On the Persuasiveness of Dawkins’s The God Delusion (TGD Part 3 of 3)

The back cover of my copy of The God Delusion features a quote from The Economist that reads,

Atheists will love Mr. Dawkins’s incisive logic and rapier wit, and theists will find few better tests of the robustness of their faith.  Even agnostics, who claim to have no opinion on God, may be persuaded that their position is an untenable waffle.

The Economist, then, seems to think that we theists must be quaking in fear at the mention of Dawkins’s name.  But is this really the case?

From my last two posts, it is pretty clear that the central argument of The God Delusion fails.  But in fact, the argument is even worse than that, because it not only allows theism to escape unscathed, but it also draws attention to the fact that the atheistic worldview itself requires an enormous amount of faith.  Look again at premises 5-6a of Dawkins’s argument:

5. We do not yet have an equivalent mechanism to explain the apparent design manifest in the laws of physics, though a multiverse scenario could in principle do the job.

6a. “We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinian evolution is for biology.”

These premises are almost indistinguishable from the statement, “We might be able to find more evidence against theism, and then we’d have more evidence against theism.  And let’s not give up hope that someday we will have more evidence against theism.“  If Dawkins’s central argument consisted solely of the “who designed the designer argument,” then it would ultimately fail, but at least it would sound compelling at first glance.  But by including arguments 5-6a, Dawkins has shot himself in the foot.  In a 450-page book that constantly ridicules theists for believing without sufficient evidence, Dawkins’ main argument boils down to the hope that there may exist an infinite ensemble of universes beyond the realm of experimental verification, and/or someday theoretical physics might be able to explain why our universe appears fine-tuned.  Dawkins’ “hope of a better crane arising in physics“ may just so happen to be correct, of course, but as far as we can tell it is nothing but hope; fantasy; “belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” [i]

The God Delusion has been held up in popular culture as the holy book of atheism, but in reality it is not a very good piece of philosophy, as plenty of non-theistic philosophers will quickly point out.  Heavily atheistic-leaning agnostic Michael Ruse delivers a harsh critique,[ii]

Let me say that I believe the new atheists do the side of science a grave disservice. I will defend to the death the right of them to say what they do – as one who is English-born one of the things I admire most about the USA is the First Amendment. But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing.

Even Dawkins’s fellow evolutionary biologist, H. Allen Orr, writes,[iii]

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.

The God Delusion is a very witty and snarky book, and for people who have had bad experiences with Christians or Jews or Muslims and are (somewhat understandably) looking for a way to poke fun at them, this book delivers what it promises.  But the reality is that not all Christians are young-earth creationists, not all Muslims are terrorists, and not all theists are self-righteous bigots.  Dawkins caricatures belief in God and then comically shows why that caricature is irrational, but his attacks fall well short of the intellectual Christianity pioneered by Aquinas, Augustine, Pascal, and Leibniz.  By approaching the question of the existence of God with insults and taunts rather than arguments and reason, The God Delusion has ironically proven itself to be far closer in scholarly DNA to the fundamentalist propaganda it ridicules than the theistic literature it supposedly refutes.  If Dawkins cannot give his case against theism a serious upgrade in the near future, atheists would be well-advised to find themselves a new holy book—and a new high priest.

Personally, I do not know a single person who read The God Delusion and was pushed towards atheism as a result.  But I do have several friends[iv] here at Harvard who read The God Delusion and soon thereafter became Christians, at least in part due to the poor arguments advanced in the book.  One of these people I know very well: myself.  As an agnostic on the quest to find spiritual truth, The God Delusion showed me just how high the intellectual price-tag was for rejecting God.  It helped me realize, better than any theistic piece of literature, that the real choice before me was not between science and religion or reason and superstition but between two different belief systems— both of which would require a leap of faith.

Fortunately, there are more level-headed critiques of religion coming from various scientists and thinkers.  We’ll look into some of these next.


[i] Dawkins speech at Edinburgh International Science Festival, 1992-04-15.

[iii] Orr, H. Allen, “A Mission to Convert.”

[iv] Read more about one such friend here.

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