Dawkins God Delusion Rebuttal Essay
A rebuttal of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion 1
By Robert Slane
In the last couple of years, Christianity has come under increasingly hostile attacks from fundamentalist atheists. In America, three books in particular – Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – have enjoyed a high level of popularity. Of the three authors, Dawkins is by far the best known in this country, and his book has been on the bestseller list for some time, earning its author various accolades in the process.
Perhaps we might be tempted to think that such a book has little do with us. But judging by the unanimous acclaim given to The God Delusion in the national press, it is likely that the ideas contained in it will have a big influence on policymakers and the nation as a whole over the coming years. And if this turns out to be the case, we as Christians will find ourselves to be an increasingly persecuted people. For amongst other assertions in the book, Dawkins claims that a religious education amounts to child abuse, which society has a duty to prevent. Does it seem far-fetched that the British State would come to the same conclusion and begin monitoring what parents and churches teach to children? At the moment maybe. But for many Christians around the world, such persecution and interference by the State is par for the course, and if events and laws in this county in recent years have taught us anything, it is that the State is aiming its fire at our faith with increasing fierceness.
As a result of Dawkins’ book, and the others mentioned above, such attacks are likely to continue and the fierceness and intensity of them will no doubt increase. All of which means we will undoubtedly encounter more and more of the arguments made in them when speaking with unbelievers, and it is likely that such arguments will be increasingly hostile. This four-part series seeks to examine the main points of Dawkins’ book and, hopefully, to rebut them. It is hoped that it may, with God’s blessing, help to arm us against the attacks made on our faith, better equipping us to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
The Author, his purpose and his claims
In the short biography at the beginning of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins is said to be Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. We are not told how much time he now devotes to aiding the public in their understanding of science, but it is clear that at some stage in his career he took somewhat of a detour and decided to devote the majority of his time to another cause entirely: attacking Christianity. Not that he sees any incompatibility between these two preoccupations. Indeed, he is adamant that the question of the existence of God is a purely scientific one, and therefore presumably regards aiding the public in their understanding of science and aiding them in their grasp of atheism as two sides of the same coin. But given his increasing obsession with the latter of these vocations, it may only be a matter of time before his masters at Oxford ask him to drop his current academic title, and instead invite him to head up an entirely new department altogether as Professor for the Eradication of Christianity.
Dawkins begins The God Delusion begins by stating that it is aimed at “people who have vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realise that leaving is an option … usually because of some form of childhood indoctrination.” The word indoctrination, in this sense, denotes somebody accepting something as being true without being able to give a reason why they believe it to be true. To a certain extent Dawkins is right; there is undeniably a great deal of such indoctrination about. Take, for example, the millions of children who have been taught that evolution is a proven fact, and who sincerely believe it to be so, yet who are utterly unable to offer a single piece of evidence to back up this “truth.” Just to cite one example, I once asked a teenager who was a staunch evolutionary atheist to give me one piece of evidence that convinced him of the truth of evolution. After hesitating, he presented me with his prized piece of proof upon which all his beliefs rested: Darwin’s Origin of Species. That was it!
It is unlikely that this is the kind of indoctrination Dawkins has in mind, but nevertheless it doesn’t square well with his claim that atheism is synonymous with free-thinking and indicates a “healthy independence of mind”! Dawkins wastes little time before denouncing religion, and whilst he denies that religion is the root of all evil, he has no trouble asserting that it is the root of most evil. Elaborating on John Lennon’s Imagine, he says: “Imagine a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers”, no Northern Ireland “troubles”, no “honour killings,” no shiny-suited bouffant haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money.” There is of course much in this catalogue of evils that we would all rather had not happened, but perhaps we might add a few more to the list: “Imagine a world with no atheism. Imagine no Soviet gulags with millions of victims herded like cattle to their deaths simply for failing to acquiesce with the atheistic state, no Nazi holocaust instigated by a madman who took the Darwinian theory of ‘favoured races’ to its logical conclusion, no Cambodian killing-fields, no planned starvation of the people of Mao’s China, no mass murder of unborn babies, no nihilistic young generation without purpose in their lives because they, unlike Dawkins, actually understand the practical implications of being told that they live in a purposeless Universe.”
Later in the book, Dawkins attempts to explain that although a great many evils have been carried out by atheists, there is no evidence to suggest that they carried out their evil deeds because they were atheists or “that atheism systematically influences people to do bad things.” Well no one is suggesting that all atheists are mass murderers or oppressive tyrants! But in the case of all the regimes mentioned above, it was precisely their atheistic character that caused them to do what they did. For example, in the case of the Soviet Union, it was expressly stated by its architect, Lenin that, “We must combat religion. That is the ABC of Marxism.” And in a letter he wrote to Maxim Gorky in 1913, he revealed his belief he was perfectly justified in using force to carry out this goal of eradicating religion: “Every religious idea, every idea of God, even flirting with the idea of God, is unutterable vileness … vileness of the most dangerous kind, contagion of the most abominable kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions … are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of a God decked out in the smartest ideological costumes. Every defence or justification of the idea of God, even the most refined, the best intentioned, is a justification of reaction.” Notice these final, chilling words. They are the words of a man who didn’t flinch from putting them into practice when he obtained power, and it would be a brave or a foolish man that would attempt to deny the link between his atheism and his actions.
