British ethologist 1 Richard Dawkins, professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, is a long-time popularizer of Darwinian evolution, ardent proponent of atheism, and prominent debunker of religion. In his latest book, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), Dawkins’ thesis is that belief in a supernatural creator qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence.
Over the past several months, Dawkins has received a lot of air time on TV, radio, and in public lectures. His latest interview was on March 29th on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.” And as of the first week of April, 2007, The God Delusion was ranked #14 in the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Best Seller list after topping out at #4 in December, 2006.
Most reviews of the book are positive. For example, The Economist praised “Dawkins’s incisive logic and rapier wit,” concluding that “Everyone should read it.” 2
But a few reviewers take Dawkins to task. In The American Spectator, Richard Kirk says that Dawkins’ book is full of “scattershot pettiness.” He writes, “Far from being a serious philosophical book, this ill-edited and garrulous 3 diatribe contains just about anything that crosses the author’s mind” with “page after sarcastic page of attacks against any foe Dawkins considers an easy target.” 4
Who is right? Is The God Delusion full of “incisive logic” or is it a “garrulous diatribe”? This question is important to answer since Dawkins claims his purpose in writing is to convert religious believers to his brand of atheism. “If this book works as I intend,” says Dawkins, “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” 5 Are Dawkins’ arguments persuasive? Does he accomplish his goal? These questions deserve closer scrutiny.
Calling God Names
Imagine if a heavyweight prize fighter, at the starting bell, took off both gloves and starting punching his opponent below the belt. In his opening round, Dawkins does just that. With his first remark, Dawkins takes a swipe at God that is aimed below the belt. However, this swing turns out to be full of logical blunders and, thus, falls wide of its mark. A little analysis reveals the flaws.
Dawkins comes out swinging in Chapter 2 with this opening statement, “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, genocidical, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 6
First, Dawkins’ statement turns out to be an “ad hominem” attack, aimed at the man (or, in this instance, “ad Theo,” aimed at God). No reasons are given for why Dawkins believes God is like this. He simply delivers a raw, frontal assault on God’s character. This ploy may please those already sympathetic to his position, but it does little to persuade the unconverted.
But this is only the beginning of Dawkins’ logical missteps. By attacking God in this way, Dawkins uses a tactic called “poisoning the well.” This means that, instead of giving an extended, reasoned argument to make his point, he begins by presenting a view meant to bias the reader in his favor. Dawkins uses practically every negative descriptor known to modern man in his portrayal of God. And if Dawkins is correct, the reader would have to agree and want nothing to do with a God like that!
However, this tactic begs the question. Dawkins is making a claim to know something about God, i.e., that God is a very unsavory character. Now Dawkins might not like a God like that, but that is another issue. The question Dawkins claims to be addressing is not what is God like? The question under consideration is, Does God exist? By attacking God’s character in this way, he does nothing to answer that question.
Dawkins reasoning can be simplified like this:
- God, as portrayed in The Old Testament, is nasty and mean.
- I don’t like a God like that.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
Put in this way, Dawkins argument is seen for what it is, a “non sequitur,” where the conclusion does not follow from the premises. In other words, Dawkins makes claims that have nothing to do with what he is trying to prove. Again, this is obvious question begging.
Knocking Down a Straw Man
But that is not all. Dawkins’ opening statement is a classic “straw man” argument. That is, like a man made only from straw, Dawkins description of God is easily knocked down. He even admits this is the case a few paragraphs later when he writes, “It is unfair to attack such an easy target.”
But the problem here is that Dawkins is aiming at the wrong target. Christian theologians have never described God the way Dawkins imagines. And Dawkins does not attempt to defend his description. He simply makes an assertion that God’s character is the way he says. He never deals with what Christians actually believe about the nature and attributes of God.
Therefore, we can conclude from his opening remark that Dawkins’ triumphalism over having vanquished the God of the Old Testament is misplaced. Dawkins does not seem to understand the nature of what he is talking about. He does not acknowledge any of the rebuttals to why his characterizations of God might be premature or incorrect. As it turns out, this is not an argument; it is simply a bold-faced assertion. Not only does Dawkins fail to land a blow, he wastes his strength by thrashing at the wind.
But this is only the opening round. Dawkins has just begun the fight to demolish God. He next turns his attention to renouncing the main philosophical arguments in favor of God’s existence.
