The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
I have to admit that I am something of an aficionado for the texts of scientism. Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Carl Sagan and E. O. Wilson all grace my shelves with their well-written visions of a world ruled by science. Of course, Richard Dawkins also belongs to this company and I have enjoyed his books enormously. His atheism was a mild irritant that distracted from his other ideas but did not obscure them completely. Now, though, it is as an atheist first and a scientific exegete second that he wishes to be seen. If I read his views in The God Delusion aright, my Christian faith actually excludes me from those whom he wishes to convey his science. Science and faith are not compatible, he claims, and he has no desire for people like me to feel comfortable with both.
Many atheists have given The God Delusion a hiding in the review pages of various journals. A few have stood up for Dawkins, Steven Weinberg among them, but these can only be described as the usual suspects. No one, as far as I can tell, has come away from The God Delusion more of an atheist than they started. Some, like Michael Ruse, are intensely embarrassed by the experience. I often get emails from Christians concerned about aspects of their faith or scientific discoveries. I am struck that I have received but a single email from a Christian struggling because of what Dawkins has written in his new book. This is hardly surprising because The God Delusion is not intended, whatever Dawkins says, to make people into atheists. Rather it is a shot in the arm for the die hard anti-religious faithful who have been taking a hammering of late.
When I started to read, I found The God Delusion mildly entertaining and stimulating. By the end, though, I was just fed up with it. There is only so much angry rhetoric that anyone can take. However, for Christian apologists, the book is rather a relief. I did initially fear that Dawkins, with brains, eloquence and time at his disposal could come up with a dangerous case against God. I know, from reading Pinker and others, that neuroscience provides arguments that require careful analysis to refute. The problem of evil can be framed in ways that even the most sincere Christian finds disturbing. A well reasoned and methodical case for atheism, written by a respected and talented writer could have been formidable indeed. I have no idea, apart from sheer laziness, why Dawkins did not pen such a volume.
‘Lazy’ is probably the best word to describe The God Delusion. It is under-researched, under-argued and appears to have been dashed off the cuff. Few scholarly references are given; most of the information comes from the internet and has not been properly verified; page references are lacking; points are not followed up; no effort is made to understand counterarguments, and more thought is required to patch up the propositions presented. For example, Dawkins consistently makes the point that theology isn’t a real subject because it has nothing to be a subject about. He doesn’t seem to realise that this is not an argument but a tautology. Of course atheists don’t think there is a God for theologians to study. So what? The argument must be to show that there is no God. Another bad case of laziness afflicts Dawkins whenever someone says something he can’t get his head around. He claims he cannot believe that Stephen J. Gould, Michael Ruse and C. S. Lewis believe what they say. This is a reflection of Dawkins’ own failure of imagination. It certainly tells us nothing whatsoever about the positions that Gould, Ruse or Lewis have adopted.
Dawkins is also frequently inconsistent. He attacks the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists (the ones who want to find Christian allies to help fight creationism) for being wimps and traitors. Then, a few pages later, he admits that Kenneth Miller is one of the most formidable opponents of Intelligent Design (“ID”) precisely because he is a Christian. Perhaps the appeasers are useful after all. Dawkins attacks ID for being a cop out which betrays the wonder of science. Rubbish. If ID were to show that life was indeed designed, that would be the biggest scientific breakthrough since, well, Darwin. Dawkins might find such a result distasteful (and I find it very unlikely), but I can’t fault the nobility of purpose of those seeking to demonstrate it.
In his arguments against God, the sloppy thinking gets even worse. We are repeatedly assured that a universe where God existed would be very different from one where he did not. This, Dawkins claims, makes God a scientific hypothesis. But we are never told how the universe would be different if God didn’t exist, or what experiment we should do to verify his non-existence. The treatment of the traditional proofs of God's existence is largely an attack on straw men. The cosmological argument is far stronger than Dawkins gives it credit for and he does not bother interact with its modern proponents like William Lane Craig. On the ontological argument, Alvin Plantinga is the man to go to, but Dawkins goes nowhere near him.