Dawkins’ denunciation of all things religious is odd, however, given the fact that, whether he is aware of it or not, he too is a religious man. Unbelievers like to pretend they are not religious, because it fills them with a sense of superiority – as if religion were some putrid disease which they themselves re clever and enlightened enough not to suffer from. But let us be clear: atheism is a religion. The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religio, which literally means “to bind together.” This binding together can be taken in two senses, personal and collective. On a personal level, it means the set of beliefs which a person holds to and which are essentially “bound together” in their mind to form their worldview. And since it is the case that atheists have such a set of beliefs, it is clear that on the personal level atheism falls as much within the definition of a religion as, say, Christianity or Islam.
On the collective level, religion is a set of beliefs which “bind together” many people to form a distinctive, organised group. Whilst the atheist might grudgingly admit that he is religious in the personal sense of the word, it is likely that he will be deny being so in the collective sense, claiming that it is not religion as such that he is opposed to, but organised religion. Yet it is clear that atheists have just as much desire to “bind themselves” together as members of any other religion do. Dawkins unwittingly admits this when he speaks of the “difficulties of organising atheists” and his hope that the book will encourage atheists to “come out” and “make a lot of noise” so that they “cannot be ignored.” Does this sound like a call for atheists to unite or “bind together” in the fight against the enemy? Yes it does. Is this not then an organised religion? Yes it is.
The two statements of the atheist faith – the Communist Manifesto and the Humanist Manifesto – together with the great atheistic experiments of the 20th Century – the Soviet Union, Albania, North Korea etc – are ample proof of how capable and determined atheists can be to “bind themselves together” around their shared beliefs. Whatever else atheism is, it is clearly a religion in both the personal and the collective sense. It might be objected that what Dawkins really means when he uses the term “religion” is the worship of a deity or deities. Fine, but this still doesn’t square with his claim that a world without religion would be a world without evil. If there were any truth in the claim, it ought to be the case that wherever “non-religion” has been practiced, we should be able to look at that place as a beacon of light to be admired and copied. But can we do this? Hardly! It is for the atheist to explain why “no religion” has never lived up to John Lennon’s fantasy, but rather has left a trail of havoc in its wake. Perhaps they were merely the wrong type of atheists! Perhaps the problem was a stubborn undercurrent of religion which remained to thwart the great atheistic projects! Or perhaps the understanding of these atheists was simply not as lucid and enlightened as the likes of Richard Dawkins!
Before proceeding to examine the main arguments in The God Delusion, there is one further claim made in the preface that deserves comment. Dawkins present atheists to his readers as a kind of persecuted minority, claiming that people are reluctant to admit to their atheism because of prejudice against them in society. Although he cites a few instances to back up his claim, the general picture he paints of an afflicted and silenced group is laughable. Indeed, the absurdity of the claim can be seen by reading the plaudits on the cover of his book. There cannot be many subjects that unite this nation’s newspapers, but somehow Dawkins seems to have found the magic formula. The Express claimed the book was “desperately needed.” The Guardian described it as “spirited and invigorating.” The Sunday Times saw it as a book to help us shed this “superstitious nonsense that has bedevilled us since our first visit to Sunday School.” To the Mail it was “a rallying cry to those who want to come out as non-believers, but are not quite sure if they dare.” The Sunday Telegraph said, “If you want understanding of evolution or an argument for atheism, there are few better guides than Richard Dawkins.” And the Mail on Sunday asserted, “The case Dawkins makes couldn’t be clearer: There is no God. All religion is wrong.” Does this sound like a subject that society simply won’t tolerate? Can you name one book by a creationist which would produce such a chorus of favourable reviews in the media and be given pride of place in the window displays of all the major high street bookstores (or indeed any place) as The God Delusion was? This disturbing consensus of opinion in the national press shows clearly that atheism is not merely accepted in society; it is in the ascendancy, and atheists appear to be in very little danger of facing persecution for their beliefs.
The arguments set forth by Dawkins in The God Delusion can be separated into seven parts: the improbability of God; natural selection as the explanation for life; natural selection as the explanation for the roots of
religion; natural selection as the explanation for the roots of morality; the immorality of the Bible; the evils of faith; and the equating of a religious upbringing with child abuse. It is to these points to which we now turn.
The Infinite Probability of God
The whole edifice of The God Delusion rests squarely on the foundation of the alleged improbability of God. But despite recently being voted one of the three greatest intellectuals in the world by the readers of Prospect magazine, Dawkins’ main argument for the improbability of God is not much far advanced from the childish question, “If God made me, who made God?” As he says at the close of chapter 2, “The whole question turns on the familiar question, ‘who made God?’ … A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity, because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument … demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.”
