I hadn’t had butterflies like this since I first went up in the Superman Tower of Power at Six Flags St. Louis (I screamed, but I screamed like a manly man, darn it!). Richard Dawkins is one of the best-known, most-vocal, and most-influential atheists of our time. And from what I’d heard, The God Delusion was his, and atheism’s, magnum opus.
So yeah, this Christian boy shook a little.
It would have been easier to ignore this book’s existence, to plug my ears and say, “La, la, la, can’t hear you!” But I quickly realized that would have been immature, perhaps even cowardly. If Dawkins was right, I needed this book. If he wasn’t, then I had nothing to fear. And either way, it increases wisdom and understanding to listen to voices that aren’t your own, even the polar opposites.
Thus, I read it. Now on the other side of the book jacket, I can exhale with a smile on my face. I read The God Delusion, yet I remain a Christian. In fact, I am a stronger Christian now because of it. How can that be? Because, meager as I probably am, I see very little for Christians to truly fear.
I Agree With Half of What Dawkins Says
This one genuinely surprised me. It started on page 17, where Dawkins points out two letters from religious people writing angrily to Einstein for denouncing a personal God. Dawkins laughs at the foolishness of the first and cringes at the cruelty of the second. My 30-year Christian opinion? The first letter was vapid and the second mean. We agree.
The phenomenon continued off and on throughout the book. About half the time I vehemently disagreed with Dawkins’ claims, but the other half, I nodded along. Yes, that argument really is stupid. Yes, these things have happened. No, the founding fathers of America weren’t as Christian as they were romanticized. I ended up skimming some paragraphs because we were already in agreement, so why keep fighting?
So many Christians can relax. You may, more or less often, find yourself in alliance with Mr. Dawkins. Part of this is because of a rather strange game Dawkins plays.
On page 36, Dawkins makes a very wise move in my opinion. He understands that simply saying “God,” will result in a firestorm of “Well that’s not the God I believe in.” So he opts not to pick on individual gods, but on the supernatural as a whole (p. 36, par 4). As I said, I think that’s brilliant. Dawkins doesn’t want to play Religious Whack-a-Mole, so he unplugs the machine.
But one paragraph earlier, Dawkins himself plugged the machine in. He says that the best way to denounce supernaturalism in all forms is to debunk the three biggest: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (p. 36., par 3). He then states, as said before that he’s not going to attack specific gods, but supernaturalism as a whole. Then, he goes right on to page 37 denouncing specific gods. He even spends pages 237-262 tearing into the Christian and Jewish holy books while ignoring the others.
Which is it? Supernaturalism in all forms or three specific ones? By attacking specifics, Dawkins plays the very game he despises. Religions outside those big three can ignore great swathes of this book. And within those big three, each of them can ignore other parts by comforting themselves with, “Well, that’s not what I believe, so I can sit this round out.”
Stranger still, Dawkins states that he’s going to ignore religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism because “there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all, but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.” (p. 37-38) But what happened to decrying “supernaturalism in all forms?” (p. 36, par 3) Buddhism, Hindu, and other less popular religions believe in the supernatural, so why do they get a pass half the time?
If I’m reading those pages right, Dawkins assumes that tackling the big three religions will more or less defy supernaturalism as a whole. That’s like saying, “If I smash the three biggest and most popular cakes, the whole bakery will be destroyed.”
What’s more, some of the larger arguments Dawkins battles are Christian-specific, such as the claims of Aquinas (p. 77-79), Pascal (p. 103-105), and C.S. Lewis (p. 92). These men were not defending God as a generality, but their specific god. How many Jews look to C.S. Lewis as their hero? How many Muslims revere Aquinas?
It’s a strange game Dawkins plays. Why would give himself a logical and simple out, then jump right back in? It could, of course, be a simple mistake. However, I’m inclined to believe that it was less of a slip-up and more of an eagerness to dig his teeth into specific religions. Why do I believe that? Because…
Dawkins’ Bias Bleeds Like a Sieve
Richard Dawkins despises religion. Despises. He sees zero purpose in it, zero usefulness, zero value, and zero reason why anyone else should either. When theorizing people are religious (chapter 5), he never once asks religious people. Instead, he studies them from afar, like lab specimens, so valueless is their input to him.
Now let’s be fair. Being impartial in the field of religion is like driving a car blindfolded without crashing. Possible, but extremely unlikely. But while other atheist and religious writers have at least attempted to understand their opponent, Dawkins writes them off without a wink.
