The God Delusion

Just before Christmas, a new, updated paperback edition of Richard Dawkins’ best-selling book, The God Delusion was released. I was given the book as a Christmas gift (at my own suggestion, I hasten to add) and finished reading it a couple of weeks ago. I thought that, as many students of MBC (and other visitors to the site) may not read the book, it might be helpful to give an overview of some of the central points, along with some arguments against Dawkins’ attack on theism. And make no mistake, an ‘attack’ is precisely what this book is; destroying faith is Dawkins’ aim from the outset: ‘If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.’ (Preface p 26…. Dawkins at least has the decency to go on to admit that his aim is ‘presumptuous optimism’).  It’s not surprising then, to find the author arguing from every conceivable angle against theism; from the sciences, and from philosophy, history, psychology and so on. The book is a veritable onslaught of reasons as to why we should not believe in God.

One of the foundational points of Dawkins’ argument rests on his absolute conviction that evolution (and not only biological evolution) underlies everything. ‘Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution’. (p 52, Dawkins’ emphasis).  If he’s right, of course, the notion of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Being (i.e., The Being of Absolute complexity) existing ‘in the beginning’ is ruled out a priori.  Dawkins writes: ‘…any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide.’ And of course, most of the traditional arguments for God’s existence are affected by this logic; the Cosmological Argument, The Ontological Argument and so on being neatly dispatched (the latter in a particularly sneering and mocking way).

The fact that Dawkins stands ‘on the shoulders of giants’- who were often theists – doesn’t impress him either. Newton and the rest who came before Darwin didn’t have the knowledge we now have about how life on earth evolved, so they can be excused. Scientists now know better!  We are given the results of a recent poll (1998) of the National Academy of Sciences (American equivalent of the Royal Society), which showed that only 7% believed in a personal God.  Several quotes attributed to Einstein are cited in an attempt to show that (despite some Christian writers’ attempts to show the contrary) the great man was an atheist. To rub all this in, on page 127, we are given the breathtakingly arrogant quotation of Paul Bell that ‘the higher one’s intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious or hold “beliefs” of any kind’.

Dawkins claims not to believe in ‘chance’ as far as evolution goes and says that Christians usually misunderstand what he is saying. ‘The argument from improbability states that complex things could not have come about by chance’. This does not mean that the only option is intelligent design, but rather ‘graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity’ (p139). And the conclusion is (of course) that however improbable it may all seem, evolution nevertheless has happened, because here we are, discussing it! Dawkins’ main point here is that the options are not between design and chance (as we so often hear), but between design and natural selection.

The ‘Intelligent Design lobby’ are quickly dealt with as the author discounts the theory of ‘Irreducible Complexity’ (the notion that, for example, an eye is only of any use if it is complete) claiming that evidence for such a theory is unconvincing. We are then given some examples which purport to demonstrate the flawed nature of irreducible complexity as a serious theory.

One of the favourite apologetic arguments for defending the rationale of theism in the past has been that science answers the how questions, whilst religion answers the why questions. Dawkins tries to demolish this distinction by pointing out that our putting the word ‘why’ at the beginning of a question does not make it a valid question. As an example, he writes; ‘Why are unicorns hollow?’ and follows this with more absurd ‘questions’.  Eventually, he admits that there might just be real questions that science can’t answer, but adds that even if this is the case ‘what makes anybody think that religion can?’ Indeed, the very notion that non-answerable ‘scientific’ questions might be passed on to theologians, he dismisses on the grounds that theology ‘isn’t even a subject.’

Another favoured defence for theism has been to note the seeming anomaly of the existence of art in the evolutionary scheme of things. Professor Dawkins treats the argument thus: ‘Schubert’s musical brain is a wonder of improbability, even more so than the vertebrate eye’. But our admiration of such genius may be driven by ‘a sort of jealousy of genius. How dare another human being make such beautiful music/poetry/art, when I can’t? It must be God that did it’ (p111f).  Although I’ll try to answer many points raised by the book at the end of this paper, you’ll excuse me if I don’t dignify this quotation with a response!