The use of this argument to suggest the improbability of God is a hugely misleading one. For the position rests on the false assumption that humans are capable of understanding the attributes and properties of God, such as His eternal and infinite being. Dawkins clearly believes that we are capable of such understanding as he says, “The presence or absence of a creative intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice – or not yet – a decided one.” But it ought to be obvious to us that this is not the case, since all the attributes that God is said to possess are, by definition, outside our knowledge and therefore beyond the realms of scientific enquiry and discovery. Why so? Well, you and I live in a universe that consists principally of three things: time, space and matter, which is why the Bible begins with the grand statement, “In the beginning (time), God created the heaven (space) and the earth (matter).” This being so, our only frame of reference in the physical universe is to time, space and matter, and so using our natural reasoning we find ourselves utterly unable and unqualified to comprehend the notion of a Being who is said to be the exact opposite of these three categories: timeless, transcendent and spirit. So by reasoning and experience alone, we are (as Dawkins tacitly admits) unable to state with any certainty the existence or the non-existence of God. Instead, we are faced with two possibilities: the first is that there really is nothing outside of time, space and matter; the second is that there is something outside of it which we do not naturally know and are not naturally capable of grasping and understanding. So on the basis of our knowledge of all that exists outside time, space and matter – which is precisely zero – the only conclusion we can reach is that the probability of the existence of God is exactly 50/50.
Using the “Who made God” argument to claim that God is extremely improbable is simply an attempt to discern the probability of an unknown (in this case God) by trying to understand the properties of that unknown, which is clearly a logical impossibility. To give a little illustration, imagine a foetus that is able to think and reason as well as a fully grown adult, and imagine that it is aware of the water surrounding it, but not of anything beyond that. Its entire sphere of knowledge consists of water, and everything outside water is an unknown, including, of course, its mother. Now, is the foetus in any position to make scientifically verifiable statements about the probability of the existence of a mother by trying to understand the attributes of the mother? Of course not! And why? To the foetus, which knows nothing but a life lived in water, and therefore which has no ability to conceive of life outside water, the idea of a being that is said to exist outside water appears to be utterly inexplicable and so the foetus would undoubtedly conclude that such a being is very very improbable. This doesn’t, of course, mean that the foetus has no mother. All it means is that the foetus cannot understand the concept of a mother. And so it is with Man. Trying to determine the probability of God by trying to grasp the concept of an uncreated being, is merely a fruitless attempt to superimpose our knowledge of time, space and matter on a being for whom by definition these characteristics simply don’t apply. The question, “Who made God” can never be legitimately used to demonstrate the improbability of God; instead, all it does demonstrate is our inability to comprehend how God did not need to be made.
But if we cannot determine the probability of God by looking at the attributes of that which we do not know (i.e. His eternal being), the question arises can we do so by looking at that which we do know: time, space and matter. The answer is yes we can, but in order to do this, we must first understand two things: firstly, the alternative explanation of how the Universe came into being (i.e. the Big Bang) and secondly, the nature of probabilities. The version of the Big Bang theory which is widely touted in the media and believed on by the general public goes something like this: billions of years ago, an atom or “cosmic ball” containing an astronomical amount of matter, exploded, releasing the matter into a pre-existing space. But it is important to grasp that this is not what Big Bang theory actually proposes at all. In the popular version, matter, time and space are pre-existing. But in the real version of the theory, there is no matter, there is no space and there is no time. On the contrary, matter, time, space (and energy) are all said to have come into existence with the Big Bang and so are all products rather than pre-existing components of it. So the Big Bang doesn’t just pit a random atom in the depths of time and space against God; it actually pits no time, no space and no matter – literally nothing – against God.
As for probability, the likelihood of an event occurring depends on the strength of the entity acting upon that event. So for example, if you were asked which team has the greater probability of winning next year’s F.A. Cup, Salisbury City or Manchester United, you will almost certainly say Manchester United, because they are the stronger team. So in the world of football, so in the Universe as a whole: the greater or more powerful the entity, the greater the probability of the event it acts upon coming to pass. Although we cannot determine the probability of God by examining His attributes, we can apply the principle of probability to the Universe, asking whether it is more likely that it was brought into existence by God or by the Big Bang. So if we first put God into the equation and ask, “What is the probability of an infinite and omnipotent entity being able to bring the Universe into existence” what do we find? Well, since the strength of the entity – God – is infinite, it follows that the probability of such an entity being capable of bringing the Universe into existence is effectively an infinite probability. If we now put the conditions that are supposed to have existed with the Big Bang into the equation and ask, “What is the probability of nothing being able to bring the Universe into existence,” what do we find this time? Well since the strength of the entity in question this time is effectively zero, it follows that the probability of this “non-entity” being able to bring the Universe into existence is not, as evolutionists would have us believe, merely extremely unlikely; it is in fact an infinite improbability.