When Dawkins speaks of religious people, it’s always in the negative, as if religious people have never done a single good thing in the history of mankind. When a non-religious person either defends or refuses to bad-mouth religion, Dawkins assumes they must have been “bending over backward,” because they couldn’t be sincere (p. 50, par 1, for example). And if they were sincere, they clearly hadn’t thought about it very long (p. 61, par 3). He can’t help sneaking in snarky asides about people who don’t believe what he does (p. 92, par 3, etc), nor flowing praise for people who do (p. 117, par 3; p. 118, par 1; p. 131, par 2 for examples).
Perhaps the worst offender is Dawkins’ consistent theme of, “If only these people had a little education, they would see the truth.” (p.113-119; p.143, par 3 for example) He assumes religious people can only be ignorant, that no religious person ever looked at the same set of facts he possessed and decided they weren’t sufficient. Nor does Dawkins limit this to religious people, but even the non-religious who doesn’t believe what he does. Perhaps the most shocking example is the footnote on page 145. When he says that most physicists hate the idea of a megaverse, he says, “I think it is beautiful–perhaps because my consciousness has been raised by Darwin.” This, of course, assumes that Dawkins is immune to the need for education, as if he possessed all the necessary facts available now or ever.
Is it any wonder, then, that even atheists commentaries like Peter Higgs, Thomas Nagel, and this article in The Guardian are criticizing Dawkins as an extremist, and destructive to the movement of atheism?
Dawkins’ Morality Leaves Critical Questions Unanswered
In chapter 6, Dawkins puts forth the idea that morality comes as a side-effect of evolutionary biology. Greatly summarized, Darwinian natural selection molded our genetics into patterns that we now recognize as morality. Morality wasn’t the “intent” of the evolution (if I may use that phrase), but rather a very valuable side-effect.
Some may think this is genius, others may think it’s hogwash, but that’s the realm of books, not blog posts, so I’ll simply ask two questions.
One: Where does immorality come from? Why do we do bad things? Dawkins only explains the good. If our evolution has adapted us to be moral, why is there so much rampant immorality? Is immorality some void evolution fills with goodness? If so, what’s the Naturalist’s answer for that mysterious, non-genetic impulse of selfishness? Or is badness also a product of evolution, as everything seems to be in Dawkins’ eyes? But if both goodness and badness are genetic, how do we determine which natural instincts are good and which ones are bad?
That bleeds right into my second question: What is the standard for good and evil? By what measure do we call things “right” or “wrong?” Without some kind of standard, morality is meaningless. In sports, fair play and cheating are determined by the rule book. In court, legality or illegality is weight against the law. What is the standard for good and evil?
Dawkins himself touches on this off and on through pages 231-233, and more on pages 262-272, but never answers it. He even says, “The onus is not on me to answer. For my purposes it is sufficient that they certainly have not come from religion.” (p. 270, par 3). But that’s circular logic. If Dawkins doesn’t know why right and wrong are right and wrong, then how does he judge religion as right or wrong?
While Dawkins is within his rights to question Christianity’s moral standard, where is his own answer? The closest Dawkins gets is when he says that these traits are effective for the survival of the species (p.214-222). But what makes the survival of the human race morally right in the first place? It’s desirable, sure, but why is it moral? How do we know evolution didn’t lead us down the path of evil rather than good?
But rather than explain that, Dawkins moves back to picking apart specific religions. Unfortunately, this brings out Dawkins’ greatest weakness.
Dawkins Doesn’t Seem To Know What Christianity Is, What God Is, Or What Religion Is
I mentioned that Dawkins played Religious Whack-a-Mole by hitting specific religions, so a Christian could just sit out some rounds. However, even when Dawkins attacked Christianity, I was surprised how often his blows missed. Sure, some did land, and boy did they smart, I will admit, but the more Dawkins missed, the more I wondered what he thought Christianity was.
Does he understand, for instance, that Christians embody many sects and ideas? Belittling the Catholics does nothing to the Protestant. Ridiculing Christian Nationalists only works if the reader thinks America is God’s new Promised Land. More than once, Dawkins pulls up a ridiculous quote and seems to say, “This is what all Christians (or religions) believe.” Whack-a-Mole.
He also seems to think that every single verse of the Bible is to be translated absolutely literally in order to be true. While Christians do believe in literal elements (a literal Jesus, literal resurrection, literal miracles, etc.) we also believe in many non-literal, yet still-true elements. Poetry, hyperbole, anthropomorphism, not to mention cultural context. Such things seem to elude Dawkins.
