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God and Richard Dawkins
Jordan Hylden | Spring 2007

Richard Dawkins does not believe in God, and he thinks that you shouldn’t either. In fact, if you do believe in God, he thinks that it is probably because you are deluded, weak-minded, uneducated, and quite possibly perverse. All this and then some he argues in his latest book, The God Delusion, which by now has spent a very large number of weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Using what he claims is science and reason, Dawkins—who is perhaps the world’s most prominent atheist and popularizer of science—in this book lays out his case as a scientist for why there “almost certainly is no God,” and moreover why religion (most particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is at the root of nearly everything that is wrong with the world. One might fault Dawkins for many things, but lack of chutzpah is not among them. The existence of God, for Dawkins, is essentially a “scientific hypothesis” against which he confidently asserts there to be all but conclusive evidence and (in his words) “unanswerable” logical arguments.

Unfortunately for Dawkins, his book is not quite so unanswerable as he imagines it to be. Granted, his friend Steven Pinker liked it—“Read this book,” he challenged on the dust jacket, “and see if you can counter Dawkins’s arguments”—but aside from a few others, such as Penn and Teller, it has met with an overwhelmingly negative response. So much so, in fact, that the New York Times saw fit to publish an article about how many negative reviews there were (March 3, 2007). Left, right, and center, philosophers and scientists alike lined up: Thomas Nagel in the New Republic, Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books, others in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, National Review, Harper’s, First Things, Books & Culture, and so on. As it turns out, there are a lot of people who were able to counter Dawkins’s arguments quite well indeed — which, to be quite honest, should not have surprised anyone, because the arguments are simply not very good.

In my opinion, that is a shame. Many atheists today have genuinely interesting arguments against God’s existence—such as, for example, the Harvard literary critic James Wood. Thoughtful religious believers today cannot honestly go without butting their heads against Ivan Karamasov’s classic presentation of the problem of suffering (although Dostoyevsky himself was a Christian), or without wrestling against the world-weary skepticism of Montaigne and Hume. Modern-day giants of science, philosophy, and literature such as Wittgenstein, Einstein, Hoyle, Habermas, Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, and William James have taken up the question of God with great depth and profundity. Such questions make up a large portion of the patrimony of Western civilization, and a serious contribution to the discussion from a scientist of Dawkins’s prominence would have been most welcome.

Sadly, Richard Dawkins seems not to care a whit about any such thing. Many reviewers have pointed out, and I will also, the surpassing incongruity between his excellent popular science work and his deeply shallow, prejudiced, middlebrow, and poorly reasoned anti-religion oeuvre. I am admittedly no more than an amateur myself, but Dawkins again and again made errors of fact and logic that made my head hurt. Terry Eagleton put it best: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Dawkins on theology.” And commenting on Dawkins’s philosophical skills, H. Allen Orr in the New York Review was no kinder: “[Dawkins] suffers from several problems when attempting to reason philosophically,” he wrote. “The most obvious is that he has a preordained set of conclusions at which he’s determined to arrive. Consequently, Dawkins uses any argument, however feeble, that seems to get him there and the merit of various arguments appears judged largely by where they lead.”

It is all more than a little strange. In fact, there are so many things wrong with the book that it is hard to know where to begin. The central problem, however, I think can be summed up this way: Dawkins thinks that he has written a book using science and reason, but instead wound up writing a book filled with pseudoscience and angry rhetoric, containing no more than a dash of real science and logic thrown in now and then for seasoning. Dawkins exhibits almost no knowledge of theology and philosophy of religion, and what little he does know is deeply distorted by his own anti-religious prejudice. The sad result is that Dawkins has allowed himself to write a deeply unscientific and irrational book, in which straw men are set up over and over again, each time to be mowed down by bullying rhetoric and insult that desperately attempt to conceal the hand-waving and flawed arguments buried beneath.

What’s even stranger, Dawkins doesn’t even seem to realize the contradiction between what he says and what he does. Dawkins apparently thinks that “Reason” is some sort of unproblematic, disembodied tool that can be wrested from particular human perspectives, desires, and power-plays. At least, such is his claim—after which he goes on to fill page after page with burning invective, one-sided argument, and moral preening. It is the sort of thing that postmodernists eat for breakfast. For all its excesses, postmodernist thought was quite right to point out the way in which rhetorical power-plays often hide under the guise of disinterested dialectic, meaning that what goes by the name of “reason” often is not much more than the attempt to justify what one already believes or wants to be true. If Dawkins had the slightest amount of sympathy for the insights of postmodernism, he might have been a bit more wary of trumpeting the virtue of Voltaire and Jeffersonian enlightenment reason. As it is, The God Delusion is a veritable textbook example of everything postmodernism rightly decries, and likely has already been pounced upon by countless Kuhnian skeptics looking for one more reason to look askance upon all the works and all the ways of modern science.

