Inspired by a discussion about the existence of god, I decided to read Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion”. I have read many books about Intelligent Design and other topics akin to the subject, and had always found the arguments in those books utterly convincing. However, I always believe in listening to both sides of the argument, and felt an intellectual obligation to myself to see what kind of a case Richard Dawkins could build for atheism. After investing the time and effort to read the nearly 400 page volume, I feel the need to share with you, my loyal reader, my thoughts about some key principles in this book.
I started out, contrary to my traditional habits, by reading the author’s preface. In it the author detailed the purpose of the book, as well as briefly outlining what the various chapters in the book deal with. Dawkins then goes on to explain and defend his lack of traditional respect for religion. He then makes a comment which I find somewhat fascinating and at the same time troubling. At the beginning of a paragraph Dawkins states:
If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.
He then goes on to, in effect, admit that the book will in fact not work as well as he intends.
What presumptuous optimism! Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over a number of years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature.
This statement worries me, not merely for its demeaning insults. “Immune to argument”? Apparently, Dawkins believes that it is impossible to convince a “faith-head” that they are wrong using logic and reason. Now, I take this as basically a disclaimer from Dawkins. What he is saying is that the arguments he presents in his book are so completely and utterly convincing to any objective reader that the only reason anyone could read his book and not become an atheist is that they are so indoctrinated, brainwashed and biased that reasoning of any kind is impossible. Because of this, I will take extra precautions to leave my biases behind as much as possible (of course, no one can ever be completely bias free), and look at “The God Delusion” from a purely objective standpoint.
The author begins the book by explaining what kind of god and religion he does not mean to discredit. He talks about what he calls “The Deeply Religious Non Believer”. Basically, the people to whom Dawkins is referring are scientists who talk about “god” at some point or another, but who actually mean some abstract concept, such as the laws of gravity or something like that. Dawkins says that while he can find no fault in that kind of respect of the laws of nature, he does not think it is a good idea for scientists to refer to god in this way because of the confusion it may cause. Simultaneously, the author very neatly discounts the theological beliefs of many scientists who may actually believe in a real god, but are unwilling to state it only indirectly due to fear of persecution by the likes of Dawkins. Whether or not this was intentional or if Dawkins really believes that all modern scientists are atheists is a mystery to me, and I shall make no guesses as to his real intentions.
Next, Dawkins goes through great pains in discussing the special treatment that religion is accorded, especially in the United States, and then with great outrage tells the reader that religion deserves no more special treatment than political opinions or any other belief. He lists example after example of things being allowed for “religious” purposes that would otherwise never be allowed in our society, and with each example decrying the special favors that religion is granted as unfair and unjust. In so doing, Dawkins also predisposes the reader to subconsciously dislike religion for getting special favors, rather than judging the governments which hand them out. Again, whether or not this is intentional or accidental I cannot say.
The end conclusion of the chapter is stated by Dawkins as follows:
It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.
Now, perhaps Dawkins is telling the truth, and he handles everything else with the same lack of care and concern that he handled the very foundation on which many people’s lives are buil. In fact, I have heard rumors that Richard Dawkins is not particularly likable in person. And if this is the case, then all I can say is that I pity any man with such an obvious and glaring lack of tact. For it seems to me, (and apparently even to some of Dawkins’s fellow atheists), that Dawkins could not possibly have handled the subject of religion with less care than he did in “The God Delusion”. Nevertheless, I am willing to give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt and believe that he truly did treat religion with the exact same lack of care with which he treats anything else.
Chapter 2 opens with Dawkins stating that “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction”. He then spends forty pages telling us just exactly who and what the god he’s trying to disprove is, and why we should treat God just like a scientific hypothesis. I won’t bore you with the details, but rather, tell you as briefly as I can what I felt Dawkins was trying to get across.
