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How do other scholars view Richard Dawkins' recent book The God Delusion?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

Introduction

Richard Dawkins is a very well-known and respected biologist. Elsewhere on this site we quote Dawkins, without apology, as a leading authority on evolutionary biology. There is no question of his expertise in the biological arena, and even a cursory examination of his various books on biology and evolution reveals that he is a very talented and lucid writer.

In a recent book, Dawkins took on a rather different topic, with mixed results. In The God Delusion, he attacks a wide range of religious beliefs as illusory and further claims that religion is responsible for many historical conflicts and modern-day social ills [Dawkins2006]. Dawkins asks us to imagine "a world with no religion ... no suicide bombers, no 9/11 no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers,' no Northern Ireland 'troubles,' no 'honour killings,' no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money." [Dawkins2006, pg. 23-24] . Dawkins' view of the Judeo-Christian God as described in the Old Testament is similarly breathtaking [Dawkins2006, pg. 51]:

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, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Later in his book Dawkins analyses the notion that God in some sense initiated or directed the creation. He terms the God hypothesis "the total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation" and "a dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery" [Dawkins2006, pg. 185].

Here and there one can find some conciliatory comments. Dawkins, for instance, recognizes that religion has valuable "cultural and literary traditions," and suggests that we can give up dubious supernatural beliefs without "losing touch with a treasured heritage" [Dawkins2006, pg. 387]. But beyond this it is hard to find anything positive about religion, ancient or modern. Much of the book is openly polemic, and only superficially engages the world of religion on many of the key issues. Dawkins is even critical of scientists who attempt to craft a moderate middle ground between science and religion. For example, Dawkins is outraged at Stephen J. Gould's sensitive and well-thought-out discussion of religion in his book Rocks of Ages [Gould1999]: "I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages." [Dawkins2006, pg. 81].

Valid points

It must be acknowledged that Dawkins makes numerous valid points in his criticisms of religion. It is undeniably true that there are internal discrepancies, translation errors, historical errors and other difficulties in the Bible (see Bible). Many claims of "miracles," both historical and modern-day, almost certainly have more prosaic explanations. There are religious doctrines that must be regarded as dubious, or which are not even taken seriously by a majority of the adherents of the sect in question. For example, in a recent study 45% percent of American Catholics were not aware that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ, according to official Catholic doctrine [Goodstein2010]. Finally, it is sadly true, as Dawkins correctly points out, that religious beliefs are often misused as a "thinking stopper" -- an excuse to halt or retard the process of research (in science or religion) under the pretext that since "God did it" or "God designed it that way," further inquiry is either unnecessary or even inappropriate.

Dawkins' comments that religion has often led to armed warfare are, tragically, quite well taken. Hundreds of thousands died in the crusades of the early second millennium (1095-1291). Between two and four million died during the French religious wars of 1562-1598. Between three and 12 million died in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which was fought between Protestants and Catholics in what is now Germany. Hundreds of thousands were tortured or killed by the Inquisition and in similar persecutions by Protestants. And millions of Jews died in the Holocaust of the 1940s. Will Durant, after reviewing this history, solemnly declared, "[W]e must rank the Inquisition, along with the wars and persecutions of our time, as among the darkest blots on the record of mankind" [Durant1975, vol. 4, pg. 784].

Religious warfare in context

Horrible as these conflicts were, however, they need to be weighed in comparison to secular conflicts of the same general time period, most of which were even worse. At least 30 million died in the An Shi rebellion of China during the eighth century. Between 30 and 60 million died in the Mongol conquests of central and eastern Asia during roughly 1200 to 1500. Between 3.5 and 6.5 million died in the Napoleonic Wars. Between 23 and 65 million died in World War I, and between 40 and 72 million died in World War II [Wikipedia2010]. Between 20 and 30 million perished in the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. In none of these conflicts was religion a major factor. Note that the Jewish Holocaust was conducted under the cover of World War II.

Along this line, it is worth pointing out that contrary to Dawkins' claim, atheistic figures and movements have also wreaked considerable havoc throughout history. In the 1790s, leaders the French Revolution systematically repressed religion in an attempt to replace God, the Son and the Holy Ghost with a new trinity of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Approximately 25,000 priests, who refused to swear allegiance to the new regime after it confiscated the church's property, fled to other lands. In the ensuing Reign of Terror, priests were among the many thousands of Frenchmen who were guillotined. Six carriage-loads of priests were executed on a single day in 1792 [Durant1975, vol. 11, pg. 42-80].

