Richard Dawkins’s bestseller The God Delusion (2006) is a storybook for atheists. It’s not a science book—the little science in the book serving merely as the protagonist of the story, the hero who stands up to the evil villain, keeping him from destroying minds and undermining cultures. It’s not a philosophy book—the weak philosophical arguments serving merely as the framework to make the story sound more plausible. It’s not a history book, either—the selectively inaccurate history serving simply as the story’s setting, the place where the hero performs his daring deeds. And it’s certainly not a theology book—the terrible theology within serving merely to cast God as the antagonist in the story, the evil villain of Dawkins’s fable. In this storybook, God has captured the minds and hearts of gullible people around the world—blinding them to the beauties of the physical world, trapping them in superstitious ignorance, and forcing them to perform destructive acts of devotion—until science, reason, and truth show up to free humanity from his clutches, empowering people everywhere to reach the dizzying heights of personhood to which natural selection will carry them.
The God Delusion is not a serious book, and it does not make a serious argument. It’s a difficult book to read only because you have to wade through page after page of plot contrivances,1 inaccurate historical statements,2 bad hermeneutics,3 poor moral reasoning,4 terrible theology,5 pompous declarations,6 and insulting comments.7 To engage with all these would take a review several times too long. Besides, that isn’t my purpose.
My purpose is to introduce you to two other books that engage with Dawkins and his “new atheism” cohorts. In The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (2009), David Berlinski deals with the philosophical underpinnings of the new atheism by exposing the weaknesses of its philosophical arguments and scientific conclusions. In Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009), David Bentley Hart challenges the historical evidence the new atheism uses to support its attack on God.
The Devil’s Delusion
Berlinski is a philosopher and mathematician with a PhD from Princeton. Here’s how he describes himself and his book:
I am a secular Jew. My religious education did not take. I can barely remember a word of Hebrew. I cannot pray. I have spent more years than I care to remember studying mathematics and writing about the sciences. Yet the book that follows is in some sense a defense of religious thought and sentiment. (xi)
Berlinski’s main focus throughout the book is not specific scientific theories (although he has a problem with many) but the audacity of people like Dawkins who reason from those theories to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist or believers are in some way deluded.
According to Dawkins, “The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question” (58–59). Although he knows he cannot definitively prove God’s nonexistence, Dawkins is confident he can demonstrate God’s existence to be so improbable that atheism is the only rational position. Berlinski attacks this argument from probability by showing that probabilities don’t apply to the question of creation:
Probabilities belong to the world in which things happen because they might, creation to the world in which things happen because they must. We explain creation by appealing to creators, whether deities or the inflexible laws of nature. We explain what is chancy by appealing to chance. We cannot do both. If God did make the world, it is not improbable. If it is improbable, then God did not make it. The best we could say is that God made a world that would be improbable had it been produced by chance. But it wasn’t, and so he didn’t. (143–44)
This is a sample of Berlinski’s method. Sometimes he challenges premises, sometimes he invalidates arguments, and sometimes he questions conclusions, always with the intent to wipe the smug smiles off the faces of the new atheists. He attacks the premise that all knowledge must be scientific to be valid (chapter 2), the premise that only one kind of evidence is valid for any proof (chapter 3), the ways physicists try to avoid the implications of Big Bang cosmology (chapter 4), the evolutionists’ presumption that knowing how things work is the same as—or more important than—knowing why they exist (chapter 5), the theories that attempt to explain how the cosmological constant is statistically likely (chapter 6), and paleontologists’ use of the fossil record (chapter 9). By the end of The Devil’s Delusion you’ve received broad exposure to the issues raised by the new atheists and solid reasons to reject their conclusions.
David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian focusing on the patristic era. According to him, atheists have two big delusions: (1) that Christianity didn’t introduce a radically different worldview and ethic to the pagan world, and (2) that reason alone, without the revelation provided by Christianity, would have developed to treat people as well as the church does. Hart writes as a scholar and theologian and, while his tone is less confrontational and biting than Berlinski’s, his arguments are equally devastating to the new atheists’ delusions of grandeur. He writes in the Introduction:
I want in part to argue that what many of us are still in the habit of calling the “Age of Reason” was in many significant ways the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value . . . that the Enlightenment ideology of modernity as such does not even deserve any particular credit for the advance of modern science . . . and that by comparison to the Christian revolution it succeeded, modernity is little more than . . . a reactionary flight back toward a comfortable, but dehumanizing, mental and moral servitude to elemental nature. (xi–xii)
Dawkins writes about the changing (by which he means “evolving”) moral zeitgeist from the barbarous religious past into the modern enlightened age. He does this, as usual, by ignoring enormous amounts of contradictory data. Hart’s book supplies it—both the data Dawkins misses about the horrors of modern morality and the data he ignores about the massive moral change ushered in by Jesus Christ and the early church. But Hart goes even further by arguing that what modern atheists consider the consensus of the age is really just a weak appropriation of Christian theology that, apart from the teaching of Jesus and the life of his church, no one had ever applied before.8 The historical analysis is excellent and reminds us of exactly how radical the gospel really was to people living in a pagan world. To be baptized as a Christian, Hart reminds us, was to “renounce a very great deal of what one had known and been to that point, in order to be joined to a new reality, the demands of which were absolute; it was to depart from one world, with an irrevocable finality, and to enter another” (111).
