Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Tooth Fairy

As anyone familiar with antireligious polemics knows, a recurring atheist criticism of religious belief is that it is infantile—a childish delusion which ought to have disappeared as humanity reaches its maturity. Throughout his career Dawkins has developed a similar criticism, drawing on a longstanding atheist analogy. In earlier works he emphasized that belief in God is just like believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. These are childish beliefs that are abandoned as soon as we are capable of evidence-based thinking.

And so is God. It’s obvious, isn’t it? As Dawkins pointed out in his “Thought for the Day” on BBC radio in 2003, humanity “can leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age.” This “infantile explanation” belongs to an earlier, superstitious era in the history of humanity. We’ve outgrown it.

Hmmm. Like many of Dawkins’s analogies, this has been constructed with a specific agenda in mind—in this case, the ridiculing of religion. Yet the analogy is obviously flawed. How many people do you know who began to believe in Santa Claus in adulthood? Or who found belief in the Tooth Fairy consoling in old age?

I believed in Santa Claus until I was about five (though, not unaware of the benefits it brought, I allowed my parents to think I took it seriously until rather later). I did not believe in God until I started going to university.

Those who use this infantile argument have to explain why so many people discover God later in life…A good recent example is provided by Anthony Flew (born 1923), the noted atheist philosopher who started to believe in God in his eighties.

Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (IVP 2007), 19-20.

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