How do other scholars view Dawkins’ The God Delusion?


In his recent book The God Delusion, noted biologist Richard Dawkins attacks a wide range of religious beliefs as “delusions,” 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].

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].

Dawkins’ free-wheeling rhetoric has even drawn criticism from highly secular scholars. Robert Wright, a noted philosopher and author of several widely read books on history, science and religion, points out that for those of us who are trying to keep legitimate science in public schools, the last thing we need “is for the world’s most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world’s most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies.” [Wright2009].

Dawkins’ complexity argument

Dawkins 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 philosopher Alistair McGrath and his wife 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.

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. 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?).

  2. 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.

  3. 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?


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.

For more detail, see Dawkins.


  1. [Armstrong2009] Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009.
  2. [Davies2007] Paul Davies, Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life, Houghton-Mifflin Co., New York, 2007.
  3. [Dawkins2006] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2006.
  4. [Gould1999] Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Library of Contemporary Thought, New York, 1999.
  5. [Harris2006] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, Knopf, New York, 2006.
  6. [McGrath2007] Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2007.
  7. [Orr2007] H. Allen Orr, “Mission to Convert,” New York Review of Books, vol. 54, no. 11 (11 Jan 2007), available at Online article.
  8. [Ward2008a] Keith Ward, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins, Lion, London, 2008.
  9. [Wolfram2002] Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science, Wolfram Media, Champaign, IL, 2002.
  10. [Wright2009] Robert Wright, “The Anti-God Squad Why Even Some of the Most Zealous Non-Believers May Abandon the Crusade Against Religion,” Foreign Policy, available at
    Online article

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