on September 17, 2007
I am hugely disappointed in this book because Dawkins is a top scientist and moreover the author of one of the seminal books in my life, "The Selfish Gene". But his stroll into the field of philosophy of religion has here resulted in a book that's bellow mediocre. The fact that this book proved so popular only evidences how little critical thought there is around, including in atheist circles.
The single biggest error in the book is that it misstates the question as an opposition between theism and science, when the opposition is between the ontological views of theism and naturalism. This is such a fundamental category error that any subsequent discussion is rendered not only irrelevant but also misleading. The trouble starts at page 2 where Dawkins writes: "'the God Hypothesis' is a scientific hypothesis about the universe", which, I dare say, would be news to almost all theists.
So why does Dawkins believe that the theistic hypothesis is a matter for scientific investigation? Because he assumes that naturalism is true and in naturalism any ontological hypothesis can be investigated scientifically (Dawkins thinks). But naturalism opposes theism (naturalism and theism cannot be both true) so by assuming naturalism Dawkins begs the whole question. And, by the way, he does not explain why he thinks that naturalism is true. Apparently his justification goes something like this: the vast majority of scientists are naturalists; science has proven its truth beyond doubt; therefore naturalism is true.
A second example is his much ballyhooed "Ultimate Boeing 747" argument for the non-existence of God. It seems Dawkins is so certain that theism is not only false but also trivially false that he fancies himself able to present a killer argument against the existence of God, one that academic philosophers were not smart enough to spot. What's his argument? Well, Dawkins reasons that if God were an explanation for the existence of our complex universe then God would be an even more complex and improbable entity, which moreover would need an even bigger explanation for its existence. As Plantinga notes in his review of the book this argument is so primitive that it would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class. After all the only reason to believe that an intelligent mind is complex is to assume that it must work on the mechanical principles that a naturalistic understanding of reality posits. But to posit naturalism as an implicit premise is - again - to beg the question. Moreover Dawkins fails to see that an explanation works on its own merits; it's not like an explanation works only if you have an explanation for that explanation too - if that were so then no explanations would be possible at all.
But where Dawkin's systematic begging the question becomes painfully obvious is in his discussion of the so-called anthropic principle. This plausible principle states that reality must be such as to produce any phenomenon we now observe, and specifically must be such as to produce humans like us. Now an as yet unanswered scientific question is the origin of life (which must not be confused with the origin of the species), i.e. how come the enormously improbable phenomenon of life has started on Earth, which is a necessary condition for the natural evolution of the species to subsequently take place. Now instead of clearly stating that science does not yet know the answer and leave it at that, Dawkins notes that some theists claim that the answer is some supernatural action by God which started life on Earth. So he must find an alternative explanation and he thinks that the anthropic principle fits the bill. Here is his reasoning (page 136): "The great majority of planets in the universe are ... not suitable for life. ... However small the minority of planets with just the right conditions for life may be, we necessarily have to be on one of that minority, because here we are thinking about it." So, from the premise that life can evolve by itself (i.e. on naturalistic grounds) given the right planet it follows that our planet has had these right conditions. But of course whether life can or can't evolve by itself on *any* planet is the very question under discussion, so here - again - Dawkins begs the question.
He goes on to discuss the far more serious problem of the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants of the universe. It turns out that if these constants (e.g. the value of the strong force) were even a little off then life as we know it could not evolve, so some theists argue that this evidences God's design. Dawkins coyly fails to mention how fine that apparent fine-tuning is: if the combination of physical constants were off only 1 part in 10^100 then life would not have evolved. So how does Dawkins explain that strange state of affairs? He writes (page 145) "Once again, the anthropic principle does its explanatory duty". So, we are here, naturalism is true, therefore there must be some naturalistic explanation for the whole thing. What explanation exactly? Why, just hypothesize anything no matter how implausible or lacking of evidence as long as it is naturalistic. Amazingly powerful that anthropic principle. Anything out there that naturalism cannot explain? Well, as naturalism is true the anthropic principle will always do its duty as the explanation of last resort. A one-size fits all question begging magic wand.