What’s more, many times Dawkins talked about God without seeming to understand what many Christians think about him. He often speaks of God in Naturalistic terms, i.e. “The rules of nature say this, therefore God can’t do that.” But the Christian would reply, “The entire concept of the Christian God is that he exists in defiance to the rules.” Dawkins replies, “But the rules say that can’t happen.” Then the Christian would tap their microphone and say, “Is this thing on?”
An example would be Dawkins’ insistence that a creator God must himself have a creator because nature says so, while the Christians believe in an extra-natural, uncaused cause. (p.77; p.120, par 2) Rather than proving anything, Dawkins takes the argument in circles.
It’s not just that Dawkins can’t find acceptable proof for God–that much is fair enough. It’s more like Dawkins can’t wrap his head around even the imaginary idea of something truly Godlike. He sees God as the highest setting on a dial, but Christians and others see God as the one turning the dial.
What’s even more conspicuous is that Dawkins seems to think that religion can only result in evil. Not once does Dawkins talk about religious people feeding the hungry, giving up their comfort for another, or even just being friendly. Chapter 8 is dedicated to showing that even moderate religion is evil in training. Religion, it seems, does no good. What a fascinating chunk of history to ignore.
As I said earlier, Dawkins’ bias shows through like glass. Other atheists have essentially said, “I like this part of religion, but not that part.” Dawkins says, “I see something bad, so throw it all out.” Baby with the bathwater and all that. How is that not extremism?
My point is that Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand the subject matter of religion, God, and Christianity specifically. If he doesn’t understand them, how can he argue against them?
The Last Section Unravels Everything Before It
The final chapter claims we don’t need God for consolation, encouragement, etc. Rather, he says that science provides great wonder all on its own. He ends the book with “The Mother of All Burkas” (p. 362-374), comparing our understanding of the world with the tiny slit that’s open in a fully-body burka.
In this section, Dawkins says that our ever-evolving brains have only gotten so far. What we perceive isn’t necessarily true. We’re still developing, which means that what we see is not really the truth, but a model that helps us deal with the world at our level.
Then why the flying heck should I believe one word written in this book?
On Page 371, Dawkins says, “‘Really’ isn’t a word we should use with simple confidence.” When I read that, I flipped through the rest of the book and said, “Really?” Dawkins says a little further down, “What we see of the real world is not the unvarnished real world but a model of the real world, regulated and adjusted by sense data–a model that is constructed so that it is useful for dealing with the real world.” (p.371 par 4).
If this is true, then how does Dawkins claim any of the facts listed in his own book? Are they not also a model that is merely helpful? If we can’t trust our brains to tell us the actual truth, how do we trust our logical faculties? In fact, if it’s true that our brains can’t properly interpret reality, then how can we be positive that our brains can’t properly interpret reality? It’s like the person who says, “There is no absolute truth.” Is that statement absolutely true?
By far the most baffling part, however, is on the final page. Dawkins says this current state of our brains “…has ill equipped us to handle very improbable events. But in the vastness of astronomical space, of geological time, events that seem impossible [now] turn out to be inevitable.” (p.374, par 2).
You mean like God? That being whose existence is extremely improbable, as you spent all of chapter 4 explaining? Dawkins might say that, if God does turn out to exist, that doesn’t make him the Christian God. Perhaps, but wasn’t the purpose of this book to disprove God in all forms?
Dawkins spends a whole book laying out the facts and swatting away religious superstition. But then he ends by saying we don’t really know what is true. He says the odds of God’s existence are so low that we may as well round down to zero, but caps off his book by saying such improbabilities may in fact be inevitable.
I thought it was the religious books that were supposed to be riddled with contradictions.
When I picked up The God Delusion, I was frightened. When I closed the back cover, I breathed a sigh of relief. For my part, I find little to frighten a robust Christian.
This isn’t so say it’s an easy read. Dawkins’ comments are often scathing and offensive. What’s more, he does present some genuine thought-provokers. What do we say about parts of the Bible that are troubling or even horrifying? Christians claim to believe in Heaven, so why do we fear death? Religion has taken countless lives–can we honestly just shrug that off? Dawkins also levels his ax at many forms of fake, cruel Christianity that must be addressed.
But for the most part? Dawkins is a biologist. He knows and understands the natural world as best he can. However, he is no theologian. He doesn’t understand the subject he’s defacing half as much as he believes he does. Dawkins believes a person must immerse themselves in Darwinism to really get it, but only gives religion a passing glance. He’s clearly biased and vitriolic.
And worst of all, he shoots himself in the foot on the last pages by saying no one really knows what’s true. Why then, should I worry about any one of his claims?
All citations come from The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, 2006, Houghton Mifflin Company.