For me, the most significant argument for the existence of God is personal experience. Here, Dawkins’ treatment is grossly inaccurate. When he talks about the visions afforded to pilgrims by Our Lady of Fatima in 1917, when the sun was seen to dance, he says this didn’t happen because the rest of the world didn’t shake too. Given that the dancing sun was a vision, Dawkins’ counter is ridiculous. A vision shared by thousands of people must have an external cause and cannot be a trick of the mind. The sun doesn’t actually have to move in space for the vision to be divine. Of course, it could be a trick of the atmosphere but I do not know if the phenomenon has been observed elsewhere. As for common religious experience, Dawkins doesn’t address this at all except to say that the brain can be tricked. So it can, but I fail to see why we should believe that it is being tricked in this case. Besides, Dawkins’ understanding of brain science appears to be based on no more than a reading of Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker, neither of whom can be said to dominate the field of consciousness studies (although their rivals have the misfortune of neither being represented by literary agent John Brockman nor published by Penguin). This refusal to engage with the serious literature is evident throughout The God Delusion, whether the subject is biblical studies, anthropology, ethics or philosophy.
The fourth chapter is called “Why there is almost certainly no God.” Dawkins begins with a discussion of the anthropic principle. This, as most of my readers will know, states that we do not need to be surprised that the conditions of the universe are just right for us to exist because if they weren’t just right, we wouldn’t exist. What is fascinating about Dawkins’ treatment is that he starts off right and then goes wrong without ever seeming to realise it.
He is right on the question of why we evolved here, on earth, and not somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy or elsewhere. Dawkins explains that the chances of life arising in any given place might be extremely slight (say one in a billion), but as there are a billion, billion possible planets in the universe, it is not surprising that it evolved somewhere. That it was on earth is just fluke but not in need of specific explanation. But let me ask the question that Dawkins doesn’t bother with. What if the chances of life evolving were only one in a billion billion billion? Then the anthropic principle is no help because in this case, we ought not to exist at all. Saying that, in fact, we do is not an explanation, just a tautology. In the case of the fine-tuning of the universe, the anthropic principle is useless because we have only one universe and Dawkins agrees that the laws of physics do appear to be fine-tuned. Instead, the atheist must postulate a whole lot of universes with different properties so that we can say one of them had to be just right. The evidence for these other universes is, of course, nil. An intelligent creator who we already know through religious experience is a far better explanation.
Then Dawkins plays his trump card. He claims that a God who could create a universe must be much more complicated than the universe is. Complex beings can only appear through evolution so for a God to pop into existence without a cause is vanishingly unlikely. It is impossible to overstate how bad this argument is and yet Dawkins is extremely proud of it. He is like a small child who has just created a mud pie and expects bounteous praise for his artistic genius. The scientific standard model tells us time began with the big bang. The universe came from somewhere without time, from eternity, and in that case all bets on probability are off. It is senseless to say that one eternity is more or less likely than another. With eternity to play with, nothing is unlikely. Indeed everything might be a certainty. As for evolution, it is an algorithm that cannot occur with time to operate in and to invoke it in this case is daft. It is the sign of a man with a mania for evolution. At one point Dawkins dismissed the idea of God being eternal. How on earth can he justify that? An eternal being is the only way to end the infinite regress of creation and creators. Now you see how foolish Dawkins was to make light of the cosmological argument for God, which addresses just this question.
Dawkins’ alternative theories for where religion arose from are sadly too shallow and inadequate. I was looking forward to this chapter because it seemed one area where Dawkins own area of expertise could shed some light on a fascinating topic. The trouble is that his hostility towards religion forbids him to accept that it has any sort of selective advantage. This is the wrong way for the Darwinian to proceed. Dawkins knows this, as his remarks at the start of the chapter “The Roots of Religion” show. He’s in good company, though. Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is another potentially interesting exercise in speculation ruined by the bias of its author. And neither of them can let go of those wretched memes. When will they stop flogging this dead horse?
Having failed to convince his readers that God doesn’t exist, Dawkins moves on to morality. Some of what he says on this is interesting and useful. For instance, he explains how kin selection and game theory help explain how a sense of morality has evolved in all of us. Here biologists have managed to catch up with St Paul, Thomas Aquinas and other religious ethicists who realised that there is a natural law written in all men’s hearts. Then Dawkins argues that religious people are no better at acting on this natural law, which we all have access to, than atheists. True. He takes this to mean that atheists are as moral as theists. Utter rubbish. Once again, Dawkins fails to spot the difference between an argument and a tautology.
Let me explain. Dawkins believes that abortion, euthanasia and having sex with whoever will let you is fine and dandy. Most religious people would disagree. The reason for this is that Dawkins bases his morality entirely on natural law but this, religious people say, is deficient. Religious ethics go further and make more demands than nature alone. Now Dawkins, not recognising religious ethics as valid, claims he is just as ethical as the theist. By his own lights he is, but that is irrelevant to the case. Only by discounting one of the major sources of morality can he claim atheists and theists are equally moral. Dawkins freely admits that most atheists are in favour of what John Paul II called the culture of death. Ergo, atheists are generally less moral than theists. All Dawkins can truly claim is that atheists accept some morals which they share with theists.
