This is one of four critiques of the book, The God Delusion (New York / Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), by perhaps the world’s best-known (and most influential?) atheist, the biologist Richard Dawkins (born in 1941). His words will be in blue. Links to the four critiques follow:
First let me mention a few things that Dawkins seems utterly unaware of, in a book purporting to be a serious critique of Christianity. He never mentions Alvin Plantinga, almost universally regarded as the greatest living Christian philosopher, and ignores his famous argument regarding God as a “properly basic belief.” He never mentions William Lane Craig, quite arguably the most able philosophical defender of theism (though not an orthodox Christian). He is unaware of philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) and his notion of tacit knowledge, or Cardinal Newman‘s “illative sense” and profound philosophy of religion, set out in his masterful volume, Grammar of Assent. In other words, there are massive theistic arguments (in my own opinion, the best ones) that he shows not the slightest awareness of.
He gives St. Thomas Aquinas and the cosmological and teleological arguments just a few pages, complete with breezy, condescending dismissals of a few words (e.g., “The five ‘proofs’ . . . are easily . . . exposed as vacuous”: p. 77): as if this is sufficient to take out such longstanding theistic philosophical arguments, still taken quite seriously (agree or no) by many many philosophers. To me, this shows that Dawkins was not attempting a serious (scholarly) book. He was much more interested in mere “populist” propaganda and merely preaching to the atheist choir; revving up the troops for the cause.
The usual (almost obligatory) atheist sweeping, prejudicial insults of Christians and religion generally also indicate the intellectually non-serious and sub-par nature of the project:
I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig . . . when he said,’When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.’ (p. 5)
Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument . . . (p. 5)
[T]heology . . — unlike science or most other branches of human scholarship — has not moved on in eighteen centuries. . . . there is no evidence to support theological opinions . . . (p. 34)
It is in the nature of faith that one is capable, like Jung, of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so . . . Atheists do not have faith . . . (p. 51)
[P]eople of a theological bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they’d like to be true. (p. 108)
The theologians of my Cambridge encounter were defining themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had declared by fiat that it could not. Who was I to say that rational argument was the only admissible kind of argument? (p. 154)
[W]e should blame religion itself, not religious extremism — as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion. . . . I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called ‘extremist’ faith. The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism. . . . religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation . . . Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make a case for what you believe. . . . how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn’t have any demonstrable standard to pervert? (p. 306)
Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. (p. 308)
[C]rass insensitivity to normal human feelings . . . comes all too easily to a mind hijacked by religious faith. (p. 315)
Accordingly, believing all this bilge, Dawkins subscribes to his colleague Nicholas Humphrey’s recommendation that Christian parents should have no right to bring up their children as Christian (yes, you read that right):
Parents . . . have no God-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist that they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith. (p. 326)
Credit where is is due: he does manage to smuggle in a few truthful and fair-minded bits:
I accept that it may not be so easy in practice to distinguish one kind of universe [with God or without] from the other. (p. 61)
For all sorts of reasons I dislike the Roman Catholic Church. But I dislike unfairness even more, and I can’t help wondering whether this one institution has been unfairly demonized over the issue [of sexual abuse]. (p. 316)
But the bulk of the book is, sadly, filled with digs and falsehoods. I continue:
[O]nly about one in twelve break away for their parents’ religious beliefs. (p. 102)
This is a favorite atheist polemical chestnut: “Christians are raised with this nonsense, so of course they accept it, and this is the main or sole reason they are Christians, not because of any particular thoughtfulness, or reasons.” But of course, this sort of “environmental” approach works both ways (or is a “two-edged sword”). The many nations of the world that are secularizing (especially in Europe) will predictably have a greater and greater effect on the proportion of atheists in any given country.
It’s not some mass revival or pure reason, with folks in those places hitting the libraries with a a vengeance and reading only the very best, most reasonable atheist and anti-theist material and becoming true atheist believers. If someone is raised in an atheist home, they will tend to become an atheist, just as the converse is true in Christian homes. Atheists are subject to the same familial influences and lack of reason and impartial study, and biased formal education (one way or the other) as anyone else. And if we are gonna go down this road of social influences, I would also dare to note the profound effect of absent or lousy fathers, in the case of many famous atheists.
