Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Reflection: "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins

Disclaimer: this reflection will sometimes be very one-sided, since I decided to omit quoting Dawkins extensively. Many sections will make little sense without having read the book, for instance, the part on Gasking's parallel argument refutation of the ontological argument, where I say I reject all premises except perhaps the first, makes no sense unless one is familiar with his argument.

I got given "The God Delusion" in 2012 by a family member for Christmas, and I finally got round to reading it at the beginning of 2014.

For the strange person who is unfamiliar with Richard Dawkins or the movement of which he is part, some of which take this book as a manifesto, Dawkins is one of the so-called "New Atheists", which seems to be a 21st century popularization of atheism by Christopher Hitchens (now deceased), Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and, of course, Richard Dawkins. Some have added, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Stephen Hawking to the list (which I would reject) and Lawrence Krauss (who seems apt for the role), Victor Stegner, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne... Exactly who is a new atheist and who is just a "plain atheist" is quite irrelevant to my thoughts on this particular book.

I would preface my comments by saying I enjoyed reading the book, for the most part. Its rhetoric is engaging, and even when he seems to claim to be on track, he is largely riding his pet steed Tangent (p. 198), so I feel quite comfortable with my theism, moreover, my Catholic Christianity, even whilst reading most of the book. His anecdotes were interesting, the fan and hate mail he has received and now recounts is insightful, and his forays into evolutionary biology are certainly to be read, because at the end of the day, Dawkins is a scientist, and an award-winning evolutionary biology popularizing one at that. So I can agree with the large number of endorsements (largely, it seems, from newspaper reviews) that describe "The God Delusion" as readable, spirited, passionate, clever. Even, with due qualification, "intelligence and truth-telling" (from Claire Tomalin) at some points in the book. The idea that the new atheist literature is moronic certainly needs to be either rejected or nuanced for it to be taken seriously.

What claims does he make? The very well ordered book seems to have ten points to make, about one per chapter: 

1. He is not concerned with Einstein's God, or the religion based on the scientific awe of nature - he aims to debunk religions with personal gods, in particular the Abrahamic ones. These are undeserving of the pedestal of respect allegedly given to them.
2. The existence of God is a scientific question, which, whether difficult to answer or not, can only be addressed by scientific or empirical means.
3. All arguments advanced for the existence of God fail, most of them quite miserably.
4. God almost certainly does not exist - he advances a standard "who designed the designer?" objection.
5. Religion is a natural phenomena that can be explained by reference to our evolutionary past.
6. We are not good because we obey precepts, models or commands given in any form of holy book, our goodness has evolutionary roots and explanation, and there are secular theories of ethics.
7. We would not follow any holy books nowadays anyway without being very selective, presumably referring to some extra-textual standard of morality, which just goes to show that morality was not derived from the books anyway. Our morality changes, mostly for the better, as society advances.
8. Religion is not only irrational, it is not benign, either. It is anti-rational, particularly unscientific, lends itself to wrongful opposition to homosexuality and abortion, and even moderate forms of religion are the basis for fanaticism. 
9. Religion is abusive to children, it leads to physical and mental abuse (particularly the latter), to backward thinking - although, holy books have cultural impacts, and so their literary merit is to be conserved.
10. Religion may fill gaps in the human psyche, but it does not make it more true, and a rational scientific perspective may even be grander and more emancipated.

Allow me to briefly take his theses in turn by merely expressing my thoughts and reactions to some of the major points:

1. Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan saying that religions do not expand their wonder with the amazing discoveries of the universe, instead "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." Since this is the god that Dawkins is concerned with rebutting, it seems clear that he is talking about the wrong god, not a god recognizable to Christian theology, at least none of the stuff I have been reading. To think, as some people seem to suggest to me occasionally (and Dawkins seeks to imply) that the God of Christianity, said to be omnipotent and omniscient, is somehow threatened by the magnitude of the universe, is an odd claim indeed.

The first chapter of Dawkin's book is more to explain that Einstein's God is not being talked about here - not the mathematician God of Paul Davies, either, as he would say to John Lennox in a related debate. Somehow, Dawkins has let it slip under his capable mind's radar that, when I profess belief in "one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; of all things visible and invisible" (the opening of the Nicene creed), I happen to mean what I say, and now that we know that the universe is billions of years old, that the universe is mindbogglingly big, I am not led to question that belief.

