A Response to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins is careful not to give Christianity, and also a more generic belief in God, any respect for even one page of his four hundred page bestseller—according to him, it has received far too much of it already. So his pages are filled instead with deriding, yet witty, humor as he responds to the belief in God and proclaims, with as much certainty as he feels he is able, that God is not out there. Amidst his ridicule, however, some good logic can be found and he does have some arguments right. Despite these, Dawkins’s main arguments against any form of theism are lacking in weight and certainly not as conclusive as he claims. In his rather lengthy book, Dawkins seeks not only to prove that the existence of God is so improbable as to be dismissible but also to demonstrate several other things, such as where religious belief might have come from, why it is so widespread if there truly is no God, and how we can find moral standards without a God. However, while these other points are similarly open to refutation and deserving of a response, this review will focus on Dawkins’s main arguments against the existence of God in general. First, Dawkins makes it clear that he is denying the existence not of any particular God, but rather of any God that could be described as a “supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe.”i He also makes it clear that he understands that no one can completely disprove the existence of God. However, citing Bertrand Russell, he sees this as similar to the fact that no one would be able to completely disprove the claim that there is a small teapot orbiting the sun.ii Instead Dawkins seeks to show that the probability of God’s existence is so low that it makes the most sense to declare oneself an atheist. Before providing his ultimate argument against the existence of God, Dawkins attempts to dismantle what he considers to be the main opposing arguments for God’s existence. He does a good job discounting certain arguments, such as the ontological argument, which encourages one to imagine the greatest possible being and then claims that this being must exist in reality because, if it didn’t, there would conceivably be a being greater since existing in reality is greater than not existing. In response to this, he argues that it makes no sense to insist that a being exists only because we have the ability to conceive of it. However, not all of the arguments that he claims to dispose of are as weak as this. Indeed, Dawkins next spends many pages trying to discount any scriptural evidence as a reason to believe in God. But, in so doing, he makes several false claims. Dawkins first claims (with no cited evidence) 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,”iii as well as that “all [the gospels] were written long after the death of Jesus”iv and that the four evangelists who wrote the gospels “almost certainly never met Jesus.”v While these claims may be popular among amateur biblical scholars, they are certainly not the only valid theories among professional scholars today. Contrary to Dawkins’s first claim—that the gospels are not reliable accounts of history—archaeological discoveries of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have verified many of those historical accounts of the gospels challenged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. According to acclaimed twentieth century archaeologist William F. Albright,

The excessive scepticism shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certain phases of which still appear periodically, has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.vi

As far as the claim that the authors of the gospels lived long after Jesus, this also is not nearly as certain among scholars as Dawkins makes it sound. Many scholars of ancient texts, such as Bruce Metzger, Sir Frederic Kenyon, Rudolf Bultmann, Bart D. Ehrman, and Raymond E. Brown, date the authorship of the gospels in the first century based on the discovery of certain partial manuscripts, which would allow for the writers to have lived during the lifetime of Jesus.vii Another notable argument that Dawkins attempts to dismantle is the practice of citing several well-known religious scientists as examples of people who were able to integrate faith, science, and reason. In addressing this type of argumentation, Dawkins suggests that the scientists of old who were believers in God were only so because it was the accepted practice of their time. Dawkins assumes that their belief in God was not genuine or grounded in reason but instead their only option, limited as they were by their cultural environments. As far as modern scientists go, he cites several surveys showing that modern scientists who believe in God are largely outnumbered by those who don’t. He goes on to cite studies that indicate that religiosity is negatively correlated with education, seeming to suggest that the more educated people become, the more likely they will realize that believing in God is foolish. However, the connection between learning and irreligiosity is not a definite one, and Dawkins is wrong to assume that a contemporary correlation between the two is an indication of causation. One can imagine many other explanations for this trend—cultural, social, methodological—that don’t fit Dawkins’s thesis. Furthermore, it is possible that the radical skepticism encouraged by modern educational institutions, despite producing many successes, has also often been misapplied to areas, like faith, which do not lend themselves to empirical study. Dawkins is right, however, in asserting that representatives of religious faith may be overstepping their bounds when they claim that the examples of famous scientists are reasons for everyone to believe. Dawkins must realize, however, that the converse holds true as well; the examples of atheist scientists like him cannot be used as reasons not to believe in the existence of God. His theory about scientists of old holding the popular opinion on religion at the time could hold just as true in the reverse today. Finally we come to Dawkins’s central argument, to which he devotes an entire chapter, entitled “Why There Almost Certainly is No God.” His main reason for believing that the probability against God’s existence is greater than the probability for it is this:

Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested. Intelligent design suffers from exactly the same objection as chance. It is simply not a plausible solution to the riddle of statistical improbability. And the higher the improbability, the more implausible intelligent design becomes. Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/herself/itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than the Dutchman’s Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.viii

Dawkins’s argument here is clear. He believes that a God who created the universe would be too complex a beginning to be the most probable cause of the universe. Just as natural selection provides slow transitions from simpler organisms to more complex ones, so he sees the cause of the beginning of the universe as making the most sense if it occurred in the simplest way possible. He says it more concisely earlier in the book: “To return to the infinite regress and the futility of invoking God to terminate it, it is more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a ‘big bang singularity,’ or some other physical concept as yet unknown.”ix As it turns out, another Apologia article has already addressed this argument. In “A Proof for the Existence of God,” Peter Blair offers a response to the very point Dawkins raises. As Blair writes, Dawkins errs in assuming that God is overly complex, when classical Christian philosophy actually considers God to be truly simple. This may sound preposterous with all of the attributes and characteristics of God that are often discussed, but, Blair writes, “Aquinas also argues that though we can distinguish in thought between God’s goodness, his truth, his power, his intellect, his will, his existence, etc., in God himself there actually is no distinction between these things. God’s goodness is his truth, which is his will, which is his power, and so on. God is a simple unity.”x It could also be argued that the immaterial and the intellectual are inherently more simple than the material and the physical. “For instance, the idea of something such as a cathedral is much simpler than the thing itself, the physical cathedral. An idea has no direction, size, shape, weight, or any spatiotemporal characteristics. It has no parts and no constituent material. In all these ways, it is simpler than that which it represents.”xi In his book God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins, Father Crean puts it this way:

A designer, so to speak, is just a being with a design. So since a design is something very simple, as the example of the cathedral shows, a designer is just a being with something very simple. So there is no reason why he himself should be complicated… the designer must be at least as “rich in reality” as the thing he designs, because before he produces it he must have it in himself in a certain way. He must “have” it in an intellectual way, in order to cause it to exist in the world. In this sense, a designer must have the same richness as what he makes. But he need not have the same complexity.xii

Finally, Blair provides a simple but compelling summation of the argument for this notion of divine simplicity: “As God is an immaterial being possessed of an intellect and a will, but not of a body or any physical parts, there is every reason to think he would be simple.”xiii Dawkins’s assumption that a physical cause for the beginning of the universe is more probable than an immaterial cause, namely God, isn’t indisputable. To many, the probabilities seem to indicate that it is more likely that a growing, developing, physical universe was started by an unchanging, non-physical source. That this unchanging, non-physical cause was a conscious being is not necessarily something that falls under the realm of probability in and of itself, as Dawkins seems to believe, and should perhaps be considered through other avenues, such as whether or not there are indications in the contemporary world of God’s existence. Overall, Richard Dawkins is clearly an intelligent, educated, and, yes, witty man. But in The God Delusion, he shows that his strong atheist stance is based on simplistic and misinformed assumptions. For some of what would be his strongest points he uses faulty data without providing sources to back them up, and he often makes stronger claims than his evidence warrants. Therefore, the probability that God doesn’t exist is not nearly as easily concluded as Dawkins claims it is, and it would seem that the probability may even point in the other direction. Perhaps the delusion here is not so much with those who believe in God as those who believe in Dawkins.   i. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008) 35. ii. Ibid. 74-5. iii. Ibid. 118. iv. Ibid. v. Ibid. 122. vi. William F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine, Revised. ed. Harmondsworth (Middlesex: Pelican Books, 1960) 127-8. vii. Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Volume 1 (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishers, Inc. 1986) 46-8. viii. Dawkins 145-6. ix. Ibid. 101-2. x. Peter Blair, “A Proof for the Existence of God,” The Dartmouth Apologia 5.1 (2011): 29. xi. Ibid. xii. Thomas Crean, God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins (Oxford: Family Publications, 2007) 38. xiii. Blair 29.   Yesuto Shaw ’15 is from Stone Mountain, GA. He is a Psychology major. Image by pedrojperez from morguefile.com.

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