At the end of Atheist Delusions, Hart engages directly with the new atheism and illumines how it looks at history:
One labels anything one dislikes—even if it is found in a purely secular setting—“religion” (thus, for example, all the 20th-century totalitarianisms are “political religions” for which secularists need take no responsibility), while simultaneously claiming that everything good, in the arts, morality, or any other sphere—even if it emerges within an entirely religious setting—has only an accidental association with religious belief and is really, in fact, common human property (so, for example, the impulse toward charity will doubtless spring up wherever an “enlightened” society takes root). By the same token, every injustice that seems to follow from a secularist principle is obviously an abuse of that principle, while any evil that comes wrapped in a cassock is unquestionably an undiluted expression of religion’s very essence. (220)
This is precisely the strategy Dawkins uses throughout The God Delusion.
If you are confronting any of the new atheists—whether directly by reading their books or articles or indirectly by talking to church members or coworkers—I highly recommend both these books, neither written by evangelical apologists, only one written by a believer. The Devil’s Delusion and Atheist Delusions will help you see through brash but weak arguments and give you the other side of the story—many of the facts the new atheists love to ignore.
1 Dawkins uses “religion” as a foil around which to make his point. I put “religion” in quotes because it’s a plot contrivance for him. He takes Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and even pagan religious practices, throws all these (and more) into the same pot, mixes them together, and deals only with the resulting stew. This religious stew, existing nowhere and believed by no one, is then attacked as absurd. This plot contrivance allows Dawkins to avoid doing the difficult work of engaging any one of these individual religions on its own terms or doing the tedious task of actually refuting specific claims, while allowing him to mock each one individually by smearing it with the crazy practices of all the others.
2 Hart’s book deals with the broader historical inanities of the new atheists, but Dawkins skews history in smaller, more subtle ways, too. For example, throughout the book he declares that nearly every scientist who has ever lived was really an atheist who only paid lip service to Christianity so he could do his work. In chapter 4, “Arguments for God’s Existence,” he mentions Gregor Mendel, whom Dawkins calls the “founding genius of genetics.” He then writes, “Mendel, of course, was a religious man, an Augustinian monk; but that was in the nineteenth century, when becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue his science. For him, it was the equivalent of a research grant” (99). Dawkins presents no actual evidence for this assertion that Mendel was a money-grabbing hypocrite—just take his word for it. Dawkins then refers to a survey of scientists on their personal belief in God writing, “It is completely as I would expect that American scientists are less religious than the American public generally, and that the most distinguished scientists are the least religious of all. What is remarkable is the polar opposition between the religiosity of the American public at large and the atheism of the intellectual elite” (100). It is completely plausible to Dawkins that a scientist would feign faith to pursue science in a predominately religious age, but it never occurs to him that a scientist might feign unbelief to pursue science in an atheistic environment that is hostile to faith.
3 Here’s an example of how Dawkins handles the Bible: “Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the Gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life. All were then copied and recopied, through many different ‘Chinese Whispers generations’ (see chapter 5) by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas” (92–93). Reading this, I get the impression that Dawkins overheard a conversation while eating lunch in the faculty lounge of his university. Never mind that biblical scholars have refuted every one of those theories. Dawkins doesn’t need to investigate the counter-arguments because he already knows there is no God and the theories of “scholarly theologians” support his atheism. Therefore, they must be true.
4 “Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism. Stalin and Hitler did extremely evil things, in the name of, respectively, dogmatic and doctrinaire Marxism, and an insane and unscientific eugenics theory tinged with sub-Wagnerian ravings. Religious wars really are fought in the name of religion, and they have been horribly frequent in history” (278). By Dawkins’s moral reasoning, Stalin was drawn to Marxism because it was beautifully consistent with his atheism, but he didn’t kill millions of people because he was an atheist; he killed for his Marxism. Atheism doesn’t kill people, Marxists kill people. And Hitler was drawn to eugenics because it was an application of his atheism, but he didn’t kill millions of people because he was an atheist; he killed because of an insane and unscientific theory (a theory, by the way, that was considered quite sane and quintessentially scientific in Hitler’s day).
5 “I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity. If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment. . . ?” (253).
6 “The obvious ground for opposing the death penalty is respect for human life” (291). A serial killer who has no regard for human life cannot receive a death penalty out of respect for human life. On the other hand, abortion is fine because fetuses don’t suffer: “Early embryos that have no nervous system most certainly do not suffer. And if late-aborted embryos with nervous systems suffer—though all suffering is deplorable—it is not because they are human that they suffer. There is no general reason to suppose that human embryos at any age suffer more than cow or sheep embryos at the same developmental stage” (297). Perhaps, if we could demonstrate that rabbits and squirrels suffer as much as murderers in an electric chair, Dawkins would reconsider his opposition to the death penalty.
7 Did you know that your belief in God grew from your belief in imaginary friends as a child and you just never grew up? Dawkins does: “Did gods, in their role as consolers and counselors, evolve from binkers [A. A. Milne’s imaginary childhood friend], by a sort of psychological ‘pedomorphosis’? Pedomorphosis is the retention into adulthood of childhood characteristics. Pekinese dogs have pedomorphic faces: the adults look like puppies” (350). In a chapter that starts with Dawkins deploring the story of a Catholic priest in the 19th century taking a child from a Jewish couple because the child’s nanny had baptized him, Dawkins approvingly quotes this comment from psychologist Nicholas Humphrey: “In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon” (326).
8 “The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity, for instance, are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology. Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things—they would never have occurred to us—had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren” (32–33).
Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. $27.00
David Bentley Hart. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven: Yale, 2009. $18.00.
David Berlinski. The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. New York: Basic Books, 2009. $16.99.