The overarching theme of Chapter 2, as far as I could tell, is that God should in fact be treated like a scientific hypothesis. In other words, if God exists, we should be able to prove scientifically that it is so. To prove this, he brings up several points, some better than others. One of the worse arguments goes like this: If we were to find some sort of evidence that, say, Jesus did in fact have no biological father, do you think the Christians would disown it and stick to their reasoning that God is outside of science? No, of course not! Therefore, if we can prove that God does exist through science, we should also be able to prove that he doesn’t exist using science. I’m not sure I need to point out what bad logic this is, but I will anyway. If a god does exist, it needn’t be the God of the Bible. Why couldn’t god be a being that created the world and never interfered with it again? Surely, we wouldn’t be able to disprove this god with science, right? Dawkins answers the above point like this:
…it may not be so easy in practice to distinguish one kind of universe (a universe with a god such as I described above) from another (a universe with no such god). Nevertheless, there is something utterly special about the hypothesis of ultimate design: and equally special about the alternative… They are close to being irreconcilably different. Like nothing else, evolution really does provide an explanation for the existence of entities whose improbability would otherwise, for practical purposes, rule them out.
How vague! How non-descript and non-committal! If, say, a god placed earth in its ideal orbit around its ideal sun, gave it its ideal conditions, planted a cell on that earth, then left for good, what would be the practical discernable difference between that universe and the universe which Dawkins claims we are now in? What would be so “irreconcilably different” between the two universes?
Despite Dawkins’s faulty reasoning, he does raise some good points about the idea of the Christian God being a scientific hypothesis. After all, says Dawkins, even if God exists outside of the realm of science, he certainly interferes enough (according to the Bible) with affairs on earth. And certainly we should be able to scientifically examine at least these interferences, right? And in answer to this, I would say that we of course can scientifically examine the interferences. That is, we can examine the scientific evidence (or lack thereof) or a world-wide flood, the creation of man, and the parting of the Red Sea. All these are supposed acts of God that manifest themselves physically. Thus, it is perfectly within the realm of science to examine them.
Note that it does not follow, however, that we should be able to scientifically investigate the existence of God himself. This is a fallacy which Dawkins commits later on in the book, as we will see.
Chapter 3 deals with the “arguments” for god’s existence. I put that in quotes because the arguments that he presents for god’s existence are, by and large, some of the worst that I have ever heard. There are a few decent arguments among them, and one really good one, but as a general rule they are, quite simply, pathetic. It was almost as though Richard Dawkins spent several hours trolling the internet for the worst possible arguments he could find off of wing-nut websites and other such obscure corners of the internet in order to find them, just to make religion sound bad. But again, we are giving Dawkins the benefit of the doubt that he actually did treat religion as gently as he treats everything else, so I will drop that line of questions here and now.
The one really good argument is the argument by (or at least attributed to) C.S. Lewis. It is referred to here in America as the “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument (apparently in the UK it is referred to as “Mad Bad or God”, I’ve never heard it called that). Basically it goes like this. Since Jesus claimed to be God, he was either a liar, a lunatic, or God. We know he wasn’t a lunatic; he gave some of the most famous and powerful speeches in history, and gave moral advice that, according to Dawkins “anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years”. We don’t think he was a liar; who would die for a lie? That leaves the last remaining possibility; that he truly was God.
Dawkins cannot really deny the solid logic behind the argument. Indeed, his only reply to the logic itself was to ask whether Jesus really thought he was God (which, of course, would bump him into the lunatic category, which we ruled out). Instead, Dawkins takes a different angle of attack. Instead of attacking the reasoning itself, Dawkins claims that the New Testament gospels have been mutated over time, and that since they disagree with each other, they can’t really be trusted. (And yes, he asks the typical village atheist question: “Why do the genealogies in Matthew and Luke disagree?” I was truly shocked; I would have thought that he would have done at least some research before sitting down to write.)
I don’t think I need to detail for you the numerous ways the Bible is one of the most historically accurate ancient documents in existence. The fact that it has remained literally unchanged for thousands of years, its historical accuracy, its scientific knowledge far ahead of the authors’ time should all serve as testimony to the Bible’s historical accuracy as to the existence and life as Jesus, (yes, he even goes so far to suggest that Jesus might not have existed), if not its direct philosophical and theological claims. Apparently, however, Dawkins did not bother to do his homework on the reliability of the Bible.
What is very conspicuously missing from Dawkins’s chapter on arguments for the existence of God is the argument of intelligent design. But never fear, Dawkins saves this for the next chapter: “Why There Almost Certainly is No God”. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the mental energy at the present to delve into the next chapter which is most certainly the real heart of Dawkins’s book. I also have no desire to see if there is a word limit on blog posts. So I will leave it for you, my intelligent audience, to think about until I get around to writing the next part of this discussion on Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion”.
Note: This is part 1 of this post. You can read part 2 here.