This is in effect the teaching of Romans 1:19: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” In other words, “Although the attributes of God, such as His eternal being, are indiscernible to you because they lie entirely outside your sphere of knowledge, the Universe, which does lie within your sphere of knowledge, clearly testifies that it must have come from God, leaving you with no rational basis for doubting His existence.” The whole premise on which The God Delusion rests is therefore a delusion itself. We cannot understand the attributes of God; yet we can understand the attributes of the Universe, and it is these attributes which unmistakably declare that far from being “very very improbable,” God is in fact an infinite probability.
To be continued
University of Toronto
75 Queen’s Park Crescent
Toronto, ONT M5S 1K7
In his 2006 bestseller, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, presents an argument against “God” that mirrors the rhetoric used by the religious fundamentalists he sets out to criticize. Anticipating the accusation of “fundamentalism,” Dawkins argues that he is not a fundamentalist because he does not prescribe violence against his opponents (282). Yet he believes ridicule is a valid form of discourse and uses disease imagery to describe the religious (34, 176, 186, 188, 193-4). His language is therefore divisive, painting the world in hues of black and white, good or evil. As opposed to “irrational” religion, which is a “vice” and a “poison” (its followers delusional if not insane), science and reason are unlimited in their potential to discern the truth and set the human race in a moral direction (5, 6, 20, 23, 374, 262-272). Using such rhetoric, The God Delusion resembles a religious tract in its intent to convert its reader to atheism: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down” (6). Dawkins also argues that he is not a fundamentalist because he does not base his beliefs on a literal interpretation of a holy book; rather, he grounds his conclusions in “mutually buttressed evidence” (282). But like the Christian fundamentalist who misrepresents and oversimplifies Darwinian evolutionary science, Dawkins presents a monolithic and oversimplified straw man of “religion,” which he belittles and denigrates. Generalizing from religious extremism and fundamentalism to all religion, Dawkins demonstrates a deafness to the religious other and an inability to step outside his Darwinian “Theory of Everything,” the parameters of which are limited to the empirical declarative (144).
The term “fundamentalism” emerged in early twentieth century American Protestantism after the publication of a series of twelve mass-produced booklets called The Fundamentals (1910-1915) (Numbers 33). Organized by Reverend A. C. Dixon, these booklets presented the conservative stand of an influential group of British, American, and Canadian writers against the ever-growing influence of continental European theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl, Martin Rade, and Adolf von Harnack. They contained extensive reference to evolution and included one contribution with the characteristic title “The Decadence of Darwinism.” Approximately three million copies were distributed to pastors, evangelists, missionaries, theology students, and active laypeople throughout the English-speaking world. The five fundamentals professed in these volumes were the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection, and the second coming of Christ (Schwarz 227).
Martin Riesebrodt, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Chicago, notes that “fundamentalism” has become a term which nowadays is also used to refer to religious revival movements outside the Protestant tradition, in Islam and Judaism, in Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and even Confucianism. He notes, however, that it has also become a catchword used to label and delegitimize religious movements. Nevertheless, because of the empirical widening and political instrumentalization of the concept, Riesebrodt proposes transforming it into a sociological category with potentially universal applicability (270):
Riesebrodt recognizes that fundamentalisms share much in common, which points, he argues, to the possibility that such movements emerge under the impact of similar processes of social transformation (270). He conceptualizes fundamentalism, then, as a specific type of religious revival movement, responding to those social changes which the fundamentalist perceives as being crises: “In such movements people attempt to restructure their life-worlds cognitively, emotionally, and practically, reinvent their social identities, and regain a sense of dignity, honor, and respect” (271).
If Christian fundamentalism can be understood as a reaction to liberal secularism, Dawkins’s aggressive stance against anything religious, including God, might be seen as a reaction to the growing influence of the religious right. Ronald Numbers, Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, mentions a 2005 Gallup poll which found that 53 percent of Americans affirmed that “God created human beings in their present form exactly the way the Bible describes it.” Nearly two thirds (65.5%) of those polled regarded “creationism” as definitely or probably true (1). Also in 2005, the Pew Research Center found that “nearly two-thirds of Americans say that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools” (Numbers 1; Goodstein A7). Numbers was most surprised by the discovery that many high school biology teachers–from 30% in Illinois and 38% in Ohio to a whopping 69% in Kentucky–supported the teaching of creationism (Numbers 1; Moore 40). Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of the magazine, Science, wrote an editorial in April 2005 noting that alternatives to the teaching of biological evolution were being debated in no fewer than 40 states, and that in several school districts geology materials were being rewritten to agree with the understanding of a young creation found in scripture. Writes Kennedy:
The God Delusion is written in the context of this religious/political convergence, or perceived social crisis, and echoes the fundamentalism it seeks to undermine.(1)
Aware of the accusation that his hostility to religion marks him out as “a fundamentalist atheist,” Dawkins defends himself by delineating an overly simplified and shallow definition of “fundamentalism.” He starts by arguing that he is not violent like fundamentalists and that his hostility towards religion is limited to words: “I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn them at the stake, crucify them, or fly planes into their skyscrapers, just because of a theological disagreement” (281-2). Nevertheless, like the Christian zealot, Dawkins reduces the world to a binary formula of good and evil, his rhetoric governed by the building of divisions (Strozier 42-3). Religion is a “vice,” an infection by a “mind virus,” while “atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind” ( 6, 176, 188, 186, 193-4, 3). Religion is irrational superstition, an insane delusion, while science is rational, evidence-based, and grounded in reality (5, 23, 34, 67). Religion is obscurantist, ignorant and intellectually stagnant, while science is unlimited in its potential to discern truth (34, 117, 355, 374). The religious are indoctrinated, unquestioning, and blind in obedience, while the atheist is an iconoclast, an independent thinker (5-6). Evolution is atheism, religious belief is fundamentalism, and the two are irreconcilable (11-12, 61, 66, 100, 117-118, 355).