His other point in this chapter, that religions are accorded a strange amount of respect, seems accurate. There is a tentativeness to talking about religion, as if political beliefs could be shouted at, but religious ones had to be politely nodded at. Living in the generation that I do, in the social circles in which I am, at a secular university studying both science and philosophy, I am rarely ever accorded that politeness (other than to avoid the issue completely) - but I do acknowledge its persistence in wider culture, and agree with its strangeness from a truth-concerned point of view, in part because one religion can be correct, at best.

2. It is actually a doctrine of the Church that the existence of God can be known from natural reason, so since Dawkins often conflates science and reason more generally, I might agree with him. His argument for it seems plausible at first: a universe with God would be different to a universe without God. Except, that arguments falls flat if one is a theist: if God exists, then it is so by necessity, and therefore there is no such thing as a universe without God - it is incoherent. On the other hand, taking the atheist point of view, if God does not exist, it is necessarily so, and therefore testing the hypothesis against the God-universe hypothesis is to test it against something else which is, at some level, incoherent.

That illustrates the first major issue I have with the idea of God as a scientific hypothesis: that science deals with contingencies, and whether God exists or not, it is not contingent. The second problem I have, is that hypotheses make predictions - but what sort of predictions does the God hypothesis make? It seems to me that the core God of theism is a hard hypothesis to extract predictions from in the first place. How would such universes be different, even in principle? One would think, following Stephen Law's article in the journal Religious Studies ("The evil-god challenge", 2010), that the God hypothesis (presumably, the good God hypothesis) could be tested by reference to the evidential problem of evil. Instead, Dawkins tries to venture down the "prayer does not work" line by reference to the widely-disowned (before and after the experiment) study by the Templeton Foundation. Swinburne's response seems perfectly acceptable to me, and Dawkins fails to respond to the critique levelled Swinburne other than to caricature his response to what he should have raised in the first place, the problem of evil.

This chapter also involves a rejection of Gould's NOMA theory ("Non-Overlapping Magisteria", the idea that science and religion talk about different things), and an attempt to explain away why it seems favoured among many atheist scientists. I lean towards agreeing with the rejection of NOMA, and replacing it with some principle of “somewhat, but not very, overlapping magisteria” – I can see why SBNVOM has not taken off yet, however.

3. His discussion of first mover and cosmological arguments is so bad, I hardly feel I can mention it, since it occupies a scant two and a half pages of a 420 page long book. Dawkins must surely have straw in his eyes, from such an enormous, yet vacuous, strawman that he erects in place of the rather long and serious discussion given to just the cosmological argument by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Even though I disagree with some of the ideas inherent in ontological arguments,[1] his rejection of St Anselm's without reference to the history and development of the argument, let alone his inability to understand it, is laughable. He does make hand waving reference to refutations (Kant's is suitable for rejecting Anselm's, as well as the clearer adaptation by Descartes), but Douglas Gasking's parallel argument is an absurd rebuttal, not least because of the implausibility of all the premises (except perhaps premise 2, even though I reject it regardless, but even then, there is a false equivocation that appears in premise 3 - merit and impressiveness are hardly the same quality).

The rest of the arguments are ones I find relatively un-compelling anyway, even though his peculiar rejection of Lewis' "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" argument (which Tim Keller pointed out should be amended to "Legend, Liar, Lunatic or Lord") on the basis that Jesus may simply have been honestly mistaken about his divinity is yelling to be placed in the "lunatic" category - what sort of sane person is honestly mistaken about actually being God incarnate? The rest of the section might be considered a discussion of the "legend" category, but I find his biblical scholarship very poor.

4. Dawkins labels God the "ultimate Boeing 747", in reference to Fred Hoyle's oft quoted statement that living beings are as improbable as a hurricane passing through a scrapyard and assembling a Boeing 747 aeroplane. In essence, his argument is that God is far too complicated to postulate as a designer, because then one would have to explain who or what designed God.