Arguments which begin from a personal experience of God are also written off, this time as hallucination, or as belonging to the same category as a child’s ‘imaginary friend’. What about those of us who believe we encounter God in a less dramatic way through reading Scripture? We, too, are given short-shrift. C.S Lewis for example ‘should have known better.’ Why should we expect to meet God in Scripture? ‘There is no good historical evidence that he (Jesus) ever thought he was divine’ (both p117).  The Scriptures are unreliable, ‘copied and recopied, through many different “Chinese Whispers generations” by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas’ (p120).  ‘The four gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen…’ On page 123, the  tirade ends with these words: ‘

Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, and the film made from it, are arousing huge controversy in church circles.  Christians are encouraged to boycott the film and picket cinemas that show it. It is indeed fabricated from start to finish: invented, made-up fiction.  In that respect, it is exactly like the gospels’.

The only difference for Dawkins seems to be that Brown’s novel is new fiction and the gospels are old fiction.

When it comes to morality, Dawkins, early on in his book, begins by using the familiar arguments about ancient laws (e.g. in Deuteronomy and Leviticus) and how we can know which still apply and which don’t. (Incidentally, he uses almost childish arguments against prayer, citing Francis Galton, who asked whether we should expect the Royal family to be ‘unusually fit’ because Anglicans pray for them every Sunday! [p85])  In a later chapter devoted specifically to this area entitled ‘Why are we good?’ he suggests that one of the reasons for our morality stems also from evolution and from deviations along the way. For example, it’s possible that we evolved to care for those closest to us, but over time, this inbuilt care began to ‘misfire’. Dawkins writes:

In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators.  Nowadays that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists. Why would it not? We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce).  Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes (p 253).

The author goes on to question religious peoples’ motives for being ‘good’.  We are surely not trying to be good just to avoid the disapproval of our God, because that would not be morality but just ‘sucking up, apple polishing’ (p259). He (rightly) suspects that many religious people would ‘continue to be “good” even when not under divine surveillance’ and claims that if this is so, we have ‘fatally undermined (our) claim that God is necessary for us to be good.’

As touched on briefly above, Dawkins doesn’t see how we can claim to get our morality from the Bible and by page 268, is claiming that its moral teaching is ‘obnoxious’; a book which is a ‘chaotically cobbled together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and “improved” (sic) by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries.’  The conclusion is that we cannot rely on the Bible.  Moreover, the changing moral Zeitgeist means that we would no longer look to the Bible for our moral guidance in any case. In defence of this claim, he cites some of the most horrific passages of the Old Testament, likening the destruction of Jericho and the invasion of the Promised Land, for instance, to Hitler’s invasion of Poland and Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Kurdish people.

To be fair, Dawkins is a little easier on the New Testament but sees some teachings here to take great offence at too.  The main one is the doctrine of the Atonement and its cause, The Fall. ‘What kind of ethical philosophy is it that condemns every child, even before it is born, to inherit the sin of a remote ancestor?’ And on the next page; ‘God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam.  Ever since Paul expounded this repellent doctrine, Jesus has been worshipped as the redeemer of all our sins.’ (pp 285-286).  On page 287, Dawkins describes all this as ‘vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent’ and ‘barking mad’. I’m not going to go any further in analysis of the book, but want to leave you with a few comments; comments which may help if you ever find yourself in discussion with someone about The God Delusion.  

Firstly, we have to admit that the biology and science behind a lot of what Dawkins is talking about is complex stuff which most ordinary people will neither have studied nor understand properly. However, we don’t need to be scientists to question Dawkins’ philosophical starting point. Let’s look, for example, at his statement that the evidence for evolution involves not on an argument between design and chance but between design and natural selection. Even if (for the sake of argument) we were to concede this point and feel that we may need to look more carefully into what he’s saying here, ‘natural selection’ by itself is still light years from explaining how life (or indeed anything else) started. As no one can know what existed before the ‘Big Bang’ or what created it (at least so far), it seems that some kind of philosophical leap of faith must be taken at the very outset, whatever we are to believe.

Not only is this foundational point a philosophical, rather than a scientific one, but many of Dawkins’ other arguments rest on similar philosophical (and not scientific) assumptions. This is not the place to go into the way arguments develop logically, but suffice it to say that Dawkins is brilliant at beginning his arguments either with a false premise, or by using true premises to reach false conclusions. The previous paragraph gives just one example. Let’s look at three others. 