This polarization of the religious and non-religious may not explicitly prescribe violence, but it encourages hatred and derision of the religious. Consider Dawkins’s use of disease imagery, in which he compares religion to a common cold or “parasite” that manipulates its host “into behaving in such a way as to benefit the transmission of a parasite to its next host” (165). Atheism offers the “cure” (324). But what does Dawkins propose to do with those “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads” who are not persuaded by his message (5)? He is unclear about how exactly religion might disappear. If a people is “infected” by religion, by the God “meme,” and “manipulated” by this “mind virus,” yet refuses to be “cured,” then how are the “infected” any different from the meme they are infected with (260, 176, 165)? To stigmatize one is to stigmatize the other.
In Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America, Charles Strozier encapsulates the attitudes of the Christian fundamentalist as follows:
Those who refuse Jesus are not only dumb but also different, dangerous, and possibly contagious. The believer is obliged to rub up against the taint in the commandment to convert, which implies a conquering of death. But to stay with that death too long can be a dangerous affront to the self. (90)
Replace the word “Jesus” with “the atheism of Dawkins” and this paragraph could very easily apply to The God Delusion. According to any kind of fundamentalist, difference is threatening, leads to aggression and must be overcome to prevent violence (Thompson 429). Such a perspective contrasts sharply with Eric Gans’s recognition that God as love, available in human interaction, is “significant difference itself” (“God is Love”). God, according to Gans, is that peace-making first gesture that defers violence though a communal exchange of signs. However, the dialogue de sourds, or dialogue of the deaf, between religious and atheistic fundamentalisms, pre-empts communication as each party presents their partial understandings as absolute. Thus, the aborted gesture of appropriation (the locus of communication) never takes place as both extremisms lunge for the appetitive central object (ultimate truth), risking the violence of mimetic competition. That is, in their insularity and absolutism, both groups scare each other into existence and are reflections of the enemies they create, their antagonism fed by their mutual fear. Apparent, then, is a certain degree of mimetic tension between Dawkins and the religious fundamentalist he seeks to destroy under the monolithic label, “religion.”
What too often is missing from the debate is any sense of humility, any awareness that one’s perspective may be partial, and any acknowledgement that social life is usually too complex to allow for simple solutions (Berg 1568). The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment: “All too often throughout history, those who believed in the possibility of this perfection (variously defined) have called for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress” (Hedges 2).
Dawkins’s universal ideal has been called “the cult of science” (Hedges 47). His utopia is a “no place” expunged of religion and governed by the totalitarian powers of science and reason, his faith in these Enlightenment values uncompromising and absolute (1, 374). He notes that “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other”; “Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer” (48, 50). Thus, Dawkins’s God is of the empirical declarative, what Gans defines in its most general terms as “a predication about a topic” (Language 170). Writes Andrew Bartlett, “such a scientist wants to confine the being of God to the space of the grammatical subject of a proposition that can be falsified, verified, tested, disproved. He wants God to be a ‘thing’ either on or off the scene of representation” (6). In a sense, Dawkins anticipates this accusation when he gives voice to his hypothetical critic, saying, “‘The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don’t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.’” To this hypothetical critic, Dawkins responds, “That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long” (36).
Nevertheless, the “old man with a beard” is exactly the God that Dawkins is reacting to. Imposing biological models onto culture (e.g., the meme ), or onto the cosmos (e.g., Lee Smolin’s multiverse theory ), Dawkins is unable and unwilling to understand God outside of his “Theory of Everything” (144). For Dawkins, God is a delusion because “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” (31). Such a Creator, capable of designing our universe to lead to our evolution must be extremely complex and supremely improbable and demand an even larger explanation than the one he is supposed to fulfil (147). One of Dawkins’s main arguments against God, then, is that as an explanation God is a “magic spell” which has been rendered redundant and unnecessary by a growing knowledge of the powers of natural selection. Using the terminology of Daniel Dennett, Dawkins argues that gods are “Skyhooks”: “They do no bona fide explanatory work and demand more explanation than they provide. Cranes are explanatory devices that actually do explain. Natural selection is the champion crane of all time” (73). Therefore, argues Dawkins, “the theist’s answer is deeply unsatisfying, because it leaves the existence of God unexplained” (143).
