The Failure of Richard Dawkins and His Book, The God Delusion

I continue my read of The God Delusion by Richad Dawkins.  His arguments continue to malign religion and don’t really deal in full with the various religious traditions he abruptly criticizes. His arguments are so poor that even fellow atheist philosophers now call him an amateur as the New York Times noted some time ago. Instead of laying this out in full for you on my part, I’ll link to a few posts where you can read more if you are interested. This first link is by Thomas Nagel, the next by Allen Orr, and finally one by Alvin Plantinga. The first two are atheists and the third, a Christian–all well respected in their fields of inquiry.

Some choice quotes, first Nagel, then Orr, then Plantinga:

In a previous chapter, Dawkins dismisses, with contemptuous flippancy the traditional a priori arguments for the existence of God offered by Aquinas and Anselm. I found these attempts at philosophy, along with those in a later chapter on religion and ethics, particularly weak; Dawkins seems to have felt obliged to include them for the sake of completeness. But his real concern is with the argument from design, because there the conflict between religious belief and atheism takes the form of a scientific disagreement–a disagreement over the most plausible explanation of the observable evidence. He argues that contemporary science gives us decisive reason to reject the argument from design, and to regard the existence of God as overwhelmingly improbable.

Orr writes:

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.

Orr continues:

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?).

Orr adds one more criticism in this section:

The vacuum created by Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought must be filled by something, and in The God Delusion, it gets filled by extraneous quotation, letters from correspondents, and, most of all, anecdote after anecdote. Dawkins’s discussion of religion’s power to console, for example, is interrupted by the story of the Abbott of Ampleforth’s joy at learning of a friend’s impending death; speculation about why countries, such as the Netherlands, that allow euthanasia are so rare (presumably because of religious prejudice); a nurse who told Dawkins that believers fear death more than nonbelievers do; and the number of days of remission from Purgatory that Pope Pius X allowed cardinals and bishops (two hundred, and fifty, respectively). All this and more in four pages. Gone, it seems, is the Dawkins of The Selfish Gene, a writer who could lead readers through dauntingly difficult arguments and who used anecdotes to illustrate those arguments, not to substitute for them.

Last, Orr sets hammer to nail:

The most important example involves Dawkins’s discussion of philosophical arguments for the existence of God as opposed to his own argument against God, which he presents as the intellectual heart of his book. Considering arguments for God, Dawkins is careful to recite the many standard objections to them and writes that the traditional proofs are “vacuous,” “dubious,” “infantile,” and “perniciously misleading.” But turning to his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument against God, Dawkins is suddenly uninterested in criticism and writes that his argument is “unanswerable.” So why, you might wonder, is a clever philosophical argument for God subject to withering criticism while one against God gets a free pass and is deemed devastating?

The reason seems clear. The first argument leads to a conclusion Dawkins despises, while the second leads to one he loves. Dawkins, so far as I can tell, is unconcerned that the central argument of his book bears more than a passing resemblance to those clever philosophical proofs for the existence of God that he dismisses.

To round this off, Plantinga offers the following in his conclusion:

The real problem here, obviously, is Dawkins’ naturalism, his belief that there is no such person as God or anyone like God. That is because naturalism implies that evolution is unguided. So a broader conclusion is that one can’t rationally accept both naturalism and evolution; naturalism, therefore, is in conflict with a premier doctrine of contemporary science. People like Dawkins hold that there is a conflict between science and religion because they think there is a conflict between evolution and theism; the truth of the matter, however, is that the conflict is between science and naturalism, not between science and belief in God.

The God Delusion is full of bluster and bombast, but it really doesn’t give even the slightest reason for thinking belief in God mistaken, let alone a “delusion.”

The naturalism that Dawkins embraces, furthermore, in addition to its intrinsic unloveliness and its dispiriting conclusions about human beings and their place in the universe, is in deep self-referential trouble. There is no reason to believe it; and there is excellent reason to reject it.