Dawkins agrees that chance is an absurd explanation of life, but he says that evolution by means of natural selection is a perfectly sensible alternative, and that this "consciousness-raiser" should alert everyone to the possibility of finding similar mechanisms for the explanation of design, or apparent design, in other fields. I think his discussion of cosmology is tainted by an overly-biological perspective, but I cannot claim to be very much of an expert on cosmology regardless, and so I must let that pass. What taints the whole chapter (other than the biology bits, which are very interesting) is his over reliance on natural selection qua consciousness raiser: I am perfectly happy to accept that evolutionary biology has the correct principles for explaining apparent design in life, and I would pursue my research in physics perfectly happy to accept similar principles to refute cosmological fine-tuning arguments - I find them unconvincing anyway. What I find overstated is the idea that, since principles to explain something previously unexplained have been discovered in the past, one is never warranted to consider that other principles will not arise to explain, for instance, cosmic fine tuning. Like I said, I suspect they will be found, but consider for a moment the inverse argument:

"Certainly, science seems to point to atheism at the moment. But just like when it was discovered that the universe had an absolute space-time boundary, a beginning, and people could make more convincing cosmological arguments, I suspect that science will discover other means of proving the existence of God, even if right now it looks like science is atheistic."

See the inversion? The big bang theory could be claimed by the theist, in much the same way as Dawkins claims natural selection can be taken, as a consciousness raiser, something that shows us that the unexplained can be explained. Once again, both lines of thought seem implausible to me - but they also appear rather symmetric.

Chapter 4 contained, as he says (p. 187), his central argument. On the face of it, the argument may appear to be a rejection of the argument from design - which I rejected before I read the book - but in actual fact, the argument is intended to run deeper: by claiming that God is far too complex to be the explanation of the design in the universe, he is also trying to undermine the God hypothesis as a conceivable reality at all, since God is presumably "irreducibly complex." Leaving aside the strange idea that God might have arisen out of natural processes - surely a complete misunderstanding of the God of any of the monotheistic religions - the argument must still be dealt with somehow. Here is my brief response:

Dawkins has not really shown that God is complex at all. Classical theism has always held that God is simple - God is made of one, indivisible substance, after all, and since it makes no sense to speak of "half God", Dawkins is wrong that God must be complex. He asserts it many times, but provides no justification for his mere assertion. Another explanation could be given, generously granting that God is internally complex, but pointing out that God is a necessary being, and so requires no explanation.

The very keen eye will note, as did Lloyd Strickland ("The “who designed the designer?” objection to design arguments", International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, August 2013) that I have "helped myself" to the attributes of God from classical theism. Strickland's critique is only suitable if I were trying to prove the existence of God from design arguments; currently, I am merely defending the possibility of God's existence from the Dawkins argument, which claimed to provide more than a refutation of the design argument (we might agree, for different reasons) but a refutation of the existence of God, or nearly so: he dealt with arguments for the existence of God in chapter 3, this chapter was titled "Why There Almost Certainly is No God." Hence, in a defence of God, I can rely on the attributes of God. 

5. This chapter was by far my favourite: in average popular attacks on religion, explanations are given for religion which make very little evolutionary sense, so I was chuffed to have a defence of "religion as a natural phenomenon" from an evolutionary biologist.[2] If I were to presuppose naturalism, then I would have to explain away religion, and I find Dawkins' account decisively plausible, on face value.

Since I do not assume naturalism, I think I am entitled, as a theist, to remain in my belief that human beings, as definitively religious animals, are manifesting their own awareness of being in the image of God, and an awareness of the divine. But, that interpretation flows from my Catholic theism, and I find it perfectly natural that Dawkins and Dennett disagree with me.

6-7. I combine these chapters because their thesis is similar: that evolution explains our moral sentiments, that real morality is secular, that morality progresses as societies develop, and that it would be horrible for people to follow holy books anyway. I disagree on all three latter points.

I agree that many of our moral sentiments are due to our evolutionary past, and, as Dawkins says, that our more generalized moral feelings are more likely to be mis-firings of natural selection, now that we are not in the same sort of habitat as before. Sure - but that does not justify them, for the same reason that Dawkins was so clear to point out when he spoke of mis-firings of evolution to produce religion, as a by-product of some other evolved tendency, this does not justify our moral sentiments.