This argument may stand against proponents of Intelligent Design who look to the “irreducible complexity” in the natural world to argue for a divine designer (a designer whose existence must then itself, according to that logic, demand an explanation), but it does not hold against those whose faith in God is informed by evolutionary science and other bodies of knowledge; whose understanding of God is not fixed, static and dependent on a literal understanding of the Bible; and whose God is not a “God of the gaps” but a God in and of the world. For many, God is of course “explanation,” but not one which stands over and against natural selection; God as explanation includes, subsumes and builds upon what is revealed by science, but is not delimited by it. God’s value and significance, then, is not grounded in God’s efficacy as an empirical explanation of the material world. Argues Bartlett, “the being of God cannot be so grasped, as if God were a perceptible entity on the same level with a sasquatch, a unicorn, the ghost of one’s grandmother or the angel on one’s shoulder. Any truth of faith must be an ostensive truth, and the truth of God’s being is that of an invisible intentionality the verification of the existence of which is by definition inaccessible to ‘logic and evidence’ alone” (Affirmations 6-7). He further argues that all anthropomorphisms about God must therefore be “delicately and respectfully set aside for a time” (Affirmations 8). That is, both atheist and idolatrous believer must give up their mutual interest in idols and their attachment to the central object as figure; whereas the believer seeks the sacred figure for divine contemplation, the atheist seeks the figure for “pleasurable demolition” (Affirmations 9). Generative Anthropology, then, seeks to get beyond the declarative sentence to the ostensive gesture, to that first sign, which designates its referent by showing it (Bartlett, Affirmations 10; Gans, Science 5).
Like Bartlett, Michael Ruse also recognizes the limitations of reason and logic and the evidence of the senses. He argues that the twentieth century’s findings in science and mathematics should produce humility about humanity’s capacity to discern ultimate reality. That is, the Darwinian knows that our limitations come from having evolved in certain ways. These are ways appropriate to our station as “midrange primates who came down out of the trees and went into the garbage and offal business” (140). (2) As Ruse notes, we can stretch out from the familiar to the unfamiliar, as demonstrated in modern science, but we are extending ourselves and there is no guarantee that such stretching is capable of infinite extension. A man can run a four-minute mile, for example, but he will never run a two-minute mile. A Darwinian, then, should be dubious that his selection-based powers and attributes, including mental attributes and powers, can provide total insight into ultimate physical reality (141).
Dawkins, however, like the religious fundamentalist who believes that he knows and carries out the will of God, fails to recognize human limitations. With his all-encompassing faith in reason and the declarative, he believes that human beings may “discover that there are no limits” to understanding (374). As a consequence, he derides religion as being entirely “irrational” (23, 184, 186-7, 199, 51). He argues, “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument”; people who have faith are not “taught to question and think through their beliefs” (308). Yet, according to the classic definition of Christian faith, theology is fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding” (Anselm). It is faith venturing to inquire, daring to ask questions, to fight the inclination to accept things as they are, challenging unexamined assumptions about God, ourselves and our world. Although there is a place for mystery in the recognition of the limitations of being human, there is also a place for reason. According to Daniel Migliore, faith must be distinguished from fideism, which says we reach a point where we must stop our inquiry and simply believe; faith keeps on seeking and asking in dialogue with experience and scripture, a hermeneutical circle. Truth is only ever partially possessed as faith sees only dimly, not face to face (1 Cor. 13:12) (Migliore 2-3). And reason plays a key role in this struggle. Writes Augustine,
Augustine “attained to that which is” only through the use of his faculty of reason (Confessions VII.xvii.23).
Richard Harries states that the idea of faith and reason being inherently opposed to one another is “mind-boggling in its lack of historical perspective” (19). He notes that all philosophers, ancient and modern, have believed that reasons can be adduced for and against a religious view of life: “Most of them have, in fact, believed in God but all have thought religious belief a matter of rational argument.” Religious belief is not a matter of two plus two equals four, but of considered judgement. It involves our aesthetic sense, our moral judgement, our imagination and our intuition. These judgements can be the basis of reasoned discussion, but they also involve the whole person (Harries 19). Thus, religious believers do not necessarily view their sacred text as a source of truth that is absolute, plain and unchanging. They interpret their canon with an eye to competing sources of truth, including modern science and philosophy. Likewise, they consider the changing condition of society for its impact on their religious understandings. Accordingly, many religious believers form and revise their beliefs, constantly striving to maintain an overall belief structure that is logical and coherent. Hardly impervious to persuasion, they are broadly open to rational dialogue, both within and outside their religious community (Conkle 352).
