If Richard Dawkins is right, then everything he concludes is suspect. If “memes” are ferociously replicating “selfish-genes” in the social pool, tantamount to a computer virus, then disbelief in God may also be the result of aberrant memeplexes.
But let’s back up. Dawkins’ latest book is absolutely riveting, like the DaVinci Code. It rollicks from one cliffhanger to the next and keeps readers on the edge of their seats. However, also like the “Code” it is a hotly contested interpretation of fact, science, and history. Nonetheless, even I as a self-avowed more-or-less orthodox Christian find the book refreshing. As Dawkins suspects, I do have a “sneaking regard” for muscular atheists (as opposed to the “namby-pamby, mush-pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence sitters,” agnostics who “‘… [are] wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.'” On the other hand, Deists who relegate God to the role of prime mover have created a universe in which this God is irrelevant and is no different than a universe with no God. This is a “lazy God” who doesn’t need to do anything at all, points out Dawkins.
He eschews the NOMA theory of nonoverlapping magisteria (that science and religion operate in mutually exclusive realms). Science touches on religion and religion makes assertions about the material and natural world. In the end, there are only two choices: natural selection or God. Dawkins is clearly an adversary of all religions–which are formed by group selection, a misfiring of psychological modules, and irrationality mechanisms built into the brain (like romantic love). He is avowedly hostile to all religion, especially Christianity, as it is the principle purveyor of evil, sectarian strife and violence in the world. Intolerance, Crusades, and the Inquisition are the usual exhibits A, B and C; but also the current clash of cultures (whether in Ireland, Catholic vs. Protestant; or West vs. Middle East, Christian vs. Muslim) are evidence of the evils religion has brought to this world.
This is why I’d like to use this book in my adult education class at church–the lines are drawn so clearly.
That God is highly improbable is at the heart of the book (also articulated in his book Climbing Mount Probable). He agrees that one cannot disprove the existence of God, but one can, he asserts, reduce His likelihood to a near statistical zero. God is improbable because any entity capable of designing a universe would have to be even less probable than the universe created. To be present at the beginning, God must be unevolved and so simple. Yet to create such complexity requires extraordinary complexity on the creator’s part. If you had trouble following that, so did I.
However this launches Dawkins into a need to explain the origin of the universe. It is uncaused (to posit God as cause only begins a process of infinite regress, who or what made God? If God can be uncaused, why can’t the universe?). Given that it “just happened,” either the universe does a cycle of expand-contract oscillation, or just expands eternally, or there are many universes. Admittedly there is no evidence or way to falsify any of these hypotheses, but one surely must be right–assuming there is no God. The fact that science cannot yet explain everything does not mean that eventually it will not. In the meantime, believers fill in the gaps with God or gods. As the gaps are filled with science, God must shrink to fit into the now smaller crack.
Dawkins does avow that the universe and indeed the creatures on this planet give an appearance of design, but this is done entirely by natural selection. Universes also have a form of natural selection at work. If they are unstable, they implode or self-destruct in some manner. We are fortunate enough to live in a universe that is stable (if not, we would not be here to reflect on it). The amazing cosmological constants (the “six numbers” of Martin Rees) that create the “Goldilocks zone” of being just right to nurture our kind of life over billions of years were bound to happen somewhere, sometime, given virtual eternity and infinity to work with. As unlikely as it is to happen to us, it had to happen. Like the lotto, my chances of winning are near zero, but it is absolutely certain that somebody will win.
Dawkins is a complete and consistent reductionist. There is nothing but matter, period. But if this is so, how does one derive morality, ethics, and values? The Christian answer (and the answer given by most religions in some form) is that our sense of morality reflects the character of God. Thus we can speak of “good” and “better” and “best” or “just” and “unjust” because we are comparing something to an absolute. Humans are created with some innate sense of this because they reflect the image of God. Dawkins does an excellent job of assuming the opposite, and of showing how morality could develop without God.
Natural selection is again the process by which this happens and articulated by “Group selection Theory.” A group that practices altruism over time will survive groups that don’t. Groups that share resources are heartier than ones that don’t. Thus generosity and reciprocity come to be dominant traits. Groups that practice unbridled sexual lust will not survive those that channel sex in some way, thus we have virtues of chastity and fidelity emerging, and so on. Groups that are loyal are stronger and more coherent. This, by the way, also is part of the explanation for the rise of Christianity: “Christianity survived by a form of group selection because it fostered the idea of in-group loyalty and in-group brotherly love …”
The Bible of course gives a different account, and to this Dawkins turns his microscope. “To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird …” Well, to this last, even I would have to agree! There are plenty of gaps in the Bible I would want God to fill me in on some day to be sure! “Those who wish to base their morality literally on the Bible have either not read it or not understood it …” He reviews for us the story of Noah where God took such a dim view of humans that he drowned the lot of them, Sodom and Gomorrah, the abusive nature of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter, God’s “maniacal jealousy against alternative gods …” and stoning the man who picked up firewood on the Sabbath.