But, for what it’s worth, I would like to hope that it remains possible to have a rational discussion about religion here at Harvard. My experience with this over four years—with students, although not always with professors—was actually quite good, and one of the most stimulating parts of my college education. So at the very least, although Dawkins himself has sadly not added much to the debate, I think there are several of his points that might make for worthwhile discussion.

First, we can examine Dawkins’s central argument, which can be summed up as follows: Darwinian evolution has expunged any hint of design, or telos, from the universe, and hence has rendered exceedingly improbable (or at least unnecessary) the notion that a creator-God exists. Formerly, Dawkins says, people thought that something like a God must lay behind the enormous complexity of the universe, but now that we have been met with Darwin’s argument for how complex organic life evolved from simpler forms of organic life, we ought no longer to suppose that anything complex in the universe did not do the same.

That’s a fair summary, I think. Now, to begin with, it can’t be denied that this sort of reasoning has had a great deal of influence on thoughtful people over the last century or so. When Darwin first proposed his theory of evolution, it was almost immediately seized upon by Anglican intellectuals in England as threatening to religion, and so was treated as such. Non-religious figures such as T. H. Huxley and H. G. Wells agreed, but took the opposite tack and started to convince a fair number of people that Darwinism meant religion could not be true. And, for better or for worse—in my opinion, much for the worse—the argument has stayed the same ever since, with Huxley and Wells replaced by Dawkins and Pinker, and with any number of fundamentalists jostling for the role of Bishop Wilberforce and William Jennings Bryan.

The sad thing is that, in a number of ways, the whole argument is something of a red herring. In reality, biological evolution does not really do what people like Dawkins and Bryan think it does—e.g., provide an all-encompassing explanation of the natural world, human experience, morality, and religion. In fact it is quite limited in scope. Evolution provides a splendid explanation for how species change into other species: Over time, they adapt to their environment by means of genetic heritability and random mutation. Theodosius Dobzhansky was quite right when he said that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” Evolution is an elegant and productive theory, without which numerous scientific advances would not have happened.

But for all that, it does not do anything to explain how organic life came about, or how DNA (the necessary foundation upon which evolution is built) came to be in the first place. Evolution does not say how the universe itself was created, or how the astonishing array of molecular, astronomical, and atmospheric constants necessary for life to exist (e.g., the “anthropic” problem, classically set forth by Fred Hoyle) combined as they did. Evolution does not do any of those things because it never set out to do such things in the first place. Arguably, evolution does not work very well to explain things such as consciousness, intentionality, language, morality, music, beauty, or love either. Consequently, although people like Dawkins and Pinker try valiantly, they have never quite produced arguments that explain such things without explaining them away.

Dawkins of course considers the argument against telos his specialty, and so he attempts to solve the anthropic problem at great length. For Dawkins, the answer is really quite simple: Let us say, he muses, that there are a billion billion planets in the universe, and that the odds of organic life appearing on any of them are a billion to one. That means that life would have appeared on a billion planets, of which Earth is only one. Not so improbable after all!

Of course, this is absurd. No chemist or physicist thinks that the probability of life appearing is even close to anything as high as a billion to one. Dawkins may as well be pulling numbers out of a hat. He seems to realize this a few pages on in the chapter, where he evokes the notion of innumerable parallel universes, of which we live in only one, which just so happens to be the one in which we live — e.g., the one that contains life. And since we are here, Dawkins argues, the anthropic problem clearly isn’t problematic after all, and so we don’t have to worry about it.

Now, there very well may be other universes, but I can’t possibly imagine how I would know anything about them—here, Dawkins has ventured beyond science and into speculation. And the logical move of eliminating the anthropic problem by in effect avoiding it is a neat trick, but it manages to bypass the central question altogether.

The philosopher John Leslie (whom Dawkins mentions) illustrates the problem with this sort of reasoning quite well. Imagine, he says, a man sentenced to death by a ten-man firing squad, who at the moment of execution finds to his great relief that all ten shots have missed. Why, he wonders, did they all miss? Did they all plan to miss on purpose? Was there a last-minute stay of the execution? Did a friend tamper with the rifles? All of these questions seem eminently reasonable. But for Dawkins, the best answer would be something like: “Well, I’m here, aren’t I? So obviously, there isn’t much of a question after all.”