There is no space to mention the many other fallacies in "The God Delusion". It basically just recycles the theme that theism is false because naturalism is true, and that naturalism can't have any problems because after all it is true. What's really amazing is that so many people would be inspired by such a superficial book. It seems you don't need to be a religious fundamentalist to be able to switch off your capacity for critical thought and to full heartedly (or foolish heartedly) embrace non-explanations.
on March 22, 2016
Before reading The God Delusion by self-proclaimed “anti-theist” Richard Dawkins, I was a little bit nervous that it would shake my faith or create some doubts in my mind. Dawkins is the most highly acclaimed of the New Atheists and has debated and written profusely in his fight against Christianity.
I do not want to believe something that is not true, and it is important to have open dialogue and an accurate understanding of both sides of an argument, so I decided to read Dawkins’ (and the atheists’) best shot against the faith.
I approached the book with an open mind (but obviously a bias in favor of Christianity, everyone has a bias one way or the other) and a desire for open and considerate dialogue on the question of the truth of Christianity. What I met with was vitriolic hatred towards God and condescending language towards Christians on every page; I was honestly surprised and taken aback.
In addition to his nasty tone, and most disturbingly, I found extremely weak arguments against Christianity. The reason that the weak arguments were the most disturbing to me is because so many people praise his book—what does that say about the intellectual state of atheism in America and the West? When people follow a book (and a movement?) written from an emotional perspective, they are not clearly approaching the facts and “following truth wherever it leads.”
I have had considerate and respectful conversation with non-believers, atheists, and people of other faiths. Richard Dawkins, sadly, appears to be either incapable or unwilling to do that. After reading the book, I looked up other atheists at his level and found a similar trend. Christopher Hitchens was my next stop and I found him to be just as disrespectful and condescending as Dawkins. Hitchens’ book God is not Great (which I have not read) is apparently more of the same. These men don’t simply disbelieve in God, they hate Him.
I know that there are good-natured atheists out there, but why do they allow these men to carry their banner? Perhaps it is similar to the televangelists and other radically incorrect sects of Christianity that give Christians a bad name?
I also found that many of Dawkins arguments are directed at things most Christians don’t believe. He does this willingly and at least admits that he doesn’t care to differentiate between different sects, factions, churches, movements, etc. But the problem is that it leads to straw men being set up that (for instance) a biblical Christian would never stand behind.
Anyways, here are some examples of what I found to be poor-quality arguments from Dr. Dawkins:
Page 117 – Dawkins mounts an attack on C.S. Lewis’ argument in Mere Christianity that Jesus must either be a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord because His declaration of divinity could not be the result in any other reality (i.e. He could not just have been a good man and yet claim to be the transcendent God worthy of worship by the entire human race).
Dawkins says, “A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken. Plenty of people are.”
This so-called fourth possibility, however, was clearly addressed by Lewis in the very context surrounding his lunatic-liar-Lord postulate. In Mere Christianity, Lewis clearly explains that if Jesus were “honestly mistaken” it would put Him on the level of a lunatic because He was not just claiming the status of a very good man or of a demi-god, but He was actually claiming to be the infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, creator of the universe. A Greek or Roman or Egyptian could theoretically “honestly” make the mistake that they were a god, or the son of a god, because their gods were nothing more than super-human persons, but YAHWEH of the Jews was outside of all time and space itself.
Lewis is very clear that if Jesus were “honestly mistaken,” this “mistake” could only be made by a madman because of the Hebrew understanding of who God is (as mentioned above); therefore, Lewis specifically and explicitly addresses the “fourth possibility” mentioned by Dawkins. It is as if Dawkins either did not read the full context of Lewis’ writing, or he did not understand it properly, or worse (he purposefully misconstrued the argument). Either way, this is truly a pathetic attempt at an attack on the lunatic-liar-Lord argument. It shows either bad, lazy, or dishonest scholarship.
It is also worth noting that the language that Dawkins uses is extremely condescending to C.S. Lewis (“almost too obvious to need mentioning”) who is a far more admired and apparently much more conscientious scholar.
Page 307 – Dawkins discusses why he believes racial and gender equality has progressed in our culture.
He says, when talking about how society has only really progressed once Christianity lost influence: “Then, too, there is improved education and, in particular, the increased understanding that each of us shares a common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex – both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution. One reason that black people and women … have been treated badly is that they were not perceived as fully human.”