The New Testament doesn’t do much better. “Jesus was not content to derive his ethics from the scriptures of his own upbringing. He explicitly departed from them …” However Dawkins does seem to have a partial grasp of the atonement, that “God incarnated himself as a man … that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam.” He doesn’t like this but asks “If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them without having himself tortured and executed in payment … ?”
He did use the word “literally” in reference to the Bible. If one does not take some portions literally, Dawkins then answers with (and I paraphrase) how do you choose what is moral and normative and what is not? You are choosing on some other basis than the Bible itself. It is by “consensual ethics” that we make such choices, a broad range of more or less agreed on moral principles ostensibly arrived by group selection. This does change according to the Zeitgeist or “spirit of the times.” The moral climate is improving but not without its bumps and setbacks. It happens through social intercourse, leadership, and education. It does move forward and it is “not driven by religion …”
To this point in the review I have resisted, more or less, my apologetic nature and have not tried to refute or disarm his arguments. I will not do so now except to touch on certain points and show some basic weaknesses of the book.
The Jenga-type reductionist construction teeters on the argument for probability. It is unconvincing and is more a kind of Sudoku of words than a logical argument. Who made God? is not exactly nuking the theist position.
Dawkins’ chain of logic however moves along: Since there is no god and only matter, evolution must be true. The process of natural section is the engine that drives evolution and explains the illusion of design. The design argument is the main argument for God. Therefore there is no God. QED. The circular nature of this argument is apparent.
Dawkins also has an idealist view of Science. Science is the pure, logical, unbiased quest for truth that is proven by the “scientific method.” Science is our salvation, and it is science (evolutionary science to be exact) that will save us. If, as Dawkins says the overwhelming majority of scientists are atheists, we may well wonder how we have arrived at WMD. Science must select what it is to observe, and governs that selection? Science also has given the world such things as the eugenics theory. It was “wrong science” but still the best science of its time. The noblest view of science is compared to the worst possible view of religion–a rather unfair comparison.
The God Delusion avoids the history of the institutions of atheism. Alister McGrath in his book The Twilight of Atheism fills in this “gap,” if you will, with a recounting of the horrors of Stalinism and Nazism (arguing that Hitler though a professing Christian was in no possible way motivated by Christian teaching but rather by eugenics and Nietzsche). To that we could add the reign of Mao and of Pol Pot. And, incidentally, a more sober view of history tends to decry that the Zeitgeist is “improving” as we have just come through what is arguably the most violent century in all of human history.
Dawkins’ thesis that morality is also a result of natural section is actually quite good and demands attention. This would be logical and maybe even probable if one were to assume the conclusion, namely that there is no God but only matter. In that case–voila!–here is one way it could have emerged. But still, that good morals give survival features to groups that practice them should come as no surprise inasmuch as the Bible itself promises such things to those who practice them. His view of Scripture is that of an angry biologist. The questions he raises about the morality of God, evil in the world, and such, is called Theodicy–and Christian writers have grappled with that for about 2,000 years and counting. The so-called errors and inconsistencies in the Bible are also well documented and well answered (see, for example, Biblical Inconsistencies: Bible Contradictions?)
One example of a Dawkins misstep is how he treats the command “love thy neighbor.” He insists that it meant only fellow Jews and that Jesus would turn over in his grave if he heard how it was being applied now. The Leviticus 18 text moves from there to speak of the alien residing in the land as well and so this implies a consideration for others outside as well. Jesus himself applied the neighbor category to the Good Samaritan.
Lastly, Dawkins’ brand of atheism, by his own admission, is not at all tolerant. It is not content to be a worldview among others. It demands supremacy. Parents that raise their children in their faith may be abusers–and of course, given that atheism is right, atheist parents raising their children as atheists are not. The Amish, he intimates but does not say, should not be allowed to trap their children in a 17th century time warp.
On the whole, this is a must read for all who are engaged in apologetics. As one of atheism’s most articulate, well read, prolific writers, Dawkins must be faced. His questions and his points of view do reach the pew in various forms. Pastors and others would do very well to anticipate this and prepare their own responses.
In his preface Dawkins quotes favorably from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “when one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.” Perhaps, though, Dawkins is simply infected with a strain of irrational zeitgeist.