“I finally gave up on God when I was 15,” Richard Dawkins writes in his latest book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. He hopes to midwife kids of a similar age through a similarly rational rebirth. Believe in God as a child if you must. If your parents believe, you probably will. But follow the facts, Dawkins suggests, and you’ll outgrow theism like pubescent acne.
Dawkins’s own commitment to the facts is far from evident. In September, The Spectator exposed a myriad of mistakes Dawkins makes when comparing Genesis 6–8 to other Ancient Near Eastern flood stories. Indeed, Outgrowing God is littered with indefensible claims, like his statement that “[n]o educated person today thinks either the Adam and Eve myth or the Noah’s Ark myth is literally true” (84). However one interprets the early chapters of Genesis, it’s simply not true that no educated person takes them literally. But throughout the book Dawkins overstates his positions; he doesn’t take opposing views seriously.
Dawkins’s Eight Arguments
So, what are the arguments with which the famous atheist seeks to woo young minds? Here are eight.
1. If you’re not a polytheist, why be a theist?
Many people throughout history have believed in many gods. Given that we don’t believe in Zeus and Aphrodite, Dawkins wonders, why should we believe in Yahweh? (9). It’s a valid question.
But, as a scientist, Dawkins would never claim that the existence of multiple hypotheses makes it irrational to believe one hypothesis. Rather, he’d look for the hypothesis that best makes sense of the observations. And far from there being nothing to differentiate the God of the Bible from other ancient so-called gods, monotheism (grounded in the biblical God) has outcompeted polytheism in every sphere—including birthing modern science itself.
2. You just believe in God because your parents do.
At age 9, Dawkins realized that if he’d been born to Viking parents, he would have believed in Odin and Thor. This was his first step on the path to atheism (16).
The reality that we’re highly influenced by our culture and family should make us question the beliefs with which we were raised; but it need not discredit them. Raised by atheist parents, Dawkins’s own children are far more likely to be atheists. But he would not see this as an argument against atheism.
Since different religions contradict each other, Dawkins claims “they can’t all be right” (16). Amen! But the mere fact of multiple competing religious-truth claims does nothing to prove they are all wrong. Again, the analogy of competing scientific hypotheses is apt.
3. Believing in God is as childish as believing in leprechauns.
Dawkins acknowledges he can’t prove atheism. But his analogies expose his consistent failure to even understand theism:
We don’t positively know there are no gods, just as we can’t prove there are no fairies or pixies of elves or hobgoblins or leprechauns or pink unicorns. . . . But failure to disprove something is not a good reason to believe it. (19)
Dawkins’s rhetorical aim is to present belief in God as similarly juvenile to belief in leprechauns. But theism doesn’t claim that there is a magical creature roaming around the universe, but that there is a majestic Creator of the universe. And this claim has explanatory power.
Belief in a rational Creator who made the universe according to rational laws is the hypothesis on which the entire modern scientific enterprise is based.
You may prefer to believe that the universe is eternal and uncreated: that it just is. But the hypothesis of a Creator God (unlike that of fairies and leprechauns) answers real questions. In fact, if you look at the history of science, belief in a rational Creator who made the universe according to rational laws is the hypothesis on which the entire modern scientific enterprise is based.
4. If Jesus existed, the Gospels certainly don’t give us reliable accounts of his life.
Dawkins grudgingly acknowledges the academic consensus that Jesus existed, though he repeatedly asserts that “not all historians” agree. Yeshua was a common name, and wandering preachers were common, Dawkins observes, so it’s likely there was a wandering preacher called Yeshua (49). The only problem, of course, is that this is not the sense in which the overwhelming majority of ancient historians believe Jesus existed.
When it comes to extrabiblical evidence for Jesus, Dawkins debunks a passage from the first-century Jewish historian Josephus that is generally agreed to be a later interpolation, while conveniently omitting another passage—where Josephus mentions the stoning of “James the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ”—that is generally considered original. He then cites Tacitus as “the only other early historian who mentions Jesus” (27), failing to reference the letter from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan at the turn of the second century, asking for advice on how to deal with the Christians who’d spread all over his province and noting that they sing hymns to Christ “as to a god.” By all normal historical standards, the textual evidence of the Gospels makes Jesus one of the most well-documented figures of his day. Even leaving this aside, though, the evidence that he existed is still strong.
Dawkins seeks to discredit the reliability of the Gospels: “No serious scholar today thinks the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, and all agree that even Mark, the oldest of the four Gospels, was written about 35 or 40 years after the death of Jesus” (28). Like Bart Ehrman, Dawkins attempts an analogy between the oral transmission of the Gospel stories and the telephone game: “Everything that is in the [G]ospels suffered from decades of word-of-mouth retelling, Chinese-Whispery distortion and exaggeration before those four texts were finally written down” (28).
But there are multiple problems with this analysis.
First, if Dawkins thinks 35 or 40 years is a massive time lapse across which no one can be expected to remember faithfully, we might wonder why he expects us to believe his account of his own experiences at 15—more than six decades ago!
Second, the undoubtedly serious scholar Richard Bauckham makes a compelling case that the Gospel writers drew meticulously from eyewitness accounts.
Third, as Bauckham also argues, the evangelists named their sources. At the end of the telephone game, the person who began the message tells the group what they originally said. By naming their sources, the Gospel writers deliberately invite readers to go back to the source and check the facts.
Yes, the stories about Jesus were propagated orally before they were written down. But they were written down precisely to preserve the integrity of the stories before the original eyewitnesses died out.
