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Missing the Point

Nathan Jacobson » Reflections on Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion

In the third chapter of The God Delusion, Dawkins takes aim at many of the arguments that have been offered through the ages for an affirmative response to the “God Hypothesis”. At times, especially in response to the argument from religious experience, his critique is cutting and enlightening. However, in many cases he misses the point, basing his refutations on incorrect understandings of what each argument is supposed to establish. Additionally, he doesn’t bother to engage the work done in Philosophy of Religion in the last fifty years or so which has, incidentally, been characterized by a resurgence of serious consideration of theism. Instead he mostly deals with the arguments only in their nascent form. Since Dawkins is taking on intrinsically philosophical arguments here, it is a serious oversight to have overlooked all but his neighbor, Richard Swinburne. Although, considering his brutal treatment of Swinburne, perhaps other proponents of philosophical theism are glad to have been ignored. Here’s a closer look…

Aquinas’ Proofs

Dawkins begins his debunking with Aquinas’ famous five “proofs” for the existence of God. He believes that proofs 1 -3, which includes the cosmological argument, are basically variations on the problem of infinite regress. His primary refutation is that God is simply no more helpful of a terminator to the regress than an uncaused singularity wherein the world popped into existence full of matter and energy all by itself. Why? Because, making God the terminator only adds another step to the regress, begging all the same questions about God. This is perhaps the central argument in Dawkins’ rejection of God as an explanation, and it makes its appearance repeatedly throughout the book; thus, we’ll be addressing it more fully in a separate article. For now, it’s essential to note that careful theists always clarify that all that these arguments establish is the necessity of an “unmoved mover” and an “uncaused cause”, whatever they may be. For Dawkins, “it is more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a ‘big bang singularity’, or some other physical concept as yet unknown” (p.101). So, just to be clear, it is more acceptable to think that either the universe has no cause, or, if it has a cause, naturally that cause must be physical. Most will intuitively reject the first option, that the greatest material event ever is also the only material event that had no cause whatsoever. With respect to the latter, the right question is not one of parsimony, but, based on our first hand familiarity with physical stuff and with persons, is matter or an Agent a better candidate to be the unmoved mover and the uncaused cause?

Dawkins goes on to say:

“Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, good news, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts.” (p. 101)

Here Dawkins is only echoing the point that theists themselves make when offering these arguments. This is a straw man, since no one will rise to argue this point. But what would be interesting is if other arguments, the teleological for example, made a good case for one or more of these other attributes and if we could then begin to build a composite of the “unmoved mover” from a variety of such clues? I have not argued here for the validity of Aquinas’ first proofs. I’m only noting that in evaluating them it is critical to understand their modest conclusions. It is also worth noting that, while rejecting an unmoved mover, Dawkins is willing to entertain the possibility of two exceedingly unscientific notions, namely, an uncaused cause and a physical world before the Big Bang. Tsk tsk.

The Teleological Argument

The argument from design is the subject of Dawkins’ fourth chapter, and so we’ll return to it with him. Dawkins anticipates his response in the third chapter, though, with his bold claim that Darwin “blew it out of the water”.

“There has probably never been a more devastating route of popular belief by clever reasoning than Charles Darwin’s destruction of the argument from design… Thanks to Darwin, it is no longer true to say that nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulacrum of design, mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance.” (p.103)

We’ll see. I look forward to seeing whether Dawkins provides a single verifiable example of naturally selected mutations producing the appearance of design. I’m also curious to see how Dawkins deals with the appearance of design in the prebiological fine-tuning of the universe, in the provision of the conditions for life in the first place.

The Argument from Religious Experience

Dawkins’ section on personal experience is very good reading and he offers a litany of examples of how our brain can deceive us in response to certain stimuli. He tells the story of a colleague who probably mistook a Manx Shearwater, a bird, for the voice of the devil. Something similar happened to me. And, no doubt every reader can identify with his account of the brain’s ability to “see” faces and foes in the shadows of curtains and foliage. I think Dawkins is just about right when he says, “This argument from personal experience is the one that is most convincing to those who claim to have had one. But it is the least convincing to anyone else, and anyone knowledgeable about psychology.” (p.112) There are philosophers who argue for the validity and cognitive value of personal religious experience and they may well be right, but my own experience is certainly insufficient and I am unmoved by the experiences of others. I have even had a number of experiences myself when I have sensed what seemed like the presence of a supernatural entity or power, but none is sufficiently dramatic as to exclude alternate explanations or to assuage my doubts, much less the doubts of someone who is less inclined to believe for other reasons.

The Trilemma

Dealing with ‘arguments from Scripture’, Dawkins picks on C.S. Lewis’ so called “trilemma”, the idea that Jesus must have been, as some have put it, either “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic”. Unfortunately, Dawkins, misconstrues it as a supposed argument for the existence of God. Here’s the argument in Lewis’ words:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (Mere Christianity)

All that Lewis is arguing here is that one cannot conscientiously believe both that Jesus was merely human and that he was a great and wise moral teacher. In our own times, none of us would take seriously someone who claimed to have been there at the very beginning, co-creating the universe. And the Jews were understandably, highly offended by the suggestion in Jesus’ own time. In fact, we do send such people to the asylum in some cases or, when somehow they manage to gather a flock of believers, we consider them con men or swindlers. Lewis is not even arguing, here, that Jesus should be considered “Lord”. He is only proscribing the options from which we have to choose. As an alternative, Dawkins suggests that maybe Jesus was “simply mistaken”. It’s not clear what the difference is supposed to be here with being a “lunatic”. Perhaps “lunatic” is too strong, but someone who sincerely believed that they were God and led a public life of teaching, gathering followers, is not someone whom we would dismiss as “simply mistaken”, but nonetheless “a great human teacher”.