Firstly, as we saw above, Dawkins seems to think that ‘religious’ people don’t act ‘morally’ just to please God, so therefore, they don’t need Him as a reason to act morally. Well, most Christians just do not think in this way. True Christians, if they understand the Gospel at all, would say they are responding in love to the love that’s been shown to them by God. Dawkins, like most people in our land today, does not understand this, and no mention of what you and I would call the ‘true’ Gospel is referred to in his book. Rather, Dawkins talks about ‘religion’, which mainly amounts to legalism and ritualism, and is therefore (at least as far as Christianity goes) basing all his arguments in this direction on false premises and false understandings. He writes ‘paraphrasing from many sources’ that ‘Hitler was a bad man, Christianity teaches goodness, therefore, Hitler can’t have been a Christian!’  In such ways, he can go about setting up a ‘straw man’ and ‘cleverly’ (so he thinks) knock it down.

Secondly, consider Hartung’s words which Dawkins quotes as part of his argument on p 292: ‘Jesus was a loyal Jew.  It was Paul who invented the idea of taking the Jewish God to the Gentiles….. Jesus would have turned over in his grave if he had known that Paul would be taking his plan to pigs.’ Leaving the wild inaccuracies and offensive idiocy of this quotation aside, I hope it nevertheless demonstrates how an argument can be made to lead anywhere we please if we set up a false premise at the outset. And Dawkins’ book is stuffed with such spurious and childish arguments; arguments which a first year philosophy student could demolish at a stroke (whether they agreed in principle with the conclusions or not).

Thirdly, we saw how Dawkins talked of our natural care for others as being ‘misfirings’ which are ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’. Unfortunately, from a philosophical standpoint, we could surely argue the exact opposite too; that our hatred of enemies has been carried beyond its original use so that it ‘misfires’ and causes some of us to hate not only our natural enemies, but those higher up the social scale, those who support a different football team, or for that matter, society in general!

Some of Dawkins’ arguments also commit the cardinal philosophical sin of contradiction. Here’s one example which begins on page 34, by citing a sentence from  Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, by Julian Baggini: ‘What most atheists do believe is that there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.’ Now, at the very end of the book (p 416), Dawkins, talking about our childhood memories, quotes Steve Grand who writes ‘You weren’t there.  Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event (i.e., the thing being remembered) took place… Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you.  Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made’ (Emphasis mine).  If science can’t understand or explain such things as this, along with all the other mysteries of quantum physics (and it can’t) then there’s no earthly reason why theology should be ruled out as a means of enquiry. 

When it comes to his criticisms of Scripture, Dawkins is as out of his depth as I would be writing a book on biology or science.  He (like most people in our own time), has no concept of the serial nature of revelation and its interpretation. To understand my point, consider the nature of  ‘serial’ and ‘parallel’ connections in electrical/electronic circuits. In a parallel connection, a current may flow (say) from a battery to four devices (say light bulbs) using four pairs of separate wires, each connected to the battery and to the positive and negative terminals of the light bulbs.  In a serial connection, the battery may similarly drive four bulbs, but these are ‘in line’.  A wire goes to the positive connection of the first bulb, the next wire from the negative of this bulb to the positive of another bulb and so on in a chain (as with most Christmas tree fairy lights) with the final wire returning to the negative battery terminal.  In the latter example, if the chain is broken, the current stops, and the bulbs go out. (In a parallel connection, only the affected bulb would go out).  The Christian interpretation of scripture is serial. That is, it proceeds in a line, and therefore, whatever teaching we’re looking at must go through the revelation of Jesus Christ and the teaching of the New Testament.  We cannot simply ‘tap in’ making a ‘parallel’ connection to (for example) Joshua’s invasion of Jericho and say; ‘this is what we should do in Iraq’ (or wherever).  Every connection we tap into has to follow the line, through the Lord Jesus Christ and subsequent revelation. Our Christian faith, although greatly influenced by the events of the Old Testament, is ultimately based on the New Testament. Most people, however clever (and Dawkins is indeed clever) have, nevertheless, no conception of this simple rule, and therefore, make the most glaring errors when it comes to their attempts at biblical interpretation.