Anti-religious violence, conducted specifically in an attempt to eradicate religion, continued even into the 20th century. For example, Stalin's regime, in addition to directly or indirectly killing millions of Russian citizens, also methodically closed or destroyed thousands of Greek Orthodox churches, and killed hundreds of priests. Fifty-five priests were executed on a single day in 1938 [Dickinson2000; Brown2006].

Dawkins' probability and complexity arguments

In his book, Dawkins asserts that while we cannot say with absolute certainty that there is no God, "The God Hypothesis is also very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability." [Dawkins2006, pg. 68]. Mathematician Amir Aczel, in his 2014 book Why Science Does Not Disprove God, points out that Dawkins is being very naive here about probability. One cannot possibly formulate a mathematically rigorous notion of the probability of God, and so claims such as those made by Dawkins have no foundation [Aczel2014, pg. 129].

Dawkins also presents what he believes to be a decisive argument against the existence of God, as follows. In the early nineteenth century, William Paley argued that if one found a watch along the road, then from its intricate construction one could rationally conclude that it must have been designed by an intelligent being. But since the human body, for example, is much more intricately constructed than a watch, it too must have been designed in detail by an intelligent entity. More recent examples of the same line of thinking have used a Boeing 747 jetliner instead of a watch as the point of comparison. Dawkins, like others before him, observes that modern evolutionary biology provides a natural explanation for apparent design that we see in the natural world. But Dawkins then turns the Boeing 747 argument on its end, by asserting that "Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as ... a universe would have to be even more improbable" [Dawkins2006, pg. 120]. Later he elaborates, "Any God capable of designing a universe ... must be a supremely complex and improbable entity" [Dawkins2006, pg. 140].

But Dawkins' argument relies on the highly questionable assumption that something complex is less probable than something simple. To the contrary, the very laws of nature and of evolution that Dawkins elsewhere champions show that complex entities can be produced as the effects of relatively simple laws and conditions. Along this line, computer scientist Stephen Wolfram argues at length in his tome A New Kind of Science that extremely simple computational models can generate what appear to be arbitrarily complex output [Wolfram2002]. For that matter, the creation of the universe at the big bang is now thought by some physicists to have been the result of a quantum fluctuation [Davies2007, pg. 67]. Dawkins' argument is also strangely reminiscent of the many attempts by creationists and intelligent design writers to apply probability arguments in the science-religion debate. One of the fallacies common to both Dawkins' argument and those of the creationist-intelligent design camp is to overlook the fact that an enormous ensemble of potential outcomes might equally fit the overall objective, and so to attempt to calculate the probability of a single configuration (whether it be a protein, an organism or even the entire universe) is highly misleading. For additional discussion, see Probability.

British philosophers Alistair McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath observe that the holy grail of physics is to devise a "grand unified theory" that would be the foundation of all physical phenomena, the end of a chain of scientific explanation. Yet there is no reason to think that such a set of laws must be more complex than our present universe, or that such a quest is logically doomed from the outset. In general, the McGraths note that "There are many things that seem improbable -- but improbability does not, and never has, entailed nonexistence. We may be highly improbable -- yet we are here. The issue, then is not whether God is probable but whether God is actual." [McGrath2007, pg. 27-28]. Similarly, British philosopher Keith Ward critiques Dawkins' argument at length, and concludes [Ward2008, pg. 45-47]:

Is the probability of simple parts existing any smaller than the probability of complex parts existing? Dawkins seems to think that the existence of simple parts is only "slightly improbable," whereas the existence of a complex whole is very improbable indeed. But in this he is almost certainly wrong. ... It is not true to say, as Dawkins does, that "the laws of probability forbid the existence of intelligence without simpler antecedents" [Dawkins2006, pg. 73]. The laws of probability forbid nothing of the sort. ... The laws of probability are just not going to apply.

In short, the one attempt by Dawkins in his book to present a substantive scientific-philosophical argument against God is deeply flawed. It is very far from being a decisive argument against the existence of a supreme Being.