I can agree to the possibility of secular morality, and many theories have been proposed: from Kant, to Mill, to Rawls, and so on. At one point in the book, he suggests that Kant may have been right, since it makes Kantian categorical imperatives make sense of our moral feelings in the case of the trolley problem. Later on, (ch. 8) he favours a consequentialist point of view, saying that abortion could not be wrong since the child has no nervous system at first, as opposed to the mother, which certainly does. The contradiction annoyed me - yes, Kant does accord with our moral feelings in the trolley problem, but he would be opposed to abortion, because the pre-born human is not being treated as an end in itself. Yes, consequentialism may well accept the possible rightness of abortion in many cases, but it would disagree with our moral feelings in the case of the trolley problem. Dawkins is free to, if rationally compelled by it, accept a secular theory of ethics. But he cannot accept contradictory ones and expect to be taken seriously.

This illustrates why I do not think that real morality is secular. If by real one means the morality that is generally practiced, then real morality is not secular or religious, it seems to be some form of moral sentimentalism. People may be Kantian when given the trolley problem (or its many corollaries), but they are not Kantian when it comes to other activities. People may be consequentialists in some cases, but they are not universally so. Real morality is, therefore, neither Kantian nor consequentialist - or Rawlsian, or Aristotelian, etc...

Does the moral Zeitgeist, the developing morality of societies, provide a better foundation? It is entirely unclear whether that is an objective standard: one thinks current morality is better than previous morality, surely in part because one adopts the current morality, and rejects the previous one. Even beyond that, I object the the deification of personal choice above the common good, which is a firm part of our contemporary morality, and other similar trends - I hardly think current rape culture is superior even to hyper-Puritan values, either. Which way the trend is going is unclear.

Surely, it is better than the myths of holy books, right? I must now speak as a Christian, for I am not familiar with Islamic jurisprudence and developing ethics, or with Jewish Rabbinic texts, both of which would shed light on their original holy books. As a Christian, I hold up Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God. Supposing, as is usually done, that God does not change, and whatever God is, that God is supremely good: it is absurd to say that Jesus is now "outdated", that we should move on. That would be the Christian perspective.

"But he is outdated", Dawkins might reply, and he cites John Hartung to the effect that Jesus was about in-group morality as much as Joshua was. Though it is amusing to find someone who appears to think that apostle Paul is an improvement over Jesus, I find his claim astonishing. If one takes the gospels as simple historical re-tellings of the life of Jesus, then the idea that Jesus was about in-group morality is ridiculous. Be it the Good Samaritan, the Great Comission, the missionary sending at the beginning of Acts and the end of Luke, or the numerous encounters between Jesus and non-Jews, Jesus seems to be firmly about both the in-group and the out-group.

If he means that, after some historical Jesus studies, it turns out that Jesus was actually about the in-group, then I would like to see that analysis. Of the reputable, academic published literature I have come across, the closest  to that I have seen is commenting on the passage in Matthew 15, or perhaps John Meier's A Marginal Jews, which comes close only in the sense that he argues that Jesus was fully hallakhic, and so would be rupturing less from Jewish law than is sometimes said. Even these considerations hardly get one to more extreme claim made be Dawkins and Hartung. Our neighbour is anyone who we encounter in need, as Jesus says to the teacher of the Law, and we are to love them, even at our own expense. This rule has never been outdated.

8. I do not have much to say about chapter 8. Yes, wrongful religion can lead to bad science. It does not have to, but in some cases it does. I can't help but remember the times atheism leads to bad philosophy, but they are few, and there is nothing inherent in atheism that makes it anti-philosophical. The discussion of abortion is not very comprehensive, but he does adopt a consequentialist point of view near the end, so it seems that he rejects any inherent value in human life, other than its capacity to be happy (where happiness is seen basically as a property of the sentient being, again, nothing inherent in the being itself).