The God Delusion is an interesting book in many ways, not least because Professor Dawkins is such a good writer; one of those clever people with a real gift for ‘writing down’ to the level of ordinary ‘people in the street’ and making complex ideas understandable. But there are some things he does not understand himself. Critically, he does not understand what a Christian is. If people call themselves Christians, then, for Dawkins, that’s what they are. If they call themselves ‘fundamentalist’, they are ipso facto a menace; people walking the streets who may at any moment decide to plant a bomb or fly a ‘plane into a nearby tower. Professor Dawkins does not understand the Bible, or the science of biblical interpretation.  He does not understand theology, nor does he know how to frame a proper philosophical argument. But, and this is the most crucial point of all, he has no concept of the true Gospel of grace. In this he is not alone. And like so many other lost souls in this dark world, Richard Dawkins, the so-called ‘High Priest of Atheism’ desperately needs our most fervent prayer.

Chris Lazenby is Tutor in Theology at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School (United Kingdom). 

  1. Hello Chris, I have not read the book, but I saw Professor Dawkins on TV and was struck by the fact that he tried to use science to debunk something which is largely non scientific. To my mind it would have been no less silly to use legal arguments or the theory of music to try and debunk Christianty. However clever he is, he just didn’t “get it.”

    I’m grateful to you for the trouble you took to study the book and write this article. I probably won’t read it myself.

    Peter

    PS Do you think it might be fun to try and convert this Dawkins? How would one go about it? What a catch he would be – almost as good as St. Thomas or St. Paul, but come to think of it they both needed some special intervention.

  2. Thanks for this article Chris… as always you have chosen one of the most difficult and fascinating areas to address!

    There’s an interesting video here (http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=6474278760369344626&q=dawkins%20richard%20duration%3Along) which is a video’d discussion between Dawkins and McGrath (a Christian and Author of an excellent introductory level textbook and reader).

    I think Dawkins fails in his efforts to disprove God. One of his biggest weaknesses is his absolute insistence on “evidence” for the existence of God. The very presence of evidence itself suggests a gap between the cause and the belief. Footsteps in snow are “evidence” of somebody passing by – but what “evidence” do I need if I can see the personal first hand!? It seems Dawkins rights off any knowledge obtained by way of experience (as was held by empiricists) and accepts only knowledge obtained by reason. Yet reason alone without sensory perception has never been able to prove matters of fact and reality. And supposing God does exist, he is a matter of reality and not a concept – therefore he could never be proven by logic alone.

    Nevertheless some important arguments for the existence of God are not convincingly dismissed in his book – these include Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalist and his modal ontological argument.

    Whenever it comes to these matters of “proofs” for the existence of God, I always remember that the Bible doesn’t make any effort to prove God in the logical sense that Aquinas did in his Quinquae viae and others have developed since. It presuppose that God is reality that is experienced. As Barth said “Theology begins in silence” – we depend upon God’s self revelation. We humans could not build a spiritual tower of babel in order to “find things out about God” – theology and faith is always a gift of grace: a “downward arrow”… never an upward.

    Interestingly, I wonder how you would feel about an argument that Theology doesn’t necessarily try to answer the “WHY” question, but the “WHO” question. Firstly, “who” as in the sense of God and particularly Christ; Secondly, the “who” that brings meaning to humanity who can only find meaning when understood in their correct relationship with their creation.

  3. In regard to Peter’s question about converting Dawkins, I would add this: for a man who “doesn’t believe in God”, he spends a significant amount of his time talking about God. I think one of the fundamental problems is that Dawkins’ notion of what a God is differs from the Christian understanding. I also think he enjoys being the high priest of atheism – it certainly pays his bills.

  4. Ollie
    Thanks for comments and links to video etc. I was aware of some of this stuff out there (particularly the book by McGrath) but deliberately avoided looking into them until after I’d read Dawkins’ book for myself (to avoid being influenced by what others think).

    I’ve since listened to a download of an mp3 of Dawkins and MacGrath in debate, chaired by Joan Bakewell (which I assume is the same as the video you linked). Although I’ve always admired McGrath, I think in this instance, he skated around some of the issues a bit too politely. In particular, he failed to point out that Dawkins doesn’t understand either Christianity, nor what a Christian is. In this deluded state, he is not alone. To get into long arguments with someone like Dawkins without first establishing this basic point (along with arguing from the outset that, strictly speaking, Christianity is not ‘religion’) is probably a waste of time.

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