God as an unfortunate by-product of culture and evolution

In his book The God Delusion Dawkins proposes that a belief in God is an accidental by-product of evolution, a "mis-firing of something useful" [Dawkins2006, pg. 188]. Elsewhere he has written that a belief in God is somehow a "virus of the mind." Yet other scholars dismiss this notion as hopelessly inconsistent with the cultural and archaeological record. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from the new book Ultra Society: How 10,000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on earth by Peter Turchin [Turchin2016, pg. 207]:
The modern idea of human rights is, thus, quite recent. But it would be a mistake to consider human history before the European Enlightenment as an unrelieved Age of Despotism. As we saw in this chapter, extreme forms of inequality and despotism began receding much earlier, during the Axial Age [1000-500 BCE]. We see massive evidence of this in the writings of the Axial Age thinkers, from Greek philosophers and Old Testament prophets to Indian renouncers and Chinese sages. ...
Although the ideas of the Enlightenment accelerated and depended the movement of humanity towards greater equality, the roots of the macro historical trend go back to the Axial Age. And the moving force behind the trend was not reason, but faith. Neo-atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who considers religion nothing but a pernicious delusion, will not like this conclusion. Nevertheless it's true.

Published reviews

Numerous reviews and published responses have been published on Dawkins' book. Many of these, especially online blogs and the like, are clearly written by amateurs and can be dismissed out of hand. Others are highly defensive in tone, responding to Dawkins' rhetoric with bluster of their own. Other reviews are better constructed, but evade many of Dawkins' key criticisms of religion. But more than a few are written by highly knowledgeable scholars in the arena of science and religion, and thus cannot be lightly tossed aside. Here are excerpts from just a few of the many reviews that could be listed:
  1. Historian Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God and several other widely read books on the history of religion, comments on Dawkins as follows [Armstrong2009, pg. 303-305]:

    For Dawkins, religious faith rests on the idea that "there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it." Having set up this definition of God as Supernatural Designer, Dawkins only has to point out that there is in fact no design in nature in order to demolish it. But he is mistaken to assume that this is "the way people have generally understood the term" God. He is also wrong to claim that God is a scientific hypothesis, that is, a conceptual framework for bringing intelligibility to a series of experiments and observations. It was only in the modern period that theologians started to treat God as a scientific explanation and in the process produced an idolatrous God concept.

  2. British journalist and scientific writer Andrew Brown assesses Dawkins' book in rather unflattering terms [Brown2006]:

    It has been obvious for years that Richard Dawkins had a fat book on religion in him, but who have thought him capable of writing one this bad? Incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory, it has none of the style or verve of his earlier works. ... This persistence [of religion] is what any scientific attack on religion must explain -- and [Dawkins' book] doesn't. ... [Dawkins] cannot accept the obvious conclusion ... that thoroughgoing atheism is unnatural and will never be popular.

  3. E. Brian Davies, a distinguished British mathematician (and hardly a religious believer himself) was deeply disappointed in Dawkins' book [Davies2010b, pg. 209]:

    The worst feature of Dawkins' book is its failure to get grips with the variety of religious belief. Dawkins' real enemy is fundamentalism, but he attacks religion indiscriminately. ... He is unable to grasp that many moderate believes dislike fundamentalists of all religions as much as he does. ... I am afraid that The God Delusion is a deeply flawed book that does not to approach Dawkins' usual standards, and suspect that he got carried away by the sheer enjoyment of writing it.

  4. Terry Eagleton, a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is highly critical of Dawkins' treatment of theology [Eagleton2006]: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology."

  5. Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath (mentioned above) conclude their analysis of Dawkins' book with this assessment [McGrath2007, pg. 96-97]:

    The God Delusion seems more designed to reassure atheists whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with religious believers and others seeking for truth. ... Religious believers will be dismayed by its ritual stereotyping of religion and will find its manifest lack of fairness a significant disincentive to take its arguments and concerns seriously. Seekers after truth who would not consider themselves religious may also find themselves shocked by Dawkins's aggressive rhetoric, his substitution of personal creedal statements for objective engagement with evidence, his hectoring and bullying tone toward "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads" and his utter determination to find nothing but fault with religion of any kind. ...

    The God Delusion is a work of theater rather than scholarship -- a fierce, rhetorical assault on religion and passionate plea for it to be banished to the lunatic fringes of society, where it can do no harm. ... Its dismissive attitude to religion will doubtless win plaudits from those who heartily dislike religion.