Now, one is free, of course, to adopt Dawkins’s bizarrely head-in-the-sand attitude toward the origin of life and the nature of the universe. But for those more inclined to sympathize with the lucky fellow who wondered why his executioners all missed, there are any number of questions that ought to be explored. And this means that the argument from telos, or design, is actually not quite as dead as Dawkins supposes it to be. Thomas Nagel, emphasizing the puzzle posed by the appearance of DNA, puts it quite well:

At this point the origin of life remains, in light of what is known about the huge size, the extreme specificity, and the exquisite functional precision of the genetic material, a mystery—an event that could not have occurred by chance and to which no significant probability can be assigned on the basis of what we know of the laws of physics and chemistry. Yet we know that it happened. That is why the argument from design is still alive.

And it is, in short, why Dawkins’s attempt fails. As Nagel points out, the anthropic problem is an enormous philosophical conundrum, the solution to which is up for debate. But if sensible answers exist — contra Dawkins — it is quite safe to assume that the answer will have to come from somewhere other than biological evolution.

There is more to Dawkins’s book, of course—in length, if perhaps not in substance. Quite frequently, he makes the assertion that the invocation of a creator-God explains nothing, since then the existence of God would have to be explained. In order to create the organized complexity of the universe, Dawkins claims, such a God would have to be just as complex and then some. But the existence of such a being is exceedingly improbable, he says: Where did God come from in the first place?

It is an odd question, a bit like asking the color of Wednesday. As many reviewers have pointed out, Dawkins seems to think that when Christians speak of God, they mean some sort of super-smart ultra-complex inhabitant of the natural world, a cross between Zeus and Inspector Gadget. But that is not what Christians mean at all. Christians at least mean by God an infinite, transcendent, and eternal Being, ground of all that is, outside of time and space but active in both. It simply does not make sense to ask when eternity began, or to inquire as to what made infinity. And yet, both ideas are necessary. If anything exists at all—and obviously, we do indeed exist—then something or other had to have been around forever. Whatever that was, it certainly wasn’t us, and given what we know of the Big Bang, it doesn’t seem to have been the universe, either. Hence eternity and infinity, and hence the inference of some sort of Being that transcends the universe. It seems to be necessary in order for us to exist. Of course, thinking about such things long enough will make one’s head spin, and I am far from an expert. But thoughts like these have led many a physicist and astronomer to questions of God, and a good number of them to religion. It is more than a little disappointing that Dawkins seems not to even understand the question.

But enough with Dawkins’s attempts at philosophy. Such as they are, I can only imagine that they are motivated by a very strong prejudice against religion. And indeed, Dawkins makes no secret of the fact that he thinks religion to be the root of all sorts of evil, without which the world would be a far more rational and peaceful place. It is a common complaint these days, especially after the September 11 attacks. But there is, I would contend, no very compelling reason to think (along with John Lennon) that if religion suddenly vanished from the world, mankind’s deep-seated tribal animosity, vindictiveness, prejudice, superstition, greed, selfishness, power-lust, and penchant for violence would suddenly up and disappear. Indeed, if anything, the 20th century’s experiments in secularism ought to have made us wonder if precisely the opposite is true. As so-called “scientific” eugenics, the threat of nuclear technology, and Stalinism ought to have shown us humanity is quite capable of evil and destruction without any help from religion.

Neither does it help to assert that it is “dogma” and “belief,” not just organized religion, that is to blame. Unless we are all to become nihilist epicures—like Nietzsche’s last men, without hope or passion, satisfying our bellies and waiting for death—it seems that some sort of belief is desirable. Indeed, it appears that human societies cannot go without belief in something or other—as the historian Michael Burleigh has shown in his magisterial Sacred Causes, the decline of traditional religion in Europe left a gap that unfortunately was filled for many by Nazism and Communism. (Hannah Arendt, in her Origins of Totalitarianism, said likewise.) The trouble then is not with belief, since that seems to go along with human culture. Rather, the trouble is the content of that belief.

That, in the end, is the conversation that truly matters. And it is a conversation that, without any help from Dawkins, is already taking place among many thoughtful people, religious and non-religious alike. Dawkins seems to think that religion is a sort of reason-free zone, where people can do nothing but endlessly spout off about whatever superstitious version of fundamentalism they hold to. But for most Christians, such a notion appears quite odd. Pope Benedict XVI, in a recent lecture delivered at the University of Regensburg, held that faith is and must be congruent with reason. In so doing, he was saying nothing more than what the church had always taught. As classically expressed by Thomas Aquinas, Christians think that human reason can arrive at a great deal of truth, but cannot come on its own steam to certain truths about the nature of God. Revelation, then, consists of the particular truths about God’s self that God chooses to reveal to mankind—which, once known, prove to make sense given what we knew from natural reason all along. It is a bit like running into a roadblock while puzzling over the answer to a math problem, and then having a friend point out the part you were wrong about. For Christians, faith doesn’t destroy reason, but instead illumines and fulfills it.