Here we see Dawkins’ misunderstanding of two biblical ideas concerning race and gender. He apparently believes that the bible avows racism because of the Old Testament ideas of maintaining a distinctly Jewish nation through which to bring the Messiah and maintain religious purity. He ignores the fact that the New Testament clearly breaks down any barriers of race whatsoever and that even the Old Testament does not declare one race as inherently better than any other and even opens the door for other peoples to become Israelites. This is a basic “biblical idea.” God says repeatedly in the Old Testament that the Jews were no better than anyone else, and that He only chose them because of the faith of their fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Dawkins' ignorance of the bible (and the Old Testament specifically) is not something I expected from someone who should have been prepared to intelligently refute its teachings.
His second misunderstanding is the difference between gender equality and gender roles. The New Testament (and Old to a degree) clearly declares that women are equal to men in worth, but are different from men in terms of certain functions. Some of these general differences are naturally evident, such as childbearing, physical strength, and being more emotionally expressive; while others are divinely given, such as roles within the family and church.
Dawkins boils down the complex biblical teaching on race and gender to one overarching misconstrued idea of bigotry.
Page 85 – Dawkins mocks prayer by arguing that because people who are prayed for are not scientifically proven to be better off, prayer is not efficacious.
The section in the book is called “The Great Prayer Experiment” and Dawkins makes it very clear that he thinks Christians believe prayer works based on (1) the number of people praying for something and (2) that the results of prayer are based solely on Christians’ desire for the thing prayed for to take place. However, we believe nothing of the sort.
He mentions a study wherein a sample of sick people were prayed for and another sample were not. In the study, no statistical difference in the recovery rate was noticed between the prayed-for group and the control group. He then clearly uses this as an argument that prayer is ineffective and that Christians are idiots to believe otherwise! This is a misunderstanding of what the bible teaches concerning prayer.
For example, in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 the apostle Paul mentions that he prayed three times for a “thorn in the flesh” (an illness, ailment, etc.) to leave him, but God did not grant it because it was better for Paul’s spiritual state for the thorn to remain. This and other passages make it clear to Christians that God answers prayers in order to bring the maximum spiritual benefit to His people. C.S. Lewis says that God is always working for Christians to have the greatest “weight of glory” with which to carry into eternity. However, it is very typical of nonbelievers to only see things from a physical perspective (this is the main problem with the so-called “problem of evil” argument).
In fact, in the New Testament epistles, there is only one prayer passage addressing physical ailment (and it appears to be relating to comfort more than anything else); all the rest of the recorded prayers, prayer requests, and discussions of prayer are all dealing with spiritual things (e.g. boldness to preach/evangelize, strength in the face of persecution, encouragement to despondent souls, wisdom and understanding, knowledge of God, etc.). When Jesus teaches His disciples to pray (the Lord’s Prayer), the only mention of physical things at all is a prayer for daily needs (give us this day our daily bread), the rest of the prayer is about spiritual things.
God is primarily concerned with spiritual things, and He is concerned with earthly things primarily based on how they bear on spiritual things. This is the mindset that a Christian strives to have and is something that Dawkins is far wide of the mark in understanding.
This is yet another straw man that Dawkins has set up and then ‘successfully’ defeated.
Page 101 – Dawkins makes the argument that omnipotence and omniscience are “mutually incompatible.”
He says “If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.”
The trouble with Dawkins’ understanding is that he is comparing God’s omnipotence and omniscience in a linear, moment-by-moment based time scenario (note the word ‘already’ he uses to refer to God’s future).
Christians believe that God is supernatural and transcendent to both space/matter and time (He is outside of the space-time continuum). Recent scientific understanding leads to the view that time is a dimension. The understanding that time is not constant or abstract or independent of physical nature, and that it began at the beginning of the universe, sheds light on God’s nature. Now that we understand time as an aspect of the physical universe/nature, we can more easily understand that an omnipotent, omniscient, and transcendent being would be ‘outside’ of time. Whatever existed before the universe came into being was outside of time as we know it now—that makes God’s transcendence of time less of a leap.