5. The resurrection was invented by eager new recruits to Christianity.
Dawkins launches a similarly misguided missile at the resurrection. He recounts an urban myth about life-sized helium dolls floating into the sky and convincing a woman that the rapture had happened as an example of how “an untrue story spreads because it’s entertaining and fits with people’s expectations or prejudices” (23–24). He then draws an analogy:
Can you see how the same might have been true of stories of Jesus’s miracles or his resurrection? Early recruits to the young religion of Christianity might have been especially eager to pass on stories and rumors about Jesus, without checking them for truth. (25)
But Jesus’s resurrection was not in line with people’s expectations and prejudices—quite the reverse. When seeking to discredit the quotation from Josephus, Dawkins himself notes that the idea that Jesus was the messiah (God’s promised king) would have seemed “pretty bonkers” to first-century Jews (26). Crucified would-be messiahs weren’t uncommon in the first century. But crucifixion spelled either the end of the movement or the transfer of leadership to another messiah candidate. Claiming the crucified messiah had risen from the dead was utterly outrageous.
Jesus’s resurrection was not in line with people’s expectations and prejudices—quite the reverse.
Moreover, without the resurrection claim, there would have been no young religion with eager new recruits. The resurrection claim created the early church, not vice versa. Dawkins is welcome not to believe in the resurrection. But arguing it was dreamed up after the gospel had spread makes no sense: without the resurrection, there is no gospel.
Dawkins tries to throw further shade on the Gospels by observing that they were written after most of the New Testament letters, and that those letters tell us little about Jesus’s life. But as these letters major on the resurrection as the lynchpin of the Christian faith (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:14), this point undermines his argument. Dawkins suggests that the more outlandish claims about Jesus emerged after decades of “distortion and exaggeration.” But that argument fails, as the most outlandish claim about Jesus is repeatedly asserted in the earliest writings about him.
6. We can have morality without God (well, actually, we can’t, but never mind).
Dawkins laments people thinking that by outgrowing God we might lose our basis for morality (113). But as we read on, we find he himself believes just that. He blithely concludes, “[M]oral values are ‘in the air’ and they change from century to century, even from decade to decade” (159). He then illustrates the challenges of objective morality via an imagined debate about abortion between Abby (an absolutist) and Connie (a consequentialist), including this exchange:
Abby: I agree that an early embryo can’t feel pain or fear or sorry at being aborted. But there’s a slippery slope all the way to the moment of birth and beyond. If you allow abortion, isn’t there a risk of sliding down the slippery slope all the way past the moment of birth? Mightn’t we end up murdering one-year-old babies just because they are a nuisance? Then two-year-olds. And so on?
Connie: Yes. I must say that sounds at first like a fair point. But the moment of birth is a pretty good barrier—a pretty good “safety railing”—one that we are accustomed to respecting. Although it hasn’t always been so. In ancient Greece they would wait till a baby was born, take a look at it and then decide if they wanted to keep it. If not, they’d leave it out on a cold hillside to die. I’m so glad we don’t do that now. (166–67)
Dawkins himself aligns with Connie. His argument against infanticide? “I’m so glad we don’t do that now.” But if morality is based on an ever-changing “something in the air” (174), what more is there to say?
To Dawkins’s credit, he comes dangerously close to acknowledging that religious belief is correlated with better moral outcomes—though he would like to think humans are better than that (117). He finds it rather patronizing to say, “Of course you and I are too intelligent to believe in God, but we think it would be a good idea if other people did!” (122).
And yet, as Christian Smith observes in Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Cannot Deliver, this is precisely what a rational atheist who wants a functional society ought to say.
7. The natural world is amazing, but not designed.
Dawkins spends the second half of his book on science. He devotes page after page to incredible features of incredible creatures. But he argues that—if you look closely—the design flaws in creation point away from a Creator. There is some merit to this argument if you are pinning your faith on a science-versus-creation apologetic. But we Christians worship a God who works through the apparent mess of history. So, mess in the natural world doesn’t explode our faith. Indeed, we believe in a world that is created but also fallen. The mix of beauty and dysfunction in the natural world shouldn’t astonish us.
The thrust of his argument then focuses on the natural world as bottom-up rather than top-down design: in other words, design without a blueprint. But again, it seems Dawkins misses the point of theism. We Christians believe in a God who rules all things. So the fact that embryonic development is a bottom-up process, or that termites build their hills without a grand plan for the final product, is irrelevant to the question of whether there is a Creator God. Notably, Dawkins spends considerable time engaging the arguments of 18th-century apologist William Paley and almost no time to engaging with contemporary Christian apologists.
8. Science points to atheism.
Dawkins tries to build a case for science pointing to atheism. But his account is selective at best. He fails to note the Christian origins of modern science. He fails to note that the Big Bang was first hypothesized by a Christian (George LeMaitre) and resisted by multiple atheist physicists because it sounded too much like God creating the universe out of nothing. When invoking evolutionary psychology of religion, Dawkins fails to note that the founding father of the discipline (Justin Barrett) is a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. When invoking evolutionary explanations for altruism, he fails to note that the world authority on this topic (Martin Nowak) is a Catholic, who argues for a Creator God.
In a final flourish, Dawkins argues that science pushes us to believe the unbelievable. He concludes, “I think we should take our courage in both hands, grow up, and give up on all gods. Don’t you?” (278). But the incredible beliefs to which science calls us could equally point in the opposite direction: to believing in the invisible God, who called the universe into being, and calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9).
Rather than offering the best case for atheism in an accessible form, Dawkins’s book consistently fails to engage opposing arguments and frequently falls short of the research standards we should expect of an academic author—whatever his beliefs.
I read it eagerly, hoping it would offer fresh insights into the latest atheist arguments. I like to keep my finger on that pulse. But I was disappointed.