Just to mention my own case: it’s clear that I have “bucked the trend” all through my life and didn’t simply follow some blind, predetermined path. I wrote recently in one of my comboxes:
I can tell you how I have changed in many major ways through the years. Here’s just a short list:
1. Pagan / practical atheist to evangelical Christian (1977). . . .
5. Evangelical Christian to Catholic (1990).
I changed twice from the religious view I was raised in (nominal Methodism): to evangelicalism and then to Catholicism. So the “childhood” theory doesn’t work with me.
I spent my years from age ten to 22 not going to church at all on Sunday, so I was obviously bucking the trend of my surroundings. And I can assure you [I was talking to an atheist from Norway] that being a strongly committed [orthodox] Catholic is not exactly the mainstream position in the US, either (or even in the Catholic Church!). This has always been a Protestant country, and now it is what I would call a “secularist-dominated” culture. I’m not with that trend at all.
I guess I’m one of Dawkins’ “one in twelve” then. He and other atheists will have to deal with my rational arguments, rather than my childhood background. That takes a lot more work, doesn’t it?
Dawkins tackles the miracle of the sun at Fatima, Portugal in 1917:
It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination. (p. 91)
[T]he earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. (p. 92)
But of course neither quick, breezy dismissal necessarily applies at all. Whether something is a mass hallucination has to be proven, not merely asserted, and even Dawkins concedes that a true mass hallucination is difficult to explain. Atheists have been applying this pseudo-analysis to Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances for years, with no success.
The second scenario is not at all the only possible one, either. The miracle could simply consist of God changing the perception of the people there (an LSD trip, for example, does the same thing purely naturally); not literally making the sun do weird “unscientific” things. The same possible scenario would also apply to the famous miracle of the Bible, where Joshua “made the sun stand still” (Josh 10:12-13). First of all, the Bible uses pre-scientific phenomenological language. We actually still do the same today, when we say “the sun came up” or “the sun went down at 6:36.” That’s not literal language, because we know that it is the earth’s rotation that makes it appear that way.
Joshua’s miracle was a indeed miracle, but it could still have been of a psychological nature, as opposed to an astronomical one. Or it could be something like, as one Protestant commentary put it: ” the light of the sun and moon was supernaturally prolonged by the same laws of refraction and reflection that ordinarily cause the sun to appear above the horizon, when it is in reality below it.” Atheists seem to always want to interpret the Bible (and in this case, a Marian-related apparition) hyper-literally, but they are often wrong, because they assume primitive ignorance, when in fact, there is a high degree of sophistication that is beyond the atheist’s willingness (not intellectual capacity) to even attempt to understand.
Dawkins waxes “superior” about miracles in general:
The nineteenth century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked. (p. 157)
This is pure poppycock. Atheism has never definitively proved that miracles cannot possibly occur. The classic anti-miracles argument from philosopher David Hume is, upon close inspection, actually remarkably weak (almost circular reasoning). Yet atheists always assume it is unanswerable. Indeed, any universal negative of this sort is virtually impossible to achieve. I would recommend the classic on the topic, C. S. Lewis’ book, Miracles, for those of sufficiently open mind and lack of “embarrassment” to peruse. I think anyone who reads that will grasp that the discussion is not at all as simple and conclusive as Dawkins makes out.
Speaking of David Hume, Dawkins indirectly appeals to his supposed knock-down of the traditional teleological (design) theistic argument for God’s existence:
Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean it had to be designed . . . (p. 114)
Hume in fact did not understand this at all. There are many misconceptions about David Hume, including that he was an atheist. He was not: as I have documented. He was some form of deist. He not only did not completely destroy all forms of the teleological argument (perhaps one form of it at best); he himself accepted the argument in some sense, as a proof or strong insinuation of God’s existence:
The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind. (Treatise, 633n)
Wherever I see order, I infer from experience that there, there hath been Design and Contrivance . . . the same principle obliges me to infer an infinitely perfect Architect from the Infinite Art and Contrivance which is displayed in the whole fabric of the universe. (Letters, 25-26)
The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion . . .
Were men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts, according to one regular plan or connected system . . .
All things of the universe are evidently of a piece. Every thing is adjusted to every thing. One design prevails throughout the whole. And this uniformity leads the mind to acknowledge one author. (Natural History of Religion, 1757, ed. H. E. Root, London: 1956, 21, 26)
See many more details in my linked paper about Hume above. I discovered this tidbit of information, which is scarcely known by atheists as a whole, more than thirty years ago now, and I cite reputable Hume scholars to back it up (not to mention Hume’s own clear words).