So God knows the future not because He looks into the future (which is the simplistic way that Dawkins has constructed his argument mentioned above), but rather God knows the future because He simply sees it (as opposed to foreseeing it), or because He is there, or some other way that does not bind Him to time. Many theologians have coherent ways of discussing and describing this - sadly, he does not address or attempt to refute their arguments in any way.
[As a side note, this outside-of-time aspect of God’s nature comes into play in other aspects of Christianity. For example, Jesus died on the cross for the sins of all mankind, but what truly forgave the sins of man was that God the Father’s wrath for sins was poured out spiritually on Jesus during a finite time period (a few hours?) while He was on the cross. But the penalty for sin against an infinitely holy God is an eternity of hell that can never be paid by finite beings (such as ourselves) in a finite period of time. However, Jesus is the infinite Son of God, whose nature and divinity is transcendent of time. Therefore, the penalty that He suffered on the cross was “enough” to satisfy the infinite and holy wrath of God for all of our sins. He was the only one who could do it and the magnitude of His suffering could be said to be infinite—or in a sense could be said to be equivalent to billions of eternities in hell, perhaps. That is just a tiny glimpse of the depth of sacrifice and love that the cross represents to Christians.]
There are many more examples like these; these were just a few that I had flagged and reflected on. I feel bad to say it, but the best word that I can find to describe this book and the arguments that it contains, is pathetic. I believe that I have reached that opinion of this book objectively; if the arguments in the book were good arguments that I simply believed to be wrong, and if the manner and attitude of Dawkins was one of respect and civility, I would have given credit where credit was due. As it is, I hope the New Atheists find another standard bearer, because I am embarrassed for them. (I would be equally embarrassed for us if our leading apologists had this attitude and this level of arguments.)
Earlier, I mentioned his vitriol and mean-spirited attempts at religious shaming - here is Dawkins view on a few topics (not all quotes from the God Delusion):
• On God: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” It is amazing how every single word (except jealous, and that is only bad to him because he doesn’t know who God is) is the complete and literal opposite of the characteristics of God as shown in the Old Testament.
• On the bible: “To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and 'improved' by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries.” His blatant disregard for the evidence that the bible is authentic and historical is surprising. I have always been amazed at the consistency of the truths and principles in the Bible given the disparate times and cultures inhabited by the various human authors.
• On faith: “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” No aspect of our faith is in spite of the evidence, let alone because of the lack of evidence. This ignores the call of the first generation of Christians to believe because of the evidence of the apostolic witnesses, empty tomb, signs, etc. I personally believe because of the evidence, not in spite of it (e.g. the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, the moral argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, the argument from consciousness, the authenticity/historicity of the bible, archaeological evidence, etc.), and if the evidence pointed the other way, then I would have changed my mind a long time ago. It generally appears to me that atheists believe in materialism in spite of the evidence!
• On the peacefulness of atheists: “Why would anybody be intimidated by mere words? I mean, neither I nor any other atheist that I know ever threatens violence. We never threaten to fly planes into skyscrapers. We never threaten suicide bombs. We are very gentle people. All we do is use words to talk about things like the cosmos, the origin of the universe, evolution, the origin of life. What's there to be frightened of? It's just an opinion.” Wow, has he never heard of the state atheism of the Soviet Union and the hundreds of millions of lives that they have taken? What about Mao and atheist/communist China? The ignorance is almost unbelievable. Thinking that their atheism had no impact on their genocidal policies is simply not true.
• On Christians approach to science: “If you don't understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it. You don't know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don't understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don't go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God.” The Enlightenment and scientific progress in general occurred because Christians believed that God has created a rational world that can be studied scientifically—Christians’ views are literally the opposite of what Dawkins states.
• On Jesus’ view of the Old Testament: “Jesus was not content to derive his ethics from the scriptures of his upbringing. He explicitly departed from them. [...] 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.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Jesus taught. He never taught that the Old Testament was wrong, but rather that people needed to get back to what the Old Testament actually taught instead of their misinterpretations of it.
As a Christian, I do believe that we are right and others are wrong wherein they differ from the truths put forth by our belief system (as do atheists and all others). However, I also firmly believe that respectful and civil discussions go much further than mean-spirited vitriol and unprofessional scholarship in advancing the discussion between believers and unbelievers. Richard Dawkins should be ashamed of himself.