Moderation can lead to fanaticism, too. Fanaticism is not always a bad thing - a fanatic philanthropist does a great deal more good than a moderate philanthropist, in general. But many times it is, and that is a problem. Quite clearly, fanaticism can arise out of non-religious beliefs too - nationalism, some political ideology, racial boundaries, class conflict, an ethical theory... What if someone became convinced that the ratio of pain to pleasure in the world was such that, in a utilitarian framework, everything should be destroyed? Maybe that person would be right, but they would be labelled a fanatic. So fanaticism can arise in many contexts, most of which will probably always be present.

9. I find this chapter hard to take too seriously. Yes, he points out some horrible things. But I have met people whose experience is the opposite, who felt abused by feminist language (exactly how, I cannot fathom, but that is what she said), by the pitiless indifference of the world, and so forth. Dawkins would probably claim that, sure, certain naturalist doctrines like the indifference of the universe to human beings could be uncomfortable, but what matters is that they are true. I would only say "ditto." Sure, some people might find it hard to come out as an atheist to their families - but I know people who have found it hard to come out Christian to their atheist parents. Is atheism child abuse? It does not follow.

I agree that the fear of death is odd, and I would echo Mark Twain, as Dawkins does. But some people find the idea horrifying, so is the doctrine of no-afterlife child abuse? Again, it does not follow. Whatever is true is true independent of the psychological value of it. I am reminded of a story William Lane Craig once remarked, where he told about the findings of a survey of why college students were atheists. One girl said she became an atheist at least in part because she could not handle the idea of her abusive father still being alive. So even an afterlife with no hell would be scary for some people. Child abuse, then, to be a universalist? It does not follow.

10. Throughout the book, Dawkins has misunderstood aspects of theology. In response to Terry Eagleton's claim that he should understand a bit more about theology, about Aquinas and Scotus' differences on epistemology, Rahner on grace, etc., Dawkins said he did not need to be an expert in fashion to point out that the emperor was naked. The problem is that Dawkins was not even looking at the emperor. In the last chapter, where he rejects that truth can be affirmed merely because something would be comforting. Agreed. But his poor understanding of Christianity is never more apparent than when he talks about how theology works. The clearest instance is probably in this last chapter, where he misunderstands indulgences, how Christians think about death, purgatory, and in one of his bigger blunders, why Catholics believe in purgatory. He quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia saying that Catholics believe in purgatory because we pray for the dead. That is not a defence of purgatory as a meta-physical place for anyone, it is a defence from Scripture (probably defending against Protestants) in light of Judas Maccabeus, who prays for the dead. 


The day I finished the book I was asked whether the Church would have banned it in times past. I do not know. I have not had even the slightest inclination to change a single of my previously held beliefs in light of this book, but apparently, other people have. So maybe its poor arguments are dangerous, because people will think they are good. I might add that I would not want books banned, now or in the past, even if I do see a certain logic to it: parents should not allow their children hard pornography books or magazines. Mother Church should not allow her children spiritually harmful books. I have learnt things by reading this book, but Dawkins has failed miserably at his aim, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." If only I could say that this fairly large book contained the best offense that atheism could offer, and then the opposite would be true, I would have gone through the worst rational scrutiny possible, and emerged unscathed. Unfortunately, I know there are better atheists out there.

[1] Briefly: I concur with St Thomas Aquinas that there is no reason to think that the limit of God is on that which we can conceive – God is surely even greater than the greatest which can be conceived. Since I do not think anybody can conceive of God, the older versions of the argument fail. Newer versions, particularly modal variants, seem to fail because there is absolutely no reason I can think of why I would believe in possible worlds. I know of one world which is possible, and it is precisely that world in which the existence of God is contested. How am I to know if other possible worlds exist? Unlike other philosophers, I am relatively comfortable with the first premise, that a maximally great being can exist (I would be fine with that even if I was an atheist), it is the modal axioms which I see no good reason to accept, on atheism.

[2] I am aware that this is the subtitle to Daniel Dennett’s book, which is on my shelf though I will not have the time to read it until 2015. Nonetheless, I am somewhat familiar with his account, and I still find it lacks the rigour of an actual evolutionary biologist.


  1. All well and good, but you misspelled "Judas Maccabeus" :P

    Love, someone you know. A twin, too.

  2. Ah, you're right! Which is a shame, because I actually googled it to make sure I had spelled it right, and then I went and spelled it like the book, anyway. It has been corrected.