Thus we come to Dawkins’ second rebuttal against the “secular fundamentalist” label:
Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. . . . [I]f the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book. By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. (282)
It could be argued, however, that while religious fundamentalists toss out all evidence that contradicts their holy book, Dawkins overlooks and distorts evidence that does not serve his proselytizing agenda. Consider, for example, his defense of atheism: “What matters is . . . whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does”; “Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism”; “why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?” (273). But atheism is not an absence of belief. Atheism is a faith-claim like any other religious faith-claim in that it cannot be supported with empirical evidence. In this sense, atheism is a belief that can facilitate and ground other beliefs, in the name of which violence can be committed. Dawkins argues, “I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca–or Chartres, York Minster, or Notre Dame” (italics mine) (249). In reality, Marxism is an atheist ideology for which Soviet authorities systematically destroyed and eliminated the vast majority of churches and priests during the period 1918 to 1941. This violence and repression was undertaken in pursuit of an atheist agenda–the elimination of religion (Dickinson 327-35, in McGrath 78).
When a society rejects the idea of God, it may transcendentalize alternatives, such as the ideals of liberty or equality or reason. These now become quasi-divine authorities, which none are permitted to challenge. Perhaps the most familiar example dates from the French Revolution, at a time when traditional notions of God were discarded as obsolete and replaced by transcendentalized human values (McGrath 80-1). Reinhold Niebuhr notes that those who
sigh and hope for the destruction of religion as the only way of emancipating mankind from fanaticism . . . [fail to] understand that they are dealing with a more fundamental problem than anything created by this or that religion; that it is the problem of the relative and the absolute in history . . . that alternative solutions, as they evolved in secular culture, present us either with the abyss of scepticism or with new fanaticisms. (220)
That is, secularism as much as religion can “insinuate . . . new and false ultimates into views of life which are ostensibly merely provisional and pragmatic” (Niebuhr 238; Berg 1603). For these reasons, a Niebuhrian perspective challenges the claim that in a public sphere stripped of religious influences we can substantially achieve dialogue, deliberation, and rational debate. Indeed, Niebuhr worried that the barring of religion creates a public space in moral discussion for perspectives that can be just as dangerous and divisive (Berg 1604). Dangerous because they can be just as delusional and self-serving as the worst that religion has to offer.
Both religious and secular fundamentalists, then, depend on a type of fideism. The faith of religious fundamentalists is the acceptance of truths without regard to competing claims of reason; the faith of comprehensive secular fundamentalists is that without empirical reason, there is nothing. Religious fundamentalists isolate themselves by ignoring claims that might undermine their religious understanding, while secular fundamentalists follow an epistemology that separates them from those who regard religion as at least a potential source of truth (Conkle 349-50). Each group resides in its own epistemology, isolated from the other, and unable to communicate across the divide (Conkle 348).
Consider Dawkins’ misrepresentation of the role and nature of scripture in Christian faith. Dawkins states, “Since a principal thesis of this chapter is that we do not, and should not, derive our morals from scripture, Jesus has to be honoured as a model for that very thesis” (250). However, what Dawkins, himself, recognizes is that Christ is the very fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies (97). Christ says, “‘scripture must be fulfilled in me’” (Luke 22:37; 24:27; John 19:28, 36; 12:16). According to Bart Ehrman, Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, building upon Mark’s idea of Christ as the suffering Son of God:
The story would have been familiar to many of Matthew’s Jewish readers, who would view Jesus’ life as a fulfilment of the stories of Moses. Jesus has come to set his people free from their bondage to sin (1:21) and give them a new Law, his teachings (Ehrman 88). Elsewhere in Matthew, Christ is recorded as using the Old Testament for training when he frames Old Testament narratives into question and answer sessions (e.g. 15:4; 19:4-7) (Campbell 4). Scripture, then, was a source of moral guidance for both Christ and his followers. At one point, he admonishes:
Thus, to argue that Christ is a model for disregarding scripture as an ethical source is not supported by evidence from scripture.