This is rather more serious than you might initially think. Thanks to one of the great rewritings of history, many atheists claim that non-believers have always been at the vanguard of progressive morals. In fact, the opposite has been the case. Dawkins correctly notes that morals change over time and admits that many freethinkers before the Second World War were alarmingly racist. What he doesn’t care to mention is that Christians have a much better track record than freethinkers on racial equality. For instance, although some confederates twisted the Bible to justify slavery, the huge majority of anti-slavery pressure came from Christians both in the UK and US. The freethinkers of the enlightenment and the American founding fathers (who Dawkins is keen to recruit to his side) made little effort to condemn slavery. What started off as a crazy campaign by marginal Christians has now become conventional wisdom.
But for atheists, the record of moral failure does not stop there. If you were a secular progressive in the 1930s, you would probably be in favour of eugenics and the sterilisation of the mentally ill. The latter actually happened very frequently in the US to the disgust of many Christians. This treatment of mentally ill people only came to an end thanks to the reaction against Nazi policies. But at the time, it was seen as the ‘progressive’ thing to do while the religious objectors were foolish reactionaries. Perhaps, in fifty years time, when the moral zeitgeist has moved on further, today’s climate of abortion will be compared to the ancient Romans’ exposure of new born girls.
Most atheists will claim that religion causes conflict. Most theists will agree. Dawkins correctly explains that religion plugs into our evolutionary in-group/out-group programme. We tend to divide the world into what’s with us and what’s against us. Football teams, nationalism and religion all thrive on this but religion is the most obvious case. With his usual blindness, though, Dawkins fails to realise what benefits religion has given us by being the ultimate in-group. European civilisation only exists because the Church was able to prevent its military aristocracy from destroying themselves. So many more wars have been prevented by religion than caused by it. Today, the Arabs all gang up on Israel, but frankly but for Islam they would all attack each other. Look what happened with the avowedly secular Saddam Hussein who invaded Iran and Kuwait. Only when attacked by the US did he find God, obviously because he realised that he needed to be part of the Islamic in-group. War is the natural state of man. For a long time, religion was by far the best way we had found to put a stop to it and empire the only viable alternative. Today, admittedly, we have found that democracy is even better than both.
Let me give one final example of how Dawkins always fails to see the other side of the argument even when it is breathing down his neck. In his penultimate chapter he equates bringing up children within a religious tradition as child abuse. I’ll ignore the libel but for one point. We learn about a psychologist who helps people who have been mentally scarred by the terror of hell. Most of us Christians don’t share this fear because we are confident in Christ’s saving work. But some, probably vulnerable to all sorts of worries, are damaged by it. It is one of the reasons that many churches no longer try to exaggerate what hell means. The trouble that Dawkins refuses to recognise is that atheists are as guilty in this department as the most fire-breathing preacher. I have a friend who was brought up by atheist parents. When she asked him what happens when you die, her father admitted that you are worm food. Annihilation was all that he could offer her. This caused her such distress that many years later she admitted that she was afraid of having children in case they suffered as she had. Even today, she suffers panic attacks over death. Worse, her atheistic upbringing means that she has never been able to find her home in the church despite desperately wanting to.
You could argue that hellfire is worse than annihilation. You’d be right although I’m a believer in hell as annihilation anyway. But the atheist has no alternative. There is no escape, nothing you can do. Like it or not, you are doomed. That many atheists can treat this matter with equanimity is fortunate for them. But others, like Dylan Thomas and my friend, rage against the dying of the light and will not go quietly into the night. As for my friend, Dawkins would have to admit that by his lights her parents’ atheism led to her mental abuse and that she would be much better off brought up as a Christian. His “consciousness raising” over the religious upbringing of children is really just wilful blindness to reality on his part.
Let me end on a personal note. For some time now a village atheist of the internet called Steven Carr has been cyber-stalking me. His beef is that I mentioned that in The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins says that if a statue of the virgin waved at you, it would be caused by the extremely unlikely natural movement of the atoms in her arm, not by a divine miracle. Carr thinks Dawkins didn’t actually say this and that I am ‘lying scum’ for suggesting he did. Sadly for Carr, Dawkins repeats the statement even more unambiguously on the last page of The God Delusion. For me, it is by far the best thing about the book.
© James Hannam 2006.