    Yet others have been more cautious. Aware of the moral obligation of a critic of religion to deal with this phenomenon at its best and most persuasive, many have been disturbed by Dawkins's crude stereotypes, vastly oversimplified binary oppositions (science is good; religion is bad), straw men and hostility towards religion. Might The God Delusion actually backfire and end up persuading people that atheism is just as intolerant, doctrinaire and disagreeable as the worst that religion can offer?

  6. H. Allen Orr, a professor of biology at the University of Rochester, writes, in a review of Dawkins' book for the New York Review of Books [Orr2007]:

    Despite my admiration for much of Dawkins's work, I'm afraid that I'm among those scientists who must part company with him here. Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more an amateur. I don't pretend to know whether there's more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins's general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.

    The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins's cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

    The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?). ...

  7. Alvin Plantinga, a Protestant philosopher, adds the following [Plantinga2007]:

    Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he's a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of [Dawkins'] forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class.

  8. Michael Ruse, a highly respected philosopher of science (and hardly a devout Judeo-Christian himself), comments as follows [Ruse2014]:

    Like every first-year undergraduate in philosophy, Dawkins thinks he can put to rest the causal argument for God's existence. If God caused the world, then what caused God? Of course the great philosophers, Anselm and Aquinas particularly, are way ahead of him here. ... In the end, I am not sure that the Christian God idea flies, but I want to extend to Christians the courtesy of arguing against what they actually believe, rather than begin and end with the polemical parody of what Dawkins calls "the God delusion."

  9. British philosopher-theologian Keith Ward (mentioned above), in a book-length response to Dawkins, writes [Ward2008, pg. 10-11]:

    Professor Dawkins ... is one of the most exciting and informative writers on science, especially on evolutionary biology. I own all of his books. I have learned much from them, and have always been greatly impressed by his capacity to convey the awesomeness of modern science and of the universe it explores.

    But when he enters into the world of philosophy, his passion tends to get the better of him, and he sometimes descends into stereotyping, pastiche and mockery, no longer approaching the arguments with his usual seriousness and care. I suspect that he dislikes philosophers, and thinks they are wasting their time sitting around in armchairs instead of carrying out some worthwhile experiments. ...

    Whether he likes philosophy or not, Dawkins is doing philosophy in Chapters 2 to 4 of The God Delusion. He has come into my world, a world in which I welcome a good argument. In [Ward's] short book I want to challenge his arguments, to show that they are not all strong, and to show that there are much stronger arguments in favour of believing in a God -- in fact, that it is almost certain that there is a God.

Conclusion

In summary, Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion is, for the most part, a highly selective and highly polemic reprise of many well-known criticisms of religion. The book does not break any new ground that has has not already been plowed over at length by other scholars. His treatment of biblical scholarship is very superficial and one-sided. Dawkins' one scientific-philosophical argument, namely his complexity argument, is deeply flawed and is far from the decisive argument against God that Dawkins presents it to be. Finally, Dawkins at times descends into hyperbole that is utterly unbecoming a prominent scholar. We can only hope that other scholars will write better treatments of the issue.

All of this is unfortunate, in a way, because in private conversations Dawkins is reported to be not only highly philosophical, but also more respectful and conciliatory towards enlightened religion. For example, in a recent profile of Dawkins published in the New York Times, he acknowledged that he has had some "perfectly wonderful" conversations with Anglican bishops (the dominant faith in England, where he lives) [Powell2011]. What's more, he has long openly promoted the notions of evolutionary progress and human progress, notions that resonate with many religious-minded people who reject negativism and see future human progress as the fulfillment of religious ideals (see Evolution-progress, Progress and Decline).

In this same New York Times interview, Dawkins confesses to be intrigued by the notion, advocated by physicist Freeman Dyson and numerous others, that humans might co-evolve with our silicon compatriots into super-powerful, intelligent and moral entities. When asked, "Doesn't that sound an awful like God?," Dawkins replied, "It's highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures," although he cautions (lest anyone think of him as waxing too religious), that "these Gods came into being by an explicable scientific progression of incremental evolution." Could they be immortal? Dawkins shrugged, but added, "I wouldn't want to be too dogmatic about that." [Powell2011].

See also Atheists.

References

[See Bibliography].