An Argument for Atheism

In Chapter 2 of The God Delusion, Dawkins gives an argument for atheism. The argument has some problems, and may or may not be salvageable. After I point out some flaws, I will make an attempt to fix-up the argument.

In fairness to Dawkins, his main argument for atheism is supposed to be given in Chapter 4, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”. If the argument in Chapter 2 turns out to be no good, there could still be a strong argument for atheism waiting for us in Chapter 4. When I am finished with my analysis and evaluation of the argument in Chapter 2, I will do my best to find and clarify another, perhaps better, argument for atheism from Chapter 4.

An argument against the existence of God is summarized in a single paragraph in Chapter 2 of The God Delusion:

I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus or Wotan. Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion… (Mariner paperback edition, 2008, p.52 – emphasis by Dawkins)

Here is a straightforward formulation of this argument:

1. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
2. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives late in the history of the universe.
3. No creative intelligence is responsible for designing the universe.
4. The God Hypothesis is false.
5. God does not exist.
6. Atheism is true.

The paragraph quoted above includes the claims and inferences through premise (4). The last two steps are not stated in the passage, but can be defended as implied by the context in which the passage occurs (i.e. the prefaces and first four chapters of TGD).

Where do I get premise (4) from? This premise is a clarification of the statement, “God, in the sense defined, is a delusion…”. In context of this paragraph “God, in the sense defined” is clearly a reference to the definition of “the God Hypothesis” that Dawkins has just presented.

The term “delusion” was clarified by Dawkins in the Preface. He quotes two somewhat different definitions of “delusion”, but what the definitions have in common is the phrase “false belief” (TGD, p.27 & 28). For Dawkins, to say that some idea is a “delusion” is to imply that it is a “false belief”. This word might have other implications as well (such as “irrational belief”), but falsehood is the primary implication. So, I have substituted the term “false” for the somewhat fuzzy word “delusion”.

It is clear by Chapter 2 that a primary focus of the book is the question, “Does God exist?” So, it is very reasonable to interpret (5) as being an unstated conclusion, drawn from (4). Furthermore, Dawkins appears to make this very same inference later on, at the end of Chapter 4:

If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion – the God Hypothesis – is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist. This is the main conclusion of the book so far. (TGD, p.189)

Dawkins appears to infer that “God…does not exist” from the claim that “the God Hypothesis…is untenable.” Read “untenable” as “improbable”, since that is the main idea of Chapter 4 (“the argument from improbability”, TGD, p. 136,137,139, and 187). According to Dawkins, the God Hypothesis is very improbable, and from this he concludes that the existence of God is very improbable.

The final inference from (5) to (6) can also be defended as a plausible bit of reading between the lines:

5. God does not exist.
6. Atheism is true.

First of all, this is a very natural inference to make for most people, so it is the kind of inference that is likely to be left implicit and unstated. Second, this inference follows from a definition of “atheism” that is implied by Dawkins (see Def2 in my previous post “15 Kinds of Atheism” 7/12/08). Finally, Dawkins has explicitly stated in the Preface that a goal of the book is to convert people to atheism (TGD, p. 28). So, if he can persuade people to accept (5), then getting them to accept (6) is an obvious next step towards achieving his stated goal.

Based on the context of the passage on page 52, I think it is reasonable to see the inference from (4) to (5), and the inference from (5) to (6) as implied but unstated pieces of Dawkins’ argument in that passage.

What is Philosophy? - Part 1
The Slaughter of the Canaanites - The Grand Inquisitor Jones
The Slaughter of the Canaanites - Principles of Justice
Six Findings from Experimental Science Which Disconfirm Theism
About Bradley Bowen