Dawkins’ more penetrating critique is his argument that the biblical record is simply so devoid of reliable historical facts that we cannot draw any conclusions at all about Jesus as a historical figure. There are many good arguments to be levied against the historicity of the Bible, but Dawkins overreaches when he claims that: “Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world.” (p.118) This is woefully overstated. It is a blatant case of cherry-picking scholars, not to mention the annoyance that here he commends these theologians’ “overwhelming case” after characterizing the theological enterprise as utterly worthless in chapter two. It would seem that theologians have something worth saying only when they supplement Dawkins’ own view. The question of the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus is too large to address here. But it is because of this question that many Christian apologists have added a fourth option to the trilemma: “Lord, Liar, Lunatic… or Legend”. The historicity of the biblical accounts is certainly a question that must be addressed, but it does not undercut the force of Lewis’ argument. If in fact the Gospels are hopelessly unreliable, then we should not believe anything about Jesus at all. To consider him a merely human, great moral teacher is still not a viable option.

The Argument from Scientists Who Believe

Dawkins claims that theists argue, ad nauseum, that the religious beliefs of notable scientists like Newton and Kepler should be considered a reason to believe in the existence of God. Maybe some do, but I haven’t noticed it. Christian philosophers would laugh at an argument of the form: “said scientist believes that God exists”, therefore, “God exists”. More commonly, I think religious scientists are trotted out in reaction to the all too common, equally silly, skeptical arguments: “rational thinkers don’t believe in God”, therefore, “God does not exist”; or, “rational thinkers don’t believe in God”, therefore, “those who believe in God aren’t rational thinkers”; or, “scientists don’t believe in God”, therefore, “God does not exist”. Each of these arguments is either circular or a non sequitur. However, the undeniable existence of highly rational believers (e.g. Alvin Plantinga) and distinguished scientists who believe (e.g. Fritz Schaefer) is a defeater to any argument that implies that rational thought or scientific inquiry are incompatible with belief in God.

Ironically, after chiding religious people for pointing to religious scientists in their defense, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate that an impressive majority of today’s most highly esteemed scientists do not believe in God. (There does seem to be some exaggerating of the statistics since it seems he only counts theists, not deists, (p.126) but it doesn’t matter. I don’t doubt the strong tilt within the societies he deems worthy of mentioning.) What is surprising, after questioning the religious sincerity of the famous scientists of the past who worked within a predominantly Christian culture, it doesn’t occur to him to wonder whether the same institutional pressures are at work in the current academic culture. There is a question of the chicken or the egg. Is it possible — at today’s universities where Naturalism and Postmodernism dominate — that there are powerful ideological and institutional pressures to conform to the standard view? Is it possible that dissenters are weeded out as they try to move up the academic pecking order, or leave when the welcome mat is pulled away? All it takes is a trip to the Wikipedia pages of any scientist or intellectual who has been outed as sympathetic to Intelligent Design to see that immediately one’s credentials are disputed and integrity defamed.

As a high ranking member of the academy, Dawkins himself is “Exhibit A”. Throughout The God Delusion, Dawkins consistently introduces scientists with whom he agrees as “celebrated”, “distinguished”, “eminent”, whereas those with whom he disagrees are awarded with titles like “theologian” (no matter what their field), prejudiced, ignorant, from the boondocks, unsophisticated, etc. The Human Genome scientist and theist, Francis Crick, is the “subject of amused bafflement”, whereas his counterpart, the non-religious Craig Venter is “brilliant”. The bias reeks. Michael Behe is referred to not as a scientist, but as that bogeyman of bogeymen, a “creationist”, and to boot, a “bamboozler”. He treats the likes of Stephen Jay Gould, with whom he partially disagrees, without accolades, but with sympathy, because at least he remained on the reservation. As for Antony Flew, who for many years was the standard bearer of atheism but was recently persuaded by evidence for theism; he is supposed to have gone senile in his old age, is being used, and is “ignominious” for accepting an award from a Bible institute. I can only assume that the examples will multiply as I continue reading. These praises on the one hand, and smears on the other, are pathetic, and so transparent. It’s impossible not to suspect that Dawkins’ primary criterion for your respectability as a thinker or scientist is not your competence or credentials, but the content of your beliefs. It’s easy to assure oneself that all the smart people agree with you when, by definition, those who don’t are fools.

To Sum Up

Dawkins’ treatments of the most common arguments for the existence of God are filled with interesting stories and anecdotes. I particularly chuckled at the sampling of the “Godless Geeks” sarcastic list of “Over Three Hundred Proofs of God’s Existence”.

Argument from Incomplete Devastation: A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew. But one child survived with only third-degree burns. Therefore God exists.

As they say, “it’s funny because it’s true”. This kind of sloppy thinking is not uncommon among religious people. But Dawkins’ attempts to refute the more serious arguments for the existence of God are beset by their own problems: a strong, implicit bias rather than an evenhanded appraisal of the evidence; consistently missing the point; and, a failure to engage the strongest forms of the arguments he seeks to debunk. But in chapter four we dive into Dawkins’ area of expertise, and no doubt it will have plenty of food for thought.

Note: I have been critical here of Dawkins’ logical acumen as it’s presented in The God Delusion, but I recently came across an interview in which he is somewhat more circumspect an acquits himself very well. Both Dawkins and the interviewer, Richard Crowley, are extraordinarly collegial and sharp, and the questions are as penetrating as the answers are well articulated. Definitely take a look at parts One, Two, and Three.