But Dawkins is deaf to theology, which he regards as a non-subject (56-57). This deafness is seen in his claim that theology “has not moved on in eighteen centuries,” as well as in his attacks on long-dead thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther and Moses Maimonides (34). The number of living professional theologians to which he refers is limited to Arthur Peacocke, Russell Stannard, John Polkinghorne, Keith Ward, Richard Swinburne, and John Shelby Spong (99, 237). But even here there is little to no engagement with their ideas or those of any other twentieth or twenty-first-century theologian, outside of fundamental right-wing pastors like “Pastor Ted” (319). Swinburne is briefly engaged, the Oxford professor “damningly typical of the theological mind,” who is ushered out for attack whenever Dawkins represents the ideas of the “sophisticated theologian” or theist (64, 58, 63, 147). Otherwise, Dawkins constructs a monolithic straw man of theological ideas represented by a hypothetical “theologian” or “religious apologist” whom he belittles and mocks (35-36, 59, 153-54, 136, 359-360). Rarely does he ever refer to the specific arguments of a living theologian or do justice to the diversity of contemporary theological thinking. As seen in his depiction of the “mainstream Christian” (178-179), Dawkins’ understanding of the Christian believer and Christian faith is too narrow, too literal, and not in keeping with much of twentieth- and twenty-first-century theology (he attacks “moderate” religion by citing an example from 1858 [311-313]). In this way, Dawkins echoes the Christian fundamentalist whose arguments against evolution are grounded in obsolete science, overlooking discoveries and developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Ironically, then, in attacking “religion” and proselytizing for atheism, Dawkins uses the same rhetoric as the religious fundamentalist he seeks to destroy. He speaks in crude binaries, distorts evidence, and oversimplifies complex realities. Preaching disdain and intolerance, he stokes the fear that feeds religious extremism. In this sense, the two fundamentalisms are interdependent, for each cannot exist without the other as its enemy. Richard Harries writes:
That is, just as religious fundamentalism is grounded in the perceived threat of secular liberalism, atheistic fundamentalism is grounded in the perceived social/political threat of religious extremism. Mimetic tension develops as each sees the other reaching for the apple of ultimate truth and is driven to impose its own absolute claims. Other members of the circle, surrounding the appetitive object, are overlooked or roughly pushed aside. Those aborting their appropriative gestures in recognition of imminent violence demonstrate restraint and attentive communication in the face of shared conflict. Their self-withdrawal enables an engagement with difference through active listening and respect. But in the conversation between religion and science, atheistic and religious extremisms see only each other.
Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
Bartlett, Andrew. “Three Affirmations of the Being of God: Suggested by the Anthropological Idea of God.” Anthropoetics 13. 2 (GATE 2007 issue). http://anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap1302/1302bartlett.htm
Berg, Thomas C. “Church-State Relations and the Social Ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr.” North Carolina Law Review 73 (1994-1995): 1567-1607.
Campbell, Lee. “Matthew’s Use of the Old Testament: A Preliminary Analysis.” Xenos Online Journal 3 (2000). http://www.xenos.org/ministries/crossroads/OnlineJournal/issue3/mtmain.htm
Conkle, Daniel O. “Secular Fundamentalism, Religious Fundamentalism, and the Search for Truth in Contemporary America.” Journal of Law and Religion 12.2 (1995-1996): 337-370.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.
Dickinson, Anna. “Quantifying Religious Oppression: Russian Orthodox Church Closures and Repression of Priests 1917-1941.” Religion, State & Society 28 (2000): 327-35.
Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.
Gans, Eric. “God is Love.” Chronicles of Love and Resentment 119. 6 Dec. 1997. http://anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw119.htm
—. The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981.
—. Science and Faith: The Anthropology of Revelation. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1990.
Goodstein, Laurie. “Teaching Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey.” New York Times 31 August 2005): A7.
Harries, Richard. “Science Does Not Challenge My Faith—It Strengthens It.” The Observer (April 16, 2006): 19.
Hedges, Chris. I Don’t Believe in Atheists. Toronto: Free Press, 2008.
Kennedy, Donald. “Twilight for the Enlightenment?” Science. 8 April 2005: 165.
McGrath, Alister E. and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007.
Migliore, Daniel. Faith Seeking Understanding. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1991.
Moore, Randy. “Educational Malpractice: Why Do So Many Biology Teachers Endorse Creationism?” Skeptical Inquirer 25.6 (2001): 38-43.
Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man: Human Destiny (1943). Vol.2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.
Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Expanded Edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2006.
Riesebrodt, Martin. “Fundamentalism and the Resurgence of Religion.” Numen. Religions in the Disenchanted World 47.3 (2000): 266-287.
Ruse, Michael. Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship Between Science and Religion. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Schwarz, Hans. Theology in a Global Context: The Last Two Hundred Years. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.
Strozier, Charles B. Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002.
Thompson, Grahame F. “Exploring Sameness and Difference: Fundamentalisms and the Future of Globalization.” Globalizations 3.4 (2006): 427-433.
1. Dawkins can be considered to be in the vanguard of a movement. He writes:
Atheists in America are more numerous than most people realize. As I said in the Preface, American atheists far outnumber religious Jews, yet the Jewish lobby is notoriously one of the most formidably influential in Washington. What might American atheists achieve if they organized themselves properly? (44)
To facilitate this goal, he provides an extensive list included in an appendix at the end of the book of “friendly addresses, for individuals needing support in escaping from religion.” Included are groups such as American Atheists, Atheist Alliance International, Secular Coalition for America, and the National Secular Society (London, UK). It could be argued, then, that there is an atheist movement, of which Dawkins is a leading proponent. (back)
2. Dawkins even admits as much (367). (back)