Dismissing Proofs for God’s Existence
In Chapter 3, Dawkins mentions the classic proofs for the existence of God developed by the medieval Christian philosophers Anselm (late 11th century) and Thomas Aquinas (13th century). For example, the cosmological argument uses the principle of cause and effect to establish the existence of a necessary Being (God) who causes the existence of the world. But Dawkins dismisses this by claiming it makes an “entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress.” 7 In other words, if we assume that everything has a cause, then what caused God?
What Dawkins doesn’t mention is that there are actually three different forms of the cosmological argument. Aquinas offered one form, but Gottfried Leibniz (d. 1716) proposed another, and a third form was developed by Arabic philosophers during the Middle Ages. This last form, known as the kalam cosmological argument, is considered by many current Christian theologians to be the strongest of the three. It has been defended by Christian philosophers over the years, most recently by William Lane Craig.
In his books, Craig offers an overview of this argument, objections against it, and rebuttals defending the soundness of its premises and conclusion. Simply put, the kalam cosmological argument proposes:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Craig offers two philosophical reasons for the soundness of the first premise and two scientific reasons for why the second premise is true. Therefore, the concluding third statement is true. Regarding the conclusion, Craig states that “philosophical analysis reveals that such a cause [of the universe] must have several of the principal theistic attributes.” 8 Therefore, not only must God exist, but He would have the qualities generally ascribed to Him in the Bible, i.e., omniscience, omnipotence, rationality, etc.
What is so breath-taking about Dawkins’ smug dismissal of the cosmological argument is that he does not attempt to respond to any of the specific points that Craig brings up. It’s not as if Craig is an obscure author whom Dawkins would not be familiar. Craig has defended this argument in three books dating back to 1979, written numerous articles over the years, and he has publicly debated the issue with many skeptics, including the well-known atheist philosopher Quentin Smith.
But instead of dealing with any of the serious points that Craig brings out, Dawkins simply asks, “Where did God come from?” With this, Dawkins shows that he is totally unfamiliar with the wealth of literature on the subject and the strongest arguments currently employed. If he had done his homework, he would have realized that his question misses the point entirely. The first point of the kalam cosmological argument is that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. God, by definition, never began to exist. God is the “Uncaused Cause.” So the question “Who made God?” is irrelevant! This is the kind of reckless handling one might expect from first year philosophy students, but not from a seasoned, distinguished university professor.
But one might counter, then why postulate God as having always existed, isn’t it simpler to just assume that the universe has always existed? Craig notes two reasons why this is not feasible. Scientifically, we know that the universe is not eternal because of the evidence for the “Big Bang,” and second, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. 9 Based on these scientifically well-established principles, the most rational assumption is that the universe has not always existed; it had a beginning. And since it began to exist, it must have a cause other than itself. This cause must be of another nature, namely, a supernatural entity. Therefore, a supernatural Creator must exist.
Dawkins mentions several other arguments used to prove God’s existence, and in each case dismisses them by arguing from a weak form of the proof. Over and over again, he builds straw men to knock down. So much for Dawkins’ “incisive logic.”
Since Dawkins is not trained in philosophy, one might excuse him for bumbling the major philosophical arguments for the existence of God. But when it comes to the area of science, particularly biology, is he any more cogent? The answer to that question will have to wait for another Truth and Consequences.
Resources for Further Study
- Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, by J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig.
- The study of animal behavior with emphasis on the behavioral patterns that occur in natural environments. ethologist. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1), accessed 04/13/2007, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ethologist.
- Cited in the article on The God Delusion on Wikipedia, accessed 04/15/2007.
- Excessively talkative in a rambling, roundabout manner, esp. about trivial matters, see http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/garrulous, accessed 04/15/2007.
- “An Exercise in Contempt,” by Richard Kirk, The American Spectator, 12/8/2006, accessed 04/13/2007.
- The God Delusion, p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 31.
- Ibid., p. 77.
- William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Crossway Books, 1984, rev. 1994), p. 92.
- It is not my purpose to go into detail on why these two scientific observations lead to the conclusion the universe had a beginning. My purpose is to point out that Dawkins does not adequately deal with the issues raised by the kalam cosmological argument. For an in-depth analysis of this argument, see Craig’s Reasonable Faith cited in footnote 8, or go to his website: http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/ accessed 04/12/2007. Or, for a somewhat simpler and more popular treatment of the kalam cosmological argument, see Chapter 2 of Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity, by J. P. Moreland.