This enlarged view of reason inspired Aquinas to pore through the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and the Muslim world, much of which he wound up incorporating into his own thought. For Benedict XVI, that is precisely the model for religious and philosophical discussion in today’s world — careful, respectful, and reasonable dialogue, rather than violent attack or irrational diatribe. One hopes that Dawkins will decide to join in, and sooner rather than later.

There is more to be said, but only space for two final points. First, it must be pointed out that Dawkins’s discussion of the Bible is no better than the rest of his book. “I respect an honest fundamentalist,” he writes, but if anyone should suggest that the Bible might perhaps be honestly viewed by Christians as an inspired yet variegated document that cannot simply be interpreted without a view of the whole, Dawkins seems to think there is some kind of trick involved—for him, it is either full-stop literalism or nothing.

Of course, some Christians do read Scripture this way, but most do not. Most Christians think that the Old Testament is a record of God’s progressive self-revelation to a specific people group, the Jews, some of which demonstrates extraordinary religious insight and truth (for instance, the Ten Commandments and the books of Isaiah and Amos) and some of which shows how much at early stages they had yet to learn. As for the New Testament, Christians think that it contains a faithful record of the life and teachings of Christ, in which the whole of Scripture is illuminated and by which the church itself is constituted and judged. There is no contradiction in saying that the ancient Jews understood God better as time went along (the entire Talmud is witness to this), or that God’s unique self-revelation in Christ provides the Church with the standard for its biblical interpretation.

Neither does Dawkins’s selective use of biblical scholarship prove helpful. When it suits him, Dawkins quotes various scholars in an attempt to “prove” the New Testament’s inaccuracy and moral culpability. He does not seem to realize that much of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century German historical-critical scholarship of which he approves was by and large an exercise in anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic prejudice, in which anything that smacked of Judaism or Catholicism was dismissed as “unhistorical,” thus leading to a view of Jesus that looked suspiciously like a nineteenth-century German liberal Protestant. Some of this foolishness persists today (not least in the work of John Shelby Spong and his historical-critical kind), but thankfully a great deal of it has been surpassed. If Dawkins had earnestly engaged with Church fathers such as Augustine and Origen (no biblical literalists they) or the best of modern biblical scholarship from places such as Cambridge, Durham, St. Andrew’s, Yale, and Duke, his discussion might have been more than an extended exercise in prejudice.

Finally, it is worth noting that what is missing in Dawkins’s rather emaciated view of Christianity — as well as in the view of people like Sam Harris and Steven Pinker — is any serious reflection on the central message of Christianity, which is that God has revealed himself to the world as a God of beauty, peace, joy, forgiveness, and love. To my mind, it is here that sociobiologists like Dawkins and Pinker are at their most unsatisfying. Love, to their way of thinking, is always something of an illusion underwritten by an ultimate selfishness—kin favoritism in service of genetic propagation, or reciprocal you-scratch-my-back-if-I-scratch-yours agreements. Beauty, more or less, is no more than an index of genetic desirability, whether in humans or natural habitats—and oftentimes is a seductress, who, like the Venus-fly-trap, hides only another power-play under her attractive guise. Certainly, sociobiology can make no sense of the transcendent beauty and emotional power of music—Pinker, in How the Mind Works, famously surmised that music is a fortuitous byproduct of the rest of our senses, a bit like a piece of excess mental cheesecake, which somehow jiggles our neurons in a pleasing way. For them, beauty is a trick, peace is an illusion, and love is a tease.

But as the theologians Hans Urs Von Balthasar, John Milbank, and David B. Hart have noted, Christianity’s claim of ultimate ontological peace stands in contrast to the “ontology of violence” underlying the purposeless world of striving set forth by Darwin’s vision of “nature red in tooth and claw” and assumed by most contemporary thought. For Christians, although the world is in many ways a deeply broken place, one can still see the rays of God’s light shining through—in the self-giving love of one soul to another, in the peace of the Dakota prairie after a summertime rain, in the transcendent beauty of Bach’s B Minor Mass and the symphony of a sunset, or in the joyful wonder of a child playing in winter’s first snow. They are clues, as it were, left to lead us toward the source of ultimate love, peace, beauty, and joy from which they came. And they are, finally, reasons for hope.

In the end, I fear that Dawkins’s book is unlikely to do more than inflame already-heated passions on both sides. Religious fundamentalists now have one more reason to fear and distrust the legitimate results of modern science, and millions of atheists and agnostics have been encouraged to view religious people with similar fear, incomprehension, and disdain. Dawkins has placed one more roadblock in the way of the genuinely respectful and thoughtful dialogue between religious folk and non-believers that is so desperately needed today. To my mind, that is cause for much regret. But it is no reason to suppose that Dawkins has the last word on God.


Jordan Hylden ‘06 is a Government graduate from Currier House. He is the former Editor-in-Chief and founder of the Ichthus.