many believe in God without considering themselves part of an institutional religion. McGrath notes that Dawkins also has an extraordinarily selective reading of the Bible. Many Jewish and Christian scholars and believers find aspects of these texts puzzling. Dawkins seems unwilling to consider the context in which these texts were written or to apply any of the cultural and historical factors which are considered when interpreting the texts in many religious traditions. These factors do not match the proper definition of religion according to Dawkins – a view of religion he then seeks to dispatch. Of course there will be some religious groups and traditions that may agree with Dawkins view on scripture, but they are hardly representative of all religions or religious people.