Note: This review of The God Delusion will be followed in a few days with a review of The Dawkins Delusion? by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. Alister McGrath, an atheist-turned-believer who is, with Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, is joined by his wife in authoring this succinct answer to Dawkins. Just as Dawkins should be required reading for serious believers, the McGraths’ pithy response should be required reading for serious atheists.Let it be said: Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, Bantam Press, 2006) is a very good writer, and the kind of person with whom one can readily imagine an enjoyable and simulating evening over a glass or two of red—enjoyable that is, so long as he refrained from his predictable outbursts of rambunctious polemic. And this highlights the two sides of Richard Dawkins: at once engaging, personable, rational, pleasant, entertaining; and alternatively unreasonable, angry, boisterous, given to ill-conceived diatribes. If he is preaching to his own choir, these diatribes will likely elicit hearty “amens!” If believers are his target audience, his arguments would go farther if he would restrain his clamorous tone.
Most of the theistic readers of this blog will find, as I do, that Dawkins’ arguments are often wide of the mark with respect to our brand of theism and Christian Faith. Some of his arguments are undisguised straw man. Many others are waged against a fundamentalism into which most readers of this blog do not fit. In fact many believers will find themselves nodding in agreement. For example, when Dawkins declares "As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect,” I heartily agree! However in Chapter 8 (Dawkins’ defense of his own hostility toward people of faith) he devotes the final section to answering why he deplores even the more moderate, rational wing of Christian faith. Here he develops his "moderates validate fundamentalists" argument. “The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion,” Dawkins contends, “though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.” What?? And how does this not apply equally to “moderate” atheism? While Dawkins dismisses the notion that Stalin and Hitler operated out of their atheistic world-view (his arguments are less than convincing), why are extreme acts of atheists not validated by more moderate atheists? I have often thought that Hemingway followed atheism to it’s logical extension: existential despair and suicide. While most atheists I’ve met do not take their atheism to that extreme, could it not be argued that moderate atheism paves the way to such actions. (I’m not forwarding this argument here. Theists also commit suicide. And Hitler’s atheism is arguable. I’m only suggesting that Dawkins' argument against moderate expressions of faith is unfair, and can be turned back upon his own brand of moderate atheism.) It is apparently Dawkins view that, without the more moderate voices of religion, the more extreme versions would fade away. He never explains the logic behind this supposed linkage.
Dawkins' “central” atheistic argument is found in chapter 4. After dismantling (to his satisfaction) many of the standard theistic arguments in chapter 3, Dawkins attempts to demonstrate “Why There Is Almost Certainly No God”. This argument from probability betrays his simplistic concept of the Christian view of God. For those unfamiliar with Dawkins’ core atheistic contention, Dawkins’ argument runs something like this: Believers, appealing to the extreme improbability of this universe developing as it has, the fact that it is hospitable to life at all, indeed the extreme improbability of life itself, contend that our universe demands the existence of an intelligent Cause. But, Dawkins counters that postulating a God only extends the problem of improbability, and pushes it back in time. That is, any God appealed to to account for the complexity of our universe must himself be yet more complex. And his existence thus becomes more difficult to explain than the material universe we observe. Thus, in Dawkins’ view, the notion of God is “very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability.” Dawkins is either unaware of, or fails to understand the Judeo-Christians concept of God as the eternal “self-existent” One. No believer I know has struggled with the question, “Whence God?” Nor will Dawkins’ expostulations raise such a question for believers. The God of believers is far beyond Dawkins’ notion of demanding explanation. It is indeed reasonable that we seek logical explanations for causation in our material world. To suggest the same logic must apply to God does not follow. Christians understand that God exists outside of our physical dimensions. As such, he cannot be restrained to our time bound concepts of causation. Dawkins’ shallow reasoning reminds me of a favorite passage from David Bentley Hart:
In fairness, Hart goes on to depict unbelief in more generous terms, but Dawkins leaves one wondering if his concept of God is as small as it seems.“... since strict materialism is among the most incoherent of superstitions ... it is incapable of imagining any conception of God more sophisticated than its own.” (The Doors of the Sea, page 14)
There is an interesting confluence in Richard Dawkins, and one that should be telling for believers. He is considered by many to be both the world’s foremost evolutionary biologist, and the world’s foremost atheist. Is this indicative that evolution and atheism are intrinsically linked, as many of my believing and unbelieving friends insist? Or is it rather indicative of how believers have 1) failed to embrace evolutionary science (which has now moved beyond reasonable doubt), and 2) failed therefore to develop a reasonable theology around evolution. This website exists in part because I am convinced of the later, and hope to explore the promising theological implications of evolution. As Christian thinkers join in this process, I believe one effect will be to remove the stinger from Dawkins’ atheist arguments. For example, Dawkins devotes much of The God Delusion to evolutionary explanations for the development of religious impulses, morality, altruism, etc. Apparently, he views these explanations as the death knell of theism. As a theist who has thought long on the concept of “Evolutionary Creationism”, I found little in these explanations to disagree with. Furthermore, I did not see how his arguments inherently favored atheism over theism. Certainly they undo many worn-out theistic arguments. And they effectively rebut many traditional Christian assumptions. But those arguments and assumptions were incorrect, and should be scuttled. If the Creator has (as I believe) used evolution to bring humankind into a state of God-consciousness (which by Dawkins’ admission is ubiquitous in all cultures, and favored by the great majority of people), why should it surprise us that evolution would be his tool of choice?
Reading The God Delusion was, frankly, less challenging to my faith than I anticipated. His best arguments are leveled against religious fundamentalism; here I share many of his views. But when he turns his guns upon my faith, his extreme hostility tends to invalidate his arguments. When a person becomes consumed with antipathy, reasoned argument can give way to irrational tirades. Dawkins’ atheistic zeal seems to have negated any trace of respect he might have shown toward those with a different persuasion. And when we cease to respect our adversary, a consequence is that our arguments are inevitably weakened.