Not to nitpick, but Dawkins blows a cited historical fact, when he refers to Luther’s saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other” and says that it was said “as he nailed his theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg” (p. 286). Interestingly, the late atheist Christopher Hitchens makes the same exact mistake (God is Not Great, 2007, p. 180). The nailing of the 95 Theses took place on 31 October 1517. The “Here I stand” utterance is reputed to have occurred at the Diet of Worms (on 18 April 1521). This was a conference in which Luther was asked by the Catholic authorities to recant his heretical opinions. He refused, and that was why he said “here I stand” etc. But I say “reputed” because the same Wikipedia article states: “there is no indication in the transcripts of the Diet or in eyewitness accounts that he ever said this, and most scholars now doubt these words were spoken.”
Dawkins ventures into some (to the experienced apologist) humorous “playbook / talking points” arguments against God that don’t hold any water at all, and would be laughed out of any sophomore philosophy classes dealing with the same topics. For example, he tries to go after God’s omnipotence:
[H]e can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent. (p. 78)
Nice try, but no cigar. This is reminiscent of the old, “can God make a rock so big that He can’t lift it?” silliness. Omnipotence is “the power to do all that is logically possible to do.” No one need take my word alone for that. The secular Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy discusses logical impossibility (even for an omnipotent being) at length in its article on omnipotence.
Dawkins sort of makes fun of Eastern Orthodox philosopher Richard Swinburne in this respect, acting as if he makes some momentous concession, when in fact this is a very well-known theist reply to the proposed “problem”:
Swinburne generously concedes that God cannot accomplish feats that are logically impossible, and one feels grateful for this forbearance. (p. 149)
I would suggest that Dawkins refrain from entering into hundreds-of-years-old philosophical disputes and matters of philosophy of religion where he hardly has a clue. “Don’t do this at home” (and he wants to talk about us being “embarrassed by believing in Christ’s Resurrection?). Dawkins makes a similar elementary mistake about God answering prayer:
. . . mindreading millions of humans simultaneously . . . talking to a million people simultaneously . . . dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery. (p. 155)
He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world. (p. 178)
This exhibits a breathtaking ignorance of orthodox Christian theology proper (theology of God), which holds that God is outside of time (atemporal) and indeed the creator of time as well as matter. Thus, He is not subject to time as we are, and the above scenarios are meaningless. The only “meaning” they have from an informed Christian perspective is that of a joke: Dawkins being ignorant when he is poking fun at Christians for supposedly being so ignorant and stupid, to believe such silly things (that we in fact don’t believe at all). The joke and the last laugh are on him (thanks for the chuckles, Richard). The great apologist C. S. Lewis spoke about this in a BBC radio talk during World War II (listen to it), which later became part of his classic, Mere Christianity:
His life doesn’t consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at 10:30 tonight, He hasn’t got to listen to them all in that little snippet we call ’10:30.’ . . . 10:30 and every other moment from the beginning to the end of the world is always the present for Him. If you like to put it that way, He has infinity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames. That’s difficult I know. . . .
The point I want to drive home is that God has infinite attention, infinite measure to spare for each one of us. He doesn’t have to take us in the line. You’re as much alone with Him as if you were the only thing He ever created. When Christ died, He died for you individually, just as much as if you had been the only man in the world.
Lastly, I’ll conclude with another rather silly, foolish, and philosophically hyper-naive “argument” that Dawkins repeats over and over, as if doing so gives a weak argument more strength:
There is a much more powerful argument, . . . The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’ . . . God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. (p. 109)
[T]he designer himself (/herself/itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. (p. 120)
[W]ho designed the designer? (p. 121)
As ever, the theist’s answer is deeply unsatisfying, because it leaves the existence of God unexplained. (p. 143)
[I]t will most certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed. . . . the designer himself must be the end product of some kind of cumulative escalator or crane, perhaps a version of Darwinism in another universe. (p. 156)
Dawkins’ answer is tunnel vision and circular reasoning. As I discussed in my previous article about Dawkins, science, and Christianity, he disallows anything but matter in the universe (monism). But of course he can’t prove that that position is true. It’s not unassailable at all. No problem for Dawkins: he simply assumes it and asserts it, sans rational argumentation. If someone follows his “methodology” then of course, God as construed in classical theism and Christianity is made impossible by definition.
But such tactics are not all that indistinguishable from what Dawkins disdained with great relish in his vigorous critique of the classic theistic ontological argument (pp. 80-84) — one of atheists’ very favorite “whipping boys” –, concluding: “isn’t it too good to be true that a grand truth about the cosmos should follow from a mere word game?” (p. 81). Dawkins doesn’t strictly play a word game in “dissing” an eternal, uncreated God, but he plays a quite similar “category game” and simplistic sleight-of-hand in two different ways:
1) There is nothing other than matter in the universe.
2) Ergo, God, being a proposed spirit, cannot exist.
This is hogwash for several reasons and plainly circular reasoning. The conclusion (#2) is already present in the premise (#1) and adds nothing new. That’s not argumentation. It’s mere repeated (dubious) assertion, and need not divert us any longer from serious discussion. But with a straight face, Dawkins turns around and makes a second “argument” that contradicts his first one:
A) All matter evolves.
B) Ergo, even if God did hypothetically exist as a physical being, he would have to be the end product of a very long chain of evolutionary development.
First Dawkins thunders that spirit is impossible, and thinks he disproves God thusly. Then he posits that even if God were physical (as folks like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons believe), he would merely be the product of much evolution, and as such, no solution to the problem of ultimate origins, since we have to explain his origin.
Neither argument flies for even a second. Monism can’t be proven, and one need not even be a monist in order to be an atheist. For instance, the distinguished Australian philosopher David Chalmers is what he calls a “natural dualist.” He argues (sort of like the microbiologist Michael Behe, but with completely different methodology) that natural laws and physics cannot explain the evolution of consciousness. Dawkins assumes that gradualistic evolution can do so, but of course never explains how it does it. He and many others simply believe it in blind faith.
Now, which of those two positions is intellectually more respectable? I say it is that of Chalmers, because he admits that he can’t explain something; nor can science, presently understood (which may always change in the future). But Dawkins believes it because it “must” be so and can’t be otherwise. I’ll take Chalmers, thank you (given that choice), because I intensely dislike blind faith and admire intellectual humility and the recognition of the limits of our knowledge, and not falling into the epistemological error of scientism. And I dislike the observable fact that atheists like Dawkins, who constantly accuse Christians of “blind faith” and anti-evidence instincts, fall into exactly the same error and mindset when it comes to ultimate origins.
Needless to say, in classical theism, God is not a physical being. He’s a spirit, and an eternal uncreated one. Physicists and astronomers tell us that there is no matter today that is demonstrably eternal (because present science holds that the universe began with the Big Bang and will end in a “heat death”). The law of entropy (the Second Law of Thermodynamics) also dictates this.
If the Christian / theist claimed that God is physical, Dawkins would have a strong and valid argument. But that isn’t our claim. If in fact God is a non-material Spirit, then He is not subject to the laws of matter and science at all. Therefore, He could in fact be eternal. It’s not proven, but it’s a live philosophical possibility that can’t be absolutely ruled out.
Christians then say that this hypothesis explains the universe in a more satisfying way than Matter Only: which requires that matter, starting with a chaotic Big Bang, organizes itself (via its internal inherent capabilities) through millions and billions of years into DNA, life, consciousness, and eventually human beings. No one has a clue how the first three things happened or could happen, but most atheists of Dawkins’ stripe appear quite content to simply believe in blind faith that it happened, because the alternative possibility is disallowed from the outset, and because (as Dawkins stated in his book in his logically circular bliss), were here now.
That’s not an argument at all, let alone a scientific argument. I would say that it requires far more faith than Christian belief in a self-existent, omnipotent, omniscient Eternal Spirit Who created the universe, which has been argued for in at least a score of philosophical arguments through the centuries. It’s not true that Dawkins has no blind faith, or no faith at all, as he claims. He believes things that he can’t prove (i.e., starting axioms) and that are no more provable or plausible than Christian claims at best; just like every other thinker who has ever lived.
But if he wants to seriously interact with Christian claims and attempt to refute them, it would be an immense improvement for him to at least learn what it is that we believe, and thus, exactly what it is that he claims to refute. Sun Tzu (prob. 5th century BC) sagely wrote in The Art of War:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
The “infinite regress god” business is laughable and not a serious argument, and it doesn’t even argue against the God that theists believe in, in faith, and propose in far more sophisticated philosophical terms. I suggest (in all seriousness) that Dawkins brush up on his Christian theology, logic (even the greatest minds can falter in logic at times), and perhaps even old Sun Tzu.
Photo credit: Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis. Photo by Mike